Last week an email hit my inbox with a simple and powerful sentiment. “I miss your writing,” it said. The person who sent it was a longtime reader of this site.
I miss writing too. But there’s a reason I’ve been quiet here and on other platforms – I wrote a very short post about that earlier this summer. To summarize, last year I decided to take the leap, for the seventh time, and start a company with my dear friend and frequent co-conspirator John Heilemann. John and I have worked on projects for the better part of three decades, but we’d never started a company together. Now we have: Recount Media is an entirely new approach to video about politics. And the truth is, Recount Media not only requires all of my time, it’s also in fields that seem pretty orthogonal to my previous career trajectory.
If the latest tech revelations have proven anything, it’s that the endless cycle of jaw-dropping headlines and concomitant corporate apologetics has changed exactly nothing.
Over and over, the pattern repeats. A journalist, researcher, or concerned citizen finds some appalling externality associated with one of our largest technology platforms. Representatives from the indicted company wring their hands, take down the offending content and/or de-platform the offending accounts, all the while assuring us “we actively police violations of our terms of service and are always looking to improve our service.”
This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
If predictions are like baseball, I’m bound to have a bad year in 2019, given how well things went the last time around. And given how my own interests, work life, and physical location have changed of late, I’m not entirely sure what might spring from this particular session at the keyboard.
But as I’ve noted in previous versions of this post (all 15 of them are linked at the bottom), I do these predictions in something of a fugue state – I don’t prepare in advance. I just sit down, stare at a blank page, and start to write.
So Happy New Year, and here we go.
1/ Global warming gets really, really, really real. I don’t know how this isn’t the first thing on everyone’s mind already, with all the historic fires, hurricanes, floods, and other related climate catastrophes of 2018. But nature won’t relent in 2019, and we’ll endure something so devastating, right here in the US, that we won’t be able to ignore it anymore. I’m not happy about making this prediction, but it’ll likely take a super Sandy or a king-sized Katrina to slap some sense into America’s body politic. 2019 will be the year it happens.
2/ Mark Zuckerberg resigns as Chairman of Facebook, and relinquishes his supermajority voting rights. Related, Sheryl Sandberg stays right where she is. I honestly don’t see any other way Facebook pulls out of its nosedive. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, so I will just summarize: Facebook’s only salvation is through a new system of governance. And I mean that word liberally – new governance of how it manages data across its platform, new governance of how it works with communities, governments, and other key actors across its reach, and most fundamentally, new governance as to how it works as a corporate entity. It all starts with the Board asserting its proper role as the governors of the company. At present, the Board is fundamentally toothless.
3/ Despite a ton of noise and smoke from DC, no significant federal legislation is signed around how data is managed in the United States. I know I predicted just a few posts ago that 2019 will be the year the tech sector has to finally contend with Washington. And it will be…but in the end, nothing definitive will emerge, because we’ll all be utterly distracted by the Trump show (see below). Because of this, unhappily, we’ll end up governed by both GDPR and California’s homespun privacy law, neither of which actually force the kind of change we really need.
4/ The Trump show gets cancelled. Last year, I said Trump would blow up, but not leave. This year, I’m with Fred, Trump’s in his final season. We all love watching a slow motion car wreck, but 2019 is the year most of us realize the car’s careening into a school bus full of our loved ones. Donald Trump, you’re fired.
5/ Cannabis for the win. With Sessions gone and politicians of all stripes looking for an easy win, Congress will pass legislation legalizing cannabis. Huzzah!!!! Just in time, because…
6/ China implodes, the world wobbles. Look, I’m utterly out of my depth here, but something just feels wrong with the whole China picture. Half the world’s experts are warning us that China’s fusion of capitalism and authoritarianism is already taking over the world, and the other half are clinging to the long-held notion that China’s approach to nation building is simply too fragile to withstand democratic capitalism’s demands for transparency. But I think there may be other reasons China’s reach will extend its grasp: It depends on global growth and optimistic debt markets. And both of those things will fail this year, exposing what is a marvelous but unsustainable experiment in managed markets. This is a long way of backing into a related prediction:
7/ 2019 will be a terrible year for financial markets. This is the ultimate conventional wisdom amongst my colleagues in SF and NY, even though I’ve seen plenty of predictions that Wall St. will have a pretty good year. I have no particular insight as to why I feel this way, it’s mainly a gut call: Things have been too good, for too long. It’s time for a serious correction.
8/ At least one major tech IPO is pulled, the rest disappoint as a class. Uber, Lyft, Slack, Pinterest et al are all expected this year. But it won’t be a good year to go public. Some will have no choice, but others may simply resize their businesses to focus on cash flow, so as to find a better window down the road.
