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Hype rules in the tech world. Startups and industry giants tend to talk up their latest products and platforms as game changers while legitimately disruptive trends tend to lurk beneath the surface. We talk with journalist and author Alexis Madrigal about the challenge of putting tech stories in context.
- Alexis Madrigal senior editor, The Atlantic; author, 'Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology' (2011)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Technology is constantly evolving and changing. Many developers play close to the vest and keep new products under wraps until a big reveal, creating an atmosphere in which rumors constantly swirl, and with so much attention paid to the next big thing, it's easy to forget the innovations of earlier eras.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEnter Alexis Madrigal. As senior editor for The Atlantic, he oversees tech coverage, putting the latest and greatest in context and reminding us of innovations and inventions from days gone by. He's here to help us parse the headlines and explore the past. Well, he's really in a studio at U.C. Berkeley. He is a senior editor of The Atlantic, where he oversees the technology channel. He's the author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." Alexis Madrigal, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALEXIS MADRIGALIt's great to be here, wherever that is.
NNAMDIYou can join the Tech Tuesday conversation at 800-433-8850. You can also send us email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. We've talked about the dark net on this broadcast before, but, Alexis Madrigal, you recently coined a new term. What's dark social?
MADRIGALAll right. Well, I think most people tend to think of social sharing, you know, the way, you know, Facebook, Twitter, like, these official companies, these social networks that were built to enable people to share things with each other. That's how most people tend to think about social sharing. But my experience growing up, I -- you know, I grew up in rural Washington State. It was kind of at the end of the long gravel road, and, basically, my only connection to the outside world was the Internet connection.
MADRIGALI had a modem, a very slow modem in the early days, and my experience of the Internet has always been highly social. And so as I moved into journalism and started writing about technology, I started working for, first, Wired and then The Atlantic. You know, people talked about socials. It was this new thing as if before, you know, Friendster and MySpace and Facebook and Twitter, like no one had ever shared a link with a friend.
MADRIGALAnd that just had never been my experience of the Web or the some of the Internet services that preceded it. And so I went looking for evidence to see, like, you know, are people still sharing in these other ways? Are they still emailing each other links? Are they still sitting there on chat either on, you know, AOL Instant Messenger or Google Chat? And, you know, everybody I know shares links this way, and yet, in the social sphere, no one had really made an effort to quantify it.
MADRIGALAnd so we made a sort of, like, a -- went out to Chartbeat, which is a company that tracks lots of people's unique visitors across the Internet. They're one of these data companies. And we said, what can you tell us about this, like, hypothetical phenomenon of people sharing links? And what they came back with was sort of stunning that dark social, that is to say sharing that occurs outside of the dominant social networks, is at least the size of Facebook in terms of the kind of sharing that we see and possibly a much larger phenomenon even than that.
NNAMDIHow does that idea of dark social upset the way we think about the Web, and what does it tell us about how information flows online?
MADRIGALSure. I -- you know, I think what it does is it says there's a lot more unstructured sharing than we think. It means that the Web has long been, and probably always will be, a highly social medium, and I think if you go and you look at how people have written this sort of potted history of the Web, it's basically that, you know, in through the late '90s, into the early 2000s, people were out there in cyberspace, you know, with their, like, cowboy hat all alone.
MADRIGALAnd that they weren't actually, like, talking with people. And then this thing came along which is variously called, like, the social Web or Web 2.0 that allowed people to start communicating on the Web. Now, there's an interesting thing here. It's a very engineer-oriented mindset because what it says -- it says that all the sharing that was occurring off of the technical infrastructure of the World Wide Web, like, sort of doesn't count as social Web.
MADRIGALAnd it was only once people started to socially share within the technical infrastructure of the World Wide Web did we actually get a social Web. And so a lot of my work in this area is about getting people to take a user-oriented approach and say, what was the user experience of the early Web like? And it has always been a highly social experience.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the technology channel. He's the author of the book "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you more likely to follow a link through social media or by following links friends and family send you via email or chat? 800-433-8850. Alexis Madrigal, what are the implications here? Because when we join social networks now, we give up a whole lot of personal data, for instance. What are we giving up that personal data for if not for the ability to share?
