Tech and Liberty

Alexander Hamilton was against the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment. This famous xkcd comic explains why:

Free Speech by xkcd

According to Randall Munroe, the author, the “Right to Free Speech” is granted by the First Amendment, which was precisely the outcome Hamilton feared in Federalist No. 84:

I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense for claiming that power. They might urge with a semblance of reason, that the Constitution ought not to be charged with the absurdity of providing against the abuse of an authority which was not given, and that the provision against restraining the liberty of the press afforded a clear implication, that a power to prescribe proper regulations concerning it was intended to be vested in the national government. This may serve as a specimen of the numerous handles which would be given to the doctrine of constructive powers, by the indulgence of an injudicious zeal for bills of rights.

Hamilton’s argument is that because the U.S. Constitution was created not as a shield from tyrannical kings and princes, but rather by independent states, all essential liberties were secured by the preamble (emphasis original):

WE, THE PEOPLE of the United States, to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ORDAIN and ESTABLISH this Constitution for the United States of America.

Hamilton added:

Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain every thing they have no need of particular reservations.

Munroe, though, assumes the opposite: liberty, in this case the freedom of speech, is an artifact of law, only stretching as far as government action, and no further. Pat Kerr, who wrote a critique of this comic on Medium in 2016, argued that this was the exact wrong way to think about free speech:

Coherent definitions of free speech are actually rather hard to come by, but I would personally suggest that it’s something along the lines of “the ability to voluntarily express (and receive) opinions without suffering excessive penalties for doing so”. This is a liberal principle of tolerance towards others. It’s not an absolute, it isn’t comprehensive, it isn’t rigorously defined, and it isn’t a law.

What it is is a culture.

The Marketplace of Ideas

The most well-known argument for why free speech is important is that it allows for a “marketplace of ideas”. For example, in 2012’s United States v. Alvarez, in which a law making it a crime to lie about having received military honors was held to violate the First Amendment, Justice Kennedy wrote:

The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true. This is the ordinary course in a free society. The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straightout lie, the simple truth…The theory of our Constitution is “that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630, 40 S.Ct. 17, 63 L.Ed. 1173 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting).

The American people do not need the assistance of a government prosecution to express their high regard for the special place that military heroes hold in our tradition. Only a weak society needs government protection or intervention before it pursues its resolve to preserve the truth. Truth needs neither handcuffs nor a badge for its vindication.

Note the citation in the excerpt to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in the 1919 case Abrams v. United States; in that instance a socialist and four anarchists were convicted for distributing leaflets condemning U.S. intervention in Russia and calling for a worker’s strike. Holmes wrote:

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.

Here Holmes was echoing John Stuart Mill’s classic, On Liberty:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

This remains a powerful argument. Consider the dates, and circumstances: Holmes wrote his dissent 100 years ago about “seditious” behavior that today we consider normal, if not expected — any one of our Twitter feeds contains material far more objectionable to the powers that be than any of the fliers in question. Mill, meanwhile, published On Liberty in England in 1859, when slavery still existed in America. Clearly no one knew the full truth in 1919 or 1859, and it is doubtful anyone does in 2019, either.

At the same time, both Holmes and Mill wrote well after the creation of the First Amendment; to the extent the First Amendment creates a “marketplace for ideas”, there is no evidence that was the rationale for its creation.

In fact, the reasoning for the First Amendment was much more straightforward: to defend against tyranny. The Bill of Rights as a whole were added to the Constitution to satisfy “anti-federalists” that feared the creation of a central government that might one day violate their rights; Thomas Jefferson, whose support was essential for the adoption of the Constitution, wrote to James Madison that “Half a loaf is better than no bread. If we cannot secure all our rights, let us secure what we can.”

The Tech Angle

There is, I swear, a tech angle.

Over the last several weeks debate has raged over Facebook’s policy to not fact-check politician speech on its platforms, either in organic posts or paid advertisements. Twitter, meanwhile, decided to ban political ads completely.

Start with the latter: it is hard to interpret Twitter’s decision as anything other than a Strategy Credit. The company, by its own admission, earned an immaterial amount of revenue from political ads in the last election cycle; now it gets to wash its hands of the entire problem and chalk up whatever amount of revenue it misses out on as an investment in great PR.

Such a policy, however, particularly were it applied to Facebook, where much more advertising is done (political or otherwise), would significantly disadvantage new candidates without large followings, particularly in smaller elections without significant media coverage. It is, at a minimum, a rejection of social media’s third estate role; best to leave the messy politics to the parties and the mass media.

Facebook, meanwhile, has struggled to defend its decision in the context of a “marketplace of ideas”. After all, what value is there in a lie? In fact, Mill would argue, there is a great deal of value in exactly that, but it’s a hard case to make! Never mind that most disputes would be less about easily disprovable lies and more about challengeable assumptions.

And that is precisely where the original justification for the First Amendment matters: the point was to avoid tyranny, and Facebook deciding what is or is not true is exactly that — tyranny. It is an approach that is inimical to the culture of free expression that birthed the law about free expression, and the company is right to push back on calls that it be the arbiter of truth.

Tech and Liberty

In fact, I would go further: Facebook’s stance is an essential expression of what makes American tech unique. Don Valentine, the legendary founder of Sequoia Capital who passed away last week, once said:

The world of technology thrives best when individuals are left alone to be different, creative, and disobedient.

This is not a statement about participating in the marketplace of ideas, winning others over by the power of your argument. It is, rather, an affirmation of the absence of tyranny. Only when individuals are able to think for themselves can something truly new to the world be created, and the proof will be the success in the market for tech products and services.

It is on this point that I find Mill’s On Liberty to be particularly compelling:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

Frankly, I find it deeply concerning that I might have any trepidation in writing that Facebook made the right decision. The unquestioned assumption of the media world in which I live is that Facebook is uniquely guilty of all manners of crimes, first and foremost the election of one Donald Trump as president. Never mind the questionable campaign choices of his opponent, or the unrelenting focus on emails by the mainstream media (emails in general being the far more impactful Russian intelligence operation).

This isn’t that big of a deal in isolation: the beauty of my business model is that I am beholden only to my readers as a collective, and not individually. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is even more insulated thanks to his complete control of Facebook’s governance (more on this in a moment).

At the same time, the degree to which Twitter in particular — leaving aside its stance on ads — is increasingly a tool for stamping out independent thought in Silicon Valley should be a real concern for an industry predicated on “Thinking Different”. No power-that-be likes disruption, or innovation they do not control, but tech specifically and the U.S. generally needs more free thinkers, not fewer. Mob mentalities, no matter their good intentions, leave little room for freedom of thought, and lots of room for the status quo.

Think of one of the most famous characteristics of Silicon Valley, the fact that it is ok to fail, both for an entrepreneur and an investor. That is a philosophy of liberty, the point of which is not simply to win arguments, but also to have the space to do something different, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse.

Facebook’s Policy

This is not a blanket defense of Facebook. I believe the company has it right from a big picture perspective, both in terms of American values generally and tech values specifically, but could do better on the details.

First, while the letter from Facebook employees was wrong, at least constitutionally speaking, in asserting that “free speech and paid speech are not the same thing”, the practical impact in terms of Facebook is very different. Organic posts are subject to the vagaries of the Facebook algorithm, whereas advertisements can be targeted at specific groups.

Both are problematic in their own way. Facebook’s algorithm is, as far as we know, predicated first and foremost on engagement, which inevitably favors the outrageous and controversial. Targeting, meanwhile, both grants a right to be heard that is something distinct from a right to speech, as well as limits our shared understanding of what there is to debate.

These last two points are not new, by the way. Consider this New York Times article from 2004, the year Facebook was founded:

Each party’s databank has the name of every one of the 168 million or so registered voters in the country, cross-indexed with phone numbers, addresses, voting history, income range and so on — up to as many as several hundred points of data on each voter. The information has been acquired from state voter-registration rolls, census reports, consumer data-mining companies and direct marketing vendors. The parties have also amassed detailed information about the political and social beliefs that you might have shared with canvassers who have phoned or knocked on the door over the past few years.

The new databases and statistical tools allow candidates to seek out individuals by predicting what personal characteristic, or what combination of characteristics, makes a voter worthy of a tailor-made outreach effort. In other words, someone who appears nonpartisan, someone who might even think of himself as nonpartisan, may nevertheless have a political DNA that the parties will be able to decode. When I spoke recently with one Democratic statistician who does not want to be named — strategists on both sides see no conflict in combing through our personal lives and then speaking only on the condition of anonymity — he explained that his work is to find voters not just by what they are and where they live (a 30-something Jewish New Jersey resident like me, for instance) but by how they live (a homeowner with two young children, a foreign car and two credit cards). In politics, he added, this is somewhat revolutionary, allowing campaigns to reach out — by mail, phone or in person — to voters they would ordinarily ignore.

Crucially, these efforts, particularly that most devious of political tools, direct mail, operated completely in the dark. Here Facebook is a genuine improvement: in response to the 2016 election the company made all ads accessible and searchable to anyone.

