OneZero is partnering with Big Technology, a newsletter and podcast by Alex Kantrowitz, to bring readers exclusive access to interviews with notable figures in and around the tech industry.
This week, Kantrowitz sits down with Bloomberg Beta head Roy Bahat. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Venture capitalists, founders, and others in the tech industry are feeling pretty raw these days. Once admired as upstarts fighting the status quo, they now feel under siege, under attack for the negative things their products do without being appreciated for how they improve our lives.
Bloomberg Beta head Roy Bahat, a veteran venture capitalist, joins the Big Technology Podcast this week for a nuanced conversation about what’s going with the tech world, how its innovation might be linked to its problems, and how it should handle the criticism.
Kantrowitz: You’re one of the VCs out there that are very public with what you think. You tackle the important issues, not skirting around them. And I feel like you don’t yell at journalists, and that’s a good start.
Roy Bahat: I definitely do not yell at journalists. As a person who once thought I might be a journalist and failed at it, I basically think journalists are looking for the truth. If we all want to operate in this world, let’s help them find the truth and then we can figure it out. You just mentioned having the voice, a question I got asked by a founder in our portfolio, he’s like, “Why is VC Twitter so weird?”
You’re getting right into my question.
Oh, good. Then ask me questions and…
I want to hear what you got to say, and then I’ll follow.
Well, I was thinking about it. Look, venture capital is a strange business because: What do we do? People think we invest in companies. Kind of. We really sell money to companies because the companies have so much leverage when they’re doing well. And you only want to invest in great companies, so you think the ones you’re investing in are doing well. In a way, we’re all salespeople. And what do we sell?
In the language of tech, we are customer success people, meaning helping our customers, founders to succeed. And we sell money and money is a commodity, meaning like literally my product that I sell is legally equivalent — it’s tender for all debts, public, private, whatever it says on the bills. As a result, as with all commodities, the way you distinguish yourself is with your brand, reputation.
And so, VCs just have become, in a lot of cases, these flat-out braggarts who just are incredibly annoying. And I’ve tried for myself to figure out how do you highlight the things you’re proud of and the founders you’re also proud of while also having some things very difficult to have in public which is authentic, genuine engagement and it can be maddening.
One of the reasons I think people who are inauthentic in public is the fear that they could have any piece of what they say excerpted and flattened and mischaracterized and I’ve just kind of concluded that that’s going to happen sometimes and I’ll just try to be myself.
And one reason I like podcasts is — I’ve even invested in a bunch of podcast companies — is that in a podcast, it’s very hard to do that. It’s very hard to pull out that little piece and flatten you and the listeners typically paying close attention. And so that makes for a better conversation.
I like them too. I do think that you can talk with a level of nuance here that you can’t on Twitter. And one of the things that I worry about these days is that there’s a whole segment of the conversation that’s left out because any attempt to be nuanced can be rewarded with yelling. People love to yell.
You talked about the VC brand. Why do so many decide that their brand is grievance?
This is something I’ve not talked about in public before but then I’ve been thinking about, I think that it stems from an entire piece of the ideology of the technology industry because I don’t think the aggrieved thing is just VCs. I think it is founders of companies and executives and middle-level employees. I think it’s kind of endemic to the tech industry at this point. Why is that? I think it is the root cause is that a bunch of people entered tech with a certain set of beliefs about how the world works, and those beliefs don’t align with how the world works now.
And I’ll give you an example of that. I call this the Tech Paradigm. One example of that is that we in tech are the attackers. There’s this famous Steve Jobs’ line about, “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to be in the navy.” But what do you when the pirates run the most valuable companies in the world and have more power than the navy does? Well, then all of a sudden, you’re the admiral.
And so, tech does not know how to wear the crown of criticism that comes with all that responsibility. Instead, it’s like, “Well, I’m just misunderstood and if only you got it, you’d be happier with me.” Instead of saying, “Oh, shit. There actually is something valid about this. Since I have power, maybe I should show a little nuance and responsibility.” And as a result, they feel aggrieved because they’ve been attacked.
