Director of narrative, commercial, and virtual reality

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Project Greenlight finalist | Short about sex, death, existence, time

Lily in the Grinder

Shabbat Dinner

Comedy short about coming out | Featured in 55+ festivals

Search is Back

Featured on TechCrunch | 7k users per day

Global event handing out nametags on first Sat in June

Nametag Day

Uber Forecast

Tracking Uber's surge pricing to guess what the weather might be

Archive for February, 2011

Day one in Kakuma

Our new Executive Director and board just took a trip to Kenya, and it brought me back to the first time I visited Kakuma. I hear that some of the refugees recorded a video message for me and am excited to see it. “It will make you go kkkkk,” they said, which is Somali-text for lol. I can’t wait!

My field experience in Kenya was to conclude with a week in Kakuma, a camp in the North of Kenya that used to house primarily Sudanese refugees until the situation in that country stabilized a bit. It now holds thousands of Somalis as UNHCR struggles to deal with the flood of refugees fleeing that country.

My trip began haphazardly. You see, there are two modes in what I’d call Kenya Time: the see-what-happens-oh-well mode, which involved not really leaving much time for things and just hoping for the best, and the oh-crap-we-have-to-be-there-on-time mode, which involves leaving literally half a day for things that might take five minutes, to anticipate things like traffic jams, arrests, broken cars, dead cell phones, etc.

My first attempt, on a Monday, was on see-what-happens-oh-well time. I left for the airport 45 minutes before the time I was supposed to board the plane. I confidently asked for Jomo Kenyatta airport (that was the only airport name I knew,) and when we arrived said “oh no, we have to go to the back. The part where the private airplanes take off from.” There was no back, and we soon found out it was Wilson airport we were looking for. Oops. On Wednesday I left for the airport five hours before my flight was supposed to depart and had a good three hours of waiting in the terminal – much better. (Plus, I knew the name of the airport that time!)

Loki airport

The Loki airport. Kakuma is a 1.5-hr drive from here.

Upon exiting the plane I was immediately overwhelmed. The Turkana region, where Kakuma is located, is a starkly beautiful desert area that reminded me of a cross between Southern California and Sedona, Arizona. Conical mountains, perfect domes of huts, acacia trees and dried-up riverbeds punctuated miles of desert expanse. I did not notice, or chose to ignore, impoverished people with no shoes looking at us in our car with a quiet desperation.

Turkana

The Turkana region

My happiness grew when I arrived at the FilmAid office. A cohesive group with smiles on their faces welcomed me, including Kate, my friend from Nairobi. Tony, the Program Manager, held a meeting where we went around in a circle and each of us said where we were from and what we were doing.

Kate and Andrew

Kate and Andrew (introduced later)

We drove to what was to be my first night screening in a giant truck. Filled with boisterous camaraderie, I stared eyes agape at a blood orange sunset washing the camp. These people have jackets, shoes! They were driving motorcycles, looked well-fed! It was not the desperate desolation that had cut a memory into me in Dadaab.

Abech

Abech setting up, on top of the truck

Sunset. FAI.

Sunset. FAI.

At the screening, I spoke to Andrew, who told me he was a lost boy from Sudan and knew Valentino Achak Deng from “What is the What” and had still not found a copy of the book to read. He told me his story – how he lost his family, trekked alone with other boys across the Sudan; how he was supposed to go to the US with the other Lost Boys but couldn’t because the 9/11 bombings happened. He said “I’m 28 years old. If I were in your country I would have had several degrees by now. I want to be a journalist and here I am doing nothing.”

And it came crashing down. That veneer of joy, the kids who as we spoke were dancing around us to the pre-show reggae, the sunset that was still spewing bits of purple into a starry sky. A fucking deceit. And I looked at this alien world with new eyes, looked at the beauty through a screen of sadness.

Inside the truck

Inside the truck


Ready to screen

Ready to screen

The screening was a supreme event. We got on top of the truck and threw a screen down, set up a projector, and blasted some tunes to attract the dancing kids. Then we showed this huge audience some cartoons and several films about womens’ rights.

On our drive home the exhaustion of the days’ travel was setting in and I barely had the energy to speak. I tucked my malaria net into the corners of my bed and just eked out enough energy to set my alarm before I fell to the bed.

A peaceful Sudan awaits me in development.