Still, it’s fair to argue the company should go further. I like former Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos’ suggestion in the Columbia Journalism Review that there be a “floor” for the specificity of Facebook ad targeting when it comes to politicians:

Politicians lie all the time. What we want is for them to tell the same lies to everybody, instead of being able to hit 50 people at a time. There are a lot of ways you can try to regulate this, but I think the simplest is a requirement that the “segment” somebody can hit has a floor. Maybe 10,000 people for a presidential election, 1,000 for a Congressional. This would also reduce the huge market for voter data that exists.

Yes, you could direct mail only 10 people, but that would quickly become untenable given the marginal costs in both time and costs involved; the lack of friction on Facebook means that artificial limitations may be appropriate.

At the same time, the point about direct mail is instructive: no one is arguing that the U.S. Postal Service should start ascertaining the truth of political mailers. The question, then, is to the degree that Facebook is a similar type of communications utility, should the company be doing less censorship period, and instead focusing on limiting the right to be heard?

Facebook’s Governance

Of course the U.S. Postal Service, being a government entity, is also limited by the First Amendment, and ultimately accountable to voters. It is here where I have the biggest problem with Facebook’s role: because of its governance structure, the company is completely unaccountable.

Indeed, Stratechery subscribers know that this is not my first invocation of the Federalist Papers in recent weeks. I wrote in a Daily Update about Zuckerberg’s speech on free expression how the Founding Fathers sought to ensure liberty not simply by law but also by structure. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 47:

The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system.

Facebook, obviously, is not the government, and thank goodness: the fact that Zuckerberg answers to no one is deeply concerning to me. To be fair, in the case of political ads, this was arguably a benefit: I think he is making the right decision in the face of massive resistance. In the long run, though, it is very problematic that such a powerful player in our democracy has no accountability. Liberty is not simply about laws, or culture, it is also about structure, and it is right to be concerned about the centralized nature of companies like Facebook.

To that end, the fact that this debate is even occurring is evidence of the problem: those opposed to Facebook’s decision about ads wish the company would wield its power in their favor; my question is whether such power should even exist in the first place. Facebook can close Munroe’s door on anyone, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

I wrote a follow-up to this article in this Daily Update.

The Internet and the Third Estate

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg began his speech last week by attempting to place free expression in the historical American context, and only then turned to discuss free expression in the context of Facebook, where he proposed something much more modern:

People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences. I understand the concerns about how tech platforms have centralized power, but I actually believe the much bigger story is how much these platforms have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands. It’s part of this amazing expansion of voice through law, culture and technology.

The Fifth Estate is a clear reference to the Fourth Estate — the press — and Zuckerberg’s argument is that while the Fourth Estate entailed gatekeepers the Fifth Estate does not, for both better and worse. It’s a compelling framing, and one that certainly puts in perspective the tension that exists between the press and Facebook in particular: no gatekeeper likes to lose their monopoly on the distribution of information.

It’s also a framing that is, appropriately enough, uniquely American; in the United States, the first three estates are commonly thought to be the three branches of government: the executive, legislative, and judicial. It is the press that holds all three accountable, and in Zuckerberg’s telling, the Fifth Estate that gives everyone else a voice.

There is, though, another way to think about social media that is perhaps even more compelling, with a story that draws not from American history but rather European.

Europe’s Three Estates

In Europe the first three estates are a reference to how society was organized throughout the Middle Ages: the First Estate was the church, the second was the nobility, and the third were the commoners. By the 1700s those estates, at least in England, had become branches of government: the King (the First Estate — more on king versus clergy in a moment), the House of Lords (the Second Estate), and the House of Commons (the Third Estate); this was the context for Edmund Burke’s remarks in 1787 that “There are Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

With this context, the European reading of the Fourth Estate is actually rather akin to the American one: the press is an independent force holding the government accountable. And so, again, Zuckerberg’s characterization of social media as the Fifth Estate makes sense.

Without this context, though, social media as the Fifth Estate would not make sense at all: after all, “people having the power to express themselves at scale”, to use Zuckerberg’s words, is about giving the commoners a voice — but the commoners are the Third Estate! In fact, in the medieval period where the three estates existed the press as fourth estate wouldn’t have made much sense either, given that the printing press didn’t even exist.

The Printing Press

That the clergy came first was not an accident: in the Middle Ages the principal organizing entity for Europe was the Catholic Church. Relatedly, the Catholic Church also held a de facto monopoly on the distribution of information: most books were in Latin, copied laboriously by hand by monks. There was some degree of ethnic affinity between various members of the nobility and the commoners on their lands, but underneath the umbrella of the Catholic Church were primarily independent city-states.

The printing press changed all of this. Suddenly Martin Luther, whose critique of the Catholic Church was strikingly similar to Jan Hus 100 years earlier, was not limited to spreading his beliefs to his local area (Prague in the case of Hus), but could rather see those beliefs spread throughout Europe; the nobility seized the opportunity to interpret the Bible in a way that suited their local interests, gradually shaking off the control of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, the economics of printing books was fundamentally different from the economics of copying by hand. The latter was purely an operational expense: output was strictly determined by the input of labor. The former, though, was mostly a capital expense: first, to construct the printing press, and second, to set the type for a book. The best way to pay for these significant up-front expenses was to produce as many copies of a particular book that could be sold.

How, then, to maximize the number of copies that could be sold? The answer was to print using the most widely used dialect of a particular language, which in turn incentivized people to adopt that dialect, standardizing language across Europe. That, by extension, deepened the affinities between city-states with shared languages, particularly over decades as a shared culture developed around books and later newspapers. This consolidation occurred at varying rates — England and France several hundred years before Germany and Italy — but in nearly every case the First Estate became not the clergy of the Catholic Church but a national monarch, even as the monarch gave up power to a new kind of meritocratic nobility epitomized by Burke.

In other words, Burke’s Fourth Estate was the means by which the Second Estate overthrew the first.

The Second Estate and the Press

I would go further: just as the Catholic Church ensured its primacy by controlling information, the modern meritocracy has done the same, not so much by controlling the press but rather by incorporating it into a broader national consensus.

Here again economics play a role: while books are still sold for a profit, over the last 150 years newspapers have become more widely read, and then television became the dominant medium. All, though, were vehicles for the “press”, which was primarily funded through advertising, which was inextricably tied up with large enterprise. I explained this symbiosis in 2016’s TV Advertising’s Surprising Strength — And Inevitable Fall:

The very institution of television advertising is intertwined with the kinds of advertisers that use it the most, the products they sell, and the way they are bought-and-sold…Start with the top 25 advertisers in the U.S. The list is made up of:

  • 4 telecom companies (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Softbank/Sprint)
  • 4 automobile companies (General Motors, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota)
  • 4 credit card companies (America Express, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Capital One)
  • 3 consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies (Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal, Johnson & Johnson)
  • 3 entertainment companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox)
  • 3 retailers (Walmart, Target, Macy’s)
  • 1 from electronics (Samsung), pharmaceuticals (Pfizer), and beer (Anheuser-Busch InBev)

Notice that the vast majority of the industries on on this list are dominated by massive companies that compete on scale and distribution. CPG is the perfect example: building a “house of brands” allows a company like Procter & Gamble to target demographic groups even as they leverage scale to invest in R&D, bring down the cost of products, and most importantly, dominate the distribution channel (i.e. retail shelf space). Said retailers, meanwhile, are huge in their own right, not only so they can match their massive suppliers at the bargaining table, but also so they can scale logistics, inventory management, store development, etc. Automobile companies, meanwhile, are not unlike CPG companies: they operate a “house of brands” to serve different demographics while benefitting from scale in production and distribution; the primary difference is that they make money through one large purchase instead of over many smaller purchases over time.

My list of top advertisers had one missing piece — politicians — but that is only because the data was from a period that did not include an election. More broadly, the press, big business, and politicians all operated within a broad, nationally-oriented consensus.

Note, though, the reason I wrote that article: my argument is that every part of the media-advertising-industrial complex was threatened by the Internet.

The inescapable reality is that TV advertisers are 20th century companies: built for mass markets, not niches, for brick-and-mortar retailers, not e-commerce. These companies were built on TV, and TV was built on their advertisements, and while they are propping each other up for now, the decline of one will hasten the decline of the other.

There is no reason this reality shouldn’t apply to nation-states as well.

The Internet and the Third Estate

What makes the Internet different from the printing press? Usually when I have written about this topic I have focused on marginal costs: books and newspapers may have been a lot cheaper to produce than handwritten manuscripts, but they are still not-zero. What is published on the Internet, meanwhile, can reach anyone anywhere, drastically increasing supply and placing a premium on discovery; this shifted economic power from publications to Aggregators.

Just as important, though, particularly in terms of the impact on society, is the drastic reduction in fixed costs. Not only can existing publishers reach anyone, anyone can become a publisher. Moreover, they don’t even need a publication: social media gives everyone the means to broadcast to the entire world. Read again Zuckerberg’s description of the Fifth Estate:

People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society. People no longer have to rely on traditional gatekeepers in politics or media to make their voices heard, and that has important consequences.

