Nuggets From Srinija Srinivasan's Call
Posted by Preeta Bansal on Jul 13, 2019
An accidental tech exec, Srinija Srinivasan joined Yahoo! in 1995 as one of the first five employees, serving as Vice President, Editor-in-Chief for 15 years before stepping down in 2010. With a background in artificial intelligence, her work at Yahoo! centered on the human experience, expanding into leading editorial and policy issues globally. During that time, she also chaired the board of SFJAZZ, a nonprofit leader in jazz creation, presentation, and education. These experiences together led her to co-found Loove, a developing music venture designed to demonstrate how commerce and technology can be guided by artistic values rather than letting our culture be led by market values. Loove serves as an equitable model for creative music in the digital age. Just as when she joined Yahoo! at the start of an internet era which promised democracy, transparency, and accessibility, Srinija seeks through Loove to again support culture to re-balance our lives.
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
- Family and early life in Kansas: Srinija was born in India but grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where her Dad was a math professor (chairing the department in the 1970s), and her mom was a “polymath” – who got her first master’s in India in Sanskrit, then another in the US in art history, then started “dabbling in computer science when it wasn’t fashionable” (the days of mainframes and FORTRAN). Her Mom almost finished a third master’s degree in computer science until she landed a job at the University as a programmer. The youngest of three children, with “marvelous” siblings, Srinija says she “came into the world downstream with so much love.” “Kansas was a welcoming, nourishing place. It was less weird being brown in Kansas; more disorienting to be non-Christian.” She grew up in Hindu household that was “steeped in Hinduism culturally, if not pedagogically.”
- Artistic influences: Srinija’s parents were both appreciative of arts (they had “lots of beautiful art objects in our house that they painstakingly brought from India”). Srinija says she didn't have an explicit appreciation of art growing up (her sister “was more cultured in that way of going to a museum and loving it”). She says she realized the impact of arts when she was in college at Stanford – “its absence made me realize what I missed.” She had started piano lessons at 3, voice lessons at 5, and played the saxophone from 5th grade to high school. She never conceived of music or art as a vocation – “I didn’t think I had the drive let alone talent to make it a profession, but it was just part of the day. Going from reading, to band to math – it was all part of the human experience. Not til I got to college at Stanford,” which she described as a “a kind of all-you-can-eat buffet of too many things to learn” in which the “arts offerings didn't speak to me,” did she begin to feel the impact of the absence of artistic outlets from her life. “I realized a part of my life I didn't get to nourish and cultivate in college.” When coming out of college, she became “concerned and curious and puzzled by state of arts programs at public schools” in the Palo Alto area – wondering “what stories gave rise to its [the arts] diminishment in areas that could afford it?” That led her to say yes to join and eventually chair the board of SFJAZZ. She had come to appreciate “jazz beyond aesthetics to what it stands for historically, politically, and what it says about our humanity.” Given the programs of SFJAZZ, the organization also became one of Srinija’s avenues for being engaged in promoting arts education in public schools.
- Focusing intellectual interests based on people, not just subject: On the intellectual/academic side, Srinija described her interests as a “hodgepodge.” “I was never a specialist. I was interested in lots of things. Choosing a major was like throwing darts against a board.” Stanford had a major called Symbolic Systems, which she described as a “mish mash of computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive science.” “Most importantly and consequentially, it was my sister, whom I followed to Stanford, who overheard me [talking about my many interests] and told me about symbolic systems as a place that I would like the people. … It was revelatory to me to look at a major because of the people, not the subject. That has been foundational ever since in terms of lens of how I spend my day.”
