Real Diversity

Google is a pretty big deal.  They hire cool people, they make cool stuff, and they’re arguably the world’s most valuable company.  I’ve been studying Google closely for over a decade and one of their most impressive assets has always been their organizational culture.

Recently, a Google engineer wrote a 10 page memo outlining his thoughts on diversity in tech.  Coverage of this memo made it to the front page of just about every major news feed and the  loudest commentary has been pretty one-sided… something to the effect of ‘how dare he?’

After I read the first article referencing the memo, I got the gist of what was going on.  A male employee said some things which suggested that men are better suited to work in tech than women.  Then I read a few of the comments after the article and got the gist of what was going on there too… men and women are equal in every way and to suggest otherwise is offensive, immoral, and shows a lack of empathy and understanding for the systematic oppression that white men have put on all other minorities since forever.

Oy.

Recently, a well-known tennis legend suggested that Serena Williams was the greatest female player of all time.  Then he was asked why not the greatest of all time instead of the greatest female player of all time?  To which he responded by saying that she wouldn’t do nearly as well on the men’s circuit.  I thought that was a fair and accurate understanding of the situation and by no means diminished Serena’s legacy.  I think it’s also fair and reasonable that in order to claim the title of greatest tennis player ever, you’d have to be willing to compete against the best tennis players – regardless of their gender.

This all seemed pretty straight forward to me.  Men and women have evolved differently over the millennia and while women became better equipped to care for the family, men became better equipped for the role of hunting and gathering.  The evolutionary advantages which men have acquired tend to make us better athletes thus providing an inherent advantage when competing in sports.  If that’s true, is possible that other evolutionary differences exist between men and women?

One of my biggest struggles with romantic relationships when I was younger was that I expected the other person in the relationships to see and understand the world like I did.  Eventually I was given that book about women being from Venus and men being from Mars.  While I didn’t read it, hearing a few passages was enough to help me understand that men and women are wired differently and that it was important to keep those differences in mind.  While I think the most significant differences come down to the people themselves, the most consistent pattern I’ve seen in the difference between men and women is that men tend to lean towards logic while women tend to lean towards emotion.  If that’s true, wouldn’t men – on average – be better suited towards jobs that relied heavily on logic skills?

In the pursuit of understanding, I asked two of the most intelligent feminists I know about evolutionary adaptation giving men the abilities to do certain tasks better than women.  One said that she didn’t want to get into it because it was too much emotional labor.  The other was offended by the idea and then said that she was too reactive to have the conversation. Ironically, in the second instance a nearby cardiologist chimed in saying that she agreed with the evolutionary perspective but pointed out that there were always exceptions (like women being better open-water long-distance swimmers because of their fat distribution).

Back to the Google memo.   If you were just going to read headlines and comments, you’d think that this kid was a contributor at Breitbart and that his ‘anti-diversity manifesto’ was right-wing propaganda that was designed to prop up white privilege and repress visible minorities in tech.  None of material referenced in this articles actually showed that perspective and knowing that Google typically doesn’t hire right-wing nut jobs, I sensed a disconnect.  So I tracked down the original memo and read the whole thing.

It’s not that bad.  In fact, it’s kinda good.  The opening line is, “I value diversity and inclusion, I am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes.”  There are several more points throughout the memo that provide the necessary context to understand that James Damore values diversity, and wants to see diversity in the workplace, but thinks that a diversity of the mind is more important than a diversity of the body.

In the pursuit of that point, he suggests that there are several reasons why we’re likely to see lower numbers of women in tech.  He acknowledges that there is a systematic oppression of women in tech, but says that this might only be part of the issue and that part of it might be evolutionary.  He goes on to reference several studies which compare personality traits between men and women, suggesting  – on average – women have higher levels of anxiety and don’t cope with stress as well as their male counterparts.  Ironically, I had actually reviewed many of these studies a couple weeks prior as I was exploring evolutionary differences as a result of the Serena Williams conversation.

