For the past several years, I’ve led a graduate-level class studying the early history of Internet policy in the United States. It runs just seven weeks – the truth is, there’s not that much actual legislation to review. We spend a lot of the course focused on Internet business models, which, as I hope this post will illuminate, are not well understood even amongst Ivy-league grads. But this past week, one topic leapt from my syllabus onto the front pages of every major news outlet: Section 230. Comprised of just 26 words, this once-obscure but now-trending Internet policy grants technology platforms like Facebook, Google, Airbnb, Amazon, and countless others the authority to moderate content without incurring the liability of a traditional publisher.
Thanks to the events of January 6th, Section 230 has broken into the mainstream of political dialog. Slowly – and then all of a sudden – the world has woken up to the connection between the disinformation flooding online platforms and what appears to be the rapid decay of our society.
Never in my five-plus decades has a year been so eagerly anticipated, which makes this business of prediction particularly daunting. I’m generally inclined to be optimistic, but rose-colored glasses stretch time. Good things always take longer to emerge than any of us would wish. Over 18 years of doing this I’ve learned that it’s best to not predict what I wish would happen, instead, it’s wise to go with what feels most likely in the worlds I find fascinating (for me, that’s media, technology, and business, with a dash of politics given my last two years at The Recount). As I do each year, I avoid reading other folks’ year-end predictions (though I plan on getting to them as soon as I hit publish!). Instead, I just sit down at my desk, and in one rather long session, I think out loud and see where things land.
As the coronavirus crisis built to pandemic levels in early March, a relatively unknown tech company confronted a defining opportunity. Zoom Video Communications, a fast-growing enterprise videoconferencing platform with roots in both Silicon Valley and China, had already seen its market cap grow from under $10 billion to nearly double that. As the coronavirus began dominating news reports in the western press, Zoom announced its first full fiscal year results as a public company. The company logged $622.7 million in revenue, up 88 percent from the year before. Zoom’s high growth rate and “software as a service” business model guaranteed fantastic future profits, and investors rewarded the company by driving its stock up even further. On March 5th, the day after Zoom announced its earnings, the company’s stock jumped to $125, more than double its price on the day of its public offering eleven months before. Market analysts began issuing bullish guidance, and company executives noted that as the coronavirus spread, more and more customers were flocking to Zoom’s easy-to-use video conferencing platform.
But as anyone paying attention to business news for the past month knows, it’s been a tumultuous ride for Zoom ever since. As the virus forced the world inside, demand for Zoom’s services skyrocketed, and the company became a household name nearly overnight. Zoom’s “freemium” model – which offers a basic version of its platform for free, with more robust features available for a modest monthly subscription fee – allowed tens of millions of new users to sample the company’s wares. Initially, Zoom was a hit with this new user base – stories of Zoom seders, Zoom cocktail parties, and even Zoom weddings gave the company a consumer-friendly vibe. Just like Google or Facebook before it, here was the story of a scrappy Valley startup with just the right product at just the right time. According to the company, Zoom’s monthly users leapt from 10 million to more than 200 million – an unimaginable increase of 2,000 percent in just one month.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”
Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.
A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”
Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”
Well, Walmart vs. Amazon is all about big business – a platform giant (Amazon) disrupting an OldBigCo (Walmart and its kin). Over the past two decades, Amazon bumped Walmart out of the race to a trillion-dollar market cap, and the OldCo from Bentonville had to reset and play the role of the upstart. The Token Act levels the playing field, forcing both to win where it really matters: In service to the customer.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? We’re in the midst of the most significant shift in our society since at least the Gilded Age – a tectonic reshaping of economic systems, social mores, and political institutions. Some even argue our current transition to a post-digital world, one in which technology has lapped our own intelligence and automation may displace the majority of our workforce within our lifetimes, is the most dramatic change to ever occur in recorded history. And that’s before we tackle a few other existential threats, including global warming – which is inarguably devastating our environment and driving massive immigration, drought, and famine – or income inequality, which has already fomented historic levels of political turmoil.
Any way you look at it, we’ve got a lot of difficult intellectual, social, and policy work to do, and we’ve got to do it quickly. Lucky for us, two major political events loom before us: The midterm elections this November, and a presidential election two years after that. Will we use these milestones to effect real change?
If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today?
Seven or so years ago, a famous VC penned a manifesto of sorts. Writing at a time the world was still skeptical of the dominance to which his industry has now ascended (to think, such a time existed, and so few years ago!), Marc Andreessen had a message for the doubters, the naysayers, and the Wall St. analysts who were (credibly!) claiming that his investments amounted to not much more than a bubble: