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April 23, 2019
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Douglas Rushkoff on “Team Human” and fighting for our place in the future

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The ethics of technology is not a competition. But if aliens happened to descend upon our planet right this moment, Arrival-style, demanding to speak with our top tech ethicist, Douglas Rushkoff would be a reasonable option.

Rushkoff — a prolific writer, broadcaster, and filmmaker once named by MIT as “one of the world’s ten leading intellectuals,” recently published a new book, Team Human, that certainly would be a strong contender for tech ethics ‘book of the year’ thus far. Team Human is both an intellectual history of the technologies (including social technologies) of the past millennium or two and an effective rallying cry for humanity at a time when many of us have rightly become far too cynical to stomach most rallying cries on most topics.

Douglas Rushkoff

If nothing else, you’ll see below that Rushkoff wins, hands down, the competition for most Biblical references in one of my TechCrunch interviews thus far. He ends our conversation, however, echoing Felix Adler, the late 19th-century founder of the Ethical Culture movement — Adler, like me, was essentially secular clergy — who famously said, “the place where people meet to seek the highest is holy ground.”

I don’t know if readers of this piece will have a transcendent experience reading it, secular or otherwise, but if you want to spend meaningful time with one of the world’s greatest living thinkers on technology and ethics, please proceed below.

Table of Contents

  1. “Celebration of being human”

  2. The collective human agenda

  3. Algorithms and creativity

  4. Fear, the past and pushing forward

  5. Capitalism, UBI and future order

Reading time for this article is 24 minutes (6,050 words)


“Celebration of being human”

Greg Epstein: I loved Team Human and I’m excited for TechCrunch readers to learn about it. First, how would you summarize the argument?

Douglas Rushkoff: I see [the book] less as an argument than as an experience. I’m from this old fashioned author community that thinks of books less as about whatever data or information might be in them and more about what happens to you. A book is almost more like a poem or a piece of art, or a movie that takes you through an experience. The experience I’m trying to convey is celebration of being human. To reacquaint people with their essential human dignity.

But really, the book is arguing we too easily reverse the figure and ground between us and our tools, or us and our institutions. Then we end up trying to conform to them rather than have them serve us. This time out, it might be particularly dangerous since we’re empowering technologies with the ability to search out and leverage human exploits. These are powerful tools. It’s not just some advertising agency trying something and then retooling every quarter. It’s algorithms trying things and retooling in real-time to activate our brainstem and thwart our higher processes.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui is battling the US college financial aid system

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Tunisian human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui couldn’t go to college.

Not because she couldn’t afford it; where she comes from, college is virtually free. She lost the opportunity to pursue higher education, to finish high school, even, when she was exiled from Tunisia at age 17, under the repressive regime of the country’s former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

As part of the Tunisian human rights diaspora, she was inspired to build Al Bawsala, a globally renowned NGO that fights for government accountability, transparency and access to information. Now, Yahyaoui has traveled thousands of miles to San Francisco to fight another battle near and dear to her heart: civic education, or in Silicon Valley terms, edtech.

“I always knew that I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else before solving the problem in my country and today, Tunisia is the only Arab democracy in the world,” Yahyaoui told TechCrunch.

With that in mind, her focus has shifted to Mos, a tech-enabled platform for students to apply for financial aid. With backing from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, his startup studio Expa, Kleiner Perkins chairman John Doerr, Base Ventures, Sweet Capital and others, Mos has closed a $4 million seed round and plans to take its recently-launched product to the next level.

The startup seeks to decrease American student debt, which totaled nearly $1.6 trillion in 2018, and digitize the antiquated government systems that deter students from applying for financial aid. For a one-time fee of $149 and about 20 minutes of their time, Mos helps students of all backgrounds maximize their aid awards.

“Our mission is to bridge the gap between citizens and government in a way that works with technology today,” Yahyaoui said.

Yahyaoui is applying what she’s learned building a government-fighting NGO to the startup world, and with the support of top-tier investors, she’s well on her way to proving an “uneducated” immigrant woman of color can write a Silicon Valley success story for the masses.