9/ New forms of journalistic media flourish. It’s well past time those of us in the media world take responsibility for the shit we make, and start to try significant new approaches to information delivery vehicles. We have been hostages to the toxic business models of engagement for engagement’s sake. We’ll continue to shake that off in various ways this year – with at least one new format taking off explosively. Will it have lasting power? That won’t be clear by year’s end. But the world is ready to embrace the new, and it’s our jobs to invest, invent, support, and experiment with how we inform ourselves through the media. Related, but not exactly the same…
10/A new “social network” emerges by the end of the year. Likely based on messaging and encryption (a la Signal or Confide), the network will have many of the same features as the original Facebook, but will be based on a paid model. There’ll be some clever new angle – there always is – but in the end, it’s a way to manage your social life digitally. There are simply too many pissed off and guilt-ridden social media billionaires with the means to launch such a network – I mean, Insta’s Kevin Systrom, WhatsApp’s Jan and Brian, not to mention the legions of mere multi-millionaires who have bled out of Facebook’s battered body of late.
So that’s it. On a personal note, I’ll be happily busy this year. Since moving to NY this past September, I’ve got several new projects in the works, some still under wraps, some already in process. NewCo and the Shift Forum will continue, but in reconstituted forms. I’ll keep up with my writing as best I can; more likely than not most of it will focus the governance of data and how its effect our national dialog. Thanks, as always, for reading and for your emails, comments, and tweets. I read each of them and am inspired by all. May your 2019 bring fulfillment, peace, and gratitude.
Every year I write predictions for the year ahead. And at the end of that year, I grade myself on how I did. I love writing this post, and thankfully you all love reading it as well. These “How I Did” posts are usually the most popular of the year, beating even the original predictions in readership and engagement.
What’s that about, anyway? Is it the spectacle of watching a guy admit he got things wrong? Cheering when I get it right? Perhaps it’s just a chance to pull back and review the year that was, all the while marveling at how much happened in twelve short months. And 2018 does not disappoint.
Here we go:
Prediction #1: Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story. Cast yourself back to late 2017 when Bitcoin was pushing $20,000 and the entire tech sector was obsessed with blockchain everything. ICOs were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the press was hyping (or denigrating) it all, and the fools were truly rushing in. In my prediction post, I struck a more measured tone: “…there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long.” I think I got that right. Bitcoin has crashed to earth, and those who remain in the space are deep in the real work – which I still believe to be fundamentally important to the future of not only tech, but society as well. Score: 10/10
Prediction #2: Donald Trump blows up. I don’t usually make political predictions, but by 2017, Trump was the story, bigger than politics, and bigger than tech. I wrote: “2018 is the year [Trump] goes down, and when [he] does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.” I think I also got this one right. Trump is done – nearly everyone I trust in politics agrees with that statement. I won’t recount all the reasons, but here are a few: No fewer than 17 ongoing investigations of the President and/or his organizations. A tanking stock market that has lost all faith in the President’s leadership. Nearly 40 actual indictments and several high profile guilty verdicts. A Democratic majority in the House preparing an endless barrage of subpoenas and investigations. And a Republican party finally ready to abandon its leader. Net net: Trump is toast. It’s just going to take a while for that final pat of butter. Score: 10/10
Prediction #3: Facts make a comeback. Here’s what I wrote in support of this assertion: “2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this.” I’d like to claim I nailed this one, but I think the trend lines are supportive. Real journalism had a banner year, with subscriptions to high-integrity publications breaking records year on year. Most smart liberals have realized that the politics of blame is a losing game. And I was happily right about the 2018 elections, which was one of the most definitive rebukes of a sitting President in the history of our nation. As for those “viral memes” I predicted, I’m not sure how I might prove or disprove that assertion – none come to mind, but I may have missed something, given what a blur 2018 turned out to be. Alas, that “rising tide of technology-driven engagement” was a pretty useless statement. Everything these days is tech-driven…so I deserve to be dinged for that pablum. But overall? Not bad at all. Score: 7/10
Prediction #4: Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. It might be hard to give me credit for this one, given how the FANG names have tanked over the past few months, but cast your mind back to when I wrote this prediction, in late December: Tech stocks were doing nothing but going up. And where are they now? After continuing to climb for months, they’re….mostly where they started the year. Sideways. Apple started at around 170, and today is at … 156. Google started at 1048, and is now at…1037. Amazon and Netflix did better, rising double digit percentages, but plenty of other tech stocks are down significantly year on year. The tech-driven Nasdaq index started the year at around 7000, as of today, it’s down to 6600. So, some up, some down, and a whole lot of … sideways. As I wrote: “All the year-in-review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year.” Ummm….yep, and see the next two predictions… Score: 9/10.