- Meeting and befriending the founders of Yahoo! and joining the then-fledgling startup: To meet Stanford’s language requirement, Srinija chose to take a whole new language rather than filling out her nearly-complete high school Latin. “Linguistics was interesting to me. I loved language. I would have taken Tamil [her parents’ native language] if they taught that at Stanford. So I flipped a coin between Chinese and Japanese – to do an Eastern rather than a Western language.” She noted that Japan was rising in the late 1980s in industry. She wanted to go deeper than just classroom learning. So she kept taking it for 3 years and then did a study abroad in Kyoto in her Junior year in order to use the language. It involved studying abroad in spring and working in the summer, with a tech bent – through the Stanford Center in Technology and Innovation, which also helped place you in internships. There were 2 grad students, Ph.D. candidates in electrical engineering, who were serving as TA’s for their professors with whom she got to be great friends [Jerry Yang and David Filo]. “Then we came back. That was 1992 [when we returned to Stanford – me continuing with my undergrad, and they finishing their Ph.D.’s]. … We were just great, great friends.” They ended up going on to co-found Yahoo!. A few years later, “they asked me to have lunch, and this particular lunch had an agenda. They asked me ‘would I be interested in joining them in fledgling enterprise?’” At that point they had in mind for their company an initial development team comprised of 5 people – the 2 of them, a technical lead, and a business lead, and they were asking Srinija to be a product lead, which at that point involved a directory of websites – a manual categorization of a directory of websites. “After college I had worked at a large-scale AI project where we sought to build a machine that had all of human common-sense knowledge (the Pysch Project).” They saw parallels between Srinija’s work – involving a large-scale, heterogeneous database – with their fledgling product which was also a large-scale, heterogeneous database. “I protested heavily …. But I really reflected on it and after I couldn't figure out who else would be qualified, I said ‘be careful what you wish for.’ I thought we would strive mightily and fail, and then I would go to grad school like a good Indian girl.” She eventually “realized all my rationalizations for saying ‘no’ [to them] were fear-based – because I was so worried about messing up their thing” and risking the underlying friendship. “Let me face my fear …. It was pretty clear to me at that time that I was scared, but that that was the worst reason to say no.” And so she joined, becoming one of the 5 original employees of Yahoo!.
- Lessons and insights from time at Yahoo!: “It was Life 101. It was intro everything.” She was at the company from ages 23 to 38/39. “Major adult years. Lots of life happens in that time. People have children, all kinds of things …. So much happens in terms of peers and colleagues and my own learning.” “One big gift was that we started before there was a gold rush (when Yahoo! started there was no stock market to speak of in terms of the Internet).” Netscape had not yet gone public, which was a seminal moment that marked the beginning of the Internet as an industry in the marketplace. It was just crazy folks with an idea on something people hadn't heard of – the web. Most people didn’t have web browser. “It was only a minute – it was only 6 months before Netscape went public and only a year before we went public – but that minute was a buffer of critical foundation that was part of our culture and DNA” – speaks to Jerry’s and David’s humanity and humility that “set the tone for a different kind of culture that we benefited from in the long haul. Nature of what we built was so human-centered even though it was a tech play and this was the tech industry.” Jerry would say if it’s an engineering company. "it's as much a social engineering company" – he was “understanding, acknowledging and taking responsibility for the fact that they called it a media company in the very first business plan. These were humans employing technology for humans. Tech is in the middle of the sandwich, not the outside – not squashing the humans. That framing is so critical and so absent, I feel, today – to acknowledge up front that that’s what’s going on and the responsibility that goes with that.” So to even have a person with her role – which expanded from a manual, subjective thing about categorizing websites to “all the squishy, subjective human-centric questions of editorial standards and practices and policy; data and privacy before those were mainstream concerns; accessibility; fraud and abuse and mitigation. What does this mean that we're putting this stuff into a universe populated by humans and other living beings that it affects? What does it mean for our socio-political and cultural futures?” Fascinating opportunity to be a voice guiding questions around our values, our values hierarchy, etc. “If there's an individual process of mindfulness – how do I as one human try to be attentive and mindful to my actions and my inner and outer alignment? – this was on an institutional level, what would mindfulness look like? …. How are we mindful collectively about what our stated values are, what our actual practices are, where there are disparities, and how would we close to gap?” She worked on this for 15 years, and “I got to be part of that, and just kept not being fired. …. Somehow they valued intrinsically this is a role that has worth. I don't know of a company then or since that has a comparable role. I miss it, in the industry.”
- How she looks at those human/robot questions today and the relationship between binary code and duality of consciousness: “What of so-called human intelligence makes us tick? To what degree is language as a system of symbols … in order to process information – how does language limit or constrain our intelligence as much as it allows it? And then, translating it to a machine, how much intelligence is possible from machine language?” Yahoo! was a practicum for Srinija on that. “Stuff we’re putting out is reduced to binary code, but the intention, attention, and values and policies/standards that we put in shapes how that gets processed – what info can be transmitted, and what are the limitations, and how does that shape outcomes?” These questions have been the heart of everything she’s been thinking about. “For me, the essence of the human condition, at core and at root (and the best part of being human) is that we are steeped in duality – and I mean something very specific by duality [English doesn’t have a good word for that]. I picture a yin-yang symbol. I picture this wholeness that’s bifurcated but each half contains the other. Each half is inextricably bound up in the other. You can’t have one without the other.” “Framing of duality v. binary did really hit home for me …. To the machine, if you accept that all things digital ultimately reduce to 0’s and 1’s, that’s an exclusive ‘or’ language – it’s this or that, there’s no 'and/or.' There’s no room for nuance, paradox, contradiction or wholeness; it’s just this or that …. Then to the machine, what's the difference between duality and binary? The answer to that is same diff, more or less. But to humans … it's everything that matters and everything that really makes us human ….. Is it any surprise that in a social media saturated world (by which we mean digitally borne medium for transmission), we are more polarized? What outcome would one expect from binary input? But we've only seen technology on capitalism – we haven't seen technology on humanism in any real, big way. What if we ask just really different questions about – instead of how do we use technology to reduce us to more precise, predictable, convenient, efficient, scalable creatures, how can the 0s and 1s be of use to actually help us appreciate, see, acknowledge and celebrate our duality, our humanity? – all the messy, gorgeous, unpredictable, inefficient and awesome parts? That’s a big question but it’s what I sit with and part of what drives us at Loove.”