A peaceful Sudan awaits me in development.

Towards a post-skills economy

I’ve been meaning to write these thoughts down for a few months now, but since today some of my ideas friends have called crazy and unrealistic are in the New York Times, I’ll get it out.

Now many of us can agree that Ray Kurzweil is a nut, but his singularity theory is singularly captivating. His first claim (and to me this is his real game changer) is that the progress of technology is exponential but we tend to think linearly, which at this stage in the technology growth curve means that advances two years away are literally unthinkable to most. Just as email on your phone, buying things over the Internet, and yes—a computer playing Jeopardy, were unthinkable until all of a sudden they were commonplace, contact lens computing will probably one day find the same how’d-that-happen adoption.

On his first point I overwhelmingly agree; his second might be a bit off. He says that within 30 years there will be no functional distinction between people and machines – we will be as much computer as a computer is constructed organically. You can debate the timescale or the end result, but it’s hard to debate the inevitable rise in artificial intelligence.

Computers are gaining, and slowly developing the ability to do what humans do. First they put telephone operators out of work, then all manner of salespeople. Techncal support is coming next. They even do advertising (Google lets you try many different versions of an adsense ad and automatically chooses the most successful, no intuition required.) As they grow in intelligence there is no theretical limit to how advanced of a job they can take, and computer labor will travel up the skills ladder, from data entry to doctor to receptionist.

There are plenty of critiques of this idea, none of which make sense. One is that computers are fundamentally incapable of making the kind of decisions we can make; in fact, their different approach to decision-making is not necessarily worse than ours and I think they’ll catch up with us in abstract thought.

Another critique is that our economy and labor force will restructure itself as it has always done in response to new technology – changes will represent opportunity and jobs managing computers and innovating. And I have two counters to this:

One, a blind faith in the ability of the economy to reconfigure itself neglects the scope and nature of this change. When a computer takes over an entire sector or industry, it replaces MANY more jobs than it creates. The technicians required to run Amazon.com and develop its software are far fewer than the salespeople who would previously have been needed to sell all those items.

Two, the jobs and opportunities created are all high level jobs that require education. When we replace many low-level jobs with just a few high-level jobs, we are cutting people out of the economy who simply do not have the intelligence or education to cope. The reason there have so far been so many low-level computing jobs available is because of inefficiencies and lack of intelligence in our software. Many computer related jobs involve primarily copying data from one excel sheet to another (LINK homer nuclear) or modifying one part of a website to reflect data available elsewhere – in other words jobs that, within one or two quantum leaps in artificial intelligence, will be gone.

(I often wonder if the 2008 market crash wasn’t the first great correction of this sort – caused by other factors but in the end a cleansing that brought businesses face to face with how fewer staff they really needed.)

So my big question is, what will this brave new economy look like? Will the collapse of the middle class continue along an education divide, with the only three groups being the jobless poor, wealthy computer scientists, and insanely wealthy owners of businesses? Will the only human-run business be the creation of art at places like Etsy?

I argue that because of these forces, Capitalism must be replaced with something else (though it has worked fairly well for so long.) A system orders of magnitude more stratiied than it is now, that allows 0.1% of the population to fly in private jets and 99.9% struggling for food, is untenable. It also would mean no customers for those super-businesses.

If this situation comes about, my thought is to first redefine how we see a corporation. Instead of being solely tools for profit by their owners, ownership would be much more fluid. Computing will allow us to redefine money and ownership in ways now difficult to imagine. For example, purchasing a cup of coffee could give a customer fractional ownership that diminishes over a period of time. In other words, we will be able to devise an alternative to our economic system that efficiently allocates for success of the right products and technologies and rewards innovators, but not at the price of the impoverishment of the world

Or maybe not. Every generation sees its salvation in future societal shifts, and so many have been wrong before. It’s beyond me to even say conclusively what I will eat for dinner tonight, and I’m certainly not qualified to predict the global economy.

Sent from my iPhone

Francis Ford Coppola on film

Thanks to Ted, and thanks to Francis for this interview.

One of the greats gives us a lesson in film you’d be unlikely to forget. His speech shows the same honest grace that his movies do, and that he claims to strive for at the end of the interview. A man constantly striving to find patience, honesty, and to learn is a man who has earned the right to be called great.