Bull Session

The Top Stories of 2015

December 17, 2015          

Episode Summary

This week, on The Digital Life we chat about the top science and technology stories of 2015.

From new net neutrality rules to evidence of flowing water on Mars, Amazon’s cut throat corporate culture to outrageous drug price increases, hacking exploits to genetically altered designer babies, we explore the biggest and most impactful news events of the year.

White House Approves Sanctions Against North Korea for Sony Hack
FCC Passes Net Neutrality Rules, Reclassifies Broadband as Utility
Working for Amazon Can Be Awful. Is It As Awful As the New York Times Says?
A Huge Overnight Increase in a Drug’s Price Raises Protests
NASA Scientists Find Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars
Chinese Experiment Which ‘Edits’ DNA of Human Embryos Ignites Ethical Controversy

Welcome to Episode 134 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey, Jon. How’s it going?

Pretty good. We’re wrapping up 2015, which is a surprise to me, because the year went by so quickly, but that seems to be the way things go now that I have kids. I blink and another year goes by. To get going with our retrospective of 2015, we’re going to do a couple of shows over the next few weeks, starting with this one, where we talk about some of the top science and technology stories of 2015 and reflect back on the year that went by in a blink.

Oh, it sounds great. It has gone by quickly, too. What stories have you picked up for us today, Jon?

If you remember, about 12 months ago, not quite, Sony was hacked by what was apparently a group that might have been associated with North Korea. It was supposedly in retribution for a movie called “The Interview,” in which North Korea’s leader was supposed to be assassinated as a part of this comedy, which of course, is palpably offensive for them, so you could see why they might take offense if they did or perhaps did not do this hack. It was very embarrassing for Sony and spilled a lot of their dirty laundry out for people to see.

As a result of that, the White House actually approved some sanctions against North Korea in a limited way, targeting some individuals and some groups out of North Korea. I think this was an important story for a couple of reasons. One of those was that the digital world is now a place where politics and, quote, “cyber warfare” and the meaning of those things online are in a way that we haven’t quite seen before and is now becoming more and more important as data becomes part of politics and warfare. I thought it was notable for that reason.

Dirk, what was your takeaway from the Sony hack, if anything?

Yeah, it was a huge example of the dangers that hacking can have on a corporation, because it was really detrimental to Sony. Sony’s been attacked in a lot of ways online over the last few years and this was the most public and embarrassing: salacious gossip about big celebrities was coming out as a result of this, because of the private slanders in email that Sony executives partook.

For me, this has a little bit of a personal connection, because of course, I went to North Korea this year. When I was there, my tour, I had both a tour guide and a political operative of the state, who were feeding me information as we were going around. The political operative, very interesting guy, but he made a point of saying, “This Sony hack is something that the United States says that North Korea did.” He said, “Look around, North Korea’s a little country, so little, so humble. Could we possibly have done this hack that the United States says we did?”

He said it and the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye communicated, “We hacked the shit out of you, but we’re going to deny it. It sure doesn’t look like we should be able to do that, does it?” When I think of the Sony hack, I think of that conversation.

That’s a really funny story. Along the same lines, another really important story from towards the end of the year was the group “Anonymous” declaring war on ISIS, online war, and just once again showing how the battle lines have moved to the world of the digital and how this is evolving very rapidly. It’s funny, all of this seems to be like something out of a William Gibson novel, frankly, which number one, makes Mr. Gibson look exceptionally pressing and, secondly, we can hope that some of the other things in his novels don’t come true.

The fact remains that the online world is exceedingly getting more conflicted and dangerous and fraught as it becomes a 21st century battleground. We discussed that Anonymous v ISIS at length in one of our podcasts. Did you have any thoughts on that?

Only that, as I mentioned, when it first happened, I was really excited about the potential Anonymous would have to contribute to undermining ISIS and prevent it from slaughtering innocent people. Your comments, that were more skeptical, as time passes, I’m becoming more skeptical, too. Maybe the impact of Anonymous, at least in ways that are portrayed by the media that we are given visibility into, certainly are less impactful than maybe I had hoped. For me, it’s been disappointing that the Anonymous war on ISIS hasn’t had more of an impact.