Prediction #6: Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Well, in my original post, I predicted a #MeToo shoe dropping around Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. That didn’t happen exactly, though the whisper-ma-phone was sure running hot for the first few months of the year, and a massive sexual misconduct scandal eventually broke out later in the year. But even if I was wrong on that one point, it’s true the company had a bad first half, and for the most part, a pretty terrible year overall. In March, it had a government AI contract blow up in its face, leading to employee protests and resignations. This trend only continued throughout the year, culminating in thousands of employees walking out in protest of the company’s payouts to alleged sexual harassers. Oh, and that empty chair at Congressional hearings sure didn’t help the company’s reputation. I also predicted more EU fines: Check! A record-breaking $5 billion fine, to be exact. Further, news the company was creating a censored version of its core search engine in China also tarnished big G. But I whiffed when I mulled how the company might get its mojo back: I predicted it would consider breaking itself up and taking the parts public. That didn’t happen (as far as we know). Instead, Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally relented, showing up to endure yet another act in DC’s endless string of political carnivals. Pichai acquitted himself well enough to support my assertion that Google began to recover by year’s end. But as recoveries go, it’s a fragile one. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #7: The Duopoly falls out of favor. This was my annual prediction around the digital advertising marketplace, focused on Facebook and (again) Google. In it, I wrote: “This doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places.” This absolutely occurred. I’ve already chronicled Google’s travails in 2018, and there’s simply not enough pixels to do the same for Facebook. This New York Times piece lays out how advertisers have responded: No Morals. In the piece, and many others like it, top advertisers, including the CEO of a major agency, went on the record decrying Facebook – giving me cause for a #humblebrag, if I do say so myself. Oh, and yes, both Facebook and Google posted lower revenue growth rates year on year. Score: 10/10.
Prediction #8: Pinterest breaks out. As I wrote in my original post: “This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it.” Well, near the end of 2018, a slew of reports predicted that Pinterest is about to file for a massive IPO. As if by magic, the world woke up to Pinterest. It seems I was right – but as of yet, the IPO has not been confirmed. So…I’ll not score myself a 10 on this one, but if Pinterest does have a successful IPO early next year, I reserve the right to go back and add a couple of points. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #9: Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. Driverless cars have been “just around the corner” for what feels like forever. By late 2017, everyone in the business was claiming they’d breakout within a year. But that didn’t happen, regardless of the hype around the first “commercial launch” by Waymo in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I’m sorry, but a “launch” limited to 400 pre-selected and highly vetted beta ain’t mainstream – it’s not even a service in any defensible way. We’re still a long, long way off from this utopian vision. Our cities can’t even figure out what to do with electric scooters, for goodness sake. It’ll be a coon’s age before they figure out driverless cars. Score: 9/10.
Prediction #10: Business leads. I think I need to avoid these spongy predictions, because it’s super hard to prove whether or not they came true. 2018 showed us plenty of examples of business leadership along the lines of what I predicted. Here’s what I wrote: “A crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders. “All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business.” Well, I could list all the companies that pushed this movement forward. Lots of great companies did great things – Salesforce, a leader in corporate responsibility, even hired a friend of mine to be Chief Ethics Officer. Imagine if every major company empowered such a position? And a powerful Senator – Elizabeth Warren, who likely will run for the presidency in 2019 – laid out her vision for a new approach to corporate responsibility in draft legislation called the Accountable Capitalism Act. But at the end of the day, I’ve got no way to prove that 2018 was “a break out year” for “a crucial new norm in business.” I wish I did, but…I don’t. Score: 5/10.
Overall, I have to say, this was one of the most successful reviews of my predictions ever – and that’s saying something, given I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Nine of ten were pretty much correct, with just one being a push. That sets a high bar for my predictions for 2019…coming, I hope, in the next week or so. Until then, thanks as always for being a fellow traveler. And happy new year – may 2019 bring you and yours happiness, health, and gratitude.
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.
Hence the chuckle many of us had when we saw this trending piece suggesting that perhaps it was time for us to finally unhook from Facebook and – wait for it – get our own personal webpage, one we updated for any and all to peruse. You know, like a blog, only for now. I don’t know the author – the editor of the tech-site Motherboard – but it’s kind of fun to watch someone join the Old Timers Web Club in real time. Hey Facebook, get off my lawn!!!
That Golden Age
So as to not bury the lead, let me state something upfront: Of course the architecture of our current Internet is borked. It’s dumb. It’s a goddamn desert. It’s soil where seed don’t sprout. Innovation? On the web, that dog stopped hunting years ago.
And who or what’s to blame? No, no. It’s not Facebook. Facebook is merely a symptom. A convenient and easy stand in – an artifact of a larger failure of our cultural commons. Somewhere in the past decade we got something wrong, we lost our narrative – we allowed Facebook and its kin to run away with our culture.
Instead of focusing on Facebook, which is structurally borked and hurtling toward Yahoo-like irrelevance, it’s time to focus on that mistake we made, and how we might address it.