I remember there was an article that a journalist wrote about a VC fund basically saying like, “This VC fund is falling apart.” And the VC fund was led by somebody who was really sympathetic and it’s not even important who it was because this could have been many situations. It’s like it’s not about that person. And all the responses, the journalists were like, “Well, why didn’t you write about all these other things that that fund is doing that are great?” It’s like, “Well, because the point of my story was not to grade the fund overall. The point of my story was to talk about this one thing.”
And so, tech does not know how to wear the crown of criticism that comes with all that responsibility.
And not getting that is the dynamic is a big part of this ideology. I think the ideology explains a lot of tech’s kind of bad behavior in the world and also all of its good behavior.
Let me ask you. If you were to go down the hall in The Hill in Washington or talk to a general business reporter who you’ve worked with, and you said to them, “Well, what characterizes the culture of the tech industry?” — what do you think would be included in that?
Brash, exciting, and they would also say that there’s a level of immaturity — that folks have no idea what their tools are doing and tend to view people as numbers versus actual human beings.
I think a lot of those I really feel. I’ve been trying to introspect myself because I’m part of the tech industry obviously, and think about it as I look around at what are the qualities that drive it? How did tech turn up that way? And I think it’s not an accident.
I think it actually very much follows how the tech industry originated and how people in tech got into the industry. And you touched on a bunch of this in your book around sort of the engineer’s mentality and I think that’s a big part of it. But let me try to characterize. One of the things that I think is really important is tech is indifferent to norms.
Tech is proudly like the kind of place where it’s like, “Well, society says we should do X. Maybe we should do it, maybe we shouldn’t but we should decide for our own reasons.” And so there’s this kind of independence of thought that comes with that and my personal view on that is why did that happen? It’s because a lot of the people in tech historically were outcasts when they were younger. They were the nerd in high school. I certainly was the nerd in high school.
As a result, they had to develop this studied indifference because if they swallowed into the norms, they’d think poorly of themselves.
A second one is hyper-obsession with focus of like, this is part of the engineer’s mentality, it’s like, “I’m going to stare at this problem and only this problem and decide it’s the only thing in the world and everything else shall melt away.”
Yeah, like if you’re a coder and you’re in the zone.
Yeah. There’s that flow experience. But there’s also focusing on the thing you care about and ignoring short-sellers if you’re Elon or—
Elon is not ignoring those short-sellers.
Well, fair enough. Fine, he’s taunting them.
Having to be indifferent to their concerns.
That’s right. Being indifferent to their concerns. Out of that comes a similar and related things which is the focus on optimization which is to say, give me a problem. Amazon says an objective function, and I will find you the best answer to that. Consequences kind of be damned on some level. And so the immaturity is more a consequence of indifference and focus, indifference to norms and focus than it is like, “Oh, they’re bad people. They just are not world-aware.”
I definitely think it’s not a bad people thing, so you got that optimization, that focus, that indifference to norms, and then the last part is an obsession with speed because…
Get big fast.
The faster you went, the more likely you are to survive. Therefore, all the powerful entities in tech have a culture of incredible speed. You add all these things together and what do you get? You get organizations that can bring an electrical car to life or can make a thing that you speak to that speaks back to you and answers your questions or deliver things to you before you even knew you wanted them and all kinds of stuff. And you get a blindness to, the way I put this, if you’re looking at the screen, you’re not looking at the street. And you get this blindness to all of the consequences that in some ways become more pronounced than the core effects.
I mean, I remember I was talking to this guy, very quintessential founder like for better or for worse, recent Stanford Business School graduate, smart guy, had worked at a late-stage tech company, blah-blah-blah, and I asked a question that’s often asked in pitch meetings which is: If you were successful, what will the underside be of that success, and how will you manage it? And he said something… He gave a bit of an answer and he said, “But those are unintended consequences,” as if you’re not responsible for unintended consequences.
Right. If you know they’re going to happen, you can’t call them unintended consequences.