A face of the Arab Spring

Mos founder and chief executive officer Amira Yahyaoui.

After being forced out of her home country, Yahyaoui fled to France, where she lived as an illegal immigrant and continued to fight against Tunisia’s authoritarian leadership through her blog and an anti-censorship campaign she started online.

When social media sparked anti-government protests across the Middle East, Yahyaoui, still unable to reenter Tunisia, became a face of what was later called the Arab Spring. Her digital prowess, activist reputation and persistent efforts to highlight the Tunisian administration’s human rights abuses quickly made her a face of the movement.

On January 14, 2011, when the protests succeeded in making Tunisia a pioneer of Arab democracy and ended Ben Ali’s reign, Yahyaoi got her passport back and went home, immediately.

Back in Tunisia with newfound freedom, she had an agenda: To hold the governing agency charged with writing a new Tunisian constitution accountable.

Yahyaoui built Al Bawsala, translated as The Compass, an NGO focused on transparency and government accountability. Al Bawsala became one of the largest NGOs in the Middle East, a bona fide success that attracted numerous awards and cemented Yahyaoui’s status as a fearless advocate for human rights, a freedom fighter and one of the most influential Arab women in the world.

“I had to work probably 10 times harder to get to be the self-educated me I am today,” she said. “I saw way too many people getting their education refused and therefore their future ruined.”

Her global standing earned her a seat on the board of the United Nation’s High Commissioner For Refugees Advisory Group on Gender, Forced Displacement, and Protection, as well as the title of Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the Davos Conference in 2016, a title she shard with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and GM’s Mary Barra .

Three years later, with a resume enviable to any dignitary, Yahyaoui is leveraging her unique experience to lure in venture capitalists and use their cash for good.

Repairing a broken financial aid system

The Mos dashboard.

Mos is like if Turbo Tax married Typeform and had a baby, Yahyaoui explained. Not dissimilar to Common App, Mos lets students apply to more than 500 federal and state-based aid programs in minutes using a survey that matches them to every grant and scholarship program they qualify for, while simultaneously completing the FAFSA and state aid applications. To ensure every family is getting the most financial support possible, a Mos financial aid advisor reviews each case and negotiates with colleges for higher awards.

“Today, the biggest problem is people think they are not eligible for financial aid just because of how the thing is designed,” Yahyaoui said. “You’re supposed to just go ahead and fill a form that has 200 questions and then send it like a bottle in the sea and wait for months.”

Mos will complete a full-scale launch this summer and eventually tackle other nation’s college financial aid systems thanks to the new infusion of capital and the high-profile relationships Yahyaoui has forged in just one year living in the Bay Area.

Ultimately, it was Yahyaoui’s activism that granted her a ticket into the opaque world of Silicon Valley VC. As it turns out, angel investor Khaled Helioui, a fellow Tunisian immigrant in tech, was familiar with Yahyaoui’s work and when he heard she had relocated to the Bay Area to launch a technology startup, he wanted to know exactly what she was building. Today, he’s a Mos investor and board member and it was his introductions that helped Yahyaoui quickly and skillfully close her seed round.

An early angel investor in Uber, Helioui connected Yahyaoui with his friend Garrett Camp, the very wealthy co-founder and chairman of the ride-hailing giant, who was sold on Mos’s mission right off the bat.

“I think because Garrett is an immigrant, he knows what it is to suffer with bureaucracy,” Yahyaoui said. “He was a huge believer. He actually made it so easy for me because he said, okay, here’s an office, just stay and work.”

She was then introduced to John Doerr, the chairman of the esteemed VC firm Kleiner Perkins, known for his successful bets on companies like Google and Amazon. With Camp and Doerr on board, Mos didn’t struggle to raise additional capital; in fact, Yahyaoui was in an unusual position of being able to reject investors whose values and vision for Mos clearly didn’t align with hers.

Tearing down barriers

Yahyaoui, center, with the Mos team in San Francisco.

Yahyaoui isn’t in the startup business to get rich off students trying to navigate their way through the absorbently expensive process of applying to and attending college. She’s part of a growing class of founders out to prove that you can pair profits with good morals and lead venture-backed values-based businesses.

