Thursday, September 19, 2013

Voluntary Simplicity

[Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes]
[Mood: Grateful]

I live in a small apartment that overlooks a beautiful park in a quiet suburb. In the 12 years that I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is the place where I have lived the longest. It's close to the major freeways and I'm within an hour of anywhere in the Bay Area I would ever want to visit: from San Francisco in the North to San Jose and Santa Cruz in the South to the cities of Berkeley and Oakland and the bedroom communities of Fremont, Dublin/Pleasanton in the East Bay. They're all between a half hour and an hour from where I live.

As I write this, I have a majestic view of the park where I hear the bark of dogs and the screams and shouts of kids and adults playing soccer. I look out my door and I see a bunch of dog-loving neighbors who meet regularly on the grassy knoll with an assortment of furry pets. I see people of all ages and races taking walks, jogging, running and biking. I see tall green trees that are a treat to the eyes.

Just outside my window, a humming bird sips nectar from the vine that's taking over the railing. The vine wasn't always there but it came as part of the recent renovations and along with it came the birds. Again, a treat to the eyes. And to the soul. These are the kinds of things that make living here worthwhile. A few simple pleasures. I could use a yard though. :)

It's a simple lifestyle and yet, it could be simpler. Voluntary Simplicity is the new game in town. People everywhere are stressed out and they are asking the important question, "what for?" As the individual anarchist writer, Wendy McElroy, says in her recent article:
Voluntary simplicity (sometimes mislabeled as frugality) is spreading as a new 'ethos' throughout the Western world. It is a natural reaction to the politically-created economic disaster that has gutted the stability of so many individuals and families. Given the circumstances, it is easy to view voluntary simplicity as a bitter pill that you are forced to swallow, which you would much rather spit out. I believe the contrary is true. Voluntary simplicity is a strategy that has freed and enriched my life. It has no connection to 'doing without' or depriving myself of any 'thing' I value enough to trade my time to acquire. It means that I purchase something only what I value it more than the time and other expense required to do so.
I especially like how she ascribes "value" to her time which is different from how an employer would value her time:
Several years ago, my lifestyle changed dramatically because of a realization that should have been obvious to me all along. Things cost money; money is time; time is -- in the most literal sense -- life. I had never looked at my possessions as hours or days of time taken from my life. If X cost $100 and I made $100-an-hour, then X cost me an irreplaceable one hour of life. Or, rather, it cost an hour plus whatever time was consumed by the transaction costs of making money, such as commuting. It cost an hour plus any intangible involved, such as the possible loss of self-esteem due to unethical or soul-numbing methods of making the money. The true cost of my possessions was the amount of my life and myself it took to earn them.
As I look around my apartment which is a bit cramped, I pat myself on the back for living more or less simply. I could simplify more and I plan on donating the things I don't use in the near future. I gave away my microwave oven last year. Wendy continues:
I started wandering the house, looking at possessions. Fully half of them were 'things' I did not use and I would never miss. And, yet, I had traded a substantial chunk of my life to acquire them. Without a hint of morbidity, I wondered: When I confront death, how much would I give to gain back the time I squandered on these extraneous possessions? I applied marginal utility to the time allotted to my life. Right now, the hours I have seem boundless, and it is tempting to value each unit as though it was part of an infinite supply. But  I only have X number of hours to live and no time to squander any of them. 
I want the hours of my life to be filled with the touch of my husband, talks with friends, reading and writing, playing with my treat-sneaking dog, and working in a garden. I love to cook. I want to see the expression on my husband's face when he bites into the meal that has been seasoned and simmered to perfection. I want to use my life and all that is in it. Which means I should not live on a farm so big that there are acres I've not walked in ten years or in a house where rooms are used to store boxes I haven't opened in as long.
Voluntary simplicity doesn't mean depriving yourself of pleasure. Quite the opposite. I long to travel the world and to feel the places that made my mind tingle as a child. Some day I will know what the stars look like in the night sky of Africa and how a jungle smells. I never regret my books or DVDs, the live theatre that gives me a jolt of pleasure each time the curtain rises, our dog, my sporty car that makes me feel 18-years-old, drive-in movies, the expensive ingredients for a superb meal. I don't regret retirement savings or emergency funds. But I will never again buy clothing I do not wear or order an expensive meal that I could cook better. These useless or disappointing things are not purchased with money; they are purchased with my life.
Except for the husband and the dog, those could be my words! Voluntary Simplicity is here and here to stay. Whether we like it or not, we will soon have to make do with less, individually and collectively. But we would be happier if we take it not as much as an imposition as an opportunity to reconnect with nature and life itself. And the time that makes up life.
Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury - to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best for both the body and the mind” ― Albert Einstein
"Live simply so that others may simply live" ― Gandhi

Monday, September 9, 2013

A battle of worldviews

[Approximate Reading Time: 30 minutes]
[Mood: Amazed]

I have a few like-minded friends and a few that don't agree with my views on many issues and a few that just don't care or don't have the time to care. Now, you could say this about anyone who has friends and has something to say to them. But recently, I had a debate with some folks at work (none that I know personally) that left me quite surprised at how differently some people feel about the world and humanity's place in it than I do. The conversation, which was prompted by a discussion I had with a friend about the impacts of robotic automation on the economy, started out with posing a question on something quite specific, but took on a life of its own and morphed into an argument, parts of which are reproduced below with my commentary sprinkled in. The question was posed to a bunch of folks on an online discussion group at Google and the debate developed over the course of a few weeks in July/August 2013. I've taken the liberty to edit the content of the debate to remove any proprietary and confidential information and to protect the privacy of the participants.

According to Leo Apostel, a Belgian philosopher, a worldview is an ontology, or a descriptive model of the world. It should comprise these six elements:
  1. An explanation of the world
  2. A futurology, answering the question "Where are we heading?"
  3. Values, answers to ethical questions: "What should we do?"
  4. A praxeology, or methodology, or theory of action: "How should we attain our goals?"
  5. An epistemology, or theory of knowledge: "What is true and false?"
  6. An etiology. A constructed world-view should contain an account of its own "building blocks," its origins and construction.
In other words, our worldview is the sum total of all our answers to questions that seem to ask "what's true?", "what's good?" and "what's beautiful?". Each of us could have our own unique worldviews while also generally agreeing on a collective worldview at the community or national level.