It is difficult to overstate how much of an understatement that is. I just recounted how the printing press effectively overthrew the First Estate, leading to the establishment of nation-states and the creation and empowerment of a new nobility. The implication of overthrowing the Second Estate, via the empowerment of commoners, is almost too radical to imagine.

And yet, take a look around: there are protests around the globe, from Hong Kong to Chile to France to Spain to the Netherlands, primarily by populist movements. The U.S. and U.K., meanwhile, have no need for populist protests given that populist movements won stunning victories at the polls in 2016. I described the rise of Trump in particular in The Voters Decide:

For a moment, though, step back to the world as it was: the one where newspapers (and TV stations, etc.) were gatekeepers thanks to their ownership of production and distribution. In this world any viable political campaign had to play nicely with those who ran the press in the hopes of gaining positive earned media, endorsements, etc. Just as important, though, was the need to buy advertising, as that was the only way to reach voters at scale. And advertising required lots of money, which meant donors. And then, once the actual election rolled around, a campaign needed an effective GOTV effort, which took not only money but also the sort of manpower that could only be rustled up by organizations like labor unions, churches, etc. It is all these disparate pieces: partisan media members, advertisers, donors, large associations, plus consultants and specialists to manage them that, along with traditional politicians, made up the “party” in The Party Decides

This brings us back to today’s world, and admittedly, the leap from a description of Facebook and Aggregation Theory to politics is not an obvious one: I’m not proposing that Donald Trump or anyone else is an aggregator. Indeed, given their power over what users see Facebook could, if it chose, be the most potent political force in the world. Until, of course, said meddling was uncovered, at which point the service, having so significantly betrayed trust, would lose a substantial number of users and thus its lucrative and privileged place in advertising, leading to a plunge in market value. In short, there are no incentives for Facebook to explicitly favor any type of content beyond that which drives deeper engagement; all evidence suggests that is exactly what the service does.

Said reticence, though, creates a curious dynamic in politics in particular: there is no one dominant force when it comes to the dispersal of political information, and that includes the parties described in the previous section. Remember, in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed. This has two implications:

  • All news sources are competing on an equal footing; those controlled or bought by a party are not inherently privileged
  • The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side

A drawing of Aggregation Theory and Politics

This is a big problem for the parties as described in The Party Decides. Remember, in Noel and company’s description party actors care more about their policy preferences than they do voter preferences, but in an aggregated world it is voters aka users who decide which issues get traction and which don’t. And, by extension, the most successful politicians in an aggregated world are not those who serve the party but rather those who tell voters what they most want to hear.

Forgive the long excerpt, but there are multiple points relevant to the current moment worth covering.

First, the initial effect of the printing press was substituting Second Estate control in a First Estate framework; specifically, emerging nation-states formed state churches with the King as the head. That is a similar dynamic to many of these populist movements, which are nationalistic in nature. Both Brexit and Trump explicitly call back to nostalgic views of national greatness, conveniently ignoring that neither movement would have been allowed a national voice in the time periods they aspire to. I suspect this adherence to the Second Estate nation-state framework is temporary.

Second, the degree to which the press — and again, this includes all types of high fixed cost/low marginal cost mediums like newspapers, TV, etc. — is intermingled with politics generally and the nation-state specifically is impossible to overstate.

Third, Facebook’s potential power over elections truly is immense.

Facebook’s Power

What is critically important when it comes to Facebook’s power is the various means by which that power could be realized.

The first and most straightforward way is Facebook putting its thumb on the scale. This is a concern that arose recently with the leaked audio of an all-hands meeting where Zuckerberg was reported as being willing to “go to the mat” versus Elizabeth Warren. This was, as I laid out in this Daily Update, an extremely unfair characterization of Zuckerberg’s obvious intension to fight any potential antitrust lawsuits. At the same time, it was a useful reminder that Facebook’s power is to be feared, and an argument the company is simply too large.

The second concern is the capacity of trolls, both of the profit-seeking and foreign government variety, to leverage Facebook’s fundamental engagement-seeking nature to push misinformation and division. The company claims it has made substantial investments in this area, both in terms of identifying bad actors and in taking down problematic content; Facebook puts these investments forward as an argument that the company’s size is an asset.

The third concern is what has dominated the news cycle as of late: Facebook’s decision to not fact-check any posts or ads from politicians. This is largely being framed as aiding President Trump in particular, which is probably both true and also an unsurprising complaint from the Second Estate used to having monopoly control over fact-checking.

The broader issue is that the third concern and first concern are so clearly in direct opposition to each other. If Facebook has the potential for immense influence on politics, why on earth would anyone want the company policing political speech?

The China Question

This question is even more meaningful than it seems. The other major news story of the past few weeks has been The China Cultural Clash. Zuckerberg referenced this in his speech:

China is building its own internet focused on very different values, and is now exporting their vision of the internet to other countries. Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out. A decade ago, almost all of the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top ten are Chinese.

We’re beginning to see this in social media. While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.

Is that the internet we want?

For some in the Second Estate, it appears to be an open question. Consider the New York Times, which has been at the forefront of Facebook criticism: over the weekend the country’s preeminent newspaper ran a front-page story about TikTok and its embrace by U.S. high schools; there was zero mention of Chinese censorship. To be fair to the author, that wasn’t the point of the story; to be cognizant of the role of editors at the New York Times in particular, it is hard to imagine any sort of glowing profile about a Facebook-owned property that wouldn’t contain multiple caveats.

Indeed, this gets at why the Facebook questions are so critical: the company’s critics that argue that Facebook is too big are making a cogent argument that reconciles concerns about Facebook’s power with a desire to control misinformation; critics that ignore these tradeoffs, though, come across as authoritarians in their own right, disappointed in Facebook only so far as the company fails to leverage its power to enforce their personal preferences.

And so we are back to China. The U.S. specifically and the West broadly is not going to out-authoritarian an avowedly Marxist regime with a demonstrated willingness to use “re-education camps” and omnipresent surveillance to ensure the Second Estate era — that of the cohesive nation-state — remains in place. To fight the Internet’s impact, instead of seeking to understand it and guide the fundamental transformations that will surely follow, is a commitment by the West to lose the fight for the future.

The fact of the matter is that the world is fundamentally changing, just as it did five hundred years ago. At the same time, that change will take time — the printing press was invented in Germany in 1440 and yet German unification did not happen until 1871 — and will be guided by choices we make along the way. The sooner we recognize that transformation is coming, the more readily we can reject authoritarian attempts to hold onto the world as it was, and create the world we want to see.

Google and Ambient Computing

The most surprising revelation from yesterday’s Made by Google 19 keynote came in Google Senior Vice President of Devices and Services Rick Osterloh’s opening remarks:

If you look across all of Google’s products, from Search to Maps, Gmail to Photos, our mission is to bring a more helpful Google for you. Creating tools that help you increase your knowledge, success, health, and happiness. Now when we apply that mission to hardware and services, it means creating products like…Pixel phones, wearables, laptops, and Nest devices for the home. Each one is thoughtfully and responsibly designed to help you day to day without intruding on your life.

Did you catch that? Apparently Google has a new mission — to bring a more helpful Google to you. So much for organizing the world’s information!

To be clear, I’m overplaying what was surely a misstatement; five months ago, at the beginning of May’s Google I/O keynote, CEO Sundar Pichai both reiterated the company’s longstanding mission statement while also introducing the “helpful” phrasing that Osterloh used:

It all begins with our mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Today our mission feels as relevant as ever, but the way we approach it is constantly evolving. We are moving from a company that helps you find answers to a company that helps you get things done. This morning we’ll introduce you to many products built on a foundation of user trust and privacy…we want our products to work harder for you in the context of your job, your home, and your life. They all share a single goal: to be helpful, so we can be there for you big and small over the course of your day.

So “being helpful” is the company’s goal, not its mission statement. A fine distinction, perhaps, but I’m grateful for the misstatement: going back to Pichai’s comments was how I made sense of what was, at first viewing, a pretty boring and self-satisfied event.

Google’s Announcements

Google announced, in order:

  • That Stadia, the company’s video game streaming service, would launch on November 19th
  • Pixel Buds, the company’s AirPods competitor, which will ship in “Spring 2020”; there weren’t even working models for the press to try
  • Pixelbook Go, the company’s third Chromebook, which will start shipping October 28
  • New pricing for Nest Aware, the cloud recording service for Nest devices; instead of charging a fee per device Google will charge a flat fee per household. The new plans will launch in “early 2020”
  • Nest Wifi, a mashup of its Google Wifi mesh router with Google Home speakers, which will start shipping November 4
  • A new Nest Mini, a replacement for the Google Home Mini, which will start shipping on October 22
  • The Pixel 4 smartphone, with radar chips, new cameras, and enhanced Google Assistant capabilities; it will start shipping on October 24

The first thing that is striking about this list is how many of the announcements won’t ship for quite some time. The second thing is that most of the products were not announced on their own merits, but rather after long interludes about Google’s product development process. Like I said, boring and self-satisfied.

