Episode 7 of the Blu Skye Podcast - Alexis Madrigal is a beautiful nerd


ALEXIS: The idea that Donald Trump ran a campaign based on building a wall when there is already a frigging wall, was such an incredible thing to me. It was so, it became so real that people don't know about actual places in the same way that perhaps we used to. That the digital layer we've laid on top of all these things which we thought would be like additive, might actually be like subtractive in the sense of knowing about things.


ZACH: This is the Blu Skye podcast. I'm Zach Winter. Last week I had a conversation with Alexis Madrigal. I think the things that he has to say are extra important now given what happened last night. His words about the disdain that the left has for the right feel extra poignant.


ALEXIS: My name is Alexis Madrigal. I’m the editor at large of Fusion which is a cable and digital network. And I work in live in Oakland.


ZACH: So I have a very serious question for you first, which is based on my perusing of your Twitter feed over the past week, which is what's your favorite color of Draymond?


ALEXIS: I'm definitely just a straight up Draymond Green fan, and I have... I mean I think Draymond Red is probably also one that I would like which I think of as like Draymond’s out partying persona, just like pushing it to the max at all times. You know I do think of that as a fun dream to hang out with.


ZACH: Good answer. I'm curious about your relationship with sustainability on a general plane. You know, I know that you work on a million different subjects that are in some ways tangentially related other ways not, but I know you got your start and you literally wrote a book on the future and past of sustainability.


ALEXIS: Yeah well I think about it I guess, I am interested in the general sense in big human technological systems and the way that I got into that really started in the 90s with the Internet, watching the Internet you know get built piece by piece you know kind of first with really basic networking and telnet, and starting to use these services like Gopher. I remember there was a time when you know you would be like “wow I can pull up a library catalog in Australia”, And that seemed like a significant thing. And then you know watching the web get built on top of it and all the different technologies and things that have come since then. A lot of that just kind of lay dormant in my thinking for a long time having watched the construction of this new and very significant socio technical system, and when I got into journalism for real in the mid-aughts there were people who were blogging at that time in ways that I thought were like very exciting, like they were types of writing where it was like an attempt to kind of understand that big systems. The guy that I think you must specifically named Geoff Manaugh and he, Geoff was really working on a thing called Building blog (BLDGBLOG) that kind of took the idea of architecture and like really like stretched it and distorted it and ran it through all kinds of filters. And it let let you see the kind of built environment as one kind of crazy set of systems you know almost like like a network of networks kind of approach to architecture. And at that time also, you know, I was pretty consumed with climate change as a threat to... certainly the nonhuman world and then also the human world particularly the most vulnerable people in the human world. And so when I started digging into climate change really where you end up as you go deeper into sustainability is like in the back-end and infrastructure of the world. You know, the coal plants the, oil pipelines the transmission infrastructure, the way that engines are built, the way that supply chains internalized costs... like these like incredibly in some ways - to some people boring things that kind of infrastructure is really like those are the systems that need to change in order to meaningfully reduce the systemic emissions beyond what any one person can do by you know driving less or eating less meat or whatever, any of these things. And so that's kind of my relationship with that with sustainability in greenness and climate change in general is still a lot of the same things. I'm still interested in these back end systems. I think that may be what has changed a little bit is that, you know, just things are changing more slowly than I think we hoped. I think that the technologies that I cover in the book have done, some of them have done well some of them have not. Biofuels have been kind of a big disappointment no matter what the source of them was. I think you know solar PV has done great. I think thermal solar like the big fields of solar has been a big disappointment. You know, I think it's just you realize that changing these big systems takes forever. And so I kind of try and build it into my daily practice of doing journalism to think about these things. But I think, you know, it's going to take decades. And I think we need to understand it is that length and size of project.


ZACH: And I think that's what draws me to your work so much is that you always work that in somehow. Right. And I constantly struggle with those things myself. It's like, I'm working on sustainability issues, but I'm equally passionate about social justice and I'm constantly struggling with that connection between those two. I mean obviously they're very heavily linked but they often get lost in like some people depart and study one or the other and they don't often come together and I think you're bringing them together in a way that's super interesting. I just graduated from. And we're back to school and got a degree in organization development. And when my favorite professors who was helping me with my thesis told me that the topic of my thesis literally didn't matter and who I was and what I was interested in would come into my work no matter what I did. So I'm curious about you and what are the topics that that creep into your work no matter what I think you just spoke to them, but maybe expand a little.