MADRIGALThat's right. I mean, this is the biggest implication in my mind on the social side of this. I mean, the deal that we're told that we struck with social media companies, with social networks, is they give us the ability to share with our friends and family. You know, I mean, that's why all the commercials around Google Plus or Facebook are always, like, you know, people sharing photos of their babies with their parents, you know.
MADRIGALAnd so they've said, like, that's the deal. You give us that, and in return, we're going to take all your data. And we're going to use it to sell targeted advertisements to you. Well, they'll say, like, advertisements that are relevant to you. And I think that that's part of the deal. But because we now know and have some evidence that people have been sharing long before these places came along and continued to share without them, it means that the deal is actually a little bit different. The deal is actually that they have allowed us to structure the way that we share things.
MADRIGALThey've allowed us to publish in a micro way to our friends and family, and they've made the -- everything that we've done, all the links that we've shared, searchable. They're indexed now, so you can go back, and you can look at what you've shared. So they've basically made it structured, and they've been able to turn that structure into money, basically, because, once they have structured data about you, it's much more valuable than you sharing a link with your friend just on Google Chat or with your mom in an email.
MADRIGALAnd that's a really different kind of deal in my mind because it's not about this sort of, like, basic ability to connect with people socially. It's actually about structuring those interactions in a way that tends to benefit the social media companies at least as much as it benefits you.
NNAMDIBecause it would appear that we are, in a way, somewhat deluded into thinking that this was the -- or this is the only way to share information when, as Alexis Madrigal has been pointing out, we were sharing long before these "networks" came along. Here's Mike in Falls Church, Va. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEOh, hello, Kojo. And thanks for taking my call. I was just wondering about the implications of smartphones and mobile Web to this subject because a lot of media sharing now happens over text messaging. But it exists peripheral to sites like Reddit and (word?) and, you know, links that are sent via other mediums that don't necessarily get tracked by Internet service providers. And I'll take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIAlexis Madrigal. Thank you for your call, Mike.
MADRIGALSure. That's a great question, actually. Mobile introduces all kinds of complexities into these issues, one, because a lot of mobile apps don't tell the sort of analytic software, the data-gathering software, where a user is coming from. And what that means is that a lot of links that are shared via apps on the phone or via SMS are going to show up as part of this, well, you know, this dark social, this kind of invisible traffic. And so it's actually makes this type of analysis, like, just more and more complex, and it's only going to get harder.
MADRIGALAnd there's a kind of a key implication to that on the production side, on the sort of, you know, what does it do to a media source to know where its traffic is coming from, right? So, like, in the days of the newspapers, you knew that you had an audience that roughly looked like the city, right, or at least of certain classes within the city. And now, you know that your audience is essentially all of these people coming from all of these different social sites. And, you know, the real issue about this is that if you can't know where your traffic is coming from, you don't know what your audience is.
MADRIGALAnd for media companies, that's a huge problem because if they don't know who their audience is, they actually can't sell that audience, which is how they make money. And I think for a lot of us, it's a little bit scary to think that, you know, an ever increasing percentage of our traffic, as a result of the way the technical way that mobile referrals work, will be anonymous to us in a lot of ways.
NNAMDICities across this country are actively courting established tech companies and startups alike. You recently spent some time visiting the so-called Rust Belt. Would you talk a little bit about what you found there?
MADRIGALSure. What we did is we went on a trip that we called Startup Nation. We started in Chicago and then drove -- my wife and I actually, who's also a writer -- drove from there all the way to Pittsburgh, passing through a bunch of cities in between, including Detroit, Cleveland and Lansing and Ann Arbor. And, you know, what we found -- I mean, I think, you know, Detroit is perhaps the best example of this.
MADRIGALYou know, coming from -- you know, I live in the Bay Area, and there's a kind of what a science-fiction future is. Bruce Sterling called it dark euphoria, dark apparently being one of the themes of my work right now. But there's a dark euphoria, he called it, like, sort of coursing through this generation as they consider that, hey, if everything falls apart, then we can build whatever we want in this sort of vacuum that will then exist.
MADRIGALAnd I think that Detroit really epitomizes that way of thinking, that sort of, you know, that kind of hope that, you know, once every -- you know, there's a sort of apocalypse within these cities where everything is gone, then you can build a new society, practically. And so what we found when we went to Detroit was a startup scene that was, like, vibrant and small. There's a lot of money coming, actually, from people like Magic Johnson, the former basketball player, as well as Dan Gilbert, who's a local businessman there, very wealthy, also with a basketball connection.
