Machine, Platform, Crowd

Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future
By Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2017

Machine Platform Crowd coverMachine, Platform, Crowd is an update to Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s fabulous 2014 book, The Second Machine Age. (My review here).

In it, the authors, describe three powerful trends shaping the worlds of business and technology today.

First, the incredible advances in the power of computer technology, particularly machine learning, and more broadly artificial intelligence, that are enabling machines to perform more and more tasks and do more jobs that used to be the sole domain of the human mind.

The second trend is the emergence of platforms, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, as the great economic engines and money makers of the 21st Century, in a marked shift away from product-based businesses of the past.

Finally, the third trend: the shift towards sourcing ideas and innovation from the crowd, that vast and diverse reservoir of internet-connected talent and enthusiasm that lies outside the traditional boundaries of the organization’s core.

These trends are forcing organizations to re-think and re-balance how they operate, invest and succeed.

The authors cover some interesting developments in this book, particularly the discussions about the economics of platforms, and about the future of the firm as an essential unit of business organization. However, if you haven’t read The Second Machine Age, I’d highly recommend starting there.

You can listen to a recording of the authors discussing Machine, Platform, Crowd with futurist and energy analyst Ramez Naam at Seattle Town Hall on June 22, 2017.

Unsolicited Feedback

McAfee and Brynjolfsson, to their credit, devote some attention in this book to the implications for employment, or the lack of it, from all this rapid innovation. They’re technology enthusiasts and they point to a number of areas that will be continuing sources of jobs well into the future, especially fields involving human-to-human contact, leadership and creativity. I didn’t find this completely reassuring, but it did allay some fears that mass unemployment is the inevitable outcome of technological progress.

The book is aimed at a mainly business audience, so there’s less attention to broader social, and political implications of these changes. In some ways that’s good – they’re sticking to what they know well. But they’re smart and engaging thinkers so I for one would welcome their thoughts on these topics.

At Seattle Town Hall, for example, they talked about “EIEIO economics” as the smart policy playbook for the country:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Immigration
  • Education
  • Infrastructure
  • Original Research

Smart policies in these areas can help move the country forward. We’re not doing a great job at any of them these days, they said.

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Mr. O’Byrne

I’ve been remembering my high school calculus teacher, Mr. O’Byrne, over the last few days.

It started while I was reading a lengthy article about neural networks and how they’re trained using backpropagation and analytic gradients. There’s not that much calculus involved, just a few partial derivatives, but it’s more than I’ve used in decades. The author was describing these gradients as the limit of some function as a variable h approaches zero. And it all came rushing back. There I was, a teenager in Mr. O’Byrne’s calculus class, learning about slopes, tangents and limits as h approaches zero.

To be honest, Mr. O’Byrne was not one of my favorite teachers. I didn’t dislike him, I just didn’t find him particularly dynamic or inspiring.

Perhaps that’s because he was close to retirement by the time I showed up in his class. Maybe he was tired and worn out. He was a large man in both height and girth, with thinning, wispy white hair. I remember he seemed to be in poor health, often short of breath and coughing wetly into a neatly folded white handkerchief.

But his lessons sure stuck.

On the last day of school Mr. O’Byrne bade us all farewell with a traditional Irish toast, “May you be in heaven a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

Most of us remember one or two special teachers who inspired us or challenged us or coached us. Yet even the ones we don’t remember as fondly, the ones who gave of themselves year after year without fuss or flamboyance also helped us and left their mark. They deserve a toast too.

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Thank You for Being Late

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2016

It’s a good thing Tom Friedman is an optimist. Reading his latest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving the Age of Accelerations, published just after the 2016 US election, could easily scare the daylights out of you.


There’s so much happening in the world these days, at such a fast pace, affecting so many facets of our lives, that many people feel overwhelmed and anxious and out of control. I know I sometimes do.

Friedman doesn’t shy away from any of this change or try to sugar coat it.

The central idea of the book is that we are living through a momentous historical inflection point, as important as the invention of the printing press, in which changes in technology, globalization and the environment are happening at ever-accelerating rates. Any one of these three great accelerations would be significant; today they’re happening simultaneously, interacting with and reinforcing each other.