ALEXIS: I think some of it is. This core understanding of the world that like the person who controls the spreadsheet ends up controlling the outcomes of many decision-making processes. I think that definitely is true in all kinds of environmental reporting, and also in all kinds of technological stuff, and so figuring out who is controlling that spreadsheet and what assumptions are baked into it and into those models has become a huge huge part of all my work. I think a real interest in and respect for the people who are doing work. Whether it's like the people doing your InstaCart orders, or like longshoremen or truck drivers. Even to a great extent, you know the people running the dirtiest coal power plants, the people who are in the mining industry, the people who do, you know, drilling and fracking. I think I think that there's a very there's a strain of kind of distaste for people who are like working in the sort of like extent  on energy industry or in like polluting industries that I actually find kind of gross, because you know like a lot of those people are interested in transforming their own industries, a lot of those people understand the issues really well and really really deeply. And I think you know a model for that for me has been you know John McPhee’s respect for geologists whether you know the New Yorker writer and book author you know, whether they worked for Shell or the USGS or whatever, he understood them as in their own professional class of workers who you know ended up in these different places but actually shared a lot of commonality and an outlook that could be explored and I think you know, a lot of the best science and technology studies scholars in the academy I think have been really good at doing that with like how did the managers of big utilities think about their job and what it was that they were doing and trying to understand the problems that they were solving. Understanding that we have a new set now and that that's going to require like resetting some of the assumptions and values that exist in the current energy industry.


ZACH: That's really well put. First thing that made me think of was that This American Life episode that I think was This American Life (edit: it was Invisiblia) where they interviewed the consultant who had gone into Shell a long time ago and they kind of - moral of the story was that Shell had gotten all this consulting help on how did how to be better humans essentially. And BP didn't, and that is what indirectly led to the Gulf spill.


ALEXIS: I mean I've you know met with a lot of different people. You know geologists, executives in the well industry different kinds of people. I think one of the key problems, I think of the way that we tend to approach those guys, is to be like “well there are one thing that the oil companies” and that reduces the incentive for the good companies and the good people within those companies to like actually meaningfully improve the way that their companies do business because they're just like “well, everyone's just going to think we’re the oil companies anyway” even though certainly within that industry people don't think that way. You know, I mean a great example of this from a while back was when Jim Rogers of Duke Energy decided to try and get out in front on a lot of climate change issues and Clive Thompson wrote a great profile of him in the late-aughts for the New York Times Magazine. And I think that it was it was a very interesting time you know, and an interesting play, but you kind of need some of those leaders on the inside.


ZACH: You know it's the same thing happened to Dave Greene of NRG. He's a friend of Blu Skye. But the other thing that makes me think of is I was listening to W. Kamau, and Hari Kondabolu last night and they were talking about the Cleveland Indians and how they think we need to remember that every person within that organization is not behind that logo and offensive team name. So we have to we have to come at it with a level of respect if you actually think that that needs to change.


ALEXIS: Totally. I mean, you know when you look back at when I was writing my book and working on that stuff that kind of I mean pro technology is a too weird thing, but at least technology agnostic set of green thinkers who were thinking like “how are we going to transform the world and our cities and our energy industry and our transportation” all those things you know and I think about that - what happened to the people who were doing that. I mean some of them went on to do other kinds of journalism, report on other systems. Some of them you know are in still in that climate change blogging game like Dave Roberts at VOX now, whatever. But a lot of the people who are really interested in that stuff went deep into the weeds. They work for, and within the companies. They work for and within Walmart, they work for and within the building companies, and software companies and they're the people who are kind of like driving the legs like getting a lot of these changes done and I think you know when I when I hear you say that you're interested in you know organization management or you know, I assume some of that is like organizational transformation, change management, things like that. But it's just such a necessary part of what's going to happen. I mean I think that even you know climate people underestimate the scale of organizational change that needs to occur. I mean you're going to need literally tens and hundreds of thousands of people to do this work here now and do it inside the very companies that right now you know pollute the most, create the most emissions, etc. and so I think I think I think a ton about that is how many of the people who used to be foregrounded in media coverage etc. now aren't because they're just so deep in doing the actual work of transformation.