- Commerce v. art; technology and humanity: “I was only ever interested in tech for what it could teach me about my humanity and what it could help me understand about the human condition.” Trying to build a machine with human common-sense knowledge – she did it not because she wanted to do it but because “I knew we would hit walls that would help us to understand more about the nature of our own intelligence.” So tech was interesting to her only because of what it taught her about humanity; “Yahoo! was a platform and practicum for me to do that. It let me do that.” But in parallel to that, her side gig was chairing board of non-profit SFJAZZ. She had a clarifying moment in 2008 – before financial collapse – where Yahoo! was loser in context of Wall Street market, “yet we had a few billions in cash, virtually no debt, and great monthly free cash flow.” She realized that was pretty good; there was nothing about being a loser in that. But market was saying it had failed to consummate a merger with Microsoft. She started thinking, “what is it about capitalism and our relation to capital that we keep falling prey to the fallacy that 1+1 is more than 2? M&A’s fail 80% of the time. Why do we keep chastising people for failing to merge when at the end of the day, it's not numbers in a funnel that come out bigger numbers; it's humans who have to organize together and work together and collaborate and communicate, and that’s culture.” Why would it work when 2 cultures are so different? In the business world there was this myth that Yahoo! + Microsoft better. But in arts world, no one assumed artists should combine – “there is an irreducibility to art and artists that is ultimately human” – the world is seen to be better with both artists – why would you want them to become one superbeing? “That began a whole inquiry about what is it about art that helps keep us grounded and reminds us about the irreducibility of our humanity and what matters.” “That then organically and eventually led to say – how can we flip the switch? How can we demonstrate what it would look like to have a commerce ecology guided by artistic values, rather than subjecting our artistic culture to these market values?”
- Her current work in creating farm-to-table music ecology at Loove: She’s creating a bricks and mortar place in Brooklyn, also a virtual space, a production facility, a music label, an instigator, etc. What exactly is it? “If you're trying to effect a values transformation, then the demonstration has to be somewhat comprehensive – it has to be end to end. If you think about ‘organic’ – that’s a values transformation; it’s a consciousness raising about our entire food ecology and what creates the conditions for sustainable healthy food. So you can’t sort of have an organic ingredient and then a bunch of inorganic things and then have an organic output. You have to take care of the end to end. So …. what would farm to table music be?” “I got told a much bigger story about food, so buying an [expensive organic] apple is not just about buying an apple, it’s helping create the conditions for more apples. There’s a much bigger story and my agency in that story is consequential, and I can either act in alignment with my values” or not. “We have to tell way bigger stories because capitalism atomizes everything. … It asks ‘how do you get more for less? How do you squeeze out profit?’” “What it squeezes out for that profit often is the very humanity that we cherish – if that’s what gets squeezed out, it’s the part that is not binary, it’s the part that’s not quantifiable.” “Farm to table as an ethos, a story, framing and narrative changed a critical mass of people, and that’s a lot – to first understand something bigger and then understand their own power within that, good and bad, and to have choices to act differently.” “I think that’s what culture is – it’s what we call the collective decisions we’ve made about how we want to be with one another. It shows some of he worst of us and it shows some of the best of us. Within culture, art to me is what speaks to that which is inextricably immutably, ineffably human – I don’t know why music stirs our soul, but it does, and it has since time immemorial. Being in the presence of art makes us … better because we are in touch with our humanity. … Art is to me the greatest technology humans have come up with to promote or propagate humanistic culture.”