MADRIGALHe owns the Cleveland Cavaliers. And we found that they had remodeled this, like, gleaming tower in downtown Detroit where all these startups, young kids, they're moving to Detroit or from the area, who were sticking around and building businesses. But then, as you took the elevator down, got out on the streets of Detroit and started to walk around or drive around, you'd realize that there's still just kind of vast tracks of nothingness.
MADRIGALAnd it was really almost difficult for someone from the West Coast, where if you leave a warehouse empty for a week, someone has put a loft in there, right? I mean, it's almost impossible to imagine the amount of people who'd left Detroit. And so you have, you know, block after block where there will be one person with a house still standing, and then all the other houses are falling apart or abandoned. And it just goes on like that for miles and miles.
MADRIGALAnd so, I think, one of the big questions that came out of this trip, a lot of these cities, and, you know, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Lansing, they're betting on startups to create jobs. They're betting on these small companies to grow such that people will want to live there and work there. And there's a scale mismatch right now between what people are expecting out of startups and the kinds of people who are going to be employed in startups.
MADRIGALAnd that is to say people with engineering degrees, people who've devoted their lives to computer science and the people who actually live in a lot of these cities. And so I think absence and some really, really tough work to connect in the startup scene into these city's, like, main economies, it's, like, going to be really difficult, I think, for startups to really take a Rust Belt city and make it a place -- return it to its glory days.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but you can still call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think it's realistic to expect that attracting tech businesses is a cure-all to attract -- that attracting startups into desolate areas can improve not only the economy but the environment in those cities? 800-433-8850. Our guest is Alexis Madrigal on this Tech Tuesday. His new book is called "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology."
NNAMDIAlexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic where he oversees the technology channel. You can also send us -- you can also communicate with us by email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Is infrastructure in our cities keeping pace with developing technology? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking about green tech and more with Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic. He oversees the technology channel there. He's the author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." You can join the conversation by sending us a tweet @kojoshow using the #TechTuesday, or simply by calling 800-433-8850. Let's go to David in Sandy Spring, Md. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHello there. I was -- many years ago before there was a Web, I was using the -- what was then the Internet through a port at one of the universities in the Philadelphia area, and I was using an Apple II and a modem and using a LISTSERV at that time called BITNET. It was an academic LISTSERV that was hosted by whoever had the free time up and down in the East Coast. And it was very useful for me to make connections with various other people in my line of study.
DAVIDAnd we really were quite happy thinking of it as a sharing small community. There was, I think, .edu and .gov at the time. Those were the only two things that we knew about, but it worked very well. That was just the LISTSERV.
MADRIGALThat's -- yeah, that's fascinating. I mean, I think LISTSERV's Usenet, a technology that some people might remember out there, bulletin boards, the BBS...
NNAMDIWe did a conversation on LISTSERVs a few months ago. Go ahead, please.
MADRIGALYeah, no, it's fascinating. I mean, there's a whole set, a whole range of ways that people, the second they got on the Internet, were like, hey, let's talk to each other. And so, really, what we've seen isn't sort of a new behavior set. We've seen a sort of formalization. And I think, you know, maybe we've also seen the introduction of algorithms into this that are sort of interesting. They introduced a lot of positive feedback into the system, right?
MADRIGALSo in the old days, if you were on LISTSERV and you happened to read someone's messages more often than somebody else's, it's not as if you were showing more of their messages. But the way that Facebook's social sharing algorithm works, they actually look at what you like to interact with and then show you more things like that. And that's a fascinating sort of implication of Facebook's existence, is that it has introduced, like, massive positive social feedback.
MADRIGALAnd I'm using positive here in a really specific way. It just means that they're going to show you more of the things that you like. And they're going to do that all the time.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. Advances in automotive technology, speaking of Detroit, could change not just how cars are fueled, but how we drive and may even reshape landscapes. How could both electric and driverless technology change driving as we know it?
MADRIGALSure. It's a good question. Let me start, I guess, with electric. So, you know, something -- I wrote a book about the history and promise of green technology, and something a lot of people don't realize is that around the turn of the century -- like, we're talking 1900 -- there were -- a third of the cars that were on the road -- and there's a very small number -- were electric, a third were steam-powered, and a third had engines like the one in most people's cars today, internal combustion engine.