ZACH: Yeah, I think about it a lot to you know being a sustainability consultant, I work with a lot of you know, corporate sustainability reps and people like that, and people within business and I'm always of their quality and their passion and their brain really. And if these people can't solve this faster then, who can?


ALEXIS: Right? Right?

ZACH: And it's a constant area fret for me.


ALEXIS: Right right right. I know. I know. Well you know I mean it's just it's just the scale of change, you know. It's kind of unfathomable, I think. You know I mean in part because the current infrastructure is unfathomable. You know I mean there's a guy that Bill Gates loved, Václav Smil, who I think is like a really challenging read for most sustainability people, not because he's like a dense writer, but because he sort of feels like you know no one's gonna fix shit. That’s like his basic position, honestly. He is not always right. I mean he states everything. So but if you go back and look at his record like oh, he's right you know, naysaying isn't always the thing. But I do feel like what I really have taken from his work, for example is just like he'll just lay out like here's the scale of materials handling that occurs with like oil on this earth. Like, if you want to replace this system, consider what it means to move this much shit around the earth. Consider what it took to build that. And I think that most  people don't. And I think a lot of what I'm working on right now is a series around the Port of Oakland, which of course is like about all of the machinery of global capitalism kind of when it literally comes to dock in one local place. And when you look up at one of those ships with all those containers and all of that stuff in it and you think that's just one of like 11,000 ships like that all over the ocean. It's just one of dozens that's going to come into the port in a given week. You know and you realize like how many chassis, for example are necessary to move all of those boxes to different places on the port and then out into the world and then within each of those boxes there's all these things that they need to like all the scale of all of that. Every single piece of that supply chain will eventually need to be improved and it's emissions will need to be reduced. Everything like that will have to change. And I just think, you just look at one boats-worth and you think like “wow that would take a lot”. And then you think of all of the boats anything that you know that you think that there are constantly in circulation at all times. There's just, there's a lot to be done.


ZACH: It's true. And I think you just hinted at it there. You've hinted other places too that I've read where you are talking about getting into audio production. Do you have a project that's already out that I haven't been able to find, or is that something that's in the works?


ALEXIS: it's in the works. it's in production right now. There'll be a teaser out in a few weeks and then it'll probably drop in the very beginning of 2017. The first week of January will be like kind of an eight-episode thing about the Port of Oakland, know global Trade, and also the future of work comes up a lot. You know you know there's a lot of interviews and things that the people actually doing the work in and out of the port. And what it will mean to have you know increasing amounts of technology come to bear not just on the waterfront but like in the warehouses and you know in the automated trucks and things like that.


ZACH: I'm super excited. I don't think I could even express how excited I am.


ALEXIS: It's going to be pretty good actually. I mean I wasn't sure when I got started and it's a really hard thing to report on because it's just a lot of secrecy around the port but like security as well it's just like negotiations between shippers and terminals and longshoremen and just like as with many things in climate change and industries, there's not like some media person who is like waiting for you to call. The person who approves interviews is the president of the company who has an AOL address. You know what I mean. It's stuff like that.


ZACH: I give people a hard time when you know of those AOL addresses. But I can't stop myself. I read that you're a co-founder of Always Read the Plaque. Could you talk about that? I think that's one of the best projects that not many people know about that aren't already 99% Invisible listeners.