Real leadership is whether or not you know they’re going to happen, you’re responsible for the consequences of your actions. I just think that the leaders in tech, many of them, not all. Many of them believe deeply that they are responsible. They’re making the world better. They’re not as focused on money and greed or power as people think, but they’re just not fully aware and empathetic to all the consequences that they’ve caused.
And as a result, they come off like fucking assholes and they… I mean, look, you see a billionaire writing a blog post about income inequality and how people shouldn’t worry about it too much. It’s like, no, maybe they should have thought to ask somebody who wasn’t rich before they did that kind of thing. You end up with that tone deafness combined with a genuine error of calculation.
Real leadership is whether or not you know they’re going to happen, you’re responsible for the consequences of your actions.
Now, the problem is if you overcorrect for it, you also fail. Uber would not exist, the entire ride-share industry would not exist had they said, “We will strictly follow the law.” I actually think it’s a way better world, but they didn’t. To admit that we might have better world for people who selectively ignore norms is a really tough one because tech is also in a world of optimization, really good at thinking ad infinitum to absolutes.
I think once you are big and powerful, you cannot live in a world where it is always right to go 100% left or 100% right. You have to let in the complexity of actual situations and tech is terrible at that both ways. You don’t listen to the experienced consultant just because they’re experienced because you might fail. But if you never listen to them, you might fail too. And so, that to me the tech paradigm evolving to account for its own power is the kind of the next generation of tech founders. I think that’s one of the things that will distinguish them that the previous generation just doesn’t get.
So, it’s almost as if what the tech industry produces is also tied up with all of these bad things.
100%, inextricably linked.
Then is there a hope for it to change?
Yes. I think that we are going to have to… I mean, look, you have plenty of examples of industries that change. The question is to me whether it would be violent change or thoughtful change. Violent change would be like tech gets something like the Glass-Steagall Act where it’s like, okay, now you—
Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is?
The Glass-Steagall was the act in the financial industry that, I forget how many years ago, 80 years let’s say, split apart consumer banking. So banking for humans from wholesale activities, investment banking all that kind of stuff. That’s maybe not a good technical description but that’s my terrible layman’s description of it. And it was ultimately 70 years after it’s passed, so maybe 10 years ago or so I don’t know exactly, overturned or repealed and— not overturned but repealed by some other law and it created lots of issues. It was arguably good but very clumsy solution and certainly not optimal.
And so, if we end up with members of Congress who don’t know anything about tech which is not all of them, but it is some of them and we’ll talk about government later, but deciding to break apart the tech industry but doing it in a stupid way. There might be smart ways of doing — it will be really awful. And tech is not immune from all of these powers.
I do think there’s one way. I see one path for tech to grow up that I’m really hopeful about—
To do it on their own?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s hopeless. But I do think it’s very much at risk. And I think all of us who care about how the world unfolds, and okay, more parochially if you just care about how the tech world unfolds. We should want that tech paradigm to both be able to create amazing new things and be able to grow up to the effects of its power.
Right. And then so the way to do that. First of all, I think that if there is any big legislation coming in from the government right now, we will almost certainly have really bad, negative, unintended — to use our term — unintended consequences. It’s a shame that our government is really falling flat on its face in its responsibility to try to rein some of these companies in or at least—
Among many other government responsibilities. I mean, I believe in government but I believe in competent government.
If that’s not the thing that’s going to end up really helping the situation, so what’s it going to take?
I’ll give you two rays of hope. One, which takes a long time, and one which I think could happen faster. The one that takes a long time is the dominant tech companies 15 years from now might not be Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Netflix. They might be new companies that are arising now. And if that’s the case, the new generation of founders I just think is more aware and one of the reasons for that, I believe, and Uber is not a good example of this or maybe it’s the exception that proves the rule.
But my dummy’s history of the tech industry is for the first 25 years of the tech industry, they just made tech in the corner, like chips and wires and computers and screens and that was all essential infrastructure for what we have now. The next 25 years with the exception of Amazon, were really about information industries. Facebook, Google—they move bits around. The next generation is about tech expanding to everything else.