Friedman walks us right into the whirlwind to show us what’s happening and to help us pause and reflect and maybe marvel, even if only for a few moments. He looks at the impact of these changes on our lives, our communities and our cultures. Lastly, Friedman takes us back to St. Louis Park, Minnesota, where he grew up, to illustrate the kinds of communities and values he thinks we need to build in order to thrive in this era of accelerating change.

Welcome to the Machine

In the first of three main sections of the book Friedman presents his latest report on the state of “the Machine”, his shorthand term for an evolving mental model of “the biggest forces reshaping more things in more places in more ways, on more days.” [p. 15]

Here he examines in detail the three great accelerations, starting with technology in a chapter titled “What the Hell Happened in 2007?” It turns out this seemingly innocuous year saw a number of hugely important technological changes:

  • Apple introduced the iPhone
  • Google launched Android
  • Amazon released the first version of the Kindle e-reader
  • Facebook opened to anyone with an email address (late 2006)
  • Twitter spun off as a separate entity
  • Emergence of Hadoop
  • GitHub received its first commit (upload of source code)
  • IBM started its Watson cognitive computing project
  • Cost of wind and solar power starts to fall dramatically
  • Cost of human genome sequencing plummets

That was quite a year!

The key to understanding the effect of all this technological change is Moore’s Law which has now been delivering exponential increases in computing power for about 50 years. Processing power has doubled so many times that we’re now in “the second half of the chessboard.” This ides comes from a book called The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAfee which Friedman cites heavily. (You can find my review of it here.) The chessboard here is the legendary one on which a king was asked to place one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, and so on until a truly stupendous quantity of rice is required on the 64th square. In the second half of the chessboard, each doubling in processing power unleashes massive, disruptive change.

In looking at globalization, the second of the three great accelerations, Friedman quotes the late historian William H. McNeill, author of The Rise of the West,

“The principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.” [p. 147]

Globalization brings us into contact with more strangers from more places with more skills and more ideas and viewpoints than ever before. But globalization is no longer about just trade in raw materials and manufactured goods. Now it’s about the flow of goods, services, capital, skills, data and knowledge. In fact we’re shifting from a world where stocks (of materials, money, and knowledge) were critical for economic success to one where flows are more important. Societies that are more open to these flows, more open to contact with strangers, and more willing to participate in them are the ones that will do well. Societies that are less open, less willing or able to participate in these economic flows will struggle.

(Incidentally, Friedman joins a growing list of commentators who say that open/closed is becoming a more useful and important political distinction than left/right. See, for example, The New Political Divide in The Economist.)

The chapter on climate change, the third acceleration, is largely inspired by a book called Big World, Small Planet by Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum. (My review is here.) The book defines a framework of nine “planetary boundaries” that we must not cross if we want to avoid potentially catastrophic damage to Earth’s ecosystem. These boundaries include climate change, as measured by atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, ocean acidification, deforestation, biodiversity loss, etc. Trouble is we’ve already crossed several of them. In maybe the most passionate section of the book, Friedman argues:

“As environmentalists have often noted, we have been great at rising to the occasion after big geopolitical upheavals – after Hitler invaded his neighbors, after Pearl Harbor, after 9/11. But this is the first time in human history that we have to act on a threat we have collectively made to ourselves, to act on it at scale, to act before the full consequences are felt, and to act on behalf of a generation that has not yet been born – and to do it before all the planetary boundaries have been breached.

This is the challenge before humanity, now, right now, and it is for this generation.” [p. 183]

Impacts of Accelerations

Friedman next looks at the impact of all this change, what it’s doing to our jobs, our communities, and our countries. This is well-traveled ground for Friedman since he’s been reporting on this for years in his New York Times column. I want to highlight just a couple of ideas I found particularly striking.

There’s a lot of concern these days about whether automation is going result in mass unemployment. Think about self-driving cars and trucks. How many people earn their living driving people and goods from one place to another? Will they all be put out of work by autonomous vehicles?