Pichai’s articulation of the company’s new goal, though, is helpful to understand what I believe the company was driving towards: to “be helpful” Google needs to be everywhere, which by extension means the company needs to be trusted. Thus the announcement of a wide array of products — whether ready to launch or not — that covered a multitude of places of where you might need Google’s assistance, done in the context of explaining how Google really does have its users best interests at heart.

Google’s Vision

Osterloh described this vision as “ambient computing”. From the keynote:

In the mobile era, smartphones changed the world. It’s super useful to have a powerful computer everywhere you are. But it’s even more useful when computing is anywhere you need it, always available to help. Now you heard me talk about this idea with Baratunde, that helpful computing can be all around you — ambient computing. Your devices work together with services and AI, so help is anywhere you want it, and it’s fluid. The technology just fades into the background when you don’t need it. So the devices aren’t the center of the system, you are. That’s our vision for ambient computing.

Frankly, it’s a compelling vision on multiple dimensions:

  • First, it is a vision for the future that actually seems larger than the smartphone reality we live in. Alternatives like augmented reality or wearables feel smaller.
  • Second, it is a vision that does not compete with the smartphone, but rather leverages it. The smartphone is so useful for so many things that any directly competitive technology would have to cover an impossible number of use cases to displace it; ambient computing, though, simply conceives of the smart phone as one of several means to deliver on its promise.
  • Third, it is a vision that Google is uniquely suited to pursue. The company is a services company incentivized to serve the maximum number of customers no matter the means (i.e. device), and it already has a head start in providing services that contain and accumulate essential information about people’s lives.

Note how much better Google is placed than Facebook or Amazon, both of which I wrote about two weeks ago. The latter two companies are hindered by their lack of a smartphone, and their beachheads in the consumer space — Oculus and Alexa, respectively — are constrained by specialization in the case of Facebook and location in the case of Amazon. Ambient computing that goes away when you turn off a headset or leave your house is not truly ambient. Osterloh made this point:

The Google Assistant plays a critical role here. It pulls everything together and gives you a familiar, natural way to get the help you need. Our users tell us they find the Google Assistant to be smart, user-friendly, and reliable, and that’s so important for ambient technology. Interactions need to feel natural and intuitive. Here’s an example: if you want to listen to music, the experience should be the same whether you are in the kitchen, you are driving in your car, or hanging out with friends. No matter what you are doing, you should be able to just say the name of the song and the music just plays without you having to pull out a phone and tap on screens or push buttons.

Only companies with smartphone platforms can deliver the same experience everywhere. That is to say, only Google and Apple, and the latter seems to be barely trying in the home in particular.

Google’s Integration

This also explains why Google, despite being a Services company, is investing in hardware. Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Solution, explained what it took to win in new markets:

When there is a performance gap — when product functionality and reliability are not yet good enough to address the needs of customers in a given tier of the market — companies must compete by making the best possible products. In the race to do this, firms that build their products around proprietary, interdependent architectures enjoy an important competitive advantage against competitors whose product architectures are modular, because the standardization inherent in modularity takes too many degrees of design freedom away from engineers, and they cannot not optimize performance.

To close the performance gap with each new product generation, competitive forces compel engineers to fit the pieces of their systems together in ever-more-efficient ways in order to wring the most performance possible out of the technology that is available. When firms must compete by making the best possible products, they cannot not simply assemble standardized components, because from an engineering point of view, standardization of interfaces (meaning fewer degrees of design freedom) would force them to back away from the frontier of what is technologically possible. When the product is not good enough, backing off from the best that can be done means that you’ll fall behind.

In the case of ambient computing, “integration” does not refer to an individual device and its associated software. Rather, the integration that matters is between all of the various devices that exist in every part of your life — home, work, play, and everywhere-in-between — and the service that links them together. Thus all of Google’s various hardware offerings: without question the best solution for ambient computing by some time next year will be Nest devices in your house, a Google Pixel in your pocket, Pixel Buds in your ears, and a Pixelbook at work.

Google's Ambient Computing

I don’t think this is Google’s long-run goal, though, nor should it be. While the company has at times been drawn into the trap of prioritizing and differentiating Android with its services, the fundamental services nature of Google means that its ambient computing offering will leverage any OEM that wishes to take part, even Apple. For now, though, the technology just isn’t good-enough, which is why Google is doing a lot of the work itself.

Google’s Challenges

Despite how well-placed Google is to execute on this vision, it is not a certainty that the company will win, for reasons both structural and also internal to Google itself.

First, the customers most likely to not only be interested in the idea of ambient computing but to also have the significant funds necessary to buy all of the various gadgets required to make it a reality probably use iPhones. Apple was the high-end integrated player in smartphones, and contra-Christensen, that was a sustainably large portion of the market. Google, meanwhile, was the modular player in smartphones, which meant it had the most affordable smartphone offerings and by far the largest marketshare. The challenge the company faces is that its modular customer base is less likely to spend on the integrated solution that Google is selling.

Second, while Siri will likely never reach the reliability and usability of Google Assistant — Apple has its own internal challenges — Apple continues to increase the switching cost from iPhone by doubling down on devices. AirPods are infinitely better than Pixel Buds in that they actually exist and have for three years, and the Apple Watch continues to grow strongly. Both devices, particularly when used together, also give you ambient computing beyond the smartphone (and yes, HomePod is still muddling along).

Third, as I noted above, Google spent so much time yesterday framing its approach in terms of user-centricity for a very good reason: its core advertising business is under attack for treating users and their data as a commodity. This raises the question as to whether customers will be comfortable having Google involved in even more aspects of their life, a point that Apple has and will continue to make regularly (Google, as I wrote after I/O, is fighting back by touting the benefits that come from it having so much data).

Fourth, Google has a business model problem. Yes, per the previous point, being a continuous presence in people’s lives will bring in even more data for ever more finely targeted advertisements, but there is no place for advertising in ambient computing generally. The Google Assistant can only give one answer, and it had better be the best one, not one that is paid for, if Google wishes to retain trust.

Fifth, to the extent the previous point does not matter, simply because Search and Display and YouTube make so much money, is the extent to which Google can be lackadaisical about execution. It doesn’t really matter that a good portion of the products announced yesterday won’t be ready until next month or next year because they are a rounding error on Google’s income statement. That may seem like a luxury, but in fact needing to succeed or die is one of the greatest advantages a company can have, particularly while trying to enter a new market.

Google’s Culture

One thing Google can absolutely work on is their messaging: I found yesterday’s presentation dreadfully boring, and only picked up on what Google was trying to convey on a second viewing.

That, though, isn’t necessarily a surprise. Google from its founding has succeeded simply by being better and letting the masses figure it out for themselves. It completely worked too: Google search was better than anything else on the market, and by virtue of being on the Internet it was immediately accessible to anyone anywhere on a zero marginal cost basis.

The company struggles, though, when it has to actually sell something. Look no further than Google Cloud Platform, which is a distant third to Amazon (which was first) and Microsoft (which can sell, particularly to existing customers). The company is currently trying to brute force its way into contention, hiring a VP from Oracle and a whole bunch of salespeople, but those efforts will run up against the company’s sense that simply building better stuff should be enough.

The challenges in ambient computing will be different given the differences between the consumer and enterprise markets, but no less significant: to succeed, particularly with its integrated offering, Google has to get better at all parts of the funnel, from initial awareness to education to conversion to channel to distribution to support. However, there is not much evidence the company has made progress in any of these areas, and, given how strong the company’s core business remains, not much motivation to either.

That’s the thing with visions: they are easy to come up with, harder to articulate, and even more difficult to build. It is the selling, though, that truly requires dedication.

The China Cultural Clash

It all started with a tweet:

Daryl Morey's since-deleted tweet

“It” refers to the current imbroglio surrounding Daryl Morey, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the latter’s dealings with China. The tweet, a reference to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong,1 “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” (a rather frequent occurrence). The Global Times, a Chinese government-run English-language newspaper, stated in an editorial:

Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA team the Houston Rockets, has obviously gotten himself into trouble. He tweeted a photo saying “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” on Saturday while accompanying his team in Tokyo. The tweet soon set the team’s Chinese fans ablaze. It can be imagined how Morey’s tweet made them disappointed and furious. Shortly afterward, CCTV sports channel and Tencent sports channel both announced they would suspend broadcasting Rockets’ games. Some of the team’s Chinese sponsors and business partners also started to suspend cooperation with the Rockets.

There’s one rather glaring hole in this story of immediate outrage from Chinese fans over Morey’s tweet: Twitter is banned in China.

China Started It

Earlier this year I wrote about the uneven playing field between the U.S. and China when it comes to technology companies. From China, Leverage, and Values:

This is where I take the biggest issue with Culpan labeling this past week’s actions as the start of a tech cold war: China took the first shots, and they took them a long time ago. For over a decade U.S. services companies have been unilaterally shut out of the China market, even as Chinese alternatives had full reign, running on servers built with U.S. components (and likely using U.S. intellectual property)…

The truth is that the U.S. China relationship has been extremely one-sided for a very long time now: China buys the hardware it needs, and keeps all of the software opportunities for itself — and, of course, pursues software opportunities abroad.