“I know if I created the same thing as an NGO, I could have already raised $100 million, but I like the accountability of business,” she said. “We can create businesses that are good for people.”

Yahyaoui’s story, from being exiled from her home country at a young age to fighting an authoritarian regime is not one that’s ever been told before in Silicon Valley.

In addition to being a trailblazing human rights advocate, she’s a woman, an immigrant, “uneducated” by Silicon Valley standards and a first-time tech founder that was able to walk into a meeting with John Doerr and walk out with a term sheet.

If she’s successful in building a global edtech business, she’ll be emblematic of the meritocratic culture The Valley has falsely claimed to uphold. Even if she’s not successful, she’ll have torn down barriers for other underrepresented founders and written a success story fitting for this new era of accountability in tech.

News Source = techcrunch.com

LEGO launches the Education Spike STEAM system for grades 6-8

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At an education event in New York today, LEGO announced the launch of Education Spike. The company’s latest STEAM offering is designed for use in classroom settings — specifically grades sixth through eight (~ages 11 to 14).

The kits combine LEGO bricks with sensors, motors and the “Prime Hub.” In spite of title that sounds like it was created by an Amazon name generator, the product is essentially the working “brain” of all Spike creations.

It features a 100MHz processor, accelerometer, gyroscope, speaker, display and six input/output ports. The system is controlled on a mobile device via an app, which also features a number of 45 minute lessons to get students started and help them design programs using Scratch.

“We are seeing a challenge globally in middle school children, typically aged 11 – 14,” LEGO Education head Esben Stærk Jørgensen said in a release tied to the news. “At that age, children start losing their confidence in learning. The Confidence Poll data shows that most students say if they failed at something once, they don’t want to try again. With Spike Prime and the lessons featured in the SPIKE app, these children will be inspired to experiment with different solutions, try new things and ultimately become more confident learners.”

lego spike prime hopper raceThe system is available for pre-order starting today. It starts shipping in August.

News Source = techcrunch.com

LittleBits and Disney launch Snap the Gap to teach girls STEM

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LittleBits, Disney and UC Davis announced this morning that they’ve joined forces for the launch of Snap the Gap. The program is designed to give girls a jumpstart into the ever-important world of STEM learning with an online program, littleBits starter pack and a one-year mentorship with a STEM professional.

Snap the Gap will begin as a one-year pilot program, focused on 15,000 10-year-old girls based in California. Participant and mentor recruitment will be managed by UC Davis, the school behind the California Million Women Mentors program.

The program certainly makes sense for the New York-based littleBits. The startup has long been focused on hooking young minds on STEM, both in and out of the classroom. “It was always part of littleBits’ mission to inspire more girls to get into STEM,” CEO Ayah Bdeir tells TechCrunch. “We’ve had lots of initiatives leading to it, but this is the biggest and boldest thing that we’ve done.”

Disney, meanwhile, has been a partner with littleBits since 2016, when the startup joined its tech accelerator. The move has resulted in a number of branded kits featuring IP like The Avengers and Star Wars. Ultimately, however, littleBits was forced to scale back that licensing in order to focus on its educational initiatives.

A wide-scale program like Snap the Gap, however, will afford the company the ability to continue appealing to young minds outside of the classroom. After the first year, the program will expand beyond California.

“Our goal is to add five new states every year, so that we can reach all of the United States by 2023,” Bdeir explains.

Those interested in participating as student or mentor should check out the official Snap the Gap site.

News Source = techcrunch.com

This YC-backed startup preps Chinese students for US data jobs

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In recent years, data analysts have gone from optional to a career that holds great promise, but demand for quantitative skills applied in business decisions has raced ahead of supply as college curriculum often lags behind the fast-changing workplace.

CareerTu, a New York-based startup launched by Ruiwan Xu, a former marketing manager at Amazon, aims to close that talent gap. Think of it as Codecademy for digital marketing, data analytics, product design and a whole lot of other jobs that ask one to spot patterns from a sea of data that can potentially boost business efficiency. The six-year-old profitable business runs a flourishing community of 160,000 users and 500 recruiting partners that help students land jobs at Amazon, Google, Alibaba and the likes, an achievement that has secured the startup a spot at Y Combinator’s latest batch plus a $150,000 check from the Mountain View-based accelerator.