If you're not interested in the particular economic issues raised at the outset below as much as the broader debate on worldviews, scroll down to about halfway through the post below.

The question my friend and I came up with to pose to the discussion group is:
Adam Smith, one of the great, early theorists of Capitalism, wrote in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 that “Labour, therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.” (Ch. V, paragraph 1)
If Capitalism as a system is based on the exchange of commodities for profit, featuring employment of workers who are able to purchase the products of their labor, can it continue to function if its foundation, exchange value of commodities, is undercut to the point at which not enough members of the society are able to participate in that exchange to maintain the economic cycle?
Consider the following:
  • Since introduction of microchip-driven computers and their massive application to all aspects of industry, finance, commerce and government, vast areas of formerly labor-intensive manufacturing and services have been fully automated.
  • All factories have areas which operate “lights-out”, and many are almost completely lights-out, with very few workers involved; the same is true of services. Productivity, the amount of human work required to produce any product or service, is now extremely high.
  • Since profits are a function of exchange value, the destruction of exchange value by removal of human labor is the best explanation for the consistent drop in ROA (return on assets) described in the Deloitte Shift Index. Destruction of exchange value of commodities affects all sectors, including the value of human labor itself as a commodity. This drives the shift from productive investment to speculative investment as a dominant force.
  • Over ½ of the world’s people are now unable to purchase anything of value in the market system, and are essentially excluded from it. Many of these were formerly successful subsistence farmers now driven out of agriculture by the predominance of agribusiness giants and free trade treaties virtually eliminating borders for capital. 
What are the implications of technology that does away with exchange value, the foundation of corporate-market-commodity society? How are we going to deal with the displacement of millions of professional drivers who might be displaced by self-driving cars and trucks? And the lawyers and other professionals that are being displaced by advances in Machine Learning and Big Data technologies?
There were really only a few people on the group who participated in this discussion and by no means do they represent the collective membership. I will, however, frame this as a dialog between me and "they" and ask you to keep in mind that about a dozen folks participated in this conversation and "they" refers to one of them. Although this takes away important metadata on who exactly said what, it should keep things simple while capturing the overall essence of the debate. Even though their thoughts were generally similar to each other's and very different from mine, they are all each individual's own thoughts and there's no attempt below to cast them into a group. Also, the opinions expressed below are of private individuals and not of Google or its employees. I'm certain there were many folks on the group who agreed with what I had to say to varying extents. They chose to remain silent and watched from the sidelines because what I was saying is heresy in Silicon Valley. A couple of them did write to me privately and said they agreed with me. One said, "I think you gave very good arguments, in a very good manner. I share many of your thoughts and opinions."

Even so, a note of caution is in order: you may actually not agree with everything I say below. In fact, chances are you will disagree with quite a few arguments I make below. All I will ask of you now is read on with an open mind, as if you are an alien from another part of the Universe watching a bunch of Earthlings debate the situation they find themselves in these days.

After some initial discussion on definitions, terminology and such, the conversation gained momentum and someone responded:
My thought is that people have been worried about this (people being replaced by technology) for well over a century, but, after a century or two of teeth-gnashing over these concerns, we're, IMHO, actually doing generally better.  So I'm pretty skeptical of all this.

I'd be curious to see comprehensive data, covering health, nutrition, lifespan, education, free time, etc., over the past 200 years, stratified by socioeconomic status.  I'm dubious that the lower class is actually worse off now than 100 or 200 years ago.
As I had expected, the call for data came quickly! I said I'd be curious to see such data too. And that if we can't find this data, I don't know who else can!
I fail to understand how the human mind can, on one note, be optimistic about technology which in itself goes hand in hand with questioning the past and looking forward to a different and brighter future which the technological mind sets out to design and manifest, but, on another note, can't fathom a different outcome when it comes to the economic effects of technology as compared to the past 100 or 200 years. Doesn't the development of technology presume the whole "yes, men have been saying they want to fly for the last couple hundred years and they haven't flown so don't wait for that to happen anytime soon" way of reasoning is not very sound? Is saying "this time, it's indeed different" so far out there?

BTW the "this is what we are experiencing" part from the original quote is not true. We still need lots of workers, it's just that globalization now allows labor to be procured where it is least expensive, and in most cases that isn't the US. The standard of living in China and a bunch of other countries has increased dramatically over the past few decades. What we're experiencing in the labor market in the US is the bursting of a debt bubble combined with the effects of a globalization trend that started decades ago -- not robots or ATM machines taking over everyone's jobs. Technology is actually improving standards of living, not making them worse.
I have long held the opinion that Technology is neutral and, like a knife, can be used for good purposes as well as bad. I say as much in the debate below. I make the point that Technology is more often used by the powerful for their own ends than by the government for the common good of all. In fact, the development of a number of new technologies has been and continues to be driven by the military-industrial complex which is controlled by and benefits a small number of ruling elites across the world.

But is Technology really neutral? Neutral to who? If Science offers us a way to understand our physical environment, Technology takes that one step further and allows us to control and manipulate our enviornment for our own ends. It might not have seemed like it 10,000 years ago when Agriculture was developed almost simultaneously in various parts of the world, but it was the beginning of large-scale manipulation of nature to suit our own purposes and comfort. To be sure, many tribal people back then eschewed this new-found technology and continued to live a simpler hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Such tribes existed until recent times and it's been recorded that they weren't inferior to the rest of us in any way, intellectually or otherwise. If anything, they might have been the only ones who truly understood the full consequences of various technologies they would have inevitably come across over the millenia. Or perhaps, they might have simply elected to not ask from nature more than what it was already giving them, which it appears was enough for them. In any case, what started with agriculture, a relatively simple and benign deployment of technology, has today become a massive enterprise that occupies humanity full-time.We've ended up and continue to, at an ever increasing pace, change our environment and nature to make ourselves more comfortable, live longer and do other "cool" things. In the process, we have caused some truly disastrous changes to our environment with our short term thinking. From space debris in orbit around the Earth to the decimation of coral reefs, we're responsible for much misery to Mother Earth and its creatures. To be sure, it's only some of us, in fact, a small fraction of us who are driving these changes. Those of us who call ourselves engineers, scientists, businessmen and the like. So is Technology really neutral? Neutral to who? It's definitely not neutral to nature, which we are an integral part of, no matter how much we'd like to think otherwise by insulating ourselves from it in our air-conditioned offices and cars.
I have my doubts about this. Certainly, technology and globalization are indeed raising the standards of living for quite a few in China and the rest of the world but aren't these folks a small minority? It seems the wealth divide has gotten bigger in the past dozen or so years when we have seen the most significant advances in technology and increase in globalization and free trade. Real wages have actually been falling since the 80s in the US. A factory job 40 years back was more than sufficient to raise a family and even take vacations every year but not so today. Something's amiss!
 The "data" soon came from one of the participants:
There is no doubt that the standard of living for most people in the world has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.   See, as one example among many, Brad De Long's manuscript on Slouching Towards Utopia.

During the last 20 years, 1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty and it would be relatively easy to end all poverty in the next decade or two.   Suppose you had asked economists 30 years ago, "would it be possible to have 1 billion unskilled workers join the world economy without a dramatic fall in developed economy wages for unskilled workers?"    The vast majority of economists would have said "no, that would be very unlikely".   But that's what happened...

Over the last 200 years the work week has declined from about 70 hours to 37 hours while the standard of living has dramatically increased.  I expect we'll see a 20 hour work week by the end of the century, and the nature of work will be quite different.
What I hear is a certain assumption about the definition of "progress", technological or not, that has been questioned in books such as "A short history of progress" and "The ascent of humanity". The assertion that "people are better off now than they were before the industrial revolution or the Internet" is a narrow and simplistic assertion, ignoring vast swaths of facts as though this were some gentle tinkering process in which we've all just been trying to make everything a little better for everyone. Plenty of studies say the effects of globalization on the world's poorest 25% have been anything but similar to the gains enjoyed by the top 10%. A farmer commits suicide in India every half hour. The Wikipedia article states "...according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). NCRB also stated that there were at least 16,196 farmers' suicides in India in 2008, bringing the total since 1997 to 199,132...". Add to this the extensive environmental degradation, species collapse, climate change and civil strife and war (due to a scramble for the remaining bit of natural resources) and we're looking at a rather stark picture, one that suggests that perhaps we might have held on to a rather arbitrary and biased view of progress.
There is no doubt that the standard of living for most people in the world has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution.   See, as one example among many, Brad De Long's manuscript on Slouching Towards Utopia.

During the last 20 years, 1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty and it would be relatively easy to end all poverty in the next decade or two. 
We really need to look into this further. A number of people have argued in this manner. The work of Jeffrey D. Sachs was widely publicized in a 2005 Time Magazine article. What we conveniently miss is that those who posit the "end of world poverty" under capitalism are talking only about elevating people above the literal starvation level. The arguments ignore the process of devastation of communities which constantly creates more destitute people. Here's the Wikipedia summary of Sachs' thesis: "The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time" is a 2005 book by American economist Jeffrey Sachs. It was a New York Times bestseller. In the book, Sachs argues that extreme poverty—defined by the World Bank as incomes of less than one dollar per day—can be eliminated globally by the year 2025, through carefully planned development aid. 
Over the last 200 years the work week has declined from about 70 hours to 37 hours while the standard of living has dramatically increased.  I expect we'll see a 20 hour work week by the end of the century, and the nature of work will be quite different. 
To the majority of the world's people 200 years ago, the idea of a "work week" would have been as foreign as the idea of milking cows would be to most of us here. I'm not sure how we're figuring a 37-hour work week today. Most people I know in the valley put in 60-70 hour work weeks at a great cost to their quality of life. And if that's the situation around here, where we have all the technology and smarts to help us as we ever had, what is it exactly like for the rest of the world's people? Perhaps we're caught in a trap of "almost there" thinking. Perhaps we believe our work is making work weeks shorter everywhere else so it's well worth it here? That'd be one interesting but disingenuous argument, if I ever heard one. It reflects a silo-ed thinking we've become accustomed to in the valley. Only a small percentage of employees in Silicon Valley do truly satisfying work. The rest simply make do with a significant percentage of them doing mind-numbing work day in and day out.
Those who rely on numbers and numbers alone will no doubt see any increase in the daily wage as a good thing. Unfortunately, such an approach is narrow and doesn't ask pertinent questions like, "what were these people and their ancestors doing before they were earning pennies for wages?", "who is paying them these wages and why?", "where are they earning these wages and how?" It turns out that globalization in recent decades caused hundreds of millions of people in the so-called third world to mass-migrate from their original rural communities where they were relatively self-sufficient and well-fed and well-clothed to towns and cities where they started working for someone else and started earning wages. Urban populations in developing countries grew from 13% in 1900 to over 50% today and continue to grow upward as so-called free trade first impoverish and then displace communities that have lived in relatively self-sufficient rural settings for thousands of years. They now indirectly work for the ruling class in construction, manufacturing or other industries and are no longer self-reliant. Moreover, they are locked into an economic system which measures their happiness and well-being by the wage they earn while at the same time making it a goal to pay them as little a wage as it can. The few who still remain in the rural areas of the world aren't doing any better with the long arm of corporate capitalism in collusion with the state reaching into their every aspect of life and exerting enormous force to bring them into the "world economy". This is the dark side of "joining the world economy" that's seldom mentioned in mainstream media.