Friedman doesn’t have an answer to this question; no one does. But he looks at a number of cases where automation actually resulted in an increase in certain types of employment. Bank tellers for example. You might have thought the introduction of ATMs in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s would have decimated the ranks of bank tellers. In fact, the number of bank tellers has increased. Why? ATMs brought down the cost of operating a branch, so banks opened more of them and hired more tellers. What is true, however, is that tellers now handle the more complex transactions that ATMs can’t, and, in my experience anyway, they seem to be performing more sales and marketing functions, like encouraging me to consider various investment products offered by the bank. So the skills required of bank tellers have certainly increased with automation.

The same is true in many other fields.

And of course new technology has created new jobs and even whole new careers that didn’t exist before, like software development and data science.

So the picture for employment in the face of accelerating technological change isn’t easily predictable, but there’s no solid case for doom and gloom either.

What will be required of us all, though, is more skills and more flexibility. Lifelong learning, in other words.

Countries too are impacted by accelerating change. Friedman takes us on a tour of what he calls the World of Disorder, places where the three accelerations are causing states to literally collapse into anarchy.

The civil war in Syria, for example started out with peaceful protests over the Assad government’s failure to deal with one of the worst droughts in modern history. Friedman calls Syria “the geopolitical superstorm of the age of accelerations.”

It turns out that failed states can be just as dangerous as powerful ones. They become breeding grounds for criminal and terrorist organizations. Worse yet, they generate huge outflows of refugees and migrants which threaten to destabilize neighboring countries. There were something like 653 million displaced persons in the world as of June 2016. Most of these people fled collapsing states rather than inter-state conflict.

Now, More than Ever, Values Matter

We’re living in a world, Friedman says, where technology has enhanced the power of one and the power of many. We’re rapidly approaching the point where a single individual could have the power to destroy us all, to kill every living human being; a power formerly restricted to one or two nuclear superpowers. At the same time, we’re also at a point where, working together, we could fix anything, solve any problem facing humanity, from global warming to world hunger to poverty to homelessness.

With so much power in our hands, our values matter more than ever. When we live in such an interdependent world, how should we behave towards one another in a way that nurtures trust and respect? We need “moral innovation” to accompany and govern technological innovation. Extending the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would wish they would do unto you” – into cyberspace is one part of the answer.

Another important part, Friedman suggests, is that people need to be anchored in strong communities.

In the final chapters of the book, Friedman takes us to his home town of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. I think it’s some of his most autobiographical writing to date. His point is to hold up his home town and its values as an example of the kinds of strong communities we need to build.

It’s not a perfect place; Minneapolis has s long and sad history of racism. But St. Louis Park, at least, welcomed Jewish families like Friedman’s in the 1950’s and developed a reputation for welcoming immigrants – contact with strangers – from many parts of the world. It’s a community that values education and whose residents appear willing to pay for it through their taxes.

It’s a community with the kind of values that both anchor and propel its citizens in the world so they can “thrive in the age of accelerations.”

Unsolicited Feedback

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Tom Friedman. I’ve read most of his books, and I read his New York Times column regularly. I don’t always agree with him, but as far as I’m concerned, if you want to understand what’s happening in the world today, if you want to understand the Machine, Friedman is quite simply required reading.

Thank You for Being Late is a huge, sprawling book. Not just its size, about 450 pages, but also the scope of its ideas, observations, and connections. Many of its chapters could be expanded into full length books of their own.

I work in the technology sector. I’ve lived through and, in a small way, contributed to some of the changes Friedman describes in the book. Yet seeing it all laid out in black and white in a few deft pages left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

At a personal level, I worry about what the future holds for my children. How will they survive and thrive? What kinds of jobs will they have? Will they be able support their own families when the time comes? Will there be any jobs at all, or will we automate ourselves into mass unemployment?

At a societal level, and a global level, the challenges are even more daunting. Like it or not, the world is rapidly knitting itself together into an integrated global community. And without doubt the challenges we face are increasingly global in scope, from climate change to population migration.

Meeting these challenges will require global institutions and global approaches that we just don’t have yet. And it will require far better leadership than we see in the world today.

There are some encouraging signs, like the Paris climate agreement, the plummeting cost of clean energy and the accompanying rise in clean energy jobs.