And what happens when you expand everything else? Like accommodations in the case of Airbnb or logistics, transportation. We’re investors in Flexport—shipping broker—is you need to know the real world and how it works much faster, much earlier in the company’s life than you did when all you did was move bits. Because bits becomes significant but there are issues around privacy and cybersecurity. But the chance of somebody dying with a bad Google search was a rare occurrence. But the chance of somebody dying with a bad Airbnb stay could happen very early in the company’s journey. They even have had it for all I know.
And so, I think that next generation of founders A) out of necessity and B) just culture like not all of the founders were outcasts when they were kids. It’s become a more central normal thing. And as a result, I think they’re… I’m not saying it’s bad to be an outcast, I was one. But I think that there’s a world awareness that the next generation of founders has. But that’s going to take a long time because this current generation is here for a while.
The second one and this is one of the things—
The fast one?
Yeah, the faster one, is the rising path — is the only constituency, the rise of the only constituency, that actually has power over the big tech companies and that is the employees at those tech companies. Things like the climate organizers at Amazon or the Google walkout or even momentary actions like when a bunch of Uber employees got Travis Kalanick to step off the president’s advisory board because they didn’t want him working with Trump, those moments all show that the only constituency that really has leverage over the big tech companies is the employees of those tech companies.
By the way, not all the employees right now. I mean, it’s really hard to organize Amazon warehouse workers although it is happening. But the kind of midlevel software engineers, as those folks organize and articulate what their interest is, I think they are an enormous power to be reckoned with.
So, I’m spending time with folks who are doing that. I’m trying to learn about them because I think that if you want to be a successful company in the future, you need to anticipate that your employees as an organized collective, I mean, Kickstarter’s employees just unionized, that they’re going to have more power and I think that power is unbalanced. Not always. It won’t always be good but it is, on balance, a good thing.
One argument against that being a good thing is people might say, “We’re going to move essentially from an unchecked leader to — pardon the expression — a mob.” Which is the word that people use of employees that are pushing tech policy.
I think what’s better is a balance of power. I don’t think either one of them is… I’m not going to hand the keys to the world car to any constituency. But I think that a check makes a lot of sense. I think the same way not all leaders are made the same, not all groups are made the same. So some groups behave like irrational mobs and I think especially when one makes a decision based on perceived sentiment on social media. Twitter is not the world as much as I enjoyed Twitter, it is not the world.
Those perceived sentiments can be very volatile. But the organized behavior of groups of people who have to come together and decide collectively in some mechanism whether it’s a membership association of employees, an informal group, even a union, those tend to behave more reasonably.
I think it’s hard to look at the economic and social history of the United States without crediting unions for an enormous increase in the welfare and happiness of many people. Not everybody, they were racist for a long time. I mean, it’s bad. I’m not saying it’s unambiguous good, but I do think at this moment in time, it’s an ingredient that if we add it into the mix will make for betterment.
Venture capital incentives
Venture capitalists want to put investments in people and then have them make a 100x the money, and then you get one of those that work out and you can make a lot smart bets for the rest of your career. And I wonder, is that healthy? It can lead to a lot of downstream effects? What do you think the role of the VC is in all these?
Yes, it’s a healthy model. Otherwise, I wouldn’t practice it.
Okay, that’s settled.
In a sense that I think it’s good. No, it’s not healthy if it’s the only model. And so, I’m really excited about many of these other experiments happening with different forms of capital for early companies. And I can talk about why VC is the way it is because as a founder, I really didn’t understand it. I was like, “Wait, you’d be unhappy if you only made three times your money? How can that be?” But I can explain that now that I’ve been doing it for almost a decade.
I also think it’s unhealthy to embrace that model without qualification or reservation and just say, “Hey, the company got good, then it’s great.” I remember I was talking to this VC and he said, “Bloomberg is a terrible company.” I was like, “What are you talking about? By any definition, what do you mean?” He said, “Well, I think it wouldn’t get a very high multiple in the public markets.” And I was like, “That is your definition of good company? Okay, you do you kind of thing,” but it just goes to show how people think. By the way, I don’t that’s true but anyway.