Science itself is an evolutionary process and from what I’ve read so far, the scientific community has a consensus that men and women are wired differently.  Where it becomes more grey is in how that develops into aptitude.  I suspect that with the ground that women have covered in the last 100 years and recognizing that the female population in post secondary education now eclipses men, the next 50 years will look much different than the last 50 years.  If we do it right, both men and women will have the opportunity to choose the profession that they’re best equipped for – but I don’t think that means that every job will have a equal representation of men and women.

I think that equality is a core concept to any prosperous society but I do think that the populist understanding of equality needs to evolve.  Equality is about equal opportunity, not equal outcome.  In the world of equal outcome, everyone receives a PB&J sandwich for lunch.  In the world of equal opportunity, everyone is given an opportunity to make the sandwich they want to eat.

Everyone is born a little different and it is a life built on that deviation which truly makes us unique to the world.  Because we are unique, each of us has the ability to provide something to the world that no one else can and it is the delivery of this gift to the world which I think makes us truly happy.  I know that’s a bit abstract and maybe even a bit fluffy so on a more grounded level, we’re all a little different, we all have a unique aptitude, and deploying that aptitude in a manner that helps us get closer to our maximum utility is likely what will make us happy and fulfilled.  If that’s true, isn’t true equality giving everyone the opportunity to reach their own, unique maximum utility?  If tech is biologically better suited for men, reaching a 50/50 quota of men/women will mean women who would otherwise be better suited and happier doing other activities will work in tech and men who would be best suited for tech will have to work in another field because those spots have been taken.

As hard as it can be to make this connection for some, it always comes down to an equation of efficiency.  The most efficient course of action is to encourage people to pursue careers in fields which will help them reach their maximum utility.  That’s a career which would see them happiest, most fulfilled, and creating their greatest contributions to society.  A perfect society is one in which everyone operates at their maximum utility and I think that’s the ideal of equality that people are pursuing – many just haven’t figured out how to get there yet.

The last thing I’ll touch on here which may be the most important part of this conversation is the lack of conversation.  I think that what I’ve written here would suggest that I agree with James Damore’s assessment of women in tech.  I don’t.  I think that he references some valid information, I think that he makes some coherent points, and I think that he’s legitimately looking to advocate for an ideological diversity over a visible diversity because at the end of the day, it’s what’s on the inside that matters.  I also think that there are too many unknown variables to draw direct conclusions between evolutionary biology and aptitude for jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago.  The social, cultural, academic, and systemic variables are key in understanding this dynamic and they’re changing faster than we’re currently able to understand them.

If understanding them is a priority for us, we need to invest in the discussions that will flush out the real questions and invest in the sciences that will give us that data to answer those real questions.  I don’t agree with James Damore, but I absolutely agree with how he presented his thoughts and it is a remarkable failure when our ability to challenge these ideas devolves into comments like ‘this doesn’t even warrant a response’, or ‘how dare he?’.  It shows a lack of understanding of the topic at hand, a fear of opposing ideologies, and reluctance to engage with someone who doesn’t agree with your perspective.  James Damore was fired from one of the most important companies in the world because he intelligently argued a perspective not shared by the majority of his peers.  In the pursuit of diversity, Google just took a major step towards preventing the diversity of ideas.

 

The Future of Real Estate – Part 2 (The Solution)

In my last post, I detailed the problem with real estate – it’s too expensive.

People have been trained to want to buy real estate without understanding what makes a good real estate investment.  The system in place allows us to amplify those bad decisions by spending 5x more than we were able to save, effectively spending the next 20 years paying it back.  Because it fit into our monthly budget, we were never overly concerned with the cost.  The market has now figured that out and in many major cities, is testing our upper threshold of what we’re willing to pay.  When you test that upper limit of what people are willing to do, they start thinking outside the box.

The best recent example, which I had mentioned in the last post is how high oil prices gave rise to an environment in which Tesla could be successful.  So the fun question that we get to answer here is what high real estate prices are creating. Prices have reached a point where all kinds of businesses are coming out of the wood work with ‘alternative housing’ ideas.  Most of it is in its early stages now, but we have some very cool options in the pipeline.

3D printed homes.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, do a quick search.  Additive manufacturing is most likely the future of manufacturing, and I can’t see why it won’t also be the future of building homes.  If I were to guess, I’d say that the future of construction is automated and the further we progress in that direction, it’ll look like a giant 3D printer.  While they’re not ready for the market yet, I’d be surprised if we didn’t see some market ready options within 10 years.