Just 10-15 years ago, things weren’t heading toward the our currently crippled version of the Internet. Back in the heady days of 2004 to 2010 – not very long ago – a riot of innovation had overtaken the technology and Internet world. We called this era “Web 2.0” – the Internet was becoming an open, distributed platform, in every meaning of the word. It was generative, it was Gates Line-compliant, and its increasingly muscular technical infrastructure promised wonder and magic and endless buckets of new. Bandwidth, responsive design, data storage, processing on demand, generously instrumented APIs; it was all coming together. Thousands of new projects and companies and ideas and hacks and services bloomed.
Sure, back then the giants were still giants – but they seemed genuinely friendly and aligned with an open, distributed philosophy. Google united the Internet, codifying (and sharing) a data structure that everyone could build upon. Amazon Web Services launched in 2006, and with the problem of storage and processing solved, tens of thousands of new services were launched in a matter of just a few years. Hell, even Facebook launched an open platform, though it quickly realized it had no business doing so. AJAX broke out, allowing for multi-state data-driven user interfaces, and just like that, the web broke out of flatland. Anyone with passable scripting skills could make interesting shit! The promise of Internet 1.0 – that open, connected, intelligence-at-the-node vision we all bought into back before any of it was really possible – by 2008 or so, that promise was damn near realized. Remember LivePlasma? Yeah, that was an amazing mashup. Too bad it’s been dormant for over a decade.
After 2010 or so, things went sideways. And then they got worse. I think in the end, our failure wasn’t that we let Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon get too big, or too powerful. No, I think instead we failed to consider the impact of the technologies and the companies we were building. We failed to play our hand forward, we failed to realize that these nascent technologies were fragile and ungoverned and liable to be exploited by people less idealistic than we were.
Our Shadow Constitution
Our lack of consideration deliberately aided and abetted the creation of a unratified shadow Constitution for the Internet – a governance architecture built on assumptions we have accepted, but are actively ignoring. All those Terms of Service that we clicked past, the EULAs we mocked but failed to challenge, those policies have built walls around our data and how it may be used. Massive platform companies have used those walls to create impenetrable business models. Their IPO filings explain in full how the monopolization and exploitation of data were central to their success – but we bought the stock anyway.
We failed to imagine that these new companies – these Facebooks, Ubers, Amazons and Googles – might one day become exactly what they were destined to become, should we leave them ungoverned and in the thrall of unbridled capitalism. We never imagined that should they win, the vision we had of a democratic Internet would end up losing.
It’s not that, at the very start at least, that tech companies were run by evil people in any larger sense. These were smart kids, almost always male, testing the limits of adolescence in their first years after high school or college. Timing mattered most: In the mid to late oughts, with the winds of Web 2 at their back, these companies had the right ideas at the right time, with an eager nexus of opportunistic capital urging them forward.
They built extraordinary companies. But again, they built a new architecture of governance over our economy and our culture – a brutalist ecosystem that repels innovation. Not on purpose – not at first. But protected by the walls of the Internet’s newly established shadow constitution and in the thrall of a new kind of technology-fused capitalism, they certainly got good at exploiting their data-driven leverage.
So here we are, at the end of 2018, with all our darlings, the leaders not only of the tech sector, but of our entire economy, bloodied by doubt, staggering from the weight of unconsidered externalities. What comes next?
2019: The Year of Internet Policy
Whether we like it or not, Policy with a capital P is coming to the Internet world next year. Our newly emboldened Congress is scrambling to introduce multiple pieces of legislation, from an Internet Bill of Rights to a federal privacy law modeled on – shudder – the EU’s GDPR. In the past month, I’ve read draft policy papers suggesting we tax the Internet’s advertising model, that we break up Google, Facebook, and Amazon, or that we back off and just let the market “do its work.”
And that’s a good thing, to my mind – it seems we’re finally coming to terms with the power of the companies we’ve created, and we’re ready to have a national dialog about a path forward. To that end, a spot of personal news: I’ve joined the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and I’m working on a research project studying how data flows in US markets, with an emphasis on the major tech platforms. I’m also teaching a course on Internet business models and policy. In short, I’m leaning into this conversation, and you’ll likely be seeing a lot more writing on these topics here over the course of the next year or so.
Oh, and yeah, I’m also working on a new project, which remains in stealth for the time being. Yep, has to do with media and tech, but with a new focus: Our political dialog. More on that later in the year.
I know I’ve been a bit quiet this past month, but starting up new things requires a lot of work, and my writing has suffered as a result. But I’ve got quite a few pieces in the queue, starting with my annual roundup of how I did in my predictions for the year, and then of course my predictions for 2019. But I’ll spoil at least one of them now and just summarize the point of this post from the start: It’s time we figure out how to build a better Internet, and 2019 will be the year policymakers get deeply involved in this overdue and essential conversation.
Mark Zuckerberg is in a crisis of leadership. Will he grasp its opportunity?