There is this way in which VCs and some founders but not the best of them have come to accept their model as 100% true in every case without qualification. And that I think is nonsense. Almost anything else is nonsense. That’s my qualifications to the “Is it healthy?” answer.
But let’s zoom in though on the actual VC element itself.
Oh, yeah, what responsibility do VCs have in all these?
Basically, what’s happening is if you fund people who feel this pressure to grow 10x, 20x, then sometimes we see very often that they all go and do—
Yeah, does it have a downside? Of course, it has a downside.
So, what role can you play to ensure that itself doesn’t happen?
I absolutely think VCs are responsible and it’s not easy to figure out how to act on that responsibility or else they would have acted on it already. And one of the challenges is no VC really has that much power over any company. We own 10%, maybe some VC owns 20% of a company. Oftentimes, we’re going to have voting shares. And that plus the highly competitive nature of the market can be an excuse to let yourself off the hook.
I remember I was with one of the top five venture capitalists in Silicon Valley at a private dinner years ago, three, five years ago, I don’t know. And he was talking about gender issues in tech and how more companies should be disclosing the gender statistics of their workforce. I was like, “Yeah, but hey, you’re like a super-powerful VC. Can’t you just make that a requirement when you invest in the company?” And he was like, “Oh, but if we do that we’d lose every deal to Sequoia.” And I was like, “Uh, okay.”
By the way, on a certain level, he might be right but he might not be especially now. But on another level, it’s like, “Well, why don’t you just call Sequoia and the five of you get together?” There’s like four or five firms that are the best firms in the Valley that if they do something together and it’s hard for them because they all compete with each other and blah-blah-blah but they’ve done things together. If they do something together, there’s then all of a sudden, it will change the industry in its entirety in a heartbeat.
I think some of it requires a little organization among VCs. And some of it requires indirect influence as opposed to direct influence. And I think there are many cases where many VCs, I don’t mean to cast them as like all bad. Of course, great VCs have led many companies in a great direction. Andreessen Horowitz helped Airbnb expand the size of its customer guaranteed dramatically. They’re examples we know about. My guess is there are thousands of examples we don’t know about.
But the question is how do you use that influence? And I think the first way you do it is what’s the first contact founders have with VCs is their reputation, is you try to set an example of yourself. The second thing is you set expectations. And we tried Bloomberg Beta to be the most transparent venture investors. You can read so many details on our website of how we work evaluations of the companies we invest in, blah-blah-blah.
You have a ton on GitHub.
Thank you. That’s where we put it because of a good place to manage it. You could look at our section of our website which has our diversity, equity, inclusion and justice plans, and statistics. And you can call us on it. And there’s a number to reach HR if you need to tell somebody that we’ve done something wrong. And so I think that…
And by the way, I don’t see us as a leader on those issues. I see us as trying to just be a model citizen on those issues. And so, I guess the short answer to your question, which is a very good one, is organizing among the VCs. And by the way, we saw this with the diversity ride or a bunch of VCs just added to their term sheet about committing to try to get investors from under-represented background.
So, organizing is number one. The second is indirect influence and expectation setting. And that’s why I get so pissed off when I see VCs out there sort of flaunting the fact that you can ignore the law, and people and government are stupid and journalists are stupid because what they’re doing is not just oversimplifying what I’m sure or what I really hope is a much more nuanced view that they hold but they’re creating permission for generations of founders to think that way. And that’s not okay with me. We should respect journalists, for example.
Yeah, I’m with you on that one for sure.
I assume you would be. Do you think we should respect people in government? I think we should respect elected officials in general. Yes, some of them were stupid. Many of them have bad incentives but nonetheless.
