Rebuilding the World Technology Destroyed

The Washington Post was headed for bankruptcy, and was finally sold for a pittance. Its buyer began his career on Wall Street, only to move into a burgeoning new industry, where he truly made his wealth. The newspaper he bought has a noble history, but will certainly earn losses for years to come.

I’m talking not about Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post yesterday, but rather Eugene Meyer, who bought the Post in 1933. Meyer left a lucrative career on Wall Street in 1920 to seize the burgeoning opportunity in industrial chemicals and founded Allied Chemical (today’s Honeywell).1 After making millions, Meyer spent the rest of his life both in public service and building the Post, spending millions of his own money in the process.

Meyer was in many ways following the established playbook for industrial magnates. Families like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies, who made their fortunes in railroads, oil, and steel, respectively, plowed money into universities, museums, and a host of other cultural touchstones.

It’s this tradition that makes Bezos’s purchase feel momentous, a crossing of the Rubicon of sorts. The tech industry is now producing its own magnates, who are following the Rockefeller playbook. See Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to the Newark school district, or Chris Hughes buying the New Republic. Neither though, feels as momentous as Jeff Bezos, the preeminent tech magnate, buying the Washington Post, the nation’s third most important newspaper.2

The ironic thing, of course, about a tech magnate buying the Washington Post is that technology (especially Craigslist) has destroyed the traditional newspaper business model. Not that newspapers are particularly special in this regard. As I wrote a month ago in a piece called Friction:

If there is a single phrase that describes the effect of the Internet, it is the elimination of friction.

With the loss of friction, there is necessarily the loss of everything built on friction, including value, privacy, and livelihoods. And that’s only three examples! The Internet is pulling out the foundations of nearly every institution and social more that our society is built upon.

While the struggles of the Washington Post and other newspapers fall squarely into the “value” bucket, the particularly devastating effect of our new world order is seen much more strongly in its effect on livelihoods. This piece on the Crumbling American Dream is a must-read:

But just beyond the horizon a national economic, social and cultural whirlwind was gathering force that would radically transform the life chances of the children and grandchildren of the graduates of the P.C.H.S. class of 1959. The change would be jaw dropping and heart wrenching, for Port Clinton turns out to be a poster child for changes that have engulfed America.

Port Clinton’s demise was largely about the demise of manufacturing, but to my mind, the story of manufacturing is the story of technology. The relentless pursuit of productivity has created massive wealth in the aggregate, even as it has destroyed the foundations of many of our institutions.

In this respect, what Bezos is doing feels almost obligatory. Technology – and I’m using the term very broadly here – has torn so much down; surely it’s the responsibility of technologists to build it back up.

And yet, I fear we as an industry are woefully unprepared for this responsibility. We glorify dropouts, endorse endless hours at work, and subscribe to a libertarian ideal that has little to do with reality. We say that ideas don’t matter, and yet, as Chris Dixon wrote in The Idea Maze:

The reality is that ideas do matter, just not in the narrow sense in which startup ideas are popularly defined. Good startup ideas are well developed, multi-year plans that contemplate many possible paths according to how the world changes.

But do we as an industry understand the world?

It’s here this essay turns personal.

My life is just about the exact opposite of what you would expect from a technologist. I studied political science as an undergrad, was an editor of one of the largest student newspapers in the country, and planned to work in politics. After graduating I took off for Taiwan to travel and teach English, and ended up with a family. Six years later I managed to finagle my way into a top-tier MBA program, only to be rejected by every tech company (but one) when it came time for internships. I didn’t have the right background – I hadn’t lived my life in the technology industry.

Yet I had lived life! I had lived life so fully, and gained so much perspective. And it turned out there was one company that valued that: Apple hired me within 24 hours of my first interview.

I think my being hired had something to do with this:

"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough — it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing." -- Steve Jobs
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” — Steve Jobs

It turned out that a life lived outside of technology was my greatest asset, at least at the company most every founder claims to idolize. But how many take this image and this philosophy seriously? It seems most are more closely aligned with Peter Thiel, who suggested that the best way to increase technological progress was to “Discourage people from pursuing humanities majors.”

Thiel may be right about the best way to “increase technological progress,” but progress is an objective fact; whether its effect is positive or negative remains to be determined.

There was a third article I read this weekend, about the social scientist Daniel Kahneman, called The Anatomy of Influence:

Kahneman’s career tells the story of how an idea can germinate, find far-flung disciples, and eventually reshape entire disciplines. Among scholars who do citation analysis, he is an anomaly. “When you look at how many areas of social science he’s put his fingers in, it’s just ridiculous,” says Jevin West, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, who has helped develop an algorithm for tracing the spread of ideas among disciplines. “Very rarely do you see someone with that amount of influence.”

But intellectual influence is tricky to define. Is it a matter of citations? Awards? Prestigious professorships? Book sales? A seat at Charlie Rose’s table? West suggests something else, something more compelling: “Kahneman’s career shows that intellectual influence is the ability to dissolve disciplinary boundaries.”

Influence lives at intersections. Yet, as an industry, it at times feels the boundaries we have built around who makes an effective product manager, or programmer, or designer, are stronger than ever, even as the need to cross those boundaries is ever more pressing. It’s not that Thiel was wrong about what types of degrees push progress forward; rather, it’s the blind optimism that technology is an inherent good that is so dangerous.

Technology is destroying the world as it was; do we have the vision and outlook to rebuild it into something better? Do we value what matters?

I’m confident in Jeff Bezos. I’m a little more worried about the rest of us.

  1. This was the same time period that Dupont created the divisional organization; it was a good time to be a chemical company 

  2. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are one and two; the order likely depends on your profession and political bent