It is election day in the United States, and the tech figure who had one of the biggest impacts on the current cycle is perhaps a non-obvious one: Jeff Bezos.
Back in 2013 Bezos bought the Washington Post, whose coverage of the campaign has been exemplary. The august newspaper’s reporting, particularly the work of David Fahrenthold, has uncovered stories that have had a far bigger impact than any number of tweets or blog posts or calls for days-off-work in Democrat-safe California ever could have had. What Bezos understood is a technology industry truism: impact is made at scale through the construction of repeatable processes. In the case of the Washington Post, facilitating a strong, confident newsroom has reaped far greater returns than any of us can accomplish on our own.
When Bezos made his purchase, I wrote an article entitled Rebuilding the World Technology Destroyed. It is, by Stratechery standards, pretty short, so I hope you will forgive my taking the unusual step of quoting it in full:
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). 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.
The ironic thing, of course, about a tech magnate buying the Washington Post is that technology 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 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.
To say that this election cycle has only deepened those worries would be a dramatic understatement. This is not a partisan statement, just an objective statement that technology has made objective truth a casualty to the pursuit of happiness — or engagement, to use the technical term — and now life and liberty hang in the balance.
A few weeks ago, during the keynote of the Oculus Connect 3 developer conference, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg articulated a vision for Facebook that I found chilling:
At Facebook, this is something we’re really committed to. You know, I’m an engineer, and I think a key part of the engineering mindset is this hope and this belief that you can take any system that’s out there and make it much much better than it is today. Anything, whether it’s hardware, or software, a company, a developer ecosystem, you can take anything and make it much, much better. And as I look out today, I see a lot of people who share this engineering mindset. And we all know where we want to improve and where we want virtual reality to eventually get…
The magic of VR software is this feeling of presence. The feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place. And helping this community build this software and these experiences is the single thing I am most excited about when it comes to virtual reality. Because this is what we do at Facebook. We build software and we build platforms that billions of people use to connect with the people and things that they care about.
Leave aside the parts about virtual reality; what bothers me is the faint hints of utopianism inherent in Zuckerberg’s declaration: engineers can make things better by sheer force of will — and that Facebook is an example of just that. In fact, Facebook is the premier example of just how efficient tech companies can be, and just how problematic that efficiency is when it is employed in the pursuit of “engagement” with no regard to the objective truth specifically, or the impact on society broadly.
Last spring Facebook was caught up in a ginned-up controversy about alleged bias: a solitary member of Facebook’s contracted Trending Topics editorial team claimed that conservative news stories were suppressed thanks to team members’ liberal bias. After an investigation Facebook found no evidence of said suppression, but went ahead and laid off the entire team anyways in favor of an algorithm; within days a fake news story was in Trending Topics, and at least four more followed in the next few weeks.
Granted, trending topics has always been a sideshow; what is much more disturbing are the revelations that fake news is widespread in Facebook’s news feed; unsurprisingly, given they are human, many Facebook users wish to connect with people and things that confirm their pre-existing opinions, whether or not they are true.
Make no mistake, this results in a great business: I have written effusively about Facebook’s financial potential and noted that the News Feed algorithm is a big reason why Facebook Squashed Twitter. Giving people what they want to see will always draw more attention than making them work for it, in rather the same way that making up news is cheaper and more profitable than actually reporting the truth.
And yet it is Twitter that has reaffirmed itself as the most powerful antidote to Facebook’s algorithm: misinformation certainly spreads via a tweet, but truth follows unusually quickly; thanks to the power of retweets and quoted tweets, both are far more inescapable than they are on Facebook. Twitter is a far preferable manifestation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous concurrence in Whitney vs California (emphasis mine):
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject.
Brandeis’ concurrence was a defense of free speech, the right of which applies to government action; private companies are free to police their platforms at they wish. What, though, does free speech mean in an era of abundance? When information was scarce, limiting speech was a real danger; when information is abundant shielding people from speech they might disagree with has its own perverse effects.
To be clear, Twitter has a real abuse problem that it has been derelict in addressing, a decision that is costly in both human and business terms; there is real harm that comes from the ability to address anyone anonymously, including the suppression of viewpoints by de facto vigilantism. But I increasingly despair about the opposite extreme: the construction of cocoons where speech that intrudes on one’s world view with facts is suppressed for fear of what it does to the bottom line, resulting in an inert people incapable of finding common ground with anyone else.
This is why Twitter must be saved: the combination of network and format is irreplaceable, especially now that everyone knows it might not be a great business. For all the good that the Washington Post has done it is but one publication among many; the place where those publications disseminate information is the true scale, but Facebook has made its priorities clear: engagement and dollars, leavened with the certainty that engineers can make it all better; the externalities that result from a focus on making people feel good are not their concern.
The weakness of Twitter, in contrast, is its unwieldy reliance on humans, to build their own feeds, to find a new network, to broadcast to potentially no one what they think. The payoff, though, is the capability of spreading information more widely and more quickly than has ever before been possible; the societal benefit is an externality that needs to be preserved.