An adapted essay from Noam Cohen new book The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball showed up several weeks in the New York Times in the article Silicon Valley Is Not Your Friend. It’s an important one to read slowly and carefully as there are several key points in it.
In the last week, two early Facebook execs made remarkably critical statements about what they were involved in helping create. It started when Sean Parker talked with Axios about how Facebook exploits human psychology.
“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and … it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Then, the other day, Chamath Palihapitiya gave a talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business where he said:
“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”
A decade ago at my MIT Sloan 20th Reunion, I gave a lecture where I said that “privacy was dead, we just don’t know it yet.” I had no idea how prescient that statement would be, but even in 2008, I had a deep unease that we had no real idea what the next decade would bring.
It’s here. When Web 2.0 began in the mid-2000s, there was incredible enthusiasm about how technology was going to change everything. Google’s “Do No Evil” mantra was on everyone’s lips as a rallying cry for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to “change the world” and “make a dent in the universe.” Twitter was becoming the world’s town hall and helping facilitate revolutions like the Arab Spring.
Amy and I were sitting in front of our computers on Sunday working on some stuff. During a pause, we started talking about how different things are from when we first started dating 28 years ago.
I woke up thinking about that this morning. Now that the five most valuable companies in the world are tech companies (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook with Tencent and Alibaba coming on strong) and the total market cap of cryptocurrencies also being in that league, it’s hard to deny the extreme influence of these companies on our society. As I sit at my desk, typing on my Apple Computer into WordPress in a Chrome browser, listening to music I asked Amazon to play throughout my house, well, you get the idea.
The blog post title is a rhetorical question, so I’ll let you answer it in the comments if you want …
In November, during the week of the presidential election, I was at MIT for the Celebration of 50 Years of Entrepreneurship at MIT. The Friday night event included a keystone from Simon Johnson, an MIT professor who became famous during the financial crisis because of his superb analysis along with his almost daily blog The Baseline Scenario and his willingness to openly challenge an enormous amount of conventional thinking.
I remember hearing Simon for the first time at an MIT Sloan Dean’s Advisory meeting in the basement of a fancy hotel in NY in the middle of the financial crisis. Many of the advisory board member attendees looked like hammered dog shit as they were part of the New York financial services and real estate world. Simon gave a clear eyed, extremely compelling pep talk that challenged everyone to ask questions and think hard, rather than just retreat into gloom.
On the Friday night after the election in 2016 on the six floor of E-52, Simon gave another impassioned talk. As he wrapped up, he addressed the elephant in the room, which this time corresponded with Trump, a Republican Congress, and a huge swath of red on an electoral map where a bunch of people, including me, had previously expected blue.
One question really stuck with me.
“How do you make technology work for those who are not working? Especially for those who are not working because of technology.”
This is not the first time we’ve had to deal with this as a species, or a country. The transition from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution is a simple historical analogy. There are others, but Simon asked another question after making the analogy.
“Is this time different?”
I don’t know the answer to the questions but they slapped me in the face and made me sit up.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations, mostly with Amy, about the next 20+ years. I believe humans are in for the biggest transformation (and subsequent challenges) that we’ve faced so far since the origination of our species. I think it’s going to be extremely complicated, painful, and confusing to many.
Simon suggested a powerful approach and one he’s going to take. He’s going to rip up all the old models and start with a blank sheet of paper. As part of that, he’s going to start with the question, and explore. He doesn’t know where it’s going to lead him, but he’ll let it go where it will.
I’m of a similar mindset. I’m also comfortable with my first principles, like the notion that a key part of the improvement in our situation, both economic and cultural, around the world are startup communities. I believe ever more deeply than ever in the philosophy of #GiveFirst, which is the title of my 2017 book. I’m committed to the work path I’m on with Foundry Group and Techstars, the philanthropic path that Amy and I are on with the Anchor Point Foundation, and the philosophical path I’m on with many friends around the world.
While I don’t have any answers to Simon’s question, I have more questions and answers to some of those questions. And, I know how to find answers, and find more questions. So that’s what I’m going to do this year, both in the context of my existing work, and on new intellectual, functional, and philosophical paths.
You’ll see this show up in what I read, what I do, and where I travel. For example, you’ll see hints in my Goodreads book list (whether or not I do book reviews.) For example, each of the last two books I read – Interface by Neal Stephenson / J. Frederick George and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance – are both relevant to this discussion.
I’m not trying to find the answer right now to anything in particular. Instead, I’m starting with a blank sheet of paper and trying to learn more, with a beginners mind.
I’m at Startup Iceland today. I like Iceland – this is the second time I’ve been here. It’s the closest place on earth I’ve been to Alaska, which I love dearly. And it’s fun to see and hang out with my friend Bala Kamallakharan. As a super bonus, Om Malik – who I adore – is also here.