Those who are quick to point to such data as work week figures and daily wages are either ignorant of these facts or conveniently forget them. Data is often used to tell half-truths, the half that favors the teller. It's up to us to find the other half and make sense of it all.
There are many social and economic issues in the world.  Some are new, some are getting worse.  There are many things to discuss there.

However, what I (and I think the others) are hearing from you is a certain assumption, narrow and simplistic, ignoring vast swaths of facts, that overall the world is getting worse for a majority or large fraction of people, and that this is somehow due to capitalism and/or technological "progress".
Up until this point, my friend and I collaborated on the responses. But below, I fly solo with my responses...
Obviously, I don't think it's narrow and simplistic but you hear me right, more or less, when you hear me say:

"overall the world is getting worse for a majority or large fraction of people, and that this is somehow due to capitalism and/or technological "progress"."

I would change that slightly and say, it's our current worldview, which includes such things as

  • the relationship between humans and nature and how we see ourselves in relation to our ecology and environment,
  • our interpretation of historical events as a constant march toward utopia which makes the current moment the best we ever had and it's only getting better
  • a perversion of the idea of progress as control over nature to make it do the things we want it to do and as soon as we possibly can.
This worldview goes hand in hand with Capitalism and technological progress and is enabled by them and enables them. I believe we've had an interesting experiment underway for a long time now but it hasn't been working out and we're being slow to realize it. We've abandoned the precautionary principle and have been calling for 10X changes and moonshots without truly understanding what we're doing. The ultimate act of control over nature for some of us has become beating death itself.

No matter how much we like to think of us as machines making rational choices, we're very much human and have all the biases we have had for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the biases is not wanting to bite the hand that feeds us which makes it difficult to analyze the story we've been telling ourselves. It seems to work, after all. But there are a number of people who are calling into question this story and all I'm hoping for is we start paying attention to what some of these folks have to say. They don't always bring the kind of data we want but there's enough data out there to convince me they are on to something. We also owe it to ourselves to look at the data-driven approach we so dutifully adhere to. There's much corruption in data collection, interpretation and analysis, and finally presentation. Numerous meta-studies have shown that studies are skewed toward financial interests of the sponsors of those studies. In any case, I haven't seen much data that indicates that the data-driven approach actually works or is preferable to any other method. It boils down to what we've been told by others, what we learn in school and the other unmentionable thing called "gut feeling". It's the gut feeling that makes me believe in the data driven approach and it's the gut feeling that makes me question it too. It's a sense of something is amiss.
There have been people doing this for hundreds of years -- that was my original point.  They've generally turned out to all be wrong.  If someone comes to me with a new story, I'll listen -- there are definitely problems involving income inequality, for example, which require solutions for the world to improve.  I'm not sure what those solutions are, but I've thought about it and my own theories say they have to do with opportunity, access to education and information, exposure to responsible and successful role models, and the empowerment that comes with all that.  In fact, that's why I work at Google -- I believe I can bring those things to people.  I don't think there is anywhere else where I can have such a positive impact on the world ... despite Google being a technology-based progeny of capitalism.
What I'm hearing right now, though, sounds like the same ill-informed, romanticized technology and capitalism bashing that I've heard many times before. 
In any case, I haven't seen much data that indicates that the data-driven approach actually works or is preferable to any other method.  
Something seems circular in your thoughts here.
I don't see how romanticizing a future with no disease or death, lab-made meat, space colonies, the singularity, etc. is any more worthwhile or fun than romanticizing a past of clean air, fresh water and natural food. If anything, we're more likely to revert to the past starting on some future day, because we've been there and have a certain bit of collective memory. I believe my fate and the fate of everyone at Google and Silicon Valley is intimately linked with the fate of the 3 Billion or so poorest people on Earth who we aren't listening to. We're too "globalized" to expect anything other than that. The pollution generated in Asia reaches our shores and so does the radioactive fallout from Fukushima.

At the end of the day, I can picture a person 200 years ago leading a happy life. It's harder to picture the average human today at about the same level of happiness. Too bad it's hard to measure happiness so we can't have the kind of debate we would otherwise have on this mailing list.
The fact that it's hard to measure happiness is not as much a lament on my part as it is an acknowledgement that not everything is measurable and hence amenable to the data-driven approach. But what happened next caught me by surprise...
At the end of the day, I can picture a person 200 years ago leading a happy life. It's harder to picture the average human today at about the same level of happiness. Too bad it's hard to measure happiness so we can't have the kind of debate we would otherwise have on the Economics mailing list.
I think you are extremely out of touch with reality, especially with respect to 200 years ago. .  The harder part would be going back in time, but various studies have already been cited on this thread which you could use to guess historical trends based on correlated factors.  I believe we have already been having this debate, actually, and the evidence seemed to be solidly stacked against you.

Of course, if you don't believe that evidence (data) is something from which to draw conclusions, then you might find it more enjoyable to discuss these ideas on some other mailing list.  I do believe the folks here are interested in data.
Do you realize how silly it is to try to measure happiness with a formula? From the above Wikipedia article:

Micro-econometric happiness equations have the standard form: W_{it} = \alpha + \beta{x_{it}} + \epsilon_{it}.[1] In this equation W is the reported well-being of individual i at time t, and x is a vector of known variables, which include socio-demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.[1]

I can't think of a better example that shows how far the data-driven train has rolled on. What I see is going on today is a silencing of valid ideas on the pretext that there's not enough data or not enough good data.
I'm calling into question the over-reliance on data itself. If this mailing list wouldn't benefit by such a topic, I don't know which other mailing list will. It is disingenuous to want to rely on data without also collecting data about who is coming up with that data, who is sponsoring the study or experiment, who is benefiting from the particular presentation of that data in that way, etc. How about we gather some data on propaganda and propaganda techniques?
I felt as if I was the only one on the discussion group and in fact the whole company who's calling into question one of the central tenets that engineers and technocrats subscribe to in Silicon Valley - the data-driven approach. I certainly didn't want to be the only one.

