Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Problem of Attractiveness

The New Yorker recently ran an essay on the problem of female beauty:

The author, Adelle Waldman, points out how fiction tries to avoid a real examination of the issues:
"In a recent essay in New York, the novelist Lionel Shriver argued that “fiction writers’ biggest mistake is to create so many characters who are casually beautiful.” What this amounts to, in practice, is that many male characters have strikingly attractive female love interests who also possess a host of other characteristics that make them appealing. Their good looks are like a convenient afterthought.

This is, unfortunately, sentimental: how we wish life were, rather than how it is. It’s like creating a fictional world in which every deserving orphan ends up inheriting a fortune from a rich uncle. In life, beauty is rarely, if ever, just another quality that a woman possesses, like a knowledge of French. A woman’s beauty tends to play an instrumental role in the courtship process, and its impact rarely ends there."
I know a lot of young men, and it is absolutely the case that the first thing that a man considers when contemplating a woman, whether he admits it or not, is her attractiveness.  It doesn't even require that the man be interested in a relationship.  Economists have studied the optimal methods of raising money for charity by going door-to-door, and by a massive margin, the most effective strategy is to send attractive young women (preferably blonde) to do the fundraising.  Their advantage is almost entirely explained by the fact that the men they encounter are far more likely to donate, and to donate larger amounts of money.

I can come up with plenty of "scientific" explanations for this--from an evolutionary standpoint, youth and symmetry are good markers of both genetic quality and fertility--but the fact is that the power of attractiveness is a dangerous thing in the modern world.

Our society's obsession with appearance has gone far beyond any practical bounds.  Attractive people earn more money and are more likely to achieve positions of leadership than those of equal or greater competence who didn't win the "mirror lottery."  Men who choose mates based on appearance are likely to make poor choices.  As a sports fan, the tendency of wealthy athletes to marry relatively unintelligent Playboy Playmates is both real and depressing (such marriages are often followed my messy divorces and underperformance on the playing field).

I'm not going to tilt at windmills and try to overcome millions of years of evolution.  I'll just point out to my readers that the beauty bias is very real, and affects all of us, even if we're not conscious of its effects.  Any time you're dealing with someone of exceptional beauty, it's worth closing your dropped jaw, averting your eyes, and taking a few moments to consider how your judgment might have been compromised.

San Francisco's New (Old) Entrepreneurial Culture

I read Nathan Heller's latest New Yorker piece, "Bay Watched," with great interest:

Heller writes about the "new" entrepreneurial culture of San Francisco, incorporating interviews with friends like Ben Casnocha, Tyler Willis, Hunter Walk, and more.  Heller, who grew up in San Francisco, returns to his home town to examine the results of the recent tech boom:

"This braiding of tech-business growth with life-style values and aesthetics—and, from there, the world of art—creeps many people out. Creative enclaves are traditionally thought to arise at the quaky hands of aloof ironists; investment funds, we know, do not actually “stand for” anything except being good investment funds. Why, then, did Johnny Hwin speak so volubly about how his business interests, his life style, and his art helped one another? To him, it wasn’t a puzzle. He was into “creative, mindful living” in part because it helped his business interests. His business interests helped bring people together around underground art. In the process, influential art-and-business people were exposed to creative, mindful living."
I'm conflicted about the piece, and not just because I was considered too old and suburban to be interviewed for it.

I'm excited by the fact that entrepreneurship is becoming more appealing.  If there's anything this world almost always needs, it's more entrepreneurs.

The description of the startup life, complete with Lyft cars and endless apps is cringe-inducingly "hip."  It seems almost inevitable to me that pop culture will turn on us, much like it turned on the Brooklyn/Portland hipster.

I love the fact that entrepreneurs are starting to live holistic lives, rather than spending every waking money obsessed with making money.

Did Heller really have to use quotes like this?  “It’s much more a campaign-based model, where you’re going to crush it for a few years and then be absent for a while,” Bahat said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called a C.E.O., and it’s like, ‘I’m at a meditation retreat!’ or ‘I’m tied up for the next three months!’”

Side note: If I never hear someone say that they're "crushing it" or "killing it," again, I would be incredibly happy.

The funny thing is, all of this has happened before, and will likely happen again.  The startup frenzy and countercultural flavor have been part of the Silicon Valley story since the 1960s, though it has ebbed and flowed with the economic times.  Apple begat Netscape begat Google begat Facebook begat Instagram.  Heck, back in 1999, *I* was one of those cringe-inducing douchebags.

But that's what worries me most.  Articles like this are the surest sign that the metaphorical cops are about to shut down the party.  Our government is getting ready to default on its debts, the President of the United States had to kowtow to Russia on foreign policy, and yet here in the Valley's bubble, no one seems to notice.

What goes up, must come down.  I just hope that today's "ballers" remember to act with humility and respect; people's memories last longer than the business cycle.