Yeah, I can see how that would be disappointing. Of course, we all would hope that the opposite would happen. Let’s shift a little bit to the United States and to one of our regulatory agencies, namely, the Federal Communications Commission, which passed the net neutrality rules. Of course, they’re being challenged in court as we speak and they reclassified broadband internet as a “utility,” which essentially means that you can’t restrict access to certain kinds of speech or entertainment or voices online and favor your trading partners over those you might be competing against.

This is a area that is still up for grabs and there’s all sorts of workarounds I’m sure the big cable companies and big internet companies will find ways to sneak their tamping down of broadband to their competitors.

Yeah, you’re getting throttled in ways you don’t know. Don’t kid yourself, you’re getting throttled big time.

It’s both a public and private battle, because there are the things that we see on the surface, which are through the media or when we know that we’re not getting what we’re paying for with our internet connection, which we probably notice just about every day. Then, there’s all the behind the scenes action, whether it’s on the political level, whether it’s on a industry level or even if it’s just industry trying to find new ways around the rules.

I think this is going to be an ongoing story. I think it’s an important one. The potential negative outcomes for this can be quite frightening, but I think we’re going to slowly slip down that slope where broadband gets capped by industry, based on whatever they want to do with that. I take it that’s your opinion as well.

I fear it. I’m hopeful that net neutrality wins out, but yeah, I’m always pessimistic about the government’s ability to limit corporations from decreasing the quality of our life in meaningful ways in exchange for unnecessary and stupid profits for that corporation.

Shifting to the world of public tech companies, there was a very damning expose in the New York Times on our friends there at Amazon and the working conditions, where white collar workers are subject to all sorts of pressure-cooker techniques to wring every last bit of productivity out of them and turn work/life balance on its head, so you are only an Amazon robot and doing the bidding of this large corporation.

It may not be a typical environment, but because the New York Times interviewed a hundred or so former Amazon and current Amazon employees and it received such high level of notice and was shared around the internet, I think in some respects, it was very much some negative PR for Amazon in a way that I’ve not seen before. It’s always interesting to reflect on the digital companies having such competitive environments and then, on the flip-side, the face of the company is quite different.

As I said, this is not unusual, but the depth and breadth of the investigation for Amazon made it notable in 2015. Dirk, any surprises there for you?

Surprises? No. In the high-tech space, Amazon being a bad actor as an employer is pretty well-known. I think where the real surprise in that story is is for the general public. Companies like Google and Apple are celebrated for being such wonderful employers. There’s a certain halo that that has put all over high-tech as, “Go into computer science. Go into something that has to do with these Silicon Valley technology companies,” and it’s going to just be this wild, fun, amazing ride all the time and that just isn’t the case.

Amazon is bringing to light the dark underbelly of the many technology companies that are not a haven to work in at all. They are similar to many other non-technology companies that are going to structure in a way that exploits their workforce to wring out the most profit. To me, the big thing about this story is that it brought that to light for the masses.

Yeah, I consulted with a friend of mine who is a former Amazon employee. He said, “Oh, they got it exactly right.” At least his experience was mirrored there in that article from the New York Times. We seem to be on a march through the stories of bad actors and capitalism, because the next story I wanted to highlight was the massive increase in pricing for a particular pharmaceutical, which was acquired, it was a drug called Daraprim. One day, it was $13.50 a tablet, you may remember this story, and the next day it was $750 a tablet, ostensibly to fund new research in the area.

Notably, the CEO of the company came from the financial sector and, in particular, from the hedge fund part of that sector. This caused all sorts of outrage, because I believe this drug was used in the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients and was seen as a stable old drug that was expected would be used as part of the treatment plans at all these hospitals. Overnight, they’re having to ration the tablets, because now they’re some incredible amount more to purchase them.