MADRIGALAnd at the time, there was a lot of debate over sort of what sort of system should support this burgeoning automotive industry. And what really made it easy for internal combustion engines to win out over electric cars, aside from sort of the weight of the batteries in the electric cars and some things like that, was that they were actually drawing on a waste product from kerosene making, right?
MADRIGALSo essentially, we're pulling crude oil out of the ground in Pennsylvania and using it to make kerosene for lamps, which had all these sort of impacts, one of which is more whales survived 'cause they'd been killing them for their oil as well. But the way to think about cars, I think, is just sort of in a systemic way. The major advantage, actually, aside from the production side of having a very cheap waste fuel, was that they could go long distances.
MADRIGALThe fascinating thing, though, is at that time in American history, there weren't actually a lot of roads that you could actually drive on for long distances in a car. And the existence of any of those roads which allowed touring, which was the thing that really internal combustion engines had over electric vehicles, is that bicyclists had actually gone out there and lobbied for roads.
MADRIGALIn fact, the big bike manufacturer, the biggest bike manufacturer in the country at the time had created a whole movement called the good roads movement. And that bicycle-powered political power was actually one of the things that helped pave the way literally, actually in this case, pave the way for the internal combustion vehicle. And so I think if we, you know, people always wanted to draw neat lessons.
MADRIGALThey're not always there, but if there's one that we can draw on this particular case, it's that, really, what would have to happen for electric car rollout to get going is you'd have to see the development of a new kind of system of driving.
MADRIGALMaybe that's something like Better Place, which is a startup that's been trying to create, like, a hot swappable battery system. So essentially, you have a car, and when your battery runs out, you pull into a station. They, like, swap in a new battery, and you're out back on your way. And that avoids some of the problems of, you know, charging and things like that.
MADRIGALAnd I think that's just, you know, just in general, that's kind of the way that we need to be thinking about this. I don't think electric cars are going to, very easily, just drop in to our current infrastructure in large numbers. Sure, up to, like, a few percent of the vehicle fleet, that might make sense. But once you get beyond that, you're going to have to start to see larger changes. Oh, go ahead.
NNAMDINo. I was going back to the telephone, but I'd like you to finish your thought.
MADRIGALOh, sure. Well, I was going to switch over to driverless cars, so...
NNAMDIYes. Please do.
MADRIGAL...perhaps I should -- OK. Cool. You know, on driverless cars, I mean, the fascinating thing about a driverless car is that, really, what it is, is kind of think of it working a little bit like Google Translate. I know that sounds kind of crazy, but what Google Translate has done is take a lot of human intelligence, that is to say people translating, you know, from English to French and from French to English. And they found times where people were clearly using the exact same expression. They were expressing the same sentiment.
MADRIGALAnd then they find a millions instances of that and they say, oh, this is how you say, you know, in English, it's hello and in Spanish, it's hola, you know. And once they embed that human logic into the machine, the machine can just infinitely reproduce that. And, basically, that's what driverless cars are up to. Google is embedding the logic of the human road. Like, when a human being sees that it can make a left turn, that human being makes a left turn.
MADRIGALWhen Google's cars see that, they've seen, like, oh, humans say you can make a left turn here, and there are people spending thousands of hours to make sure that on every road, in every place in the country, that car is going to know that it can or cannot make a left turn. And so, really, what you see with driverless cars is, I mean, A, their changes would be tremendous, but, B, they're still not driving themselves.
MADRIGALThey're sort of running on the top of human logic. And I think that's really important as a point about artificial intelligence that even the smartest -- and, in fact, almost always the smartest machines are actually just using intelligence that human beings have put into them.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Jared in Washington, D.C. Jared, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAREDHey, Kojo. How are you doing?
JAREDGreat. Love -- I love your show, and hello to your guest. I did -- I was driving, and I heard him referring to his trek through the Rust Belt. In their -- in a city like, I'll say, Detroit, in their hope to draw in young innovative thinkers, I'm sure financially, it's very feasible to -- and they would be encouraged to come.
JAREDBut in a time where it appears to me that most people who are young and bright, they're more drawn to a coastal town or something that's not land-locked, the difficulty in getting those people there -- and then once, well, I'll say, if they've made it -- of them staying in a city like Detroit or some other land-locked state.