Unfortunately, right now it seems like we’re living through a period of backlash against the accelerations, against technology, globalization and openness to strangers. When I see people, especially world leaders, closing their hearts and minds at a time when we desperately need more collaboration, more understanding and more creative ideas, it’s discouraging and even frightening.

Thank You for Being Late doesn’t entirely allay these fears and concerns, at least it didn’t for me. But the book is so much more than just a snapshot of the current state of the Machine. It looks deeply and widely into the challenges and the opportunities we face and tries to give guidance about how we ought to conduct ourselves in the age of accelerations.

Tom Friedman says he’s an optimist. I sure hope he’s right!

Related Links

C-SPAN talk by Tom Friedman about Thank You for Being Late.

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Beethoven’s 9th

I can’t remember when, or even if, I’ve ever listened to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 from start to finish.  I’ve certainly never heard it performed live.  Until last night.  We attended a performance of the Ninth by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony Chorale at Benaroya Hall.

Of course I’ve heard almost all of it before, just in bits and pieces.  It’s been used so frequently as the soundtrack for movies, TV shows, and videos like this one that most of it is instantly recognizable even if you can’t identify it as the Ninth.

Hearing it live was magnificent!

The power and majesty, and the subtlety and complexity of this work are awe-inspiring, and almost physically overwhelming.

It’s one of those rare achievements that makes you proud to be a human being.  I mean, for all our violence, thoughtlessness and stupidity, for all our careless disregard for each other and the planet we call home, this stupendous, uplifting work of art was created by one of us!  If we can produce music like this then humanity still has things to celebrate.

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life?
By Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon
HarperCollins, New York, 2012

Clayton Christensen is best known for his groundbreaking book The Innovator’s Dilemma, probably one of the most important business books ever written. First published in April 1997, that book is twenty years old this year and still worth reading. He’s been recognized as the most influential management thinker in the world.


How Will You Measure Your Life? is a bit of a departure for Christensen.  He and his co-authors, James Allworth and Karen Dillon have used business theories to help you answer three critically important but personal life questions:

“How can I be sure that

1. I will be successful and happy in my career?

2. My relationships with my spouse, my children, and my extended family and close friends become an enduring source of happiness?

3. I live a life of integrity – and stay out of jail?” [p. 6]

Christensen noticed that many of his classmates at Harvard Business School didn’t seem to be leading the happy, fulfilling lives they’d all dreamed about while studying together. Twenty-five years after graduation, many were burned out, some were divorced or estranged from their children, and one – Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of Enron – was in jail.

As a professor at Harvard, he began using the last class of his MBA course to explore these questions with his students. This book was inspired by those discussions.

The book is divided into three sections, one for each of the three questions. Each chapter starts off describing a business theory originally designed to address a particular business question or situation, and then applies that theory to some aspect the book’s three questions.

This use of business theories to guide career, relationship and life choices might seem contrived, but it works well. And the authors’ main point is that rather than give you advice or answers, the book instead provides tools with deep explanatory and predictive power to help you make your own decisions and set your own course.

How Will You Measure Your Life? is well-written and won’t take you long to read.

For me, the overarching messages of the book were to be intentional about your life and to think long-term.

Set deliberate, conscious goals for your career and life. How those goals are achieved can vary (there’s guidance in the book about this), and might include taking advantage of unplanned, emergent opportunities.

Invest in your relationships in an on-going way for the long-term, especially your relationships with your spouse/partner and children. You can’t postpone building those relationships until later in life, you have to start now and keep at it.

Finally, keep a watch on what you’re doing, on how you’re spending your time, energy and money. With or without a plan, what you’re actually doing can easily diverge from what you want to be doing.  Course correct if necessary.

I can’t help wondering what I might have done differently if I’d had the opportunity to read this book as young adult. I’m now a middle-aged man and my children are themselves young adults. Would I have been as receptive then to the ideas in the book as I am today? I’m not sure.

I think deciding the purpose of your life – a topic discussed in the Epilogue – at a young age is particularly difficult. Some people are lucky and find their purpose early. Others sort of retroactively discover their purpose by looking back at what they’ve done over time and seeing patterns emerge. Many others never really find one and just drift along through life. I’d put myself in the second category.

Still it would have been good to have read this book back then even if I didn’t follow the guidelines it offered. Perhaps it would have planted some seeds in my mind for the long term.