No.  Silly is saying "I imagine people 200 years ago being happy" and expecting anyone to take that as some kind of evidence of a claim, while dismissing those who actually study the problem seriously as "silly". 
This is just ridiculous.
Humans tried to fly for hundreds of years before they actually did. The fact that those who have come before us were wrong time and again shouldn't stop us from taking a fresh look at new possibilities being suggested by those speaking up today. You say you haven't heard a different story. I suspect you and I haven't been listening to the same people. There are plenty of sources on the Internet that point to reductions in length of the work week, increased standard of living, higher life expectancy, reduced child mortality, increase in the usage of the Internet, etc. I pay attention to those studies as much as anyone else. Yet, frequently, I come across other sources of information that point to increasing stress levels, higher rates of cancer, tap water studies which find carcinogenic chemicals, high doses of known industrial pollutants and hormone disrupters in babies born today (and really all of us), massive ocean areas full of plastic, etc. How does one go about reconciling these varying sources of information? 
Certain indicators did improve up until the 1980s but they have started falling since then. The institutions that were set up in response to technology's destructive side like the EPA stand toothless in the face of fresh assaults on nature by the extraction industries. The FDA's activities are in part funded by the very corporations that are supposed to be governed by it's statutes. There are many other indicators that show downward trends since the 1980s or 90s. Also, understand that, I don't find fault with technology itself. It's inanimate by nature, and, like a knife, can be used for both good and bad. It's just that there's been a certain increase in the indiscriminate use of technology by certain corporations for their own purposes (profit and control). Science and Technology have been hijacked by a few wealthy men and you and I are not one of them. I don't think you want to be one of them and I certainly don't either! I don't have solutions either. I'm simply making an attempt to question the status quo just a bit. 
What I'm hearing right now, though, sounds like the same ill-informed, romanticized technology and capitalism bashing that I've heard many times before.

In any case, I haven't seen much data that indicates that the data-driven approach actually works or is preferable to any other method. 

Something seems circular in your thoughts here.

I was being a bit sarcastic there. What I was trying to say is that anyone who invests significant energy in the data-driven approach must eventually seek data on the validity of that very approach. I don't invest much energy in that approach anymore.
One acknowledges that there are problems, and one tries to find solutions to those problems.  Those solutions might involve undoing technology-based changes that caused a problem (stop using asbestos), or they might involve a new technology that solves the problem (we're not going to stop using electricity; it has too many benefits, so instead we'll develop renewable sources for it).  Just blaming technology for our ills and romanticizing life 200 years ago is facile and disingenuous.

Evil people have always hijacked social structures for their own gain.  This has been the case for millennia.  Nothing specific to science, technology, or capitalism.  So, again, we identify the problems and we try to solve them.  Entanglement of corporations and the government is a problem, so let's solve it.
This was the most intelligent thing I'd heard from any of them during the entire debate.
Sounds good. Well said. I don't think I romanticize any part of our historical existence any more than the average person romanticizes about the future. At the end of the day, my romanticizing life 200 years ago doesn't nearly have as much potential or energy to do harm as a whole company romanticizing life in the future without applying the precautionary principle. Several new technologies have the potential to do far more harm than good. And even that good generally accrues to the wealthy (to lengthen their life span, accumulate more wealth, expand control, etc.) with a decent amount distributed to the professional class that helps them achieve it all. That includes me. So we do have a problem to solve here.
Doesn't it come down to what makes one happy? If I liked smart phones and self-driving cars more than fresh natural food and clean water, I'd prefer today to the past.

We'd need to empathize with the poorest 50% of the earth's population a bit more to understand that their ancestors lived much happier lives than they do. For us, the professional class, of course, we tend to live better lives than our parents or grandparents did, in many ways, especially working at Google. What I'm trying to warn about is the eventual suffering we all here will have to go through if we don't understand the plight of the farmer in India or the miner in South Africa. We owe it to ourselves to question our role in the system we have been helping build. Unless, of course, we can all fly to the Elysium. I somehow suspect it would be a rather exclusive place, if it even comes into being.

Today, if you care for your family and yourself and decide to get the best available water, you'd have to find a natural spring somewhere and drive many many miles to lug home a half-dozen 5-gallon bottles of water every week. How is that so different from someone carrying a couple of pots of water from the nearest stream in the past? We need to stop our march for a little while, take stock of the situation we find ourselves in and proceed cautiously. Instead, we're charging ahead at 10X the speed! What's the big rush? We're at a critical juncture in the history of mankind and even in the history of the planet (4.5 Billion years). The age we live in has been termed the anthropocene to highlight the outsize impact humankind has had and continues to have on the Earth. No other life form before us ever had such a dramatic influence, much of it for the worse and in such a short time. And we have never had as much influence as we do today. An entire species turning on the very host that the species rose from and continues to depend on is not that dissimilar to cancer! And, by the way, why are we losing the war on cancer? Why are the rates of incidence of cancer now 1 in 3 and getting worse? My research indicates cancer is a disease that has as much to do with environmental factors as with anyone's genes. The emerging field of epigenetics bears this out - We're, it turns out, not isolated individuals with our skins as the boundaries between us and the environment. 

And if we at Google don't talk about these issues, who else will? The world listens to us. We have a tremendous responsibility to the planet that we exert so much influence on. Let's not sit back and say we're carbon neutral. As a company, our operations may be carbon neutral but our impact is anything but. We benefit from the economy because we benefit the economy. And the economic processes of today that cry for incessant growth exert an enormous impact on the planet. We're right in the middle of it. There's no escaping the fact that our work here has a direct influence on planetary climate change and other trends converging upon us. I don't take pleasure in being alarmist. It's just such a sorry state to talk about.