MADRIGALSure. You know, there's been some really interesting programs like one you could look at in Chattanooga, where, essentially, Chattanooga just gives money, like, down payment money for houses to developers. And they tend to do it in, you know, kind of contest-y ways that sort of leverage that money into, like, marketing dollars for the place. But I think a lot of people are trying to think about this, right.
MADRIGALLike, their -- the big drawback of the big coastal cities, particularly coastal cities where there are a lot of startups, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, D.C. and New York, is they're just really, really expensive. And so that means that if you're going to live in one of those cities, you have to work certain types of jobs, and it makes it kind of difficult to live there. And so I think what some of these cities are trying to do is find the right mix, the right bag of incentives.
MADRIGALWhether that's a mix of sort of startup funds to let someone get a company off the ground or, you know, a no-interest loan for a house, I mean, people are -- it's a competition to get this town to stay, and I think the one thing that doesn't really work is just sort of doing nothing. Like, if you look at a lot of the -- these towns, just people do not -- like, startup people do not just go there. It takes a lot of effort. And it's actually interesting. I mean, in that way, the South -- 'cause I did the same trip through the South last year.
MADRIGALThe South might even be a little bit ahead of the Rust Belt, you know, places like Durham, in terms of creating the kinds of cities that people want to live in. And one of the really key elements that basically everybody finds is that you need, like, a cool, walkable environment somewhere within the city because a lot of the people that they're trying to attract, that's actually their demographic.
MADRIGALThat's what they want. They want an apartment downtown, and they want a Whole Foods nearby. And they want, like, bars to go out at. And that's really tough for a lot of cities that just don't have that kind of setup, that were built for a different world, a suburban world.
NNAMDIIndeed, you might -- and, Jared, thank you for your call. You might be describing Washington, D.C. So here is Charles in Washington, D.C. Charles, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. CHARLES PARETHi. Yes, my name is Charles Paret. I'm the founder of D.C. Entrepreneurship Week. And this is something that we've been -- we've actually been growing, and you guys touched on this subject lightly, about how the growth of, you know, these startup communities, you know, what attracts these younger demographics of people. And currently, we've expanded to three to four other cities, and one of them is actually in Raleigh, N.C.
MR. CHARLES PARETAnd we found that, you know, in order to really harness these groups of young people, you've got to have -- find these community leaders. And these community leaders, I think, are tied into the government, and they're also tied into a lot of the sort of the key anchor startups which enable the startup community to really, really create the energy that brings a lot of these young people into the city.
NNAMDIAnd how about the city itself, Charles? As Alexis Madrigal was pointing out, the young people who are -- who start these startups and who are attracted to them are looking for certain amenities in the city: walkability. They're looking for, as Alexis said, a Whole Foods nearby, places where they can hang out and eat and drink. Care to comment on that Charles?
PARETYes. You know, it's, believe it or not, a -- it's trying to find, you know, things like Whole Foods. A lot of these small coffee shops, a lot of the small businesses are really embraced by these young communities. It seems like the larger brands that are more commercialized, aside from brands like Whole Foods, a lot of these smaller-type brands that are either created from entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, that's what, I think, really draws in a lot of these, you know, a lot of these younger demographics...
NNAMDIWell, Charles, thank you very much for your call. Alexis Madrigal, I don't know if you care to comment on that because we have a couple of other callers who want to talk about Detroit. And I was wondering if you minded if I have one or two of them join the conversation, and then you can respond.
MADRIGALYeah, sure. Absolutely.
NNAMDIOK. Charles, thank you for your call. Here is Bryan in Frederick, Md. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANGood afternoon, Kojo. I'm a native Detroiter, born and raised in the city, and born in '61, so I was there really through the worst of the crime in the city.
BRIANIt was. It was a fascinating time. That is the city that was no longer needed and has been thrown away. It's on the ash heap, but it hasn't decomposed yet. It's -- what you have in common through all these cities in the Rust Belt, among other things, but front in line is bad governance, decades and decades of bad governance. And until the bad governance is replaced by governors, mayors, city councils that aren't hooked up in cronyism, you're not going to see the dramatic changes that are necessary for some sort of a rebirth in that area of the country.
NNAMDIBryan, thank you very much for your call. Alexis Madrigal, I don't know if you care to comment on the issue of governance.