This understated the case: not only were Chinese companies allowed into the U.S. while U.S. companies remained locked out of China, Chinese attacks on U.S. tech companies were allowed by China’s censors, and in fact even augmented by the Great Firewall. James Griffiths wrote about the 2015 attack on Github earlier this year:

In a paper coauthored with researchers at Citizen Lab, an activist and research group at the University of Toronto, Weaver described a new Chinese cyberweapon that he dubbed the “Great Cannon.” The “Great Firewall” — an elaborate scheme of interrelated technologies for censoring internet content coming from outside China—was already well-known. Weaver and the Citizen Lab researchers found that not only was China blocking bits and bytes of data that were trying to make their way into China, but it was also channeling the flow of data out of China.

Whoever was controlling the Great Cannon would use it to selectively insert malicious JavaScript code into search queries and advertisements served by Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine. That code then directed enormous amounts of traffic to the cannon’s targets…The cannon could also be used for other malware attacks besides denial-of-service attacks. It was a powerful new tool: “Deploying the Great Cannon is a major shift in tactics, and has a highly visible impact,” Weaver and his coauthors wrote.

The attack went on for days. The Citizen Lab team said they were able to observe its effects for two weeks after GitHub’s alarms first went off. Afterward, as the GitHub developers struggled to make sense of the attack and come up with a road map for future incidents, there was confusion within the cybersecurity community. Why had China launched so public an attack, in such a blunt fashion? “It was overkill,” Weaver told me. “They kept the attack going long after it had ceased working.”

It was a message: a shot across the bow from the architects of the Great Firewall, who—having conquered the internet at home—were now increasingly taking aim overseas, unwilling to brook challenges to their system of control and censorship, no matter where they came from.

The projects China was presumably targeting were Chinese versions of, which documents censorship by the Great Firewall, and the New York Times, both of which were hosted on Github. Given the importance of Github to software development, China could not block the site completely, so instead they tried to hold it hostage. It was a harbinger of what happened this week.

Dreams Versus Reality

The story about engagement with China, both in terms of the U.S. generally but also tech specifically, has long been a belief that some engagement was better than no engagement, and that the shift to more freedom was inevitable. President Bill Clinton stated when the U.S. established Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China:

The change this agreement can bring from outside is quite extraordinary, but I think you could make an argument that it will be nothing compared to the changes that this agreement will spark from the inside out in China. By joining the W.T.O., China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom. The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people — their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise.

He added with regards to the Internet:

In the new century, liberty will spread by cell phone and cable modem. In the past year, the number of Internet addresses in China has more than quadrupled, from 2 million to 9 million. This year the number is expected to grow to over 20 million. When China joins the W.T.O., by 2005 it will eliminate tariffs on information technology products, making the tools of communication even cheaper, better, and more widely available. We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China.

Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail jello to the wall. But I would argue to you that their effort to do that just proves how real these changes are and how much they threaten the status quo. It’s not an argument for slowing down the effort to bring China into the world, it’s an argument for accelerating that effort. In the knowledge economy, economic innovation and political empowerment, whether anyone likes it or not, will inevitably go hand in hand.

In fact, it turned out that China was able to first contain the Internet, blocking sites outside the Great Firewall, then control the Internet, censoring content on social networks like Weibo and WeChat, and, as this New York Times article explains, even leverage the Internet:

The Communist Party indeed doesn’t hesitate to use state power to tell the Chinese people how they should think. But the displays of patriotism, especially from young people, also show that the party’s propaganda machine has mastered the power of symbol and symbolism in the mass media and social media era…While imposing tight censorship, the Communist Party has also learned to lean on the most popular artists and the most experienced internet companies to help it instill Chinese with patriotic zeal. It’s propaganda for the Instagram age, if Instagram were allowed in China.

The problem from a Western perspective is that the links Clinton was so sure would push in only one direction — towards political freedom — turned out to be two-way streets: China is not simply resisting Western ideals of freedom, but seeking to impose their own. Note this statement from state-owned broadcast CCTV, as it announced that it would not televise NBA games:

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey. “I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear…that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” Silver said in an interview with Kyodo News in Tokyo Japan. CCTV did not agree with Silver’s remarks.

“We are strongly dissatisfied and we oppose Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech,” CCTV said in its statement in Chinese, which was translated by CNBC.

The lever for this rather radical definition of “freedom of speech” is the China market. The Global Times editorial I linked to above could not have been more explicit on this point:

Respecting customers is a universal business rule. Morey has to choose between safeguarding his individual freedom of speech and protecting the Rockets’ commercial interests by respecting the feelings of Chinese fans. When he opted for the former, the Rockets will have to make a second choice from the perspective of the team.

In other words, Morey, a private U.S. citizen posting an image on a social network already banned in China, had to be fired, or the Rockets and the NBA would quite literally pay the price. Abide by China’s standards, or else.

The TikTok Question

China’s exportation of its standards goes beyond brute force. Consider TikTok, the short-form video app owned by the $75 billion Chinese startup ByteDance, which has exploded onto Western markets over the last year. The Guardian reported last last month:

TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social network, instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, according to leaked documents detailing the site’s moderation guidelines. The documents, revealed by the Guardian for the first time, lay out how ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app.

The revelations come amid rising suspicion that discussion of the Hong Kong protests on TikTok is being censored for political reasons: a Washington Post report earlier this month noted that a search on the site for the city-state revealed “barely a hint of unrest in sight”.

In fact, at least as of this afternoon, there is a hint of unrest on the site: while searches for “Hong Kong” show city views and high school students playing along with the latest TikTok meme, searching for Hong Kong in Chinese (香港) brings up a video that shows the protestors as hooligans and vandals (this was the first result as of this afternoon, and the only video relating to the protests):

Honk Kong on TikTok

There appear to be similar efforts in the case of the NBA controversy. Searching for the “Warriors”, “Lakers”, and “Rockets” brings up the sort of content you would expect:

NBA teams in Chinese on TikTok

However, searching for the same team names in Chinese (“勇士”, “湖人”, and “火箭”, respectively) shows basketball-related results for the first two and nothing related for the third:

Tiktok searches for NBA teams

This should raise serious concern in the United States and other Western countries: is it at all acceptable to have a social network that has a demonstrated willingness to censor content under the control of a country that has clearly different views on what constitutes free speech?

There is an established route for undoing this state of affairs: earlier this summer China’s Kunlun Tech Company agreed to divest Grindr under pressure from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS); Kunlun Tech had acquired Grindr without undergoing CFIUS review. TikTok similarly acquired without oversight and relaunched it as TikTok for the Western market; it is worth at least considering the possibility of a review given TikTok’s apparent willingness to censor content for Western audiences according to Chinese government wishes.

The NBA’s Example

Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, ultimately did do the right thing. In response to that CCTV cancellation Silver released a new statement that stated:

Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game¬

It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.

Silver added in a press conference following the statement:

Part of the reason I issued the statement I did is because this afternoon, CCTV announced that because of my remarks supporting Daryl Morey’s freedom of expression, not the substance of this statement but his freedom of expression, they were no longer going to air the Lakers-Nets preseason games that are scheduled for later this week. Again, it’s not something we expected to happen. I think it’s unfortunate. But if that’s the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.

I am increasingly convinced this is the point every company dealing with China will reach: what matters more, money or values?

China Responses

I am not particularly excited to write this article. My instinct is towards free trade, my affinity for Asia generally and Greater China specifically, my welfare enhanced by staying off China’s radar. And yet, for all that the idea of being a global citizen is an alluring concept and largely my lived experience, I find in situations like this that I am undoubtedly a child of the West. I do believe in the individual, in free speech, and in democracy, no matter how poorly practiced in the United States or elsewhere. And, in situations like this weekend, when values meet money, I worry just how many companies are capable of choosing the former?

The NBA, to its immense credit, appears to have done just that. Will technology companies be so brave? Certainly Google did so once before, exiting China in 2010 (albeit after both losing share to Baidu and being attacked by Chinese hackers). At the same time, the company appeared eager to reverse its decision, only terminating “Project Dragonfly” earlier this year; similarly, Facebook worked earnestly for approval — its product team built a censorship apparatus and CEO Mark Zuckerberg learned Chinese — only to give up last year. Both decisions appear motivated by the certainty of failure as opposed to core values.

And then there is Apple: the company is deeply exposed to China both in terms of sales and especially when it comes to manufacturing. The reality is that, particularly when it comes to the latter, Apple doesn’t have anywhere else to go. That, though, is where the company’s massive cash stockpile and ability to generate more comes in handy: it is past time for the company to start spending heavily to build up alternatives. Sticking one’s corporate head in the sand, praying that President Trump will not be re-elected and that everything will go back to normal, is deeply irresponsible both to shareholders and to the values Apple claims motivates them.