I'm glad to hear you say we have problems and we need to solve them. I don't see this (getting to some sort of agreement here) as much of a victory in itself but I'm glad nonetheless. There won't be any separation between victors and losers in the world of the near future. We can only keep ourselves from becoming all losers. Losing to our own apathy and indifference is a real risk we all face. It won't be fun to say "I told you so" and we would be as sorry as anyone else if things slide. Climate Change appears to be one of the biggest problems facing humanity and we can't even agree on whether it's real and if it's real, whether it's man made. Why in the age of Google is there so much confusion? Unlike happiness, temperatures and such are easy to measure. What then is the problem? If it is political will or some other power we can't control, we would stop doing what we are doing and go into politics but we know that doesn't work very well. So what can we do at Google? Can we do anything, in the first place? I'm posing these questions to myself as much as to anyone reading this. Again, we're in it together.
 This comment below was probably the most shocking thing anyone said during the whole debate.
I don't see how romanticizing a future with no disease or death, lab-made meat, space colonies, the singularity, etc. is any more worthwhile or fun than romanticizing a past of clean air, fresh water and natural food.  
 Ah, because one is actually really good, the other is really shitty.

I'm all for clean air. But clean air because there is no fuel to burn and you are cold, is weak. Lots of fresh water, but no plumbing to bring it to your home or filtration system to make potable, is also weak. 
Saying we have to choose between progress with pollution, and and a pre-industrial society makes no sense at all. In fact, the primary driver is the Tragedy of the Commons, where if you don't waste/spoil something, someone else will. And that is present no matter the level of technology. 
If you've ever walked around a neolithic flint mine, barefoot, you'd know that industrial pollution is not a modern thing. It's just that we get so much more for our ecological damage now.
So it appears that some of us would rather have plumbing than clean water. We would rather drink water containing pesticides, hormones, chemicals and other industrial pollutants from a kitchen faucet than fetch a pail of clean spring water from down the hill. If we think we can use technology to clean our water before using it, we're forgetting that the vast majority of the world's population don't have those resources. "We get so much more for our ecological damage now" says a lot of things about one's worldview. What makes one think "if we don't waste our resources, someone else will, so why not take the initiative!"? Most of us have struggled with questions related to the extent to which our individual actions might have a positive impact on the world but this line of thinking is a different animal.
I could go through and answer each of your questions, correct each of your false factual claims, and clarify each of your cartoonishly foolish and naive broad generalizations about "now" or "then", but it's clear that you wouldn't care.

So I give up.  You do not know what you're talking about, in a dozen diverse different ways, and I'm done.
higher rates of cancer 
I can't figure out whether you're anti-disease or pro-disease. You've complained about people "romanticizing a future with no disease or death".
It's true that incidence of cancer has increased, and is quickly increasing in third-world countries, but the driver of that is longer life-spans. When you live to be 80 rather than dying of tuberculosis at 40, you have a much higher chance of developing a cancer. Overall health outcomes have improved over the last 200 years.
I did get the occasional sympathetic comment from one of them but I couldn't get myself to agree with some of the other things they would say and in this sense, my worldview is different from theirs.
I sympathize with this point of view but I don't understand what
conclusions you draw.  The nature of capitalism is that large rewards
go to those people who can capture profits for themselves while
pushing costs onto other people, or into the future.  Capitalism has
good aspects and bad aspects, and that is one of its bad aspects.  But
simply talking about it does nothing, because capitalism also rewards
those who act fast, specifically those who act fast while others
discussing what to do.  And it gets worse, because our governing
structures are themselves strongly influenced by money, so the people
who get rewards by pushing off costs get a considerable ability to
maintain their rewards by influencing governmental structures both
directly and indirectly.  Hence, companies like Exxon and their huge
influence on the discussion about climate change.

I think these points are fairly clear to all thoughtful people, but
understanding them is very different from fixing them.

And as others have said romanticizing past life doesn't help either.
Average lifespan in the U.S. went from about 47 in 1900 to about 80
today.  Life today is no bed of roses but I think most people would be
willing to give up a lot in exchange for that longer lifespan.  And I
would guess that that is also true for most people in the developing
world today.
And just as there are those who try to measure happiness with a formula, there are also those who measure progress by the sheer number of years lived.
I can't figure out whether you're anti-disease or pro-disease. You've complained about people "romanticizing a future with no disease or death".
Sorry for the confusion. What I was trying to say is let's try not to "conquer" disease. Let's understand the root causes of disease and address them instead of treating the symptoms. Let's follow approaches that work with the body's own defenses and help them fend off disease. An analogy is "biodynamic farming" which seeks to identify the conditions that are resulting in disease and help a plant defend itself as opposed to spraying harmful pesticides to kill a weed or pest or altering the genetics to make the plant cell produce its own pesticide which then ends up in our bodies. Spraying pesticides is a forceful approach that results from a worldview of "conquering" nature and disease. I'd recommend looking into why so many vineyards in the Bay Area are favoring the biodynamic approach even if it's a bit more expensive in the short run. And the numerous studies that are pointing to the advantages of organic farming and the higher yields it results in within a few years (as soon as the soil quality and the natural ecology is restored) Our current way of getting rid of germs through the use of antibiotics is resulting in mutations and drug-resistant varieties called superbugs. Check out this trailer.

It's about time we recognize that the worldview that prescribes possibilities of utopia gained through a technological advantage over nature are not working out as well as we had thought. It was easier perhaps in the short run to outsmart nature but once we realize that we're ourselves a product of nature, very much a part of nature, it gets easier to understand that our approach has been misguided. It's in that context that I'm against a grand vision of the future where we will have conquered all disease. It simply doesn't work. We need to look into disease differently. Let's slow down and take clues from nature. In many cases, we already know a lot about what makes us sick. We have chosen to ignore timeless proven approaches in favor of a mechanistic approach where the body is treated like a machine and we could go in and swap out a nut here and a bolt there (blocking receptors with artificial chemicals and otherwise tricking the body). At the end of the day, most of our medicines are derived from plants, altered slightly and sold commercially. The alteration provides a way for pharmaceutical companies to patent the medicine and make profits. The patented chemical molecule is actually substantially similar to what was found in the plant. This is all very well documented and widely available. Hope that clarifies. I'm not pro-disease but I'm also not pro-current-approach (mechanistic and reductive approach with a strong underlying theme of control over germs and genes) After all, the human body has more bacterial cells than human cells. We're not separate and distinct from the ecology we've evolved in. 
It's true that incidence of cancer has increased, and is quickly increasing in third-world countries, but the driver of that is longer life-spans. When you live to be 80 rather than dying of tuberculosis at 40, you have a much higher chance of developing a cancer. Overall health outcomes have improved over the last 200 years.