MADRIGALSure. Well, I think, you know, this is an interesting issue coming from, you know, a Silicon Valley-like place where a lot of people here have tried to just sort of sidestep government. And I think it's only in the last few years that you've seen Silicon Valley start to truly, like, engage with government, either at the state or national level. I mean, they basically have just tried to be like, you know, we just don't want anything to do with you. Just give us our fields of operation, and we'll create a tax base for you.
MADRIGALI think, you know, I think that that's true. I mean, I think there were clearly, like, some structural factors that were really difficult for a lot of those Rust Belt cities. I mean, I'm not going to pretend to be, like, an expert on the, like, depth of Detroit politics. I mean, I think one of the hopes that you could say that, you know, startups bring is that a lot of them don't tend to need a lot from city infrastructure or governance.
MADRIGALA lot of the time, they're not trying to create a business that's dependent on the local people buying things, and they're bringing in money from all across the country. So, to that extent, it's kind of different than starting, you know, a trucking company or something that, like, requires a lot of interfacing with government entities. A lot of these people are sort of operating on the island of the Internet, so to speak, and just sort of bringing their proceeds to the city.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're talking with Alexis Madrigal. He is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He oversees the technology channel there. He's the author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think will -- it will take to spur green technology and entrepreneurship forward? 800-433-8850. Alexis, your beat and the world of high fashion do not often overlap. Yet somehow you recently found yourself writing about Chanel's ready-to-wear show. Why is that?
MADRIGALWell, it's actually fascinating. I mean, so Chanel decided that they were going to put together, you know, a runway show in -- where the actual runway was made of solar panels, and then there were massive wind turbines under which the models walked. It's kind of a fascinating thing because, just as a thought experiment, imagine if that was the sort of trademark nuclear power plant aesthetic, or it was a coal mine, or it was an oil field.
MADRIGALIt would just read completely differently. And, you know, I'm not going to say that Chanel is, you know, paving the way for political progress on green technology exactly, but I think they're more of an indicator that there still is, despite, you know, a lot of attacks from various locations on green technology, there still is, like, a sort of broad-base, commonsensical support for green technology in the United States. I think people want the money to go to good entrepreneurs, not bad entrepreneurs. I think people want, you know, wind turbines to be spinning and not sitting there.
MADRIGALBut I think -- as in general, in the abstract and in some of the particulars, at least -- people really understand that if the world had a lot more solar panels, there would be less air pollution. And, you know, if there were a lot more solar panels, we'd need less coal-fired power plants. And I think, you know, a lot of people understand that. I think that energy analysis is such a complex, dense and difficult topic in which a lot of people are going to tell you that X is impossible or Y is the only way of doing things that people get kind of scared off from it.
MADRIGALAnd it's just not a, you know -- and at the end of the day, you know, you're plugging into your outlet, right? And I think most people don't really think about where that electricity is coming from because electricity is electricity is electricity. Every one of them will still charge your iPhone, right, whether it's from a coal-fired power plant or from solar panel.
MADRIGALAnd I think it's difficult, as a result, for people to really have -- exert the kind of consumer power that they might around something like BPA or other types of environmental issues.
NNAMDIBut when high fashion gets involved, it adds a cultural dimension that, I guess, improves the likelihood, the possibility that we will be more -- both more conscious and accepting of green technology.
MADRIGALAnd, I mean, I think it's one of these things where people on the sort of wonk side of things don't want to sort of make green technology sexy in that way, right? They don't want it to necessarily be just sort of, like, a fashion or a cultural choice. But I actually think that that's one of the strengths of green technology.
MADRIGALI mean, people like the way that solar panels work, and they should -- people should just sort of, on that wonk side, should just sort of accept that they have, like -- they've been given this gift that solar panels have a cool aesthetic and that, you know, these big wind turbines have a cool aesthetic, and just go with it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call, but the lines are filled. So if you're trying to get in touch with us to converse with Alexis Madrigal, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're talking with Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." He joins us from studios at U.C. Berkeley, where we now have him under close Skype surveillance. You can join the conversation by going to our website, kojoshow.org. There's been a lot of people who've been wanting to get in this conversation.
NNAMDIBut before I go to the phones, one more issue, Alexis. Politics and diplomacy are complicated, and energy policy certainly contributes to the layers of complexity. We often talk about energy costs, but you point out it's important to factor in what you call the soft costs as well. What are those, and how do you account for them?