The government response is also critical: I already argued that CFIUS should revisit TikTok’s acquisition of; the current skepticism around all Chinese investment in the United States should be continued if not increased. Attempts by China to leverage market access into self-censorship by U.S. companies should also be treated as trade violations that are subject to retaliation. Make no mistake, what happened to the NBA this weekend is nothing new: similar pressure has befallen multiple U.S. companies, often about content that is outside of China’s borders (Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example, being listed in drop-down menus for hotels or airlines).

The biggest, shift, though, is a mindset one. First, the Internet is an amoral force that reduces friction, not an inevitable force for good. Second, sometimes different cultures simply have fundamentally different values. Third, if values are going to be preserved, they must be a leading factor in economic entanglement, not a trailing one. This is the point that Clinton got the most wrong: money, like tech, is amoral. If we insist it matters most our own morals will inevitably disappear.

I wrote a follow-up to this article in this Daily Update.

  1. This post is not about the specific issues driving the Hong Kong protests; it is useful to understand that China, particularly internally, has characterized the protests, which began when the Hong Kong government attempted to pass an extradition bill that would allow extradition to China, as a separatist movement driven by foreign powers. The protesters state their goals are not independence but rather that China honor its promises surrounding the transfer of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule, particularly in terms of universal suffrage []

Beachheads and Obstacles

The fact that Amazon held its annual hardware event the same day as the keynote for Facebook’s Oculus Connect conference is almost certainly a coincidence. It was, though, a happy one, at least as far as Stratechery is concerned: these two events, wildly disparate in terms of presentation and content, have more in common than it might seem.

Revisiting the Smartphone Wars

In 2013, when Stratechery started, the widely held belief was that the iPhone, innovative though it may have been, was in serious trouble in the face of Android’s increasing marketshare. Henry Blodget wrote a useful articulation of the bear case on Business Insider:

If smartphones and tablets were not a platform — if the only thing that mattered to the value of the product and a customer’s purchase decision was the gadget itself — then Apple’s loss of market share would not make a difference. Apple zealots would be correct when they smugly assert that what matters is Apple’s “profit share” not “market share.”

But smartphones and tablets are a platform. Third-party companies are building apps and services to run on smartphone and tablet platforms. These apps and services, in turn, are making the platforms more valuable. Consumers are standardizing their lives around the apps and services that run on smartphone and tablet platforms. Because of these “network effects,” in platform markets, dominant market share is huge competitive advantage. In platform markets, as the often-hated but always insanely powerful Microsoft demonstrated for decades in the PC market, the vast majority of the power and profits eventually accrue to the market-share leader.

In this view there is still a premium market, but only within the dominant ecosystem. This, Blodget argued, was Apple’s problem: soon the company would have no market, because Android would have the ecosystem, and by extension all of Apple’s premium customers.

Of course this turned out to be mistaken, for reasons I laid out in What Clayton Christensen Got Wrong.

  • First, integration provided user experience benefits that premium customers valued
  • Second, those premium users were more likely to pay for apps, which increased the attraction of iOS to developers
  • Third, the absolute size of the smartphone market was so big that both iOS and Android were large enough to be attractive to developers

Note, though, that just because Blodget and company were wrong about the iPhone’s prospects does not mean they were wrong conceptually: ecosystems do matter. However, instead of one ecosystem devouring the entire premium versus ubiquity landscape, Apple and Google split it up rather neatly:

Apple and Google's Ecosystem Duopoly

Amazon and Facebook were two of the more prominent companies that found out this reality the hard way.

Mobile Successes and Failures

Apple and Google may be the first companies people think of when you ask who won mobile, but Amazon and Facebook were not far behind.

Amazon spent the smartphone era not only building out, but also Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS was just as much a critical platform for the smartphone revolution as were iOS and Android: many apps ran on the phone with data or compute on Amazon’s cloud; mobile also created a vacuum in the enterprise for SaaS companies eager to take advantage of Microsoft’s desire to prop up its own mobile platforms instead of supporting iOS and Android, and those SaaS companies were built on AWS.

Smartphones, meanwhile, saved Facebook from itself: instead of a futile attempt to be a platform within the browser, mobile made Facebook just an app, and it was the best possible thing that could have happened to the company. Facebook was freed to focus solely on content its users wanted and advertising to go along with it, generating billions of dollars and a deep moat in targeting advertising along the way.

What is not clear is if Amazon’s and Facebook’s management teams agree. After all, both launched smartphones of their own, and both failed spectacularly.

Facebook’s attempt was rather half-assed (to use the technical term). Instead of writing their own operating system, Facebook Home was a launcher that sat on top of Android; instead of designing their own hardware, the Facebook One was built by HTC. Both decisions ended up being good ones because they made failure less expensive.

Amazon, meanwhile, went all out to build the Fire Phone: a new operating system (based on Android, but incompatible with it), new hardware, including a complicated camera system that included four front-facing cameras, and a sky-high price to match. It fared about as well as the Facebook One, which is to say not well at all.

That, though, is what made last week’s events so interesting: it is these two failures that seemed to play a bigger role in what was announced than did the successes.

Amazon and Facebook’s Announcements

Start with Amazon: the company announced a full fifteen hardware products. In order: Echo Dot with Clock, a new Echo, Echo Studio (an Echo with a high-end speaker system), Echo Show 8 (a third-size of the Echo with a screen), Echo Glow (a lamp), new Eero routers, Echo Flex (a microphone only Echo that hangs off an outlet), Ring Retrofit Alarm Kit (that lets you leverage your preinstalled alarm), Ring Stick Up Cam (a smaller Ring camera), Ring Indoor Cam (an even smaller Ring camera), Amazon Smart Oven (an oven that integrates with Alexa), Fetch (a pet tracker), Echo Buds (wireless headphones with Alexa), Echo Frames (eyeglasses with Alexa), and Echo Loop (a ring with Alexa). Whew!

This is an approach that is the exact opposite of the Fire Phone: instead of pouring all of its resources into one high-priced device, Amazon is making just about every device it can think of, and seeing if they sell. Moreover, they are doing so at prices that significantly undercut the competition: the Echo Studio is $150 cheaper than a HomePod, the Echo Show 8 is $60 cheaper than the Google Nest Hub, and the new Eero is $150 cheaper than the product Eero sold as an independent company. Amazon is clearly pushing for ubiquity; a whale strategy this is not.

Facebook, meanwhile, effectively consolidated its Oculus product line from three to one: the mid-tier Oculus Quest, a standalone virtual reality (VR) unit, gained the capability to connect to a gaming PC in order to play high-end Oculus Rift games; Oculus Go apps, meanwhile, gained the capability to run on the relatively higher-specced Oculus Quest. It is not clear why either the Go or Rift should be a target for developers or customers going forward.

The broader goal, though, remains the same: Facebook is determined to own a platform; the lesson the company seems to have drawn from its smartphone experience is the importance of doing it all.

Beachheads and Obstacles

What Amazon and Facebook do have in common — and perhaps this is why both seem to look back at their very successful smartphone eras with regret — is that Apple and Google are their biggest obstacles to success, and it’s because of their smartphone platforms.

Amazon to its great credit — and perhaps because the company did not have a smartphone to rely on — found a beachhead in the home, the one place where your phone may not be with you. Now it is trying to not only saturate the home but also extend beyond it, both through on-body accessories and also an expanding number of deals with automakers.

Facebook, meanwhile, is searching for a beachhead of its own in virtual reality. That, the company believes, will give it the track to augmented reality, and by extension, usefulness in the real world.

Facebook and Amazon are building beachheads to take on Apple and Google

Amazon’s challenge is Google: Android phones are already everywhere, and Google is catching up in the home more quickly and more effectively than Amazon is pushing outside of it. Google also has a much stronger position when it comes to the sort of Internet services that provide the rough grist of intelligence of virtual assistants: emails, calendars, and maps.

Facebook, meanwhile, is ultimately challenging Apple: augmented reality is going to start at the high end with an integrated solution, and Apple has considerably more experience building physical products for the real world, and a major lead in chip design and miniaturization, not to mention consumer trust. Moreover, while there is obviously technical overlap when it comes to creating virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, the product experience is fundamentally distinct.

Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty skeptical about Facebook and Oculus all along, both at the time of purchase and last year. I’d like to say I’ve changed my mind, but frankly, last week’s keynote made me question whether Facebook learned any lessons from mobile at all. Zuckerberg said in the keynote opening:

We experience the world through this feeling of presence and the interactions that we get with other people, which is why Facebook’s technology vision has always been about putting people at the center of your computing experience. We’ve mostly done that so far through building apps. I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of the top-used and biggest apps that are out there are social experiences that put people at the center of the experience, because that’s how we process things.

But there is only so much you can do with apps, without also shaping and improving the underlying platform. I find it shocking that we’re here in 2019 and our phones and our computers are still organized around apps and tasks and not people that we are actually present with. I feel like we can help all of us together deliver a unique contribution to this field by helping to ensure that the next platform changes this.