Stop Shooting The Messenger, Silicon Valley

On Sunday, I weighed in on the Twitter board controversy:

My argument then was that there is a dangerous tendency on the part of Silicon Valley's power players to think that those who have achieved less than they (read: everyone) don't have the right to criticize them.

Then I read an editorial by Pando Daily CEO Sarah Lacy, which reminded me that there is an even more dangerous tendency:

Here in Silicon Valley, despite all our claims of enlightened debate and open-mindedness, we have a strong tendency to shoot the messenger.  Far too often, we try to refute potentially valid criticism by attacking the character and credibility of the critic, rather than his or her ideas.

Take Lacy's editorial.  I'll go point by point:

1. "Twitter’s female “problem” — This is why mobs don’t appoint public company boards"

I get that Lacy feels that the criticism of Twitter is unjustified (and as I pointed out in my post, Wadhwa's language was clearly inflammatory).  But using the word "mobs" is also inflammatory.

2. "It’s not a surprise that many of the people complaining are the people who literally wake up everyday looking for a women’s issue to be outraged about. Don’t take it from me. When they invariably slam this piece, go look at their Twitter feeds."

The argument at work here is that we shouldn't listen to complainers who repeatedly raise the same issue.  It strikes me that this is a dangerous argument, considering it has also been used to support opposition to gay marriage, civil rights, and numerous other worthy issues.

3. "Vivek Wadhwa has been banging this drum for a while, delighted that it gets so much attention."

This argument may very well be true, but I don't see how his motivation is relevant to the validity or lack thereof of his criticisms.

4. "I finally had to block him on social media, because I found his continual comments about gender so offensive. Particularly one Twitter screed that said I only successfully raised venture capital for Pando because of how I look and who I know."

I haven't followed the controversy, but if Wadhwa did this, his actions were reprehensible.  And yet it has no relevance to the validity of his criticism.

5. "See, people whose media attention or careers live or die by banging the SEXISM! drum don’t know what to do when they encounter examples of women who have raised funding and started companies and seem to be doing okay as women in the Valley."

Another attack based on motivations which both denigrates the critics and has no relevance to the validity of that criticism.

6. "These people can’t be happy that there are many signs things are starting to change in the startup world. And as a woman in this industry, I’m sickened by the leagues of people twisting facts and jumping on convenient bandwagons to further their own careers and stay relevant, while doing nothing themselves to create jobs and opportunities for women. That isn’t the progress for women that we need."

I'm very sympathetic to this argument, because it truly is hypocritical to profit from one's criticism without actually helping the cause you're espousing.  But I'm still waiting to hear how the facts were twisted in the case of Twitter.

7. "There is still progress to be made, but quotas and witch hunts don’t solve the problem. And, frankly, I feel like having to work hard to prove myself made me more resilient and more successful. I do my best work when everyone expects me to fail. I’ve been doing it my whole career."

This is a particularly interesting argument.  First, Lacy acknowledges the presence of sexism. Then, she argues that quotas and witch hunts don't solve the problem.  This is a classic use of a straw man, and includes a presumption that the criticism is a "witch hunt" (i.e. invalid and irrational).  Then she notes that struggling against sexism helped her to do better work.  That's a double reversal/inconsistency in a single paragraph.

8. "Male, female, immigrant, or minority: Building a company is brutal. White men fail all the time if they have a bad idea or execution."

Very true.  But saying that white men can fail is not the same thing as saying that there is a level playing field.

9. "Sure there are people in Silicon Valley (and everywhere) who get jobs or funded or board seats because they are connected, shared a dormroom with someone, or have some cozy personal advantage. But ultimately, it’s a put-up-or-shut-up world here. The ones who make it long term are the ones who earn a seat at the table. Not the ones who get a seat handily doled out to them for an arbitrary reason."

This is a great example of Silicon Valley's self-perception as the ultimate meritocracy.  But once again, it is a straw man argument.  The implication is that appointing a woman to the Twitter board because of her gender is arbitrary (rather than, say, providing an important perspective for a service whose most active users are female, or as a reflection of a particular woman's successful work history and unique experiences).

The broader subject of affirmative action is a touchy one in general.  I have felt its sting myself--few people bother to discriminate in favor of Asian Americans, who have to clear far higher bars for college admission than whites or other minorities.

Yet attacking gender bias via policy (including quotas) works.  Countries like Norway, Spain, and France have already instituted quotas for female board members, without appreciable negative effects.  In Sweden, 36% of CEOs and 45% of parliament members are women.  This reflects concerted policy efforts, not some unique quality limited to Swedish women:

10. "Note, these women aren’t the ones waking up everyday and trying to manufacture some new feminist outrage. They are simply working hard to lead by example and “change the ratio” by actually building companies and hire diverse and qualified senior teams in their image.  That’s how we make progress as women, or any minority. By actually making it, not just whining about why others don’t do it for us."