That's the story we are told. There's a lot of propaganda and publication bias out there. This 14-minute TED talk goes into this topic a bit. Of course, it might be me instead who's falling prey to propaganda. I'd be REALLY interested in finding out if I have been inadvertently falling prey to propaganda. In fact, I think about this on a daily basis. It keeps me careful and I've even come to enjoy this detective-like approach a bit. Look, I'm not that dissimilar to anyone here. I believed in many of the same things as most Googlers for many many years. It's just in the recent past that I doubled down on my efforts to understand things in depth and whoa, what do I find! I recommend avoiding the mainstream media for a couple of months and seek out alternative media sources. I'm human (which I'm happy to be) so I am susceptible but after some voracious research and reading, I've ditched the mainstream media. Even NPR! It doesn't mean there's nothing truthful on NPR or other widely read and widely heard sources but watch out for the spin.
Great analysis! Thank you! I agree with what you say. If it were just capitalism, it would be one thing, but it has morphed into crony corporate capitalism. Capitalism is not just another system with its good and bad aspects. it's one where the bad aspects continue to evolve and expand faster (incessant growth and externalities, as you alluded to) than the good aspects. I think more and more people are beginning to see this too, with documentaries like "The Corporation". Capitalism has many inherent flaws but a particularly nasty one is the prescription to maximize profits at any cost with no regard to social good. The B-corp is said to fix this but I haven't come across much information on it since it was passed into law. The way it's currently set up, there's no end goal to capitalism so it's a runaway train. The executives of a corporation are legally mandated to do everything they can to maximize profits for their shareholders. They are as much caught up in the system as anyone else. Capitalism does work better for some more than for others, at least until it stops working for us all. It's a story we've been told and we've been telling ourselves that it's the best system man can ever come up with. A system that rewards speed and risk-taking is a system that provides a lot of fun and riches to those who like living on the cutting edge while burdening the rest of us with untold stress and after-effects of that very risky behavior. I'm not comfortable with our experiments getting out of hand. The assumptions forming the basis for such a system must be questioned. And it should be fair game to question the system itself. Let's have a conversation about the precautionary principle. Is it worth looking at it when we're called to go faster and faster, enter uncharted territories and take risks? Is there a better time to look into it than now? Why does the EU generally take this principle much more seriously than the US? What makes Americans generally apathetic and feel confused about technologies like genetic engineering and products like GM foods while Europeans are a lot more conservative in this regard? (perhaps a non-US Googler has something to say about it?) 
Again, I agree with you and this is the kind of conversation I think Googlers should be having. I want to feel it's OK to deconstruct capitalism even as we work at one of the most successful capitalistic companies on Earth. In fact, it's essential we do this. 
I think these points are fairly clear to all thoughtful people, but
understanding them is very different from fixing them.

I've been told many times not to talk about problems but to think of solutions. A friend said as long as there is no other better alternative, he'd be happy with the current system. It makes sense and I see his point of view. But then it dawned on me that there are indeed alternatives and there are people working on them but they don't get much publicity or press coverage. I see a lot of conversation going on around non-capitalistic modes of organizing like worker-owned cooperatives. Yes magazine recently ran an entire issue on these topics. Then there are folks like Gar Alperowitz, a professor of political economy, who have certain interesting ideas. And Richard Wolff with his book "Democracy at Work" and other writings on Marxian Economics (oops!(?)). I don't have an agenda when it comes to proposing solutions. I'd much prefer to critique the current system, for what it's worth, and help start conversations. Such a critique is important because there are deep systemic flaws in our current arrangements that threaten our very survival. I'd much prefer to understand the world we live in today and how we got here than propose this or that solution. My thinking is if there are enough people talking about these things, the solutions will start coming too. I try and encourage my friends to consider alternate ways of seeing and understanding the world. Often these are not well-publicized but are quite coherent and "make sense".

So I don't have the answers. I think about these issues a lot but haven't reached any conclusions. But when I think about how I have come to change my mind on a number of the issues we've been talking about, it's unmistakably the writings and talks of others that have had the most awareness-raising effect on me. And so, for now, I take on the responsibility of sharing what I've discovered with others around me as much as I can. And start a conversation. If even 10% of Googlers start talking with each other, I'd say we'd come up with some pretty creative ideas as starting points.
In my five years at Google, I've made many attempts to talk about many of these issues with co-workers and friends at work and outside but have fallen short of my expectations. I'm leaving Google and this is a last-ditch attempt to try one more time. I'm just beginning to feel like we made a leap from a tone of denial and disagreement on this thread to one of acknowledgement that there are deep problems. It doesn't seem like we agree on the seriousness of the problems and their systemic nature but it's OK for now.

I can imagine a time in the near future when Google is a place where most everyone is excited about new possibilities. We'd be well informed and aware. We look forward to discussing the ideas that make sense to us even if they are very different from what we're used to. We'd look into how the Mondragon Corporation works and study it, take it apart, debate it and critique it. We'd feel no fear in discussing alternative worldviews including those of the indigenous peoples of the world who we seem to have written off ages ago. I see references to the "seventh generation" principle of the Native Americans more and more often these days. We'd be debating history and how it's been presented to us in schools. We'd ask who writes textbooks and who approves them. There would be a certain energy on all Google campuses worldwide where conversations like these are welcome and commonplace. 
Here's how I see it at the moment... of the 7 Billion people in the world, if I were to come up with a group of people that I can think of that have the potential to make significant change in the status quo, it would be the folks who work in technology. We live in a world defined by technology and we have the most potential to affect how it's used and deployed. Now, of all those who work in tech, I can't think of any sub-group with more smarts, power and potential than those who work at Google. What we do here literally affects everyone and everything. The technology sector looks up to us. And finally, I can think of only a handful of places that are best suited to start a conversation and eventually take it to the rest of the company. This group is my biggest hope. We owe it to ourselves and those who look up to us.