Zuckerberg is, in effect, saying that he finds it shocking that Facebook Home didn’t succeed. I think the reasons were pretty clear, and a lack of distribution or high-end hardware was not the primary problem. The fact of the matter is that while social connection on our phones is important — perhaps the most important — it is not the only job we ask phones to do. That is why Facebook is an app and not a platform, and that’s ok! Apps, particularly those of Facebook’s scale and advertising prowess, are fantastic businesses. And apps shouldn’t be platforms.

Amazon, on the other hand, seems to have learned the right lessons from its mobile failures; what is notable about the company’s approach to Alexa is that it leverages and learns from the mobile era. Alexa benefits from Amazon’s investments in data centers and networking, interacts with both iOS and Android to the greatest extent possible, and is roughly inline with Amazon’s overall business — making buying things that much more convenient. Alexa is an operating system for the home, and perhaps beyond.

This isn’t a guarantee of success, of course. Google is a formidable competitor, with multiple advantages. It is particularly hard to see Alexa gaining traction outside the home. The only reason Amazon has a chance is because building on strengths is always better than doing something completely new and different from what has made you successful in the past.

Neither, and New: Lessons from Uber and Vision Fund

The first time I wrote about Uber was in June, 2014. The Wall Street Journal had posted a column entitled Uber’s $18.2B Valuation is a Head Scratcher, which led to an easy rejoinder: Why Uber is Worth $18.2 Billion. Given that Uber is today worth $53.2 billion on the open market, that one turned out pretty well.

A month later I felt even better about my piece when Bill Gurley, the legendary venture capitalist, wrote his own rebuttal of an Uber skeptic. Gurley was gentle in his takedown of NYU Stern professor Aswath Damodaran, writing in the introduction:

It is not my aim to specifically convince anyone that Uber is worth any specific valuation. What Professor Damodaran thinks, or what anyone who is not a buyer or seller of stocks thinks, is fairly immaterial. I am also not out to prove him wrong. I am much more interested in the subject of critical reasoning and predictions, and how certain assumptions can lead to gravely different outcomes. As such, my goal is to offer a plausible argument that the core assumptions used in Damodaran’s analysis may be off by a factor of 25 times, perhaps even more. And I hope the analysis is judged on whether the arguments I make are reasonable and feasible.

Gurley’s arguments, which focused on Damodaran’s assumptions around Uber’s total addressable market ($100 billion, the same as taxis) and terminal market share (10%) were clearly correct: Uber is already at a $50+ billion gross bookings run rate, and has around 70% of the market. Damodaran’s assumptions, rooted in the analog world, were sorely mistaken.

At the same time, while Gurley didn’t make any specific assertions about Uber’s valuation, surely he must have expected it would have increased by more than 192% in the following five years; I certainly did. To be sure, there were rather significant intervening events, specifically Uber’s disastrous 2017, where the company endured seemingly endless scandals, lost its CEO, and worst of all, gave life to Lyft, its most important competitor which, at the beginning of that year, was on the verge of going out of business. It is very fair to argue that Uber without an at-scale competitor is a much more valuable company.

That noted, this line from Gurley’s article stands out to me today more than ever:

I am much more interested in the subject of critical reasoning and predictions, and how certain assumptions can lead to gravely different outcomes.

Just because Uber’s critics were wrong to assume that the service was analogous to taxis does not mean that those of us on the other side — not only of the Uber question but of a host of other similar companies that straddle the physical and digital worlds — were completely right in our assumptions either. The opposite of an old-world company is not necessarily a tech company. It is something we haven’t quite seen before, and applying either old-world rules or tech rules is a mistake.

AB 5 and Worker Classification

This idea of the old classifications not quite making sense, and the need for something new, should feel quite familiar in the context of Uber: it is precisely the issue surrounding Uber’s drivers.

Earlier this month California passed AB 5, which codified a California Supreme Court decision setting forward a three-part test to determine whether or not a worker is an independent contractor or an employee (with all of the attendant regulation and taxes that go along with that classification). From the decision:

Under this test, a worker is properly considered an independent contractor to whom a wage order does not apply only if the hiring entity establishes: (A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact; (B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

The question as to whether the new law applies is closer than it seems: on one hand, Uber et al1 really do give drivers, who use their own equipment, flexibility as far as hours go, and while there are rules to be followed while on the job, it is the former that is usually the more important standard. Plus drivers famously drive for multiple companies; the need to compete for their presence on the platform (more on this in a bit) is one of the big reasons why Uber is so unprofitable.

That means that (B) is the question: if Uber is in the transportation business, then drivers are workers; Uber, though claims its business “is serving as a technology platform for several different types of digital marketplaces.” As I wrote in a Daily Update:

It’s not an entirely irrational argument. For example, consider the rate: Uber’s point is that not that it sets the rate, but rather the rate is the market-clearing price that maximizes the amount of revenue drivers earn. The idea is that if drivers could set their own prices — a common objection to drivers being independent contractors is that they cannot — a negotiation would occur between customers and drivers until a price was agreed upon; over time this price would be equalized across drivers and riders. Uber’s argument is that it dramatically accelerates this process and in fact makes the market possible, since the level of coordination necessary to reach a market-clearing price at scale would be impossible otherwise.

At the same time, this sort of argument, technically correct from an economic modeling perspective, suffers from the same flaws as most economic models: the lack of any sort of accounting for the human component. In this case the missing bit, though, is not in the model’s outcome, but rather in the manifestation: the way that Uber is experienced by riders and especially riders is that “Drivers are the face of Uber to consumers” (that quote is from Uber’s S-1, by the way). Drivers are also indispensable to how Uber actually generates revenue: sure, drivers can and do come and go as they please, and work simultaneously for Uber’s competitors, but to suggest they are a not a part of the “usual course” of Uber’s business seems off.

That is why the best solution to the employment classification question is to realize that neither of the old categorizations fit: Uber drivers are not employees, nor are they contractors; they are neither, and new. A much better law would define this category in a new way that provides the protections and revenue-collection apparatus that California deems necessary while still preserving the flexibility and market-driven scalability that make these consumer welfare-generating platforms possible.

What is Uber?

So what of Uber itself? It is not a taxi company, as noted above, but is it a tech company? I suggested it was a few weeks ago in What Is a Tech Company?:

Uber…checks most of the same boxes:

  • There is a software-created ecosystem of drivers and riders.
  • Like Airbnb, Uber reports its revenue as if it has low marginal costs, but a holistic view of rides shows that the company pays drivers around 80 percent of total revenue; this isn’t a world of zero marginal costs.
  • Uber’s platform improves over time.
  • Uber is able to serve the entire world, giving it maximum leverage.
  • Uber can transact with anyone with a self-serve model.

A major question about Uber concerns transaction costs: bringing and keeping drivers on the platform is very expensive. This doesn’t mean that Uber isn’t a tech company, but it does underscore the degree to which its model is dependent on factors that don’t have zero costs attached to them.

In fact, I’ve changed my mind: I was right to mention Uber’s costs, and wrong to dismiss them and call Uber a tech company. At the same time, Uber clearly has no analog in the physical world. It is neither, and new — and Uber’s drivers help explain why.

That magical marketplace I described above, where Uber effectively simulates countless one-on-one negotiations between drivers and riders that, on an infinite timescale and with infinite patience, would arrive at the market-clearing price, is very much a technological product. This marketplace leverages today’s paradigm-shifting technologies — smartphones and cloud computing — and is itself software, and thus infinitely leverageable and always improving.

Uber’s financials reflect this: last quarter the company had a gross margin of 51%. That is a fair bit lower than a typical SaaS company’s 70%+ gross margins, but that is primarily because the company’s cost of revenue includes insurance, which scales linearly with revenue. The software behind Uber’s marketplaces scales perfectly.

The problem, though, is that Uber’s financials are an incomplete view on the overall Uber experience, because riders don’t simply pay Uber: they also pay the drivers. And, if you look at Uber’s financials from a rider perspective,2 the situation looks a lot worse; consider last quarter:

in millions Uber’s Financials The Rider Perspective
Revenue $2,768 $15,574
Cost of Revenue $1,342 $14,148
Gross Profit $1,426 $1,426
Gross Margin 51.5% 9.2%

Suddenly that gross margin looks nothing like a software company — and keep in mind this is all Uber has to work with before it gets to its fixed costs.3 The only way this company works is if it grows to a truly mammoth size such that it has sufficient gross margin to cover fixed costs, but it is that much more difficult to acquire a marginal new customer when you simply don’t have that much margin to play with; spending on sales and marketing simply increases the hill you need to climb!

None of this is to say that Uber is not a viable business: all of Gurley’s arguments about the total addressable market and Uber’s ability to dominate that market still apply, because of technology. Uber is not a taxi company! At the same time, a different sort of valuation metric than that usually applied to tech companies was clearly appropriate as well, as Uber’s adventures on the public market demonstrate. In short, the company was neither, and new.