In a way, CareerTu is helping fledgling tech startups on a tight budget train ready-to-use data experts. “American companies have a huge demand for digital marketing and data talents these days … but not all of them want to or can spend money on training, and that’s where we can come in,” said Xu, who made her way into Amazon after burying herself in online tutorials about digital marketing.

The gig was well paid, and Xu felt the urge to share her experience with people like her — Chinese workers and students seeking data jobs in the U.S. She took up blogging, and eventually grew it into an online school. CareerTu offers many of its classes for free while sets aside a handful of premium content for a fee. 6,000 of its users are actively paying, which translates to some $500,000 in revenue last year. The virtual academy continues to blossom as many students return to become mentors, helping their Chinese peers to chase the American dream.

CareerTu

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham (second left) with CareerTu founder Ruiwan Xu (second right) and her team members / Photo: CareerTu

Securing a job in the U.S. could be a daunting task for international students, who must convince employers to invest the time and money in getting them a work visa. But when it comes to courting scare data talents, the visa trap becomes less relevant.

“Companies could have hired locals to do data work, but it’s very difficult to find the right candidate,” suggested Xu. LinkedIn estimated that in 2018 the U.S. had a shortage of more than 150,000 people with “data science skills,” which find application not just in tech but also traditional sectors like finance and logistics.

“Nationalities don’t matter in this case,” Xu continued. “Employers will happily apply a work visa or even a green card for the right candidate who can help them save money on marketing campaigns. And many Chinese people happen to have a really strong background in data and mathematics.”

A Chinese business in the US

Though most of CareerTu’s users live in the U.S., the business is largely built upon WeChat, Tencent’s messaging app ubiquitous among Chinese users. That CareerTu sticks to WeChat for content marketing, user acquisition and tutoring is telling of the super app’s user stickiness and how overseas Chinese are helping to extend its global footprint.

And it makes increasing sense to keep CareerTu within the WeChat ecosystem after Xu noticed a surge in inquiries coming from her homeland. In 2018, only 5 percent of CareerTu’s users were living in China, many of whom were export sellers on Amazon. By early 2019, the ratio has shot up to 12 percent.

Xu believes there are two forces at work. For one, Chinese exporters are leaving Amazon to set up independent ecommerce sites, efforts that are in part enabled by Shopify’s entry into China in 2018. The alternative path provides merchants more control over branding, margins and access to customer insights. Breaking up with the ecommerce titan, on the other hand, requires Chinese sellers to get savvier at reaching foreign shoppers, expertise that CareerTu prides itself on.

careertu

CareerTu offers online courses via WeChat / Photo: CareerTu

Next door, large Chinese tech firms are increasingly turning abroad to fuel growth. Bytedance is possibly the most aggressive adventurer among its peers in recent years, buying up media startups around the world including Musical.ly, which would later merge with TikTok. Indeed, some of CareerTu’s recent grads have gone on to work at the popular video app. Rising interest from China eventually paved Xu’s way home as she recently set up her first Chinese office in her hometown Chengdu, the laid-back city known for its panda parks and witnessing a tech boom.

Just as foreign companies need crash courses on WeChat before entering China, Chinese firms going global must familiarize themselves with the marketing mechanisms of Facebook and Google despite China’s ban on the social network and search engine.

When American companies growth hack, they make long-term plans that involve “model building, A/B testing, and making discoveries from big data,” observed Xu. By comparison, Chinese companies fighting in a more competitive landscape are more agile and opportunist as they don’t have the time to ponder or test out the different variants in a campaign.

“Going abroad is a great thing for Chinese companies because it sets them against their American counterparts,” said Xu. “We are teaching Chinese the western way, but we are also learning the Chinese way of marketing from players like Bytedance. I’m excited to see in a few years whether any of these Chinese companies abroad will become a local favorite.”

Update (March 18, 2019, 7:00 AM): Added details of CareerTu’s partners and corrected spelling of Ruiwan Xu’s name.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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