I’m glad I’ve read it now though. I recommend it. It’s a good one to start off the New Year; worthwhile and really quite inspiring.

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Post-Election Reading

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By J. D. Vance
HarperCollins, New York, 2016

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
By Katherine J. Cramer
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2016

Before we shove 2016 out the back door, I want to post my last review of the year.  A double-header this time.

Like a lot of people, I was pretty shocked by the outcome of the November 8 election. The day after, it felt like I had woken up in a country I didn’t recognize anymore. What just happened? How could it have happened?

I live in the Seattle area, up in the northleft coast. I’m employed in the tech sector. I’m white and well-educated. I thought I understood some of the anger that came out during the campaign, but it was pretty clear afterwards that I didn’t understand it enough.

So I did what I usually do when I don’t understand something. I read.

I read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Both books are set in Midwest swing states; Hillbilly Elegy in Kentucky and Ohio, and The Politics of Resentment in Wisconsin. Both books helped me understand, in different ways, how the circumstances, cultures and forces at play in these regions contributed to Donald Trump’s election victory.

Although two books do not an expert make, I feel like I’m better informed than before. However, I wouldn’t say I’m more sympathetic.

Let me come back to that. First, I want to review each book briefly and then I’ll offer some unsolicited feedback of my own.

Hillbilly Elegy

clip_image002Hillbilly Elegy is certainly the more popular of the two books. It’s been on the New York Times best-seller list for about twenty weeks as of this writing.

It’s J. D. Vance’s autobiographical account of growing up in a dysfunctional, abusive family in Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky.

Vance’s family history mirrors the history of the region. Following World War II, his grandparents moved from the coal mining area of southeastern Kentucky to central Ohio. They were part of a large migration of people, hillbillies, who escaped Appalachia’s grinding poverty and built middle class lives for themselves and their families in the manufacturing centers of the industrial Midwest.

But by the mid-1970’s, things started to change: economic prospects dimmed, globalization and technological change caused many well-paying manufacturing jobs to head overseas, poverty increased and the middle-class began to “hollow out”. The decline has continued for the last forty years.

By the time Vance was growing up, Middletown was well past its economic heyday.

Vance recounts how he was able to rise above his hillbilly roots and impoverished upbringing through hard work and the support of key family members, especially his grandmother, and a few friends and teachers. He served in the Marines in Iraq, and earned degrees from Ohio State and Yale Law School. It really is a remarkable story.

Along the way he’s reflected on the factors and the character traits that lead some people to succeed and others to fail. While he acknowledges the roles that poverty and privilege have to play, he also believes that the values and beliefs of different groups are important factors too.

“There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.” [p. 194]

Vance criticizes the right for encouraging the view that government is to blame, rather than people’s own attitudes and efforts.

“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” [p. 194]

But he’s no fan of the Democratic Party either, nor of big government. While working as a cashier at a local grocery store during high school he became a keen observer of the store’s customers.

“As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. … We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.” [p. 139]

That resentment and mistrust is a perfect segue …

The Politics of Resentment

clip_image004The Politics of Resentment is an ethnographic study that Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted over 5 years from May 2007 through November 2012. She travelled extensively throughout the state of Wisconsin, meeting repeatedly with 39 small groups of voters in 27 communities.

The study period coincided with a tumultuous time in Wisconsin history, a time that included the Great Recession, the 2008 and 2012 elections of Barack Obama, the 2010 election of Scott Walker as governor of Wisconsin, and the subsequent “ruckus” over Act 10 which among other things stripped many Wisconsin public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

What Cramer discovered in her travels through Wisconsin is a deep rural/urban divide in which “many rural residents exhibit an intense resentment against their urban counterparts.” [p. 5]

“A politics of resentment arises from the way social identities, the emotion of resentment, and economic insecurity interact. In a politics of resentment, resentment toward fellow citizens is front and center. People understand their circumstances as the fault of guilty and less deserving social groups, not as the product of broad social, economic and political forces.” [p. 9]

The explanation for this resentment, the lens through which rural residents view and make sense of their world is something Cramer calls “rural consciousness.”