MADRIGALSure. You know, I think -- I've been thinking about this just because, like, a big 1,000-page report about Kissinger State Department came out sort of talking a lot about what happened during the oil shocks of the 1970s. And the dominant lesson I learned, like, reading through this massive tome, was just how much our dependence on oil outside the country sort of forecloses some diplomatic possibilities for us.
MADRIGALAnd it's not just sort of that, you know -- it's not the sort of, like, caricature of, oh, you know, we're dependent on Saudi Arabia, you know, these people who may have our best interests in mind and may not. It's just that, like, they know that we need oil, and so therefore they have real power in that sense. And so the more that we are dependent on non-domestic sources of energy, the less that our diplomats can do abroad.
MADRIGALI think the interesting thing there is that we almost -- we just don't have a line in the spreadsheet, when people are sort of doing this kind of modeling, to incorporate those kinds of costs, right? So when you say, oh, well, you know, the cost of oil is X or Y, there's a -- there's this kind of soft negative externality to being dependent on oil from -- you know, that's sold on a world market but that's coming from, you know, Venezuela and a bunch of countries in the Middle East.
MADRIGALI mean, it's difficult for us to deal with that just in terms of the way that energy analysis is done. And I think the one thing you can say, it's just that, you know, domestic sources of energy are good, I mean, just like for every country. It's pretty basic, and I think that the more that we can use them, the better.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. We will go now to Nick in McLean, Va. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKGood morning, Kojo. Good morning, Alexis. Two things very quickly. One, a quick exception to the soft cost discussion a moment ago. I think you go a level beyond that where you have to factor in the concept of kind of a political will and business modeling into that concept because not only obviously is there a cost with obtaining energy internationally, but you have this momentum, this gravity, if you will, of trying to get large corporations, large institutional environments to change from the business model that they're rooted in in terms of how they make money and how they make profits.
NICKAnd for lack of a better term, change at any gait for any human being tends to be difficult. So when you multiply it, you know, times, you know, many, many corporations, it becomes even more difficult. Second, as far as the, you know, embracing of green technology, it -- you know, looking and having been somebody who was kind of there at the very beginning of the Internet on the business side, it just seems that the word green is so large and encompassing that it makes it difficult for the public at large and a lot of public servants, I think, to get their head around just exactly what it is.
NICKAnd it's almost as if, you know, there needs to be one or two technologies that emerge to try to lead this concept forward and whether that's wind or solar. It was truly surprising to me a couple weeks ago driving across Southern Indiana on my way from Indianapolis to Peoria that thousands of wind turbines that are there, that were not there 10 years ago, 12 years ago when I lived out there. And it's a remarkable scene and to me very encouraging, very uplifting. But it strikes me that a lot of this country, they literally don't have the visual evidence to know that it's out there and that it's working.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Alexis Madrigal?
MADRIGALI think the general point there that infrastructure can lead politics is something that people don't always tend to think about. But, you know, if you look at the places where support for green energy is strong -- in California, there is tons of solar panels. You see them everywhere and in the upper Midwest where there's a lot of wind.
MADRIGALAgain, you have people who are truly invested in that industry, and it creates a sort of political base that goes beyond the kind of, you know, broad but thin support that people tend to have for solar, which tends to be sort of, like -- or wind, which is like, oh, yeah, it's a good idea. These people, actually, their livelihoods are invested in it. And they have, like -- they become a true base for this technology vis-à-vis the sort of green as too big and (word?) a term.
MADRIGALI actually agree with that, particularly because people tend to stuff all kinds of other things into the green label. So, you know, bamboo spoons go, like, in the same category as these, like, massive wind machines. And I think that, like, maybe doesn't make a lot of sense. On the other hand, you know, sort of low carbon electricity technology is also, like, pretty bad as a brand as well. So I think that, you know, that we really haven't hit on what it is. I mean, in the '70s, you would have heard solar basically across the board.
MADRIGALAnd people tended to refer to, like, all of what we now calls green as solar energy. And so I think that makes sense. The problem is that, you know, in the late '70s, the term -- just like what happened with green -- got, like, heavily, heavily politicized. And particularly in Reagan's government in the '80s, you know, you couldn't get funding for anything solar for a long time. And so people went away from it, I think, to just sort of be a little bit more all encompassing. But I agree, as an actual deployable idea, it is not a good one.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nick. Environmental protection groups and green energy companies are not necessarily allies. They're not necessarily even on the same page. And whatever the impetus of innovations passed, if you will, it's been upped as evidence of climate change mounts. How do you think we should be thinking about in tackling these challenges? And how does it differ from the way we've been dealing with them?