There’s a difference between being disrespectful and then being tough on your elected officials and tough on your journalists. And I think that we should definitely be tough on reporters. We should definitely be tough on government officials but I think oftentimes it descends into hate and it descends into disdain. And you never really get something done if the people on the other side or people you hate or people you disdain.
So, I think it starts with respect and if you actually care about solving the problems you’re talking about, that’s where you begin. You don’t go into campaigns against folks. I mean, you could go into political campaign against a politician you don’t like but the idea of just railing against somebody on Twitter, it’s not really a great way to get your goals pushed ahead.
You were saying it starts with respect and I agree with that. I do think you can be respectful and critical. I’ll give you an example of another complicated tech in government issue — which I agree with — which is Uber and all of the criticism of how it’s related to people, Lyft too. When I say Uber, I mean all those companies… would not have had an opportunity to exist or certainly not to exist in the same form had governments not done a better job on things like public transportation, taxi regulation.
In a way, I guess my point is there’s truth all around and it does start with respect for everybody except for Nazis. No respect for Nazis.
Well, what do you think is going to happen? We’re only somewhat qualified to talk about this. We’re two guys in the tech world. But I also think that we follow this stuff pretty closely and there’s a lot of alarm over what’s going to happen when this election comes.
I have no idea what’s going to happen. I mean despite having worked in government and my wife and I have been really active with her leadership on raising money and devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to move the country in a better direction, I have no idea. So the thing I will say, what I look at, is the prediction markets and it looks as far as I can tell like the price to buy Joe Biden is 59 cents and I think it pays off for a dollar. The price to buy Donald Trump is 45 cents and it pays off for a dollar. But who knows? I literally have no clue whatsoever. Also, Kamala is at four cents which suggests that there are some significant expectations built in there that Joe might die during the campaign.
Right. I don’t think anyone is questioning Joe’s physical capabilities.
Yeah. So I don’t know. I guess the way I think about it is there’s real risk and we have a lot of work. And I am certainly putting tremendous time and effort between now and the election to try to get things to turn up the right way. One thing I’ll say about tech in this is if you go back to 2016, I remember having a conversation with someone, maybe it wasn’t in 2016 but shortly after. Tech used to be much more ignorant about politics than it is and I remember that there was this tech founder who I was talking to who exited for a lot of money, millions and millions and millions of dollars.
He was complaining about one of the grillings of Zuck on Capitol Hill and he said, “Oh, that guy,” he was talking, I think, about Orrin Hatch. He said, “He didn’t even know what Facebook’s business model was. God, how ignorant.” And by the way, I had a corporate executive once asked me in 2007, what is the difference between email and IM? Let’s not pretend that there’s a deep well of knowledge out there in the world.
Oh, it’s a while back. At this point, everyone has—
Yeah, but I mean, it wasn’t that long ago. But anyway, fine, fair criticism. And then the meeting that Orrin Hatch didn’t know what he was talking about. And then, we hosted a fundraiser for a political candidate who we really believed in. And this person came and gave and the next day, he asked me when would I get my tax receipt. I was like, “What do you mean tax receipt?” “You know, the tax exemption.” I was like, “Giving money to elected officials is not tax-free.”
And the point is that the same things that were obvious in the tech world, like what is Facebook’s business model, like members of Congress didn’t know. And the things that are obvious in the political world which is that giving money to elected officials is not tax-exempt were not clear to this person. And that reminded me of just this. It was just a little moment that reminded me of this enormous gulf in understanding.
We at our fund have tried to learn and bring others along in our learning. We organized these trips where we would take VCs around the country with members of Congress before Covid to learn about their startup ecosystems, the comeback city’s tourists. And we went to places that I’ve never been, Flint, Michigan, Tulsa, a place I had been like Atlanta. Anyway—
Yeah, you did the Zuckerberg tour without posting everything.
Without milking a sheep or whatever. Yes, something like that and although privately and without the fanfare.
It wasn’t a presidential run.
I was not even dipping my toe.
Zuckerberg did deny to me that he was going to run for president on that one. So, can we have a similar denial from you today?