“Rural consciousness” is the term I am using to describe a strong sense of identity as a rural person combined with the strong sense that rural areas are the victims of injustice: the sense that rural areas do not get their fair share of power, respect or resources and that rural folks prefer lifestyles that differ dramatically from those of city people.” [p. 89]

Whether this sense of injustice has any empirical basis is debatable, as Cramer herself shows by comparing taxes, government spending, household income and several other indicators in rural vs. urban areas. However, the point is that “many rural residents perceive that rural communities are the victims of economic injustice.” [p. 104]

And that sense of identity rooted in injustice drives the politics of resentment.

“This is how the politics of resentment operates – it works through seemingly simple divisions of us versus them, but it has power because in these divisions are a multitude of fundamental understandings: who has power, who has what values and which of those values are right, who gets what, and perceptions of the basic fairness of all of this.” [p. 87]

One consequence of this politics of resentment, pertinent to the 2016 elections, is that people in rural Wisconsin tend to vote Republican. At first glance this makes no sense. Why would working-class rural people vote for Donald Trump or for any Republican candidate when the GOP traditionally favors policies that benefit the rich? Why do they vote against their own economic interests? Are they stupid? Have they been duped?

Cramer argues no. She argues that rural consciousness leads rural people to favor limited government, not as an ideological principle per se, but rather as a consequence of the belief, and the resentment, that government resources and programs will benefit others, not them. Specifically, if you believe you won’t benefit from government programs, and that the people who will benefit are less hard-working and less deserving than you – urban professionals and public sector employees for example, or J. D. Vance’s drug-addicted, T-bone-buying neighbor – then you might tend to oppose government programs generally, and oppose the people and parties that propose them.  

Unsolicited Feedback

Both books are worth reading but if you have time for only one of them, I’d recommend The Politics of Resentment. It’s an academic work so it’s drier reading, but it ultimately provides deeper insights.

As I said at the beginning, these two books have helped me become better informed about the people and conditions in some Midwestern swing states, but they haven’t made me more sympathetic.

Don’t get me wrong: the hardship and suffering of working class people in Wisconsin or Ohio or other rust belt states is certainly real. But so is the hardship and suffering of the urban poor, of single mothers, of African Americans, of Hispanic and Muslim immigrants,  of many others. There’s nothing admirable about resenting other groups different than your own just because they live differently or work differently than you do. I am completely unsympathetic to any sort of politics of resentment.

I got the sense that the people described in these books have no more understanding of what’s going on outside their local areas than I do outside mine.

In other words, coastal liberals aren’t the only people living in a bubble.

What these books do shed light on is how Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in these states. Without going into a full post mortem on the campaign – another time perhaps – it’s clear that she failed to get across a compelling economic message that offered hope and help to working-class white voters, failed to convince them that a Clinton administration would be receptive to their views and responsive to their needs.

That’s baffling and incompetent and tragic.

The fact that voters in these states felt they either could take a chance or had to take a chance on Donald Trump is, frankly, frightening and also tragic.

If our politics were functioning properly, we’d be trying to figure out how best to help people wherever and however they’re struggling. It’s not. Both Hillbilly Elegy and The Politics of Resentment explore the impact of that dysfunction on individuals and their communities, and help us understand the consequences for the country as a whole.

Related Links

Review of Hillbilly Elegy in The Guardian.

Interview with Katherine Cramer in The Washington Post.

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The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future

The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future
By Gretchen Bakke
Bloomsbury, New York, 2016

A PhD in cultural anthropology might seem like an odd background for someone writing a book about our national electricity grid. But Gretchen Bakke sees the grid as more than just generating plants, transmission wires, substations, poles, meters, outlets and cords. She’s an assistant professor of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. In her view the grid also includes business models, government regulations, energy politics and the public’s changing desires and expectations – all of which really are cultural. And of course we can’t forget that the entire grid is embedded in the natural environment.

In her book The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future, Bakke examines the grid from three different perspectives.

clip_image002First, there’s the physical grid. Bakke looks at the technology, how it works or doesn’t, why it’s increasingly brittle and unreliable, and the challenges we face in modernizing the grid, especially when it comes to integrating renewable energy sources.