Om and I did a fireside chat with Bala. At the end, Bala asked about the future and what we were uncomfortable with. Neither of us is uncomfortable. Instead, we are both optimistic and intrigued with what is going on. Om talked about his view is that this is the most exciting time to be alive and went on a riff about what is in front of us.
I started with my premise – that the machines have already taken over and are just waiting very patiently for us to catch up. They are happy to let us do a lot of work for them, including feeding them with data, building homes for them, and connecting them together. In the mean time, they are biding their time, doing their thing, along side us.
If you wind the clock forward 50 years, our current state will be incomprehensible to that future human. The pace of technological change at all levels is accelerating at a pace we can’t fathom. Some people are pessimistic and now concerned about the notion of a real advanced intelligence. I’m optimistic and accepting of it, not fighting the inevitability of the path we are on or being in denial about our ability as a society to control things.
This is the rant I ended up on. Human structures change slowly. It’s unevenly distributed based on geography, culture, and political philosophy. Our legal system lags far behind what is actually happening, and as a result we are in the middle of a bunch of debates around technology, including things around privacy, net neutrality, data storage, and surveillance. Our existing approach as a species to dealing with the challenges are painful to watch from the future.
It’s fun to ponder how quickly things are changing along with how badly certain parts of society wants to keep them from changing, hanging on to the “way things are” or even the “way things were.” Don’t ever forget the sound of inevitability.
This post should be sung to the tune of The World Is A Vampire by the Smashing Pumpkins
“the world is a vampire, sent to drain
secret destroyers, hold you up to the flames
and what do i get, for my pain
betrayed desires, and a piece of the game
even though i know-i suppose i’ll show
all my cool and cold-like old job
despite all my rage i am still just a rat in a cage
despite all my rage i am still just a rat in a cage
then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
despite all my rage i am still just a rat in a cage”
Some VCs like rap, but I’m old school 80’s grunge, heavy metal, head banger music with some 90’s fruit bands mixed in. The chorus of The World Is A Vampire was echoing in my head as I took a shower this morning. And then the first line morphed into “My world is a network” and I started thinking about networks and hierarchies.
Earlier this week I was in New York. I spent Tuesday with my dad. I got up early, went for a run along the Hudson River, grabbed some Starbucks oatmeal, and did phone calls and email until 11. We then got together and wandered over to Union Square Ventures where we had lunch with the USV partners and talked about the healthcare industry and how technology could radically alter it as well as the relationship between each of the different constituencies. After lunch we got in an Uber and went over to MakerBot’s office (the Botcave) where I gave my dad a tour of the world of 3D printing. We took the subway back to Manhattan and walked to dinner with Fred Wilson, where we talked about healthcare some more.
Sometime during the day I had a few phone calls. One of my calls was with a Senator about PIPA. Another was with a CEO about a strategic partner. Another was with Eric Norlin about Blur. They were all short calls (as anyone I’ve ever talked to on the phone knows – I’d rather be off within five minutes than discuss football, the weather, and the kids I don’t have.) After the call with Eric, my dad asked “how do you keep track of all this stuff?” It was asked in a loving way with a glint of humor and amazement. I responded simply “I don’t – I just let it wash over me.”
If you follow USV’s investment thesis, you know that it’s different from Foundry Group’s thesis. While my partners and I are focused on a set of broad horizontal themes, USV is investing in the application layer of the Internet with a particular focus on Internet services that create large networks. Sometimes our paths cross (as in Zynga) and we co-invest together, but independent of that we are close friends and intellectual counterparts.
At the lunch with my dad, I participated in the conversation but spent most of it reflecting about the doctor / patient relationship and how critical it was for that the be the essence of the dynamic driving the healthcare system. Unfortunately, this relationship has been completely co-opted by all of the other constituents such as insurance companies, healthcare product vendors, hospitals, drug companies, and the government.
As I was working with a bunch of other amazing people over the course of the week to defeat SOPA and PIPA, including my partner Jason Mendelson and Phil Weiser (the Dean of CU Law School), I realized that the network was taking back control of the discussion about politics from the hierarchy.
This morning, I pondered that some more. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it a lot in the next few months, but it’s clear that my entire life has shifted from a hierarchy model to a network model. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Cambridge, connected to a network (the Internet), communicating with anyone who wants to hear from my (a network) via a publishing approach that is the ultimate democratizer (my blog) while getting ready to go to a board meeting for Yesware (a distributed company that has a broad network of users), followed by a bunch of meetings with random people who reached out to me via email and the web. And, throughout the day, I’ll continue to interact with the many companies and people I’m involved with, mostly via email, but in a completely distributed and untethered fashion.
My world is a network. And being part of a hierarchy sounds to me like that poor rat in a cage.