Unfortunately, it seems like 2015 has given us a lot of examples of capitalists behaving badly. What do you think?

I’ve been talking about it for 25 years. The world’s catching up, finally. Capitalism’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a destructive and I think, ultimately, self-annihilating organizing paradigm. I think, every day, we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it is something that people really question and its annihilation becomes a topic, instead of just being taken for granted as the correct and best way to organize a society.

Our last two top stories for 2015 come in the science category. The first one definitely makes my imagination go wild and that’s the fact that NASA discovered that there was evidence of flowing water, at one point, on Mars. For me, growing up with the space program in the 80’s and watching the space shuttle take off, my elementary school would stop all activities and we were all allowed to watch the launches on television. That had a big effect on my dreams of seeing humanity on other places than this planet, namely the moon and, of course, the next step being Mars.

I think if you’re from that science fiction/science and technology background, that was so heavily emphasized during the 80’s. This harkens back to that and makes you feel like anything is possible again. I know it’s just a simple archaeological discovery on Mars, but it is really exciting to me, personally.

Yeah, Jon, as you know, we didn’t discuss what we were going to talk about here before the show started, so as soon as you started talking about this, I went and retrieved on the internet one of my favorite poems from Percy Shelley that I think will communicate how I feel about this.

The poem is called “Ozymandias,” “I met a traveler from an antique land who said, ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stones stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cool command tell that its sculptor well those passion read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, the hand that mock them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal, these words appear. ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.'”

Something happened in Mars a long time ago. It’s long gone, I don’t care.

Yeah, all right. We’ll differ on that one, but I like the poem quite a bit. Our last and perhaps one of the most important stories of 2015 is about the genetic engineering and editing technique called “CRISPR/Cas9.” Earlier in the year, there was a Chinese experiment with human embryos to alter the DNA of human embryos. Now, these were non-viable embryos, but nonetheless, there was this ethical firestorm that these Chinese scientists had done this.

Just recently, the Center for Genetics and Society made a statement that basically said that human genome editing was crossing the line, in terms of using that scientific ability to pre-program children for their parents’ desirement and that the treatment of disease was acceptable, but the alteration of human beings and those changes that can be passed on generation by generation, that that was venturing into ethically difficult territory. This group of concerned scientists came out against that.

We are fully into the genetic engineering phase of human technology, albeit at the beginning of it, but we have stepped through that boundary and we’re now in some uncharted territory. I think that’s, both the Chinese experiment and the ethical controversy around it, and the fact that this is moving so quickly and society is definitely not ready to be absorbing this technology.

We talk about this all the time with our emerging tech discussions, but this is moving at a pace that even myself, as someone who’s familiar with it, I’m real startled by that. How about you, Dirk?

Yeah, the speed with which the modern emerging technologies have emerged and the impacts that they’re having on the world has been startling, as we rapidly change from a world of science fiction into science fact. I’ve said before, I think that a lot of the ethics questions have been asked and answered. When we’ve had the opportunity to augment ourselves, we’ve taken it: whether it be plastic surgery, whether it be the legs of Oscar Pistorius, whether it be a pacemaker or whether it be surgeries or medicines to get past diseases, I think it’s all asked and answered.

We’re going to be designing our babies, I think, in the very short future. Ask and answer, because when it comes down to, “Okay, this baby either could have hemophilia or could not have hemophilia,” there’s going to be no argument that that gene shouldn’t be mucked with to get rid of hemophilia. You might have the religious radicals who are arguing against it, but it’s ask and answer. We’re heading headlong into this world. We just need to strap in and get ready.

Listeners, we hope you enjoyed our picks for the top stories of 2015. If you’ve got your own ideas, please don’t hesitate to contact us on Twitter. Remember that, while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L on The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us on Twitter, I’m at jonfollett, that’s J-O-N, F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter at dknemeyer, that’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me, dirk@goinvo.com.

That’s it for Episode 134 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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