Lacy's argument is that the best way to make change is to avoid talking about it, and simply do it.  I'm sympathetic to calls for action, rather than simply talking about it, but I still find this paragraph problematic.  Using the phrase "manufacture some new feminist outrage" strikes me as assuming that a) feminist is some kind of insult, and b) feminist criticisms are "manufactured."  Further, by arguing that protest is "whining about why others don't do it for us," Lacy characterizes public criticism as childish and impotent.

I always like to reframe statements, so let's pretend that this paragraph was written 50 years ago:

"Note, these women Negroes aren’t the ones waking up everyday and trying to manufacture some new feminist Civil Rights outrage. They are simply working hard to lead by example and “change the ratio” by actually building companies and hire diverse and qualified senior teams in their image.  That’s how we make progress as women Negroes, or any minority. By actually making it, not just whining about why others don’t do it for us."

This is an extreme technique.  I'm definitely not trying to portray Lacy as a segregationist apologist.  In the realm of the long (and still ongoing) struggle for African American equality, there were many leaders who took many different approaches.  Booker T. Washington, for example, publicly advised against challenging segregation (though he secretly supported court challenges to it):

But the fact is, Lacy's recommended approach isn't the only way.  And when the establishment controls the levers of power (be it the law or venture capital dollars), minorities often succeed in making change by protesting and changing the minds of the majority, as in women's suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, and many other issues throughout the history of this country.

The bottom line is that in attacking Vivek Wadhwa for twisting facts and ginning up controversy, Sarah Lacy herself fails to attack substance of his criticism, and uses emotional arguments rather than the reason she says she prefers.

I can understand her feelings, especially if Wadhwa's past writings about her were as unfair and insulting as they sound from her description.  But in the battle of ideas, the right and fair way to participate is to focus on the evidence for and against those ideas, rather than attacking the participants' motivations and character.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Hidden Assumptions That Neuter Criticism in Silicon Valley

The contretemps of the day comes courtesy of TechCrunch, where Professor Vivek Wadhwa has published a guest post addressing a Twitter debate he had with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo (now how's that for meta?):

The controversy began with a quote that Wadhwa provided to the New York Times for a story on sexism in Silicon Valley:
"This is the elite arrogance of the Silicon Valley mafia, the Twitter mafia.  It's the same male chauvinistic thinking. The fact that they went to the I.P.O. without a single woman on the board, how dare they?"
Clearly stung, Costolo responded on Twitter:
"Vivek Wadhwa is the Carrot Top of academic sources."
More substantively, Costolo's argument was that simply applying a gender quota to management was a "check the box" approach that failed to address the deeper issues.  Wadhwa's response was that leading companies needed to take the lead in addressing those issues in a visible way.

I have a lot of respect for both Costolo and Wadhwa; Costolo has done a great job of leading Twitter to its IPO, while Wadhwa has done valuable work in exposing the racism, sexism, and ageism of Silicon Valley.  As a result, I feel like their exchange is a great illustration of some of the hidden problems that afflict criticism in Silicon Valley.

1) Lack of nuance.
As I've pointed out in the past, 140 characters doesn't allow for nuance. Twitter is a medium designed for outrage, not reasoned discourse. Clearly Costolo was angered by Wadhwa's NYTimes quote (which, in my opinion, was over the top--more on that later) and fired off an ad hominem attack ("the Carrot Top of academic sources") without thinking.  The two then proceeded to talk past each other for the rest of the day.

2) Taking things personally.
Wadhwa's NYTimes quote seemed designed to provoke. His words took a legitimate point (shouldn't Twitter have a female board member or senior manager) and turned it into an attack (arrogance, chauvinistic, how dare they?).  Costolo would have been wiser to take the high road; instead, he fired back in kind by attacking Wadhwa's reputation, rather than his argument.

3) Airing dirty laundry in public.
In the old days, the idea of the CEO of a soon-to-be public company trading insults in public with a respected academic would be unthinkable.  Welcome to the Twitter era!

4) Making achievement the only source of credibility.
One of the most pernicious things about Silicon Valley is the tendency to act as though critics ought not be allowed to criticize those who have achieved more than they.  This flows from the top (think of the contempt with which Steve Jobs treated the press) and is deeply embedded in culture of the Valley.

It's true that journalists aren't as experienced in the ways of building billion-dollar companies, but they are intelligent and skilled writers.  Moreover, attacking them based on their lack of experience is a convenient way to ignore the validity of their ideas.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the only people allowed to criticize Twitter would be folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.  That's insane on the face of it, but that is the crux of the "what does he/she know?" argument.  The only people allowed to criticize the powerful are the equivalently powerful.  Convenient for the powerful, not so much for the rest of us.

In the end, this controversy, like so many others, will blow over and be forgotten.  But I hope that by highlighting some of the hidden assumptions that you and I are making, this post will make you more mindful in the future.