ALEXIS: So you know 99 Percent Invisible is, founded by Roman Mars. (hello, beautiful nerd) It's an amazing podcast about the material world and just stuff and the way that stuff is designed and made in and exists in the world. And you know he had an episode that centered around an individual plaque you know, just like a historical marker out there in the world. And you know he basically gave this maxim, like “always read the plaque”. So right before we had our first kid a few years ago I got really excited about this and I was like “Roman we gotta build this website, will collect these plaques and and just be this place for all these amazing stories and we can report some of them out.” So we started to build this thing out, got pretty far with it and then had a kid and like I sort of fell off the face of the earth for a few months. And you know funnily enough people kept submitting plaques though you know from from different places in the world and there it's just kind of natural filtration mechanism of people who submit tended to be the kind of people who had a good nose for an interesting story. And eventually a guy named Kester Allen came along and said “can I take this over?” basically like “I'm a developer I can make this into a real Web site that's functional and that I love this stuff and I'll just do it because I want to help.” So he did. He built it into the real thing that now exists and you know he cuts like partnerships with different places that have pictures and stories of plaques, like a bunch of civil rights plaques recently came on from the south. I'm still submitting them. The one I liked most recently I happened to be in downtown San Diego. And I ran into this one for the Callan Hotel from 1878. And so I’m just reading here “In 1886 Till Burns leased this structure as his ACME Saloon. Here he kept his menagerie which included a wild cat, noisy monkeys, an anteater, and his pet bear who escaped on at least two occasions. The bear was also known to lick the face or even take a bite out of a passer-by. The saloon closed in 1907 after a shady history from 1928  to 1941, the Nippon company owned the building and ran an import business, however, this was lost due to the Japanese internment during World War 2. The Calland Hotel opened in 1943.”  To me, it's just like, oh my god... That took a lot of turns in 50 words. You know? I will say just to relate that my work together. Try and try and find some throughline there. I have come to really really appreciate and see almost as a form of political resistance to this sort of fact-free and kind of puzzling lack of knowledge and kind of rise of know-nothingism in the world, to really kind of know about places. I was recently at the Mexico/US border down in Tijuana for some time and really just felt like it was important to just stand near the border wall like to be a human perceiving that place to watch the trucks going back and forth across the commercial port of entry, to watch people, you know how it actually worked. And I think that just as we increasingly know about things in more and more abstract ways, you know, kind of from knowing the place as a building, to reading a book about it, to seeing it on Google Maps and possibly looking at a Wikipedia entry. You know like there's like the idea that Donald Trump ran a campaign based on building a wall when there is already a frigging wall was such an incredible thing to me. It was so, it became so real that people just don't know about actual places and the same way that perhaps we used to. That the digital layer we've laid on top of all these things which we thought would be like additive, might actually be like subtractive in the sense of knowing about things. And so that's kind of what the Port of Oakland story is really all about for me. You know it's that let's actually know how the port works. Not in the abstract like you know the IKEA furniture drying of this thing of like a ship comes in, drops container. But like really no how does this get done. Kind of filling in the cartoon drawing that we increasingly have about most of the world just because there's so much stuff to know. And because we can have such a thin layer of knowledge over so many things and pretend we know a lot more about how the world works than we do. That really going to places and like seeing that kind of initial journalistic impulse and authority of like “I was there and I saw this thing and this is how it works.” Like that's really that's what I want to focus my work on over the next decade probably. And not to just shout out McPhee for the second time in 20 minutes, but I feel like John McPhee sense of like, “I want to see things. I want to actually understand how a truck drivers business works” like who else does that? You know, it's so so rare to have someone take the time to learn this great shadow geography that is the world of stuff the world of material things, that world of places that you know aren't made for our consumption, like restaurants and cool you know, the High Line in New York and whatever we end up fighting about all this shit about these places that are made specifically for us as consumers, but non-consumer places you just end up knowing less and less about them.


ZACH: I'm really happy that somebody with your platform in your background is working on that, it's really exciting. I want to talk about Real Future Fair because I know that's coming up. I am going to release this episode that before that happens. So you know, what are you most excited about and what is it?