It seems like an eternity, but about one year ago this Fall, Uber had kicked its iconic founding CEO to the curb, and he responded by attempting a board room coup. Meanwhile, Facebook was at least a year into crisis mode, clumsily dealing with a spreading contagion that culminated in a Yom Kippur apology from CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better,” he posted. “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask for forgiveness and I will work to do better.”
More than one year after that work reputedly began, what lesson from Facebook’s still rolling catastrophe? I think it’s pretty clear: Mark Zuckerberg needs to do a lot more than publish blog posts someone else has written for him.
And while I’m not much of a fan of the company he’s built, I think Facebook’s CEO can change. But only if he’s willing to truly lead, and take the kind of action that today may seem insane, but ten years from now, just might look like genius. What actions might those be? Well, let’s review.
Admit you have a problem. Yes, over and over and over, Facebook executives have copped a plea. But they’ve never acknowledged the real problem is the company’s core DNA. More often than not, the company plays the pre-teen game of admitting a small sin so as to cover a larger one. The latest case in point is this post-modern gem: Elliot Schrage On Definers. The headline alone says all you need to know about Facebook’s latest disaster: Blame the guy who hired the firm, have him fall on a sword, add a bit of Sandbergian mea culpa, and move along. Nope, this time is different, Facebook. It’s time for fundamental change. And that means….
Submit to real governance. Like Google, Uber, Snap, and other controversial tech companies, Facebook implemented a two-class system of shares which canonizes their founder as an untouchable god, rendering the company board toothless in moments of true crisis (and in appeasement mode the rest of the time). Following Uber’s lead, it’s time for Mark to submit to the governance of the capital markets and abandon his super majority voting powers. He must stand before his board naked and afraid for his job. This and this alone will predicate the kind of change Facebook needs.
Bring in outsiders. Facebook’s core problem is expressed through its insular nature. This is also the technology industry’s problem – an engineer’s determination that every obstacle can be hacked to submission, and that non-engineers are mainly good for paint and powder afterward. This is simply not the case anymore, either at Facebook or in tech more broadly. Zuckerberg must demand his board commission a highly qualified panel to review his company’s management and product decisions, and he must commit to implementing that panel’s recommendations. Along those lines, here are a two major thought starters:
Embrace radical change. Remember “Bringing People Closer Together” and the wildly misappropriated “Time Well Spent“? This was supposedly a major new product initiative to change Facebook’s core mission, designed to shift our attention from what was wrong with the platform – data breaches, the newsfeed, false news and election meddling – to what could be right about it: Community pages and human connection. Has it worked? Let’s just be honest: No. Community doesn’t happen because a technology company writes a blog post or emphasizes a product suite it built for an entirely different purpose. Facebook can’t be fixed unless it changes its core business model. So just do it, already. Which leads to:
Free the data. Facebook has so far failed to enable a truly open society, despite its embrace of lofty mission statements. I’ve written about this at length, so I’ll just summarize: Embrace machine-readable data portability, and build a true, Gates-line compliant platform that is governed by the people, companies, and participants who benefit from it. Yes, actually governing is a messy pain in the ass, but failing to govern? That’s a company killer.
Many brilliant observers are calling for Mark’s head, and/or for the company to be broken up. I’m not sure either of these solutions will do much more than insure that the company fails. What tech needs now is proof that it can lead with bold, high-minded vision that gives back more than it takes. Mark Zuckerberg has the power to do just that. The only question now is whether he will use it.
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, I’m not sure if I qualify as one of those elites, but I have a theory, one that wasn’t quite raised in the Times’ otherwise compelling profile. I’ve been a student of Harari’s work, and if there’s one clear message, it’s this: We’re running headlong into a world controlled by a tiny elite of superhumans, masters of new technologies that the “useless class” will never understand. “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm,” Harari writes in Homo Deus. A new religion of Dataism will transcend our current obsession with ourselves, and we will “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.” In other words, we humans are f*cked, save for a few of the lucky ones who manage to transcend their fate and become masters of the machines. “Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class,” the Times writes, paraphrasing Harari’s work, “and a teeming, furious “useless class.””
So here’s why I think the Valley loves Harari: We all believe we’ll be members of that tiny ruling class. It’s an indefensible, mathematically impossible belief, but as Harari reminds us in 21 Lessons, “never underestimate human stupidity.” Put another way, we are fooling ourselves, content to imagine we’ll somehow all earn a ticket into (or onto) whatever apocalypse-dodging exit plan Musk, Page or Bezos might dream up (they’re all obsessed with leaving the planet, after all). Believing that impossible fiction is certainly a lot easier than doing the quotidian work of actually fixing the problems which lay before us. Better to be one of the winners than to risk losing along with the rest of the useless class, no?
