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Mark Hill: The future looks dim: Silicon Valley and the race to make everything more annoying

Commentary

The fallout from Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse has been the lowlight of a horrible month for America’s tech sector. Canadian banking regulations may protect us from a financial shockwave, but assuming you use the internet rather than having had a print-off of this article handed to you by a helpful passerby, you might feel the effects of Amazon and Meta axing tens of thousands of people. 

Meta’s layoffs won’t come as a surprise to anyone still using their products. Facebook has bled users, reducing news feeds to wastelands where inspirational memes drift by like typo-riddled tumbleweeds. And wherever the deserters have gone, it certainly isn’t the Metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg’s ode to setting billions of dollars alight. If it feels like just months ago that we were told “Web 3.0” was going to change life as we know it, that’s because it was, but so far all it’s changed is Silicon Valley’s employment statistics. 

Now that crypto has crashed and NFTs are a thing of the obnoxious past, the new buzz is over ChatGPT, the AI writing tool whose introduction Thomas Friedman recently called “a Promethean moment” that will revolutionize the creative arts, presumably before he was rendered speechless by an unusually feature-laden toaster oven. 

Its hype men may think that ChatGPT is Shakespeare with a dash of Skynet, but as pointed out by critics like Canadian sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow, AI isn’t really intelligent; ChatGPT is essentially a glorified upscale of the autocomplete technology that tries to tack “wife” onto your attempt to Google search celebrities and athletes. Thousands of furtive perverts have already chosen that option, and so Google thinks you might be interested too.   

Predicting what comes next with reasonable accuracy is a useful skill that some venerable newspaper columnists may lack, but stringing sentences together doesn’t make for accurate paragraphs. GPT struggles with math and logic, while Google’s competitor to GPT, Bard, confidently declared the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to be true. A word that sounds correct can often be the wrong won. 

GPT will have its uses, but it certainly doesn’t appear qualified to replace jobs, a fact that has not stopped it from doing so anyway. CNET, the once well-respected tech site, was caught flooding the internet with AI-written articles featuring financial advice that was simple, straightforward, and riddled with more factual errors than a hungover freshman’s midterm paper. Apparently Prometheus is bringing us clickbait. 

Will there still be useful financial advice out there? Sure. But good luck finding it, because Google’s search engine has become so inept that people are unironically using Bing. Search for anything more complicated than “pizza” and you’ll have to wade through a slurry of spam and lies, a problem that arose because, apparently, a growing portion of the internet is nothing but spam and lies. Google profits when you click on ads and feed it data, not when you get a satisfying answer to “What new tv model is best?” 

In fact, most of Silicon Valley’s stars are dimming. Airbnbs, once an affordable travel alternative, are now as expensive as hotel rooms, and their owners expect you to take out the garbage, shovel the sidewalk, and file their taxes. Amazon is flooded with fake and knockoff products. Netflix is raising prices, cracking down on account sharing, and trying to keep us loyal with ground-breaking original movies like Glowering Ryan Gosling Shoots Gun. Maybe you’ve already read about some of these problems by squinting at what few words news sites deign to make visible amid a flurry of ads placed by venture capitalists wondering why none of their stones will bleed. 

I don’t want to be overly nostalgic for the days when Uber was growing by flouting laws and letting founder Travis Kalanick run his company like a frat house, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t found Uber useful. Now, however, Silicon Valley seems less interested in improving our lives and more interested in trying to sell us ways to get so rich so quick that these problems will be beneath you. Don’t worry if your crypto portfolio tanked; you can grab a copy of The ChatGPT Millionaire: Making Money Online has never been this EASY from Amazon

On the off-chance that doesn’t lead you to your fortune, you may wonder what the internet and the companies that dominate it have done recently to solve a problem instead of create one. Our phones are faster and our laptops are sleeker, but we’re using them to log onto Vichy Twitter and see someone elucidate on the economic opportunities of slurp juice. “Summon a car” and “Crash on a couch” are clear use cases. “Believe in the future of connection,” as Meta encourages us to, is not. I don’t want to “Work up a sweat alongside my friends in a virtual studio” by strapping on enough doodads to qualify as semi-cyborg. I want to search for the best gym nearby without having to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. 

The Facebooks of the world want to pretend they’re still agile startups powered by Red Bull and dreams, but they’re lumbering behemoths responsible for important aspects of our lives. You’d think that being a behemoth, with all the power and profit that implies, would be a comfortable position. But rather than coast into the future, they seem hellbent on making our lives much more annoying for the sake of insisting they’re still innovative. That’s not how you save a marriage, let alone a corporation. 

And so between Zuckerberg burning his empire to pursue a sci-fi vision straight out of 2003, and Elon Musk taking time out of his ostensibly busy day to ensure an influential Twitter account named after cat feces remains content, the veneer of infallible Silicon Valley genius has been sandblasted away. What’s left, if you believe the hype, are tools that promise to make the internet even less reliable. ChatGPT’s creators say they’re shocked by its popularity; if so, maybe Silicon Valley needs to actually start thinking about what it’s making. 

Lianne Bell: Notes from a rural neighbour: On COVID, community, and big-city solutions to every problem

Commentary

I hate black-eyed Susans.