The Uber Anomaly

The corresponding article to What Is a Tech Company? could very well be What Is a Venture Capital Firm?. If tech companies are characterized by zero marginal costs, increased returns to scale, and ecosystems, venture capital firms match with equity financing (which means capped downside and infinite upside), a Babe Ruth portfolio management approach that focuses on home runs despite the increase in strikeouts, and a focus on iterated games when it comes to exerting power.

The synergy between tech companies and venture capitalists

That last point is worth dwelling on; in 2017 I described why an iterated game approach mattered for venture capitalists in the context of — you guessed it! — Uber. That was when Gurley’s Benchmark, then Uber’s largest investor, first forced out and then sued Uber’s former CEO Travis Kalanick.

A venture capitalist will invest in tens if not hundreds of companies over their career, while most founders will only ever start one company; that means that for the venture capitalist investing is an iterated game. Sure, there may be short-term gain in screwing over a founder or bailing on a floundering company, but it simply is not worth it in the long-run: word will spread, and a venture capitalists’ deal flow is only as good as their reputation…

The entire point of venture investing is to hit grand slams, and that calls for more swings of the bat. After all, the most a venture capitalist might lose on a deal — beyond time and opportunity cost, of course — is however much they invested; the downside is capped. Potential returns, though, can be many multiples of that investment. That is why, particularly as capital has flooded the Valley over the last decade, preserving the chance to make grand slam investments has been paramount. No venture capitalist wants to repeat Sequoia’s mistake: better to be “nice”, or, as they say in the Valley, “founder friendly.”

Uber, though, was different:

Uber’s most recent valuation of $68.5 billion nearly matches the worth of every successful Benchmark-funded startup since 2007. Sure, it might make sense to treat company X and founder Y with deference; after all, there are other fish in the pond. Uber, though, is not another fish: it is the catch of a lifetime.

That almost assuredly changed Benchmark’s internal calculus when it came to filing this lawsuit. Does it give the firm a bad reputation, potentially keeping it out of the next Facebook? Unquestionably. The sheer size of Uber though, and the potential return it represents, means that Benchmark is no longer playing an iterated game. The point now is not to get access to the next Facebook: it is to ensure the firm captures its share of the current one.

As I’ve noted, that valuation proved to be faulty; at the same time, $53.2 billion is still a huge amount of money, and probably wouldn’t have changed Benchmark’s calculation. The real takeaway, though, is that Uber was not a typical Silicon Valley startup. No, they weren’t a taxi company, but they weren’t a tech company either, they were something new, and that meant a new kind of investor. Enter SoftBank.

Vision Fund

Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s CEO and the driving force behind Vision Fund, told Bloomberg a year ago that he wanted to “go big bang”:

SoftBank’s massive bet in WeWork is emblematic of Son’s overall approach. “Why don’t we go big bang?” he told Bloomberg in an interview last year when asked about his investing style, and added that other venture capitalists tend to think too small. His goal of swaying the course of history by backing potentially world-changing companies requires that those companies make large outlays in areas from customer acquisition to hiring talent to research and development, a spending tactic that he acknowledged sometimes brings him into conflict with other investors.

“The other shareholders, they try to create clean, polished little companies,” Son said. “And I say: ‘Let’s go rough. We don’t need to polish. We don’t need efficiency right now. Let’s make a big fight. Let’s make a big, successful—a big win.’”

In fact, the “other shareholders” that Son derides are trying to create tech companies: up-front fixed costs to develop software, with high gross margins once it is sold. These are the companies that require investors that have all of the qualities I detailed above: a desire for equity, a willingness to risk strikeouts while swinging for home runs, and the decency that comes from playing an iterated game.

Vision Fund is none of these things. It doesn’t just want equity, it wants preferred equity with a ratchet, to guarantee they get theirs first. Moreover, it seeks to not only invest in winners, but also to leverage its capital to make winners, by forcing competing companies to merge. And, because of this, Vision Fund is very much not playing an iterative game: it will do whatever it takes to win the markets it invests in, including deposing of founders who become a liability.

The problem, though, is Vision Fund may have confused “big capital needs” with “big opportunity”. What is striking about the firm’s portfolio is the paucity of “tech companies”. Almost everything falls in the “Neither and New” category defined by Uber: entire categories like real estate and logistics are defined by their interaction with the physical world, almost everything in the consumer category uses technology to enable real-world services, and the other major category, fintech, by definition needs huge amounts of capital. Most of these companies may have income statements that seem attractive in isolation, but when viewed from a total revenue perspective4 in fact have extremely low gross margins (relative to tech companies) and very high marginal costs.

The question for Softbank then is how many markets are there the size of transportation, with the possibility of taking a large enough chunk to make the economics work (leaving aside the fact that Softbank is underwater on its Uber investment)? The Vision Fund is invested in OpenDoor, for example, which is in an even larger market than transportation (residential real estate), but with much less potential transaction volume; Zillow, which followed OpenDoor into the “iBuyer” market, has a market cap of only $6 billion, in part because of investor skepticism about margins.

This is the challenge for Vision Fund: yes, these companies have huge capital needs, and yes, the only way they can become successful is if they become so big that their small margins are sufficient to cover their fixed cost, but does that necessarily mean big returns? Or did Son anchor on “big” without making sure that his adjective of choice attached to the noun — “returns”, as opposed to “needs” or “markets” — that his investors are expecting?

Moreover, it’s not clear how many misses Vision Fund can afford: the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Vision Fund has promised a 7% return a year to 40% of its investors, which means that SoftBank has limited capacity to be patient and wait for home runs — particularly if WeWork starts dragging down the whole fund.

Worse, it’s not clear how many home runs Softbank has. Looking at 29 U.S. tech IPOs since the beginning of 2018, 20 have increased in market cap over their offering price, and all of them are pure tech companies with high margins.5 Of the nine that have fallen in value, four are marketplace companies6, two are hardware companies7, and only three are pure tech companies8. Son, though, sees pure technology companies as “clean, polished little companies” that are not big enough for Vision Fund.9

Vision Fund is not a venture capital firm, nor is it a public market-focused hedge fund: it is neither, and new, but it very much remains to be seen if “new” is valuable.

New Lessons

At the same time, this is good news for the tech ecosystem: there is clearly still tremendous opportunity to build “tech companies”, primarily for the enterprise, and Vision Fund won’t be an obstacle. True, there are fewer opportunities in the consumer space, but that is more a consequence of big company dominance than Venture Fund stealing away opportunities with outsized returns relative to capital invested. If anything Vision Fund is stealing duds.

This is also good news for public market investors: despite all of the press about Uber and WeWork, more companies are up post-IPO than down — and the gains are much larger in percentage terms than are the losses. The tech company formula still works.

This is also a lesson for me: I started with an article that I got right, but in retrospect I was only halfway correct. Uber had a large market and there were tech-like dynamics that meant it could get a big part of that market, but margins — both reported, but especially relative to the customer transaction — still matter. I didn’t pay enough attention to them.

It also means I should have been more explicitly skeptical about WeWork; my goal was to write a contrarian piece exploring the upside, while still being clear that I wouldn’t invest. I did state that, but I wasn’t nearly clear enough about just how absurd the valuation was, because I didn’t spend enough time discussing margins.10

Going forward I plan to be a lot more skeptical about other tech startups that interface with the real world and the attendant drag on margins that follows; I am not saying that the category isn’t viable, and technology truly makes these companies different than the incumbents in their space, but they are not necessarily tech companies either.

Neither, and new.

I wrote a follow-up to this article in this Daily Update.

  1. I am going to use Uber as a stand-in for companies like Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, etc. for the rest of this article, but everything applies to all of the companies that use “gig” workers []
  2. In this case, the rider perspective includes both Uber riders and also UberEats customers; the two categories are not separated in Uber’s financials []
  3. It should be noted that Uber, rightfully, accounts for driver incentives either as contra-revenue (most of them) or as a cost of revenue (for driver incentives it is unlikely to earn back); the only driver incentives that fall under fixed costs are bonuses to existing drivers for driver referrals []
  4. I.e. the equivalent of gross bookings in the case of Uber []
  5. In order of returns, Zscaler, Anaplan, Smartsheet, Zoom, DocuSign, CrowdStrike, Fastly, SurveyMonkey, Pinterest, Health Catalyst, Medallia, Cloudflare, Carbon Black, Dynatrace, Datadog, PagerDuty, EverQuote, Zuora, Tenable []
  6. UpWork, Eventbrite, Uber, and Lyft []
  7. Sonos and Arlo Technologies []
  8. Pivotal, Dropbox, and Slack []
  9. Interestingly, the one tech company on this list that the Vision Fund owns, Slack, is the worst performing of all the SaaS companies []
  10. I did, though, make clear in a (free) follow-up that the AWS comparison was never intended to be a direct one []

Exponent Podcast: The Exponent IPO

On Exponent, the weekly podcast I host with James Allworth, we discuss Cloudflare and what it is like going through an IPO, as well as what has gone wrong with WeWork.

Listen to it here.