Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: 'The Know-It-Alls' by Noam Cohen


Why we need artificial intelligence

So Silicon Valley moguls are essentially all privileged white male superegos, living the life of racism, sexism and ageism, and of course, obscene wealth. This is not news, but Noam Cohen has put together an alternate history of the computer era, bent at this angle. It makes for uncomfortable reading, meaning, it’s effective.

The main locus is Stanford University, which turned itself into an industry-promoting school in the 1930s as a way of differentiating itself. It began with Hewlett-Packard, which paid off big for the university, and it has never looked back. Venture capitalists prowl the campus, hiring students, handing out checks for ideas and helping with business plans for a large piece of the action. Students quit early to go into well-funded startups. The school takes only the highest scorers, because that’s all that matters. Interviews are based on intelligence quizzes and games, not personalities or values. And the old boys’ network means once you’re in, the offers keep coming. For life. (Everyone else is over the hill by age 32).

The chapters are biographies, showing the growth of greed and power and arrogance of each person. A couple of them are really quite revolting, but probably no more so than in any group of people. What Cohen posits they have in common is that their money and power make them know-it-alls, with outsized influence and voices. They try to make up for it with ill-conceived plans like Zuckerberg’s misguided donation to education in Newark, or Gates’ donations to eradicate polio – at the expense of progress against anything else. They see themselves at the front of the line because of their money, so what they say goes.

Then they can spout crackpot concepts like you are your own startup of one, and the poor will be uplifted if only they had access to facebook, and India was better off as a British colony. They fling their wisdom without concern, because their success makes them right. It is not a pleasant scenario.

Cohen thinks people should be uplifted by people, by actual contact and relations, and that government’s purpose is to facilitate, promote and enable such qualities of life. The moguls often felt the same way - until the first check came in.



Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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