But we can’t all be winners in the future Harari lays out, and he seems to understand this fact. “If you make people start thinking far more deeply and seriously about these issues,” he said to the Times, “some of the things they will think about might not be what you want them to think about.”
Exactly, Professor. Now that I’ve departed the Valley, where I spent nearly three decades of my life, I’m starting to gain a bit of perspective on my own complicated relationship with the power structure of the place. I grew up with the (mostly) men who lead companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, and early in the industry’s rise, it was heady to share the same stage with legends like Bezos, Jobs, or Page. But as the technology industry becomes the driving force of social rupture, I’m far more skeptical of its leaders’ abilities to, well, lead.
Witness this nearly idea-free interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, also in the Times, where the meticulously media-prepped executive opines on whether his industry has a role to play in society’s ills: “Every generation is worried about the new technology, and feels like this time it’s different. Our parents worried about Elvis Presley’s influence on kids. So, I’m always asking the question, “Why would it be any different this time?” Having said that, I do realize the change that’s happening now is much faster than ever before. My son still doesn’t have a phone.”
Pichai’s son not have a phone, but he is earning money mining Ethereum (really, you can’t make this shit up). I’m not sure the son of a centi-millionaire needs to earn money – but it certainly is useful to master the algorithms that will soon control nearly every aspect of human life. So – no, son, no addictive phone for you (even though my company makes them, and makes their operating systems, and makes the apps which ensure their addictive qualities).
But mining crypto currency? Absolutely!
Should Harari be proven right and humanity becomes irrelevant, I’m pretty sure Pichai’s son will have a first class ticket out of whatever mess is left behind. But the rest of us? We should probably focus on making sure that kid never needs to use it.
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?
Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us. We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?
Nearly two years ago I predicted that the bloom would fade from the technology industry’s rose, and so far, so true. But as we begin to lose faith in the icons of our former narratives, a nagging and increasingly urgent question arises: In a world where we imaging merging with technology, what makes us uniquely human?
Our lives are now driven in large part by data, code, and processing, and by the governance of algorithms. These determine how data flows, and what insights and decisions are taken as a result.
So yes, software has, in a way, eaten the world. But software is not something being done to us. We have turned the physical world into data, we have translated our thoughts, actions, needs and desires into data, and we have submitted that data for algorithmic inspection and processing. What we now struggle with is the result of these new habits – the force of technology looping back upon the world, bending it to a new will. What agency – and responsibility – do we have? Whose will? To what end?
Synonymous with progress, asking not for permission, fearless of breaking things – in particular stupid, worthy-of-being-broken things like government, sclerotic corporations, and fetid social norms – the technology industry reveled for decades as a kind of benighted warrior for societal good. As one Senator told me during the Facebook hearings this past summer, “we purposefully didn’t regulate technology, and that was the right thing to do.” But now? He shrugged. Now, maybe it’s time.
Because technology is already regulating us. I’ve always marveled at libertarians who think the best regulatory framework for government is none at all. Do they think that means there’s no governance?
In our capitalized healthcare system, data, code and algorithms now drive diagnosis, costs, coverage and outcomes. What changes on the ground? People are being denied healthcare, and this equates to life or death in the real world.
Can you get credit to start a business? A loan to better yourself through education? Financial decisions are now determined by data, code, and algorithms. Job applications are turned to data, and run through cohorts of similarities, determining who gets hired, and who ultimately ends up leaving the workforce.
And in perhaps the most human pursuit of all – connecting to other humans – we’ve turned our desires and our hopes to data, swapping centuries of cultural norms for faith in the governance of code and algorithms built – in necessary secrecy – by private corporations.
How does a human being make a decision? Individual decision making has always been opaque – who can query what happens inside someone’s head? We gather input, we weigh options and impacts, we test assumptions through conversations with others. And then we make a call – and we hope for the best.
But when others are making decisions that impact us, well, those kinds of decisions require governance. Over thousands of years we’ve designed systems to insure that our most important societal decisions can be queried and audited for fairness, that they are defensible against some shared logic, that they will benefit society at large.
We call these systems government. It is imperfect but… it’s better than anarchy.
For centuries, government regulations have constrained social decisions that impact health, job applications, credit – even our public square. Dating we’ve left to the governance of cultural norms, which share the power of government over much of the world.
But in just the past decade, we’ve ceded much of this governance to private companies – companies motivated by market imperatives which demand their decision making processes be hidden. Our public government – and our culture – have not kept up.
What happens when decisions are taken by algorithms of governance that no one understands? And what happens when those algorithms are themselves governed by a philosophy called capitalism?
We’ve begun a radical experiment combining technology and capitalism, one that most of us have scarcely considered. Our public commons – that which we held as owned by all, to the benefit of all – is increasingly becoming privatized.