Shipping container homes.  Shipping containers are relatively inexpensive, structurally sound, and made from recycled materials.  They also apparently double as pretty cool homes.  The genius in this approach is that we’ve figured out we can build a modern, livable home out of just about anything.

Mobile homes.  Not trailer park mobile homes, just homes that are mobile.  One of the more interesting designs that I’ve seen was of micro suites which could easily be moved from building to building.  For individuals who like to move around, their suite would just move with them from city to city.  For others mobile homes are about getting off the grid.  One of the coolest ideas in the pipeline are self-sustaining, modern, smart, mobile homes.  Everything from solar panels to water filtration would be built into the home itself, allowing for you to put your home down on any piece of land you’d like.

Modular homes.  While 3D printed homes certainly don’t qualify, almost every other new style of alternative housing falls under the category of modular (including container and mobile homes).  Modular homes are such a broad category because it’s really referencing the production process rather than the final product.  With modular homes, each section of your home is manufactured centrally, then shipped out to your location to be installed.  That’s a big deal.

Right now, an average home is built like a Rolls Royce: with hand tools and a 6 month wait-time.  What we need is an effective assembly line for homes and that’s what modular housing is looking to tackle.  By building in modules, fabrication can be done centrally and then shipped out to the buyer for installation.  That central, and streamlined fabrication process means that a home can be built in a couple weeks and with far fewer resources.  We’re quite possibly looking at a genuine disruption in how homes are constructed, especially when the build time and cost are a fraction of our current options.

What about the land though?  Real estate is always a two part conversation because land is pretty useless without a house to put on it and a house is pretty useless without land it put it on.  It’s very possible that as houses become less and less expensive to build, people are just going to charge more for land, effectively providing the same end price.  Again, this is what happens when we understand the price of something but not its value.  That’s ok though, because I see a solution on the horizon for the cost of land as well.

Land is not unlimited, but we are not even close to using up what we have.  What’s really limited is land near urban centers.  Urban centers tend to have the most desirable jobs so people move to the city.  There’s more people who want to live there than land available so demand exceeds supply and the price goes up.  The solution thus far has been densification – finding ways to put more people in the same area and large residential towers are the result.  The problem with densification is that the city’s infrastructure rarely keeps up and we simply end up with congestion.  Yes you get to live in the city, but good luck getting around and doing things.

There’s more than one way to solve this problem though.  Rather than trying to accommodate more people in the city, why not motivate them to leave the city?

The first way you do that is by making the commute more tolerable and I think driverless cars are going to help that in a big way.  For most people, driverless cars are likely to cut down on commuting times significantly.  Second, commuting takes on an entirely different meaning when you’re not driving.  What we think of as a 2 hour commute today, could very easily become an hour in your mobile office a decade from now.  Some will still prefer to be within walking distance of their job.  For others, a cool modular home, on a quiet lake just outside of town for a fraction of the price will be the more attractive option.

The other way to get people to leave the city is by providing job opportunities outside the city.  It was the industrial revolution which created this population shift, but it was really the evolution of technology.  Farming techniques had evolved to the point where fewer farmers were needed, just as factories were being introduced and manufacturing jobs in the cities were booming.  If I were to guess, it will be technology which brings people back out to the country – and I’m thinking it’s going to be telecommuting.  Telecommuting is basically working from home, but with the power of the internet and the way the job market has evolved, it’s becoming more and more feasible.  Perhaps one of the biggest transitions will be when coding becomes a primary trade.

When I think of successes like Uber and AirBnB, I see a trend of decentralization.  It’s taking a look at the resources we already have access to and simply using them more efficiently.  My biggest issue with real estate is that it represents a remarkable inefficiency.  We have more than enough land to share, but we’re willing to commit decades of our income to securing a small piece.  Every dollar that we spend on a house is a dollar we don’t spend on all the other things our economy produces, yet we’re encouraged to spend 5x more than what we’re able to save.  And without understanding these dynamics, we haven’t been motivated to challenge the status quo – until now.