- Centrality of music and the artist: “No human cultural movement that we would talk about in history … they all have their soundtrack. Art is a part of it if not a leader. It's an anthem. Art isn't a side thing. I grew up in a Hindu household, I came up not with the explicit, but the with implicit, understanding that the artist is a little closer to God/the divine … more expressly manifesting the divine within them. That orientation is not modern and western – that’s not how we see the artist in the modern capitalist world. But I think it’s right.” “It speaks to the messy nondual/whole/contradictory, nuanced beautiful truth within us that allows us to have the instincts to make healthy choices for ourselves, each other and the planet. When we separate from that is when we start atomizing, separating, and dominating. … If we can turn toward that – first even acknowledge it, then celebrate it – instead of something that’s to be corrected or augmented – it's something to be nurtured and nourished and celebrated. …” “We've seen technology on capitalism, but not on humanism. What if we did it from a humanistic perspective? Maybe that's exactly what we need to make the choices individually and collectively that will usher in our collective flourishing. Maybe, just maybe.”
- Basis for hope in human and artistic creativity in the Age of Kali Yuga and in face of human self-destruction: Paradoxically, “with this [Presidential] administration, this political cycle, this global turning toward division/polarization/demonization/domination – it’s precisely in the face of that we see a reaction, a counter-current. We see people who had a latent, maybe, understanding and appreciation for wholeness who are being called to bring that latent belief or tendency to the surface and speak out/act out/organize/vote/be of service, etc.” “First thing I thought [after election], ‘we're going to see a lot of great art’ – and that's happening. So there’s evidence ….” Communities like this are crucial to training people to see the other side, because there’s absolutely another side. “Promoting justice is noble precisely and only because of the persistence of injustice. They absolutely go together. All this awful, ugly stuff also has this other side.” But even without seeing this evidence, “only if I only saw the darkness, I still have to get up every day … hope isn’t that I think the odds are that we’ll figure out how to come out of this. I actually don’t believe that. I get great peace from knowing that the Hindu sages for centuries and millennia have predicted this stage of kali yoga, the end, the part where we really self-destruct. I take some peace from that because it’s not up to me. This was written. But there’s this nagging question of ‘what if?’ I can either get up and succumb to the outrage and the despair or I can just try to create a countercurrent, because what if? And if all that happens is that I’ve tried to create a countercurrent and I went out singing, at that point, the alternative is not an alternative. Right? All I have to say on my worst day is ‘what’s the alternative?’ and it becomes instantly clear to me, ‘Ok, keep on.’ Because the alternative is not an alternative.”
- Putting humanity back into music: Loove is about putting stories about artists (the humanity) back into the music, so music is not just data that we download. “The richness, the joy, the awe of being a music fan – the pride of curation that I had with my cassette collection …. the level of attention, intention, the liner notes – all of that stuff is wrapped up into what makes music so great.” Can’t just reduce it to downloadable files; if we do “we reduce our own humanity, because art appreciation is part of art.” We’ve always devalued the artist, and then we devalued the middleman (with advent of digital revolution), but then “we devalued ourselves as the audience, because we turned ourselves into ad-watching zombies instead of actors with agency, human people involved in the co-creation of creative culture.”
- All there ever is is practice: “I’m just practicing being the person I’m going to become. If I want to be the person I wish to become, I better think about what I’m practicing. That’s where attention and mindfulness comes in. I better think about what I’m practicing, because whether I’m thinking about it or not, I’m getting better at what I’m doing. So I’m either getting better at becoming the person I wish to be, or I’m literally getting better at not being that person, because I’m not paying attention. … That’s to me my spiritual practice.”
- Views about scale: Capitalism makes us keep trying to get bigger, scale bigger, or else get beaten. But you don’t scale chopping the onion in making a great soup. “What does scale is humans and culture. Art is our greatest technology within culture to propagate certain values. One person doesn’t have 50 kids, one person has 0 to 5ish. That’s a circle of concern that’s ‘scalable,’ but it does require each of us to pay attention to our circle of concern. … Every community has to pay profound attention to [education]. … Culture is what we call how human behavior scales. When we lose sight of that and when we fall prey to ‘set it and forget it’ – find the technology that just makes it so you figure it out once and invest once and then you get to sit fat and happy on the returns while it goes, then [quoting Daniel Schmachtenberger] ‘if you’re going to operate a the scale of the Gods then you have to have the wisdom and love of the Gods or else self-destruct.’” “For us to have created the capacity to operate at this scale, we have really upped the ante on ourselves – we have really raised the stakes so high for us to catch up in our own humanity. … I don’t know what it is about humans that makes us do that – I don’t know why we wouldn’t use all this great technology to make it easier on ourselves rather than harder on ourselves, but here are we. So we gotta come strong.”