Thousands of companies are now dedicated to revenue extraction in the course of delivering what were once held as public goods. Public transportation is being hollowed out by Uber, Lyft, and their competitors (leveraging public goods like roadways, traffic infrastructure, and GPS). Public education is losing funding to private schools, MOOCs, and for-profit universities. Public health, most disastrously in the United States, is driven by a capitalist philosophy tinged with technocratic regulatory capture. And in perhaps the greatest example of all, we’ve ceded our financial future to the almighty 401K – individuals can no longer count on pensions or social safety nets – they must instead secure their future by investing in “the markets” – markets which have become inhospitable to anyone lacking the technological acumen of the world’s most cutting-edge hedge funds.
What’s remarkable and terrifying about all of this is the fact that the combinatorial nature of technology and capitalism outputs fantastic wealth for a very few, and increasing poverty for the very many. It’s all well and good to claim that everyone should have a 401K. It’s irresponsible to continue that claim when faced with the reality that 84 percent of the stock market is owned by the wealthiest ten percent of the population.
This outcome is not sustainable. When a system of governance fails us, we must examine its fundamental inputs and processes, and seek to change them.
So what truly is governing us in the age of data, code, algorithms and processing? For nearly five decades, the singular true north of capitalism has been to enrich corporate shareholders. Other stakeholders – employees, impacted communities, partners, customers – do not directly determine the governance of most corporations.
Corporations are motivated by incentives and available resources. When the incentive is extraction of capital to be placed in the pockets of shareholders, and a new resource becomes available which will aide that extraction, companies will invent fantastic new ways to leverage that resource so as to achieve their goal. If that resource allows corporations to skirt current regulatory frameworks, or bypass them altogether, so much the better.
Now the caveat: Allow me to state for the record that I am not a socialist. If you’ve never read my work, know I’ve started six companies, invested in scores more, and consider myself an advocate of transparently governed free markets. But we’ve leaned far too over our skis – the facts no longer support our current governance model.
We turn our worlds to data, leveraging that data, technocapitalism then terraforms our world. Nowhere is this more evident that with automation – the largest cost of nearly every corporation is human labor, and digital technologies are getting extraordinarily good at replacing that cost.
Nearly everyone agrees this shift is not new – yes yes, a century or two ago, most of us were farmers. But this shift is coming far faster, and with far less considered governance. The last great transition came over generations. Technocapitalism has risen to its current heights in ten short years. Ten years.
If we are going to get this shift right, we urgently need to engage in a dialog about our core values. Can we perhaps rethink the purpose of work, given work no longer means labor? Can we reinvent our corporations and our regulatory frameworks to honor, celebrate and support our highest ideals? Can we prioritize what it means to be human even as we create and deploy tools that make redundant the way of life we’ve come to know these past few centuries?
These questions beg a simpler one: What makes us human?
I dusted off my old cultural anthropology texts, and consulted the scholars. The study of humankind teaches us that we are unique in that we are transcendent toolmakers – and digital technology is our most powerful tool. We have nuanced language, which allows us both recollection of the past, and foresight into the future. We are wired – literally at the molecular level – to be social, to depend on one another, to share information and experience. Thanks to all of this, we have the capability to wonder, to understand our place in the world, to philosophize. The love of beauty, philosophers will tell you, is the most human thing of all.
Oh, but then again, we are uniquely capable of intentional destroying ourselves. Plenty of species can do that by mistake. We’re unique in our ability to do it on purpose.
But perhaps the thing that makes us most human is our love of story telling, for narrative weaves nearly everything human into one grand experience. Our greatest philosophers even tell stories about telling stories! The best stories employ sublime language, advanced tools, deep community, profound wonder, and inescapable narrative tension. That ability to destroy ourselves? That’s the greatest narrative driver in this history of mankind.
How will it turn out?
We are storytelling engines uniquely capable of understanding our place in the world. And it’s time to change our story, before we fail a grand test of our own making: Can we transition to a world inhabited by both ourselves, and the otherness of the technology we’ve created? Should we fail, nature will indifferently shrug its shoulders. It has billions of years to let the whole experiment play over again.
We are the architects of this grand narrative. Let’s not miss our opportunity to get it right.
The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.
I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)
I toured The Washington Post as a teenager, and saw the desks where Bernstein and Woodward brought down a corrupt president. I met Katherine Graham once, at a conference I hosted, and I remain star struck by the institution she built to this day.
And every seven days, for more than five decades, Time magazine came to my parents’ home, defining the American zeitgeist and smartly summarizing what mattered in public discourse.
Now all four of my childhood icons are owned by billionaires who made their fortunes in technology. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. During the Gilded Age, our last great era of unbridled income inequality, many of America’s greatest journalistic institutions were owned by wealthy industrialists. William Randolph Hearst was a mining magnate. Joseph Pulitzer came from a wealthy European merchant family, though he came to the US broke and epitomized the American “self made man.” Andre Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., and Henry Flagler all dabbled in newspapers, with a healthy side of politics, which drove nearly all of American publishing during the Gilded Age.