Their blooms dotted throughout the fields bowing in the hot August heat meant summer break was about to end. Growing up on a farm I learned to measure time by the rhythms of nature. Staring up into the dark clear nights to find the Big Dipper hanging handle to the horizon told me winter was here to stay for some time. Dark and early mornings in the musty barn bottle feeding a newborn calf was the first sign spring was around the corner. Opening the school bus window to smell the fresh cut of hay in mid-June meant summer break was about to start.

For kids across rural Canada, my childhood was just like theirs, these natural markers completely common. For us, responsibilities came at an early age, hard work was a point of pride, and helping the neighbours was expected. Everyone pitched in all the time. Almost every rural family embodies these values and a sense of community that relies on each other, not some far-away government program. When the tractor gets stuck your neighbour and his bigger tractor come over to pull you out. When the farmer down the road shows up because their cows got out, it doesn’t matter if you are mid Christmas dinner, you put your boots on and help. That meant us kids too—feeding chickens before catching the bus to school, throwing hay bales in the summer, or helping to mend fences.

It’s a practical life, and deeply rewarding, but it is one that can be dismissed or misunderstood by our friends in the city. 

Arguments are made these days that the social and political divide is rural versus urban. And yet regardless of where someone chooses to live, the desires are the same. Everyone wants their kids to go to a good school, to feel safe walking down the street they live on, to show up to the hospital and know they will be taken care of. We all want the same things in our lives. So where does the hostility come from?

Growing up we would drive from our peaceful little farm to the big city of Toronto to visit my extended family. I knew we were close when my parents started remarking to each other about how close the homes were built. Stacked one upon another. My family couldn’t understand the appeal. Not that we didn’t recognize the charms of city life. Friends to play with down the street, restaurants to enjoy, and going to see the Raptors play. But when we headed for home, away from the bright lights to where the stars shone clear again, I felt free. 

When I left for university, I started to notice the tangible difference between how I grew up and how my friends in the city grew up. I dressed differently; my t-shirts were of every NASCAR track I had been to. There was never much point caring about clothes, who would care? The cows? I didn’t watch much TV growing up and Sundays were for church. All the cultural references were lost on me. I was an ice cube thrown into a pot of boiling water. 

The aspects of my life that I treasured and clung to were mostly foreign to my peers. They didn’t know about black-eyed Susans; they couldn’t see the Big Dipper. I felt like an outsider. Hillbilly was not said as a point of pride—here it meant that my life experiences were inadequate, that I was not cultured in the right ways. The labyrinth of social norms was meant to highlight that I didn’t belong. I went to the GAP and bought a turtleneck. 

Life marched on and my city-born husband and I had two sons. Children sharpen the senses. How would we raise these young men and what values did we want to teach them? My husband knew he married a hillbilly. He came with me to NASCAR, and he loved the stars. But I’d look out the window of our suburban home and think: “look how close our neighbours are”. It was time to get out. I wanted my boys to hate black-eyed Susans too. I dug my NASCAR t-shirts out of the closet and started packing. My relentlessly patient husband got on board and we moved to an acreage.   

The impacts and incentives of public policy are often urban-centric, dreamt up by people that don’t understand a rural way of life. These policies have often been frustrating and cumbersome for those of us outside the cities. However, no such policy had really been a lightning rod to rally the ire of rural people across the country at once.

That was until COVID came along.

Measures meant to protect people who live in dense communities where degrees of interaction are high were outlandish on the family farm. The rationalizations for these were often comical. Barbershops would be ordered closed in a community no one in the city knew the name of, where there wasn’t a COVID case within 100 kilometres. All under the auspices that maybe someone from the city would be desperate for a haircut and drive out of town.

Our friends in the city faced COVID first, and the fears and concerns they had were legitimate and valid. But our bonds started to fray. Rural communities overwhelmingly wanted policies that reflected our lifestyles—ones that recognized that we share a different sense of community, have a different relationship with our neighbours, and don’t work in highly populated environments. That calving doesn’t care about COVID and crops come off the field when they are ready, not when measures have been lifted. Our urban friends didn’t understand. Their valid and realized fears of the devastating impacts of the disease made the health measures inflexible for rural lifestyles. The tone was judgmental and severe. Rural people felt attacked, misunderstood, and desperate. It never changed and the breakdown was never addressed. 

COVID measures were eventually lifted and people mostly went back to their lives as before. The fabric that weaves us all together hasn’t been woven back together, though. Do our friends in the city know or care that their friends in the country feel betrayed? Does it matter? Elections are won in cities; public policy is made in cities and by people who live in cities. All we ask is you cast your thoughts on us and the hopes and dreams we have for our kids when you develop public policy. Help us restore our communities together. 

My family was driving into town the other day and as we merged onto the highway my husband remarked at how close the homes were built. He’d never noticed it before.

Choosing to move out of town was what was best for my family. I don’t want to live within 15 minutes of anything, never mind everything. Let us make the choice of how we raise our families and prioritize the way of life we inherited from our parents, our grandparents, and their parents. We mostly want to be left alone, to solve the problems we encounter on our own or with the help of our neighbours. And if things do get desperate enough that we come into town to meet with you, hear us out. Give us the chance to explain where we are coming from. That’s all we ask.