ALEXIS: Real Future Fair... Real Future is just sort of the technology crew for Fusion. Now you know it's a lot of bigger stories for Real Future. It's pretty investigative, there's a lot of really good reporters and Future Fair is kind of where we bring together a lot of the strains of thought that we're interested in, both kind of like far future kind of thinking, diversity and justice within the technology world, kind of thinking. You end up calling it “intersectional futurism” where you're trying to essentially figure out which things are changing in the world that could lead to future systems of oppression or future new freedoms. And that's really what Future Fair is about, is like bringing together these different kinds of people like who are all kind of thinking about the future: how to build it, how to live within it, how to make it more just, all all in one place. And so, we see a lot of stuff at Real Future that we don't see connected up. You know, when people are thinking about the future of labor from the Labor side, like from labor unions or whatever, they're not often in conversation with the Ubers of the world of the people who are thinking about automation or you know it's like they're not they're not even mixing in the same places. We see that in a lot of cases that people who are talking about diversity in technology are not mixing with the people who are thinking about the far future of artificial intelligence, like we just want to like create a space where these people can all talk together. Because it doesn't take very long to understand that like the future is created socially, you know, it not just created like by development of technology. What are my favorite examples of this is that in the 1950s you know there's this great book by this guy when interviewed like all of the leading scientists and technologists about what the future was going to be like, and the opening scene is these women playing pinochle, having never entered the workforce. But within, like these crazy domes with their like husband flying back and forth to the office in nuclear powered helicopters you know And you're like, “welllllll you possibly want to consider that social change might occur as well.” And so that's that's a big part of the kind of work that we're trying to do, is to have those conversations occur in the same place.


ZACH: So I saw Zardulu on list. And I was going to ask you about where where she fits in. It's a “she” right? Do we know?


ALEXIS: It’s Zardulu.


ZACH: But I think you explained. I think I understand now where Zardulu fits.


ALEXIS:  We feel like artists are processing a lot of the technological possibilities really in interesting ways and in different ways than other people. I have a friend Robin Sloan who lives here, a couple blocks from me and like the way that I just give this like really short example of the way he thinks about neural networks, these things which are starting to dominate a lot of different types of problems within technology. You feed a lot of data into them these networks of sort of neuron like entities come up with new solutions to what that data is, and how to use it. For computer scientists who are doing these things they want to use the same corpus of data so that they can compare how well their different neural networks work. But if you're like a novelist or a writer or an artist who's like creating these things one of the things that he's realized is how important for the output side of it, corpus selection is. And so it's just a really different way of thinking about it. They want directly comparable quantitative things, whereas on the artist side of it or the you know just the person side of it you want interesting outcomes. And a lot of that is dependent on the corpus that you put in. And so he's been working a lot with how to create interesting corpuses for these neural networks to chew over. I think that's just an example of how a different perspective may help everybody understand what it is that they're doing.


ZACH: That's wild. That guy lives down the block from you?


ALEXIS: He's even a novelist. It's this North Oakland, South Berkeley vibe's.


ZACH: Amazing. That is my of birth, right here.


ALEXIS: Oh really? Alta Bates? Oh man. My son and daughter were both born there.


ZACH: So I'm feeling guilty that I'm keeping you from hydrophones. Only one last question. What is was one thing that I haven't asked you about that I should have?


ALEXIS: I mean I think like maybe the thing I was thinking about it ahead of this was what would I do differently if I were writing Powering the Dream which is my book about green technology. What I would do differently in it, and I think what I honestly feel like I've devoted a lot of time in that book to the big solar plants, solar thermal plants, which basically use mirrors to heat up water which acts as you know, sort of like drives a turbine like you would in a natural gas plant.


ZACH: Like Ivanpah, right?

ALEXIS: Yeah exactly. I think I spent too much time on that. I think I did not spend enough time working through the solar PV scenarios. In part it was because they were really interesting stories of battles between two different types of environmentalists: people who wanted to get solar plants built, and people who wanted to protect desert tortoises. And I found in reading through all of the legal proceedings around Ivanpah, I was just like “this is an insane thing” like you know there is there's literally hundreds of pages about like the way that they did the surveys for desert tortoises you know and I just ended up feeling like if that's the way that we were going to approach to build out of new lower emissions systems, we were never going to build shit you know. And so I think I went harder at that than I should have and I should have spent more time going over the PV stuff because that's turned out to be like a really interesting place. I also think I should have spent more time talking about battery technology. I kind of tried to get into battery technology through it through basically material science R&D, and the way that it was increasingly being done in computers and not as a bench science, but I should have just like just been like “batteries are such a big deal and we'd have no idea how we're going to do this.”


ZACH: Well don't punish yourself too much. I think that you're doing really good work. No you don't need to. You don't need to be hard on yourself for that. Thanks for listening to the Blu Skye podcast. If you enjoyed this or any episode, please leave a review on iTunes or wherever you are listening. See you next time.