Which brings us to the Benioffs, and to Time. This week’s announcement struck all the expected notes – “The Benioffs will hold TIME as a family investment,” “TIME is a treasure trove of the world’s history and culture,” “Lynne and I will take on no operational responsibility for TIME, and look only to be stewards of this historic and iconic brand.”
Well to that, I say poppycock. Time needs fixing, not benign stewardship. While it may be appropriate and politic to proclaim a hands-off approach, the flagship brand of the former Time Inc. empire could use a strong dose of what the Benioffs have to offer. Here’s my hot take on why and how:
Don’t play down the middle. What the United States needs right now is a voice of reason, of strength, of post-Enlightenment thinking. Not a safe, bland version of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. As Benioff well knows, politics is now the biggest driver of attention in the land, and taking a principled stand matters more than ever.
Learn from Bezos. Sure, the richest man in the world didn’t mess with the editorial side of the house, but then again, he already had an extraordinary leader in Marty Baron at the helm. But Bezos did completely shift the business model at the Post, implementing entirely new approaches to, well, pretty much every operating model in the building. New revenue leadership, new software platforms and processes, even a new SaaS business line. He thoroughly modernized the place, and if ever a place needed the same, it’s Time.
Invest in the product – editorial. But thoughtfully. First and foremost, the Benioffs should force the Time team to answer the most important question of any consumer brand: Differentiation that demands a premium. Why should Time earn someone’s attention (and money)? What makes the publication unique? What does its brand stand for, beyond history and a red band around the cover? What mission is it on? If anyone understands these issues, it’s Marc and Lynne Benioff. Don’t hold back on forcing this difficult conversation – including on staffing and leadership (I’ve no bone to pick with anyone there, BTW). American journalism needs it, now. I can imagine a Time magazine where the most talented and elite commentators debate the issues of our day. And what issues they truly are! But to draw them, the product must sing, and it must also pay. Abolish the practice of paying a pittance for an argument well rendered. It’s time.
Related, rethink the print business. Print isn’t dead, but it needs a radical rethink. There isn’t a definitive weekly journal of sensible political and social discourse in America, and there really should be. The New Yorker is comfortably highbrow, US News is a college review site, Newsweek is rudderless. Time has a huge opportunity, but as it stands, it plays to the middle far too much, and online, it tries to be everything to nobody. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing anyone can do at a struggling print magazine is to cut circulation (the base number of readers) and find its truly passionate brand advocates. The company already did this a year ago, but it may not have gone far enough. Junk circulation is rife in the magazine business. It’s also rampant online, which leads to…
Please, fix the website. A site that has a nearly 10-month out of date copyright notice at the bottom is not run like a lean product shop. Time online is a poster child for compromised business decisions driven entirely by acquiring junk audience (did you know that Time has 60mm uniques? Yeah, neither do they). Every single page on Time.com is littered with half a dozen or more competing display banners. The place stinks of desperate autoplay video, programmatic pharmaceutical come ons, and tawdry link bait (there are literally THREE instances of Outbrain-like junk on each article page. THREE!). Fixing this economic and product mess requires deep pockets and strong product imagination. The Benioffs have both. Invent (and or copy) new online models where the advertising adds value, where marketers would be proud to support the product. I’ve spoken to dozens of senior marketers looking to lean into high-quality news analysis. They’ve got very little to support at present. Time could change that.
Move out of Time Inc’s headquarters. Like, this week. The original Time Inc. HQ were stultifying and redolent with failure, but even the new digs downtown bear the albatross of past glories. It’s soul crushing. As an independent brand, Time needs a space that reclaims its pioneer spirt, and encourages its staff to rethink everything. Move to Nomad, the Flatiron, West Chelsea – anywhere but a skyscraper in the financial district.
Finally, leverage and rethink the cover. One of the largest single losses in the shift from analog to digital publishing was the loss of covers – the album cover (and its attendant liner notes), the book cover (and its attendant social signaling), and the magazine cover (and its attendant declarative power). The magazine cover is social artifact, editorial arbiter, cultural convener. The digital world still lacks the analog cover’s power. Time should make it a priority to invent its successor. Lock ten smart humans in a room full of whiteboards and don’t let them out till they have a dozen or more good ideas. Then test and learn – the answer is in there somewhere. The world needs editorial convening more than ever.
There’s so much more, but I didn’t actually set out to write a post about how to fix Time – I was merely interested in the historical allegories of successful industrialists who turned to publishing as they consolidated their legacies. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Benioff claimed his purchase of Time was aligned with his mission of “impact investing,” and that he was not going to be operationally involved. Well, Marc, if you truly want to have an impact, I beg to differ: Please do get involved, and the sooner the better.