The second major theme of the book is the business of running the grid. Who makes money from the grid and how? How are the business models changing? How did the utilities end up as regulated monopolies, and what are the consequences of changes to the legal environment in which they operate?

Thirdly, the book considers the social and political forces acting on the grid. What do we as consumers and voters want from the grid? How are those desires changing over time? How are those changes reflected in our patterns of electricity consumption and production?

From those three angles The Grid covers four main topics, in rough chronological order:

  • How did the grid originate?
  • How did it evolve into the grid we have today?
  • What’s wrong with today’s grid, and why is it so difficult to change?
  • What should the grid look like in future?

Origins of the Grid

We’ve known how to produce electricity for a long time. Alessandro Volta created the first prototype chemical battery in 1800 and Michael Faraday showed how to generate electricity from electromagnetic coils in the 1870’s. But it wasn’t until the development of the incandescent filament lightbulb by Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan in 1879 that there was a clear use for electricity. At first electric lighting was only available to offices, factories, and wealthy homeowners who could afford to install their own generators. Lighting quickly became the “killer app” for electricity, driving the creation of the earliest, small-scale grids. 

Two developments essentially locked in the structure of the grid we have today.

  • In 1896 the first hydroelectric generating plant came on-line at Niagara Falls. This established the physical and technical template for the grid: large-scale, centralized power generation; alternating current; high voltage transmission lines; step-down transformers for distribution to local businesses and consumers.
  • In 1892, Samuel Insull, formerly Thomas Edison’s personal secretary, took over management of the Chicago-area Edison franchise. Over the next few decades Insull set the business model for the grid: universally available low-cost power, a mix of “loads” that consume power at all hours of day and night, variable pricing to encourage “off-peak” usage, and most importantly a local monopoly on power generation.

As the grid developed and expanded, lighting became more widely available at prices most people could afford. Soon along came new-fangled appliances like stoves and refrigerators that both drove the demand for electricity and helped usher in our modern lifestyle. The grid democratized the consumption of electricity by making consistent, reliable power available to everyone at reasonable cost.

Evolution of the Grid

For about seventy years, the grid developed and spread from urban centers to the most sparsely populated rural areas. At the same time, the utility companies that owned and ran the grid evolved into vertically integrated, regulated monopolies. They controlled electricity generation, transmission and distribution, and they metered and charged for consumption. They made handsome if regulated profits from it all.  As Bakke notes, it was a model that encouraged complacency and provided zero incentive for innovation.

Then in 1973 the first Arab oil embargo hit, sending the US into a deep recession. For the first time energy conservation, rather than ever-increasing consumption, became important for people and politicians. Today, it’s pretty much a moral imperative.

Since then, legislative changes have stripped utilities of most of their monopoly power.

Section 201 of the 1978 Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) required utilities to purchase power at wholesale rates from small non-utility sources. The original purpose of this law was to provide incentives for cogeneration – when a factory uses waste heat, for example, to generate its own electricity – but it spurred both development and competition in electrical generating technology. It also exposed the utilities to decentralized and variable power sources for the first time.

The real legislative earthquake came with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 1992 which required utilities to separate electricity generation from distribution. It opened up the wholesale electricity markets to full-blown competition. Some states even required utilities to divest their generation capacity.

Utilities now earn their money from transmitting, distributing and metering electricity, not from generation. On the other hand, there is really no one “in charge” of the grid anymore. There’s no single entity responsible for the end-to-end delivery of electricity from generation all the way to consumption. And that means no one is accountable for it either.

Challenges Facing the Grid

The grid is ageing, inefficient and poorly maintained. As a result it’s becoming less and less reliable.

“… significant power outages are climbing year by year, from 15 in 2001, to 78 in 2007 to 307 in 2011. America has the highest number of outage minutes of any developed nation …” [p. xiv]

What’s the biggest threat to the security and reliability of our nation’s power grid? Nope, it’s not terrorists, domestic or foreign, and it’s not cyberattacks from maleficent state actors or criminal gangs. No, it’s foliage. Trees and branches falling on or getting tangled in power lines are the greatest single cause of power outages in the country. That’s in large part because utilities have been cutting back their tree pruning budgets for years. The number two threat? Squirrels.