NNAMDII've been fascinated by one statement that you have made. And that is that somehow polar bears became the emblematic or charismatic emblem of what was wrong with global warming. You think we should have made it maybe the mayor of a city instead. What do you mean by that?
MADRIGALRight. Well, I think, you know, we ended up framing climate change as a traditional environmental problem. I think we really need to, like, understand the environmental movement in a culturally specific way. I mean, this is a movement that grew up after World War II at a time when the sort of area outside of cities was being bulldozed in just vast, vast tracks. I mean, we're talking like a Rhode Island's worth of new suburb was created every year after the war for a couple of decades.
MADRIGALAnd so people responded to, you know, our incredible, you know, kind of industrial might plus a lot of this sort of loss of wilderness that existed right outside of cities with what we see as, like, this sort of modern environmental movement, which, you know, focused a lot of its energy around passing a set of legislation, late 1960s, early 1970s, signed by Richard Nixon, for the record, and that, you know, protected -- focused a lot on, like, sort of protection of resources, so, you know, protecting air, protecting water.
MADRIGALAnd, you know, I mean, the EPA, as an institution, was sort of founded almost explicitly with, like -- if not an anti-growth agenda, a sort of -- it didn't have any relationship to economic progress insofar as it was concerned. And so I think, as a result, a lot of people got the idea that sort of environmentalism -- and kind of rightly -- was about, like, putting limits on sort of American growth and that it was about, you know, restraining what we were doing to the environment. And I think that that is true.
MADRIGALBut if you think about the kind of movement that you would need to transform the entire electricity sector of the world, or at least to the United States, that we'd have to get rid of all these coal-fired power plants and then build other stuff to replace them, better stuff. That requires a completely different mindset. And I think that mindset really has a lot more to do with what engineers can do and what entrepreneurs can do than it necessarily has to deal with what activists can do.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is David in Leesburg, Va. David, your turn.
DAVIDYes, Kojo. A wonderful show. I want to touch upon the same thing I think one of the previous callers had mentioned, and that's we appear to -- in this country, to have a very -- I mean, particularly on one political party in my opinion -- a corporate mindset in which -- I mean, the whole concept of electric cars is not a new concept at all. I believed there were electric cars in the earlier part of the last century.
NNAMDIAnd you can find in that "Powering the Dream." But go ahead, please.
DAVIDYes. And I think what happened, of course, is, OK, the freeway came. They built automobiles for the freeways. The oil companies were happy because they're selling gas. And we have a political party that -- one of its mantras is, drill, baby, drill. So how can you or how can the green energy community change the mindset of the corporate boardrooms where, I think, we really need to focus? Because unless we get some allies in those boardrooms, I don't think we're going to see the change. Well, obviously, we haven't seen the change come as rapidly as we would all like.
MADRIGALYeah. I mean, I think, you know, the easiest way would be tons of profit baked into whatever people were doing. I think feeling that though, I mean, you know, I think a lot of corporations exist to serve their customers. And I think they have a fairly narrow view of what that is, particularly, you know, sort of its time horizon and that sort of thing. I think, you know, the easiest thing would be -- I mean, I have sort of a little bit of a mantra, which is, you know, if you change the spreadsheets, the behavior will change also, right?
MADRIGALAnd I think a big part of the solution is getting people to begin the real costs of what they're doing into those spreadsheets. And it really is, and a lot of times, as simple as that. I mean, depending on how you do the cost accounting for various types of energy over the long term -- and, you know, there's going to be all kinds of battles over the spreadsheets -- but if you can get the right spreadsheet in place, you can kind of own the vision of the future. And, I mean, this is a clear lesson out of my book.
MADRIGALPeople in the 1950s who wanted a nuclear future for the United States got a hold of the projections and really were able to change them, make them a lot larger than we actually -- basically said there's going to be a lot more energy used in the United States than we actually do use now. And as a result, they were able to promote their pro-nuclear agenda, which completely worked.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Alexis Madrigal is senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's also a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He's the author of the book "Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology." Alexis, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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