And as others have said romanticizing past life doesn't help either.
Average lifespan in the U.S. went from about 47 in 1900 to about 80
today.  Life today is no bed of roses but I think most people would be
willing to give up a lot in exchange for that longer lifespan.  And I
would guess that that is also true for most people in the developing
world today.

I suspect this is one of the more personal topics ever. Personally, I'd like to live as long as I possibly can but I'd rather live a higher quality life than a longer life. I suspect there are many who would say something similar. It's easy to measure life expectancy (and lifespan which is different) but hard to measure the quality of life or happiness. 
There's also no compelling reason to believe that it's either technology or anything we "invented" that's the sole cause of longer lifespans. From Wikipedia: In general, the available data indicate that longer lifespans became more common recently in human evolution.[23][24] This increased longevity is attributed by some writers to cultural adaptations rather than genetic evolution,[25] although some research indicates that during the Neolithic Revolution natural selection favored increased longevity.[12] Nevertheless, all researchers acknowledge the effect of cultural adaptations upon life expectancy.[24]
Another way to look at it is by examining the parallels to the green revolution. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers which came into increased usage after the second world war resulted in dramatic and immediate gains in yields. We no longer needed to farm the old way, and we didn't. Several decades later, we find that yields are falling. We hadn't really understood how things work and learned that indiscriminate spraying, mono-cultures and other modern practices (factory farming) weren't such a great idea after all for it left the soil depleted of the other vital nutrients that the plants needed and killed off the various other life forms that evolved symbiotically with those plants and helped them survive and flourish. A similar pattern repeated itself with bio-technology more recently although it didn't take nearly as long for us to start realizing it's a bad idea too. In both cases, we were arrogant and tried to trick nature without really understanding how things work. Speed (time to market), risk taking and a failure to apply the precautionary principle all come to mind. But then I diverge from the point I am trying to make. Is it possible that we humans are perhaps on a similar curve with lifespans? We were able to increase our lifespans with modern inventions like antibiotics over the past hundred or so years just like we increased crop yields? In both cases, control over nature was our guiding mantra. And perhaps the curve is peaking out just about now? In fact, a number of recent studies such as this one point to just such a trend. They're calling it "stagnation". The stagnation (or decline, in certain cases) happens to be more pronounced in the US, of all the developed countries. Is it any wonder considering we are quickest to deploy the most advanced healthcare technologies in the US compared to any other developed country? The pattern has taken longer to play out with humans because a human generation spans a longer time frame than that of a rice or wheat plant. I guess we don't have enough data yet to conclude what's going on but the trend is troubling. 
When we talk about lifespans, at some point, we'd enter the realms of philosophy, spirituality and religion. We start asking what death really means. And the meaning of life. Certain worldviews view death very differently from the contemporary western worldview. To a tribal person in the Amazon, death is nothing like what it is to most of us. We may not relate to a tribal person or his worldview very well but we'd need to go back only a few generations (a very small fraction of the time we've come to be defined as the species we are) before we'd find that we're not that dissimilar to our ancestors. And if we can't relate to a tribal person, perhaps we can try imagining what it must be like to be Alex Honnold, a young man from Sacramento, CA who climbs steep rock faces with no ropes (free soloing, as they call it). What's his idea of life and death? Would he feel less alive if he couldn't do his thing? How different is he from any of us? 
I think this is a bit more complicated than some of the other things we've been discussing. But it makes me a bit uncomfortable to hear I will get to live longer if I trade away a bunch of other things.
No one responded to my last comment above. They did give up on me! The day I left Google, I had one last message for them...
This thread has been quite interesting. There's a diversity of opinions and viewpoints and almost a clash of worldviews. We really talked about the "Big Picture" here. It does seem like my worldview isn't shared by very many people at Google, or at least in this mailing list.

We, however, share the same planet and really aren't that different from each other. I'd like to encourage everyone to think about the precautionary principle in the context of science and technology and their effects on the planet.

I'd like to think we will all take a moment to stop what we are busy doing, and reflect on where we stand on the long road of the ascent of humanity and what it means. There are plenty of canaries in the coalmine. We just need to pay attention. Personally, I didn't start paying attention to them until recently but I'm convinced now that their warnings are based on a strong foundation and not simply alarmist. This recent report from Stanford outlining the current scientific consensus sums it up well.
In closing, I have to say that although I disagree with most of what most of them had to say, I can see why they say that. I try to empathize with them if I succeed I understand where they're coming from because I wasn't too different from them a few years ago. Granted I will never understand the "plumbing is more important than clean water" thinking but most everything else makes sense when I try to step into their shoes. I used to walk in similar shoes before. We live in a world where Science and Technology are the new religion. And as far as organized religions goes, this modern religion is the most advanced of them all. I was schooled in it from a very young age and unbeknownst to me I imbibed its teachings. Manipulating nature for humanity's purposes (really only for a few human specimens) is a driving force in its development and spread to the far reaches of the planet, from the pueblos of Native Americans to the most conservative Hindu families of South India.

The twin Gods of Science and Technology have replaced our kinder, Earth-honoring worldviews of the past with one of control over nature and the environment to suit our needs and fancies. Unless enough of us question our current worldviews, the atrocities we perpetrate on the planet and other species will come back to haunt us. In fact, it's already happening. The human male is being feminized gradually. Industrial pollutants that we've been dumping into our water and air also find their way into our bodies and change us in unforeseen ways. Our bodies are part of our environment!

We need to wake up and realize that we're a part of our environment and not separate from it. Nature is not out to get us and we don't need to control it. If humanity survives this century, it will be because of a new set of worldviews.