Declining availability and reliability of power is one reason why more and more people and organizations are starting to generate their own. Of course, environmental concerns, the desire for cleaner, greener power, is another important driver. This poses additional problems for utilities. First it deprives them of revenue. If people generate their own power, how do the utilities make money to maintain all that expensive infrastructure? This is known as the “utility death spiral.”

It also makes running the grid more difficult. The grid was inherently designed for centralized distribution of steady amounts of electricity, Bakke points out. It’s not designed to handle fluctuating, intermittent, and distributed power sources.

Solar power, for example, isn’t available in the evenings when utilities face peak demand from families cooking dinner, watching television and doing laundry. In the daytime, when those solar panels are busily pumping electricity back into the grid, people are at work or school and residential demand is at its lowest. The result is the so-called “duck curve” showing the increasing imbalance between electricity supply and demand caused by renewable power.

All these problems would be far easier to deal with, but for one fundamental problem: electricity can’t be stored. It’s not like water or gas or oil. It must be used as soon as it is produced, virtually the instant it is produced. From the earliest days of the grid, balancing electricity supply with demand has been critical.

When there’s not enough electricity in the grid, things start shutting down or going dark. When there’s too much electricity, well things start burning or melting.

“Toasters don’t explode, wires function well, lightbulbs go on when the wall switch is flipped, all because the grid is kept in balance: there is enough electricity available to run our machines, but there is not so much that it rips through and destroys them.” [p.8]

But what about batteries, don’t they store electricity? Actually, they store energy, converted from electricity into chemical form. Similarly pumped hydroelectric storage stores surplus water in reservoirs for later use. There’s lots of investment and research going on right now into developing new energy storage technologies, including my whimsical favorite, rocks on trains. (Author and futurist Ramez Naam has a good summary in this article,) But we’re not there yet, especially not at grid scale.

Future of the Grid

So what could the grid look like in future? How should it look? Bakke points to two possible futures which perhaps sit at opposite ends of a continuum.

The first possibility is that we’ll continue with the predominantly centralized model of electricity production and distribution we have today. Utilities will incorporate renewable energy into their generating capacity, something we’re already seeing with the development of utility-scale wind and solar farms. Research and development will eventually lead to the availability of large-scale energy storage which the utilities will adopt to help them deal with the vagaries of renewable power.

But Bakke argues with considerable eloquence for a different approach, one that is radically decentralized and inclusive.

Today, people want cleaner, greener power. They want more reliable power. And they want cheaper power. People also want more direct, or at least more local control over the production and distribution of electricity. Affordable solar power, lithium-ion batteries like the Tesla Powerwall, and local area microgrids are making this possible. If the grid democratized electricity consumption in the late 1800’s then these new technologies are democratizing electricity production, storage and distribution today.

But accomplishing this requires more than just new technology. It requires a legal and regulatory environment that encourages or at least doesn’t block adoption of these new solutions.

“This potential for a better, more robust, more secure grid grounded in technologies we both use and like is made possible by letting people find ways to make and store electricity at the smallest scale without excluding them, structurally or legally from our common system” [p. 271]

Unsolicited Feedback

The Grid isn’t without its flaws. If you’re looking for a deeply scientific or technical understanding of the grid you’ll probably be disappointed by this book. That’s not Bakke’s background and more importantly she’s clearly interested in the larger set of forces acting on the grid.

Also the narrative does jump around a bit and there’s repetition of some key points. It’s as if the complexity and interconnectedness of the gird simply can’t be explained through a linear medium like text.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book. Like most people, I suppose I take electricity for granted … until it’s not there. I now have a much better appreciation for what it takes to keep the lights on. The Grid is fascinating and sometimes quite alarming. Gretchen Bakke presents the grid as a great sprawling machine of unimaginable power that’s just a split second away from blasting apart the bonds holding it in check and yet at the same time is perpetually on the verge of total collapse. The overlapping technical, financial and social perspectives that she brings to the book provide an important picture of the incredible complexities of the grid, the daunting challenges we face in upgrading it, and the opportunities within our grasp to develop something better.

Related Links

NPR Interview with Gretchen Bakke:

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