Yes, I deny that I will run for president. I have been around enough elected officials to know. I certainly don’t want to.
Anyway, but that’s changing. So after the elections in ’16 when people got freaked out, my wife and I started to have friends coming to us. And given where we live, many of our friends are in tech and just saying, “We want to do something, we don’t know what.” And we were like, “Well, we don’t know what either. Let’s just compare notes and figure it out together.” And I remember in December of 2016, we got a group together we called the Bowling Together. And this was the time where every—
The Putnam book, yes. Every group in tech was getting together, and not every group. Many groups of people were like, “We’re going to go over in Airbnb for the weekend, it’s all fake news.” And I was like, “Good luck. Is Zuck coming with you? Because otherwise, you don’t, I think, have a chance. But sure.”
Anyway, but the point of this group was just to learn from each other. What emerged was that many of us wanted to figure it out together and we have embarked on this really four-year journey with a number of people we care about and trust of learning together about how to give more effectively. Now, there’s a community of people in tech who have new access to resources. Maybe they’re in a company that’s about to IPO or something that’s called First Principles where we study together about how to give back philanthropically and socially.
And so, I think at least in my perspective, this is changing and that makes me feel good. But it has to change fast or else we’re all screwed.
Let’s wrap up here in talking about the responsibility of social media companies and what they should do. I’m going to pick up on a few things that you said over the course of our conversation.
It seems to me that you’d like Facebook to step in a little bit more and take some posts down from politicians. One of the things I worry about is that when we have the social media company step in or actually just addressing the last mile of the problem, it’s always the manifestation, it’s not the root.
And I feel like there’s this tendency to seize onto the fact that this all Facebook’s fault whereas there’s 99% of the stuff underneath the surface before that one 1%.
It is not all Facebook’s fault. It is not all YouTube’s fault. It is not all Twitter’s fault or anybody’s fault, the New York Times, random blogger X. It is not all anybody’s fault. It’s all woven together in a fabric and I think that participation in social media. Look, I teach a media course for the MBA students at Berkeley. And I think about this much. I think it’s both cause and manifestation.
And so, yeah, I do think that people get radicalized by seeing things on YouTube. And I do think that all these companies have a responsibility. I think my most profound wish is I wish I believed that the leadership of those companies was as deeply worried about where things are going as I believe they ought to be. And it’s hard to say, “Look, I just don’t know.”
You hear things and it’s not clear if it’s lip service but I mean, a bunch of people had said, “Well, there goes…” who were at Facebook said, “Well, there goes Zuck again,” moving as little as he needs to do to address the issue in the moment and then moving on with his vision. And that scares me, I’ll admit, although I think Zuck is a contemplative, I mean from what tiny interactions I’ve had and from observing from afar, is a contemplative thoughtful person with deeply held beliefs and courage of his convictions, and I really respect a lot of that.
I’d agree with that.
Yeah. So I think the thing I’m trying to say is I don’t think it’s an easy answer of just take down some more posts and then we’re done. The way I look at it more is technology has its own wants and the Kevin Kelly book on this, What Technology Wants, is amazing.
That’s your number one recommendation on your Amazon booklist. I actually just checked—
It is my number one recommendation on my Amazon booklist.
I just checked your list and bought it this afternoon. So, I’m looking forward to reading it.
By the way, back on the tech paradigm for half-second before I finish this because I think it’s relevant. One of the things in the tech paradigm is it doesn’t matter who you are. You could be sitting anywhere and typing at your computer, sort of on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. And that’s the indifference norms things. And I think that’s why tech has been so blind about sexism and racism and all other forms of discrimination because it just doesn’t compute. It’s like, “Well, aren’t that person’s fingers typing on the keyboard the same as mine?”
And so, there’s this great complexity when you just open up the aperture and look. And so I wish that I felt that more from the leadership of the social media companies and they’ve created something so big and so complex that it’s not Zuck knows the answer. It’s not like it’s like, “Oh, just do X and he can figure it out.” It’s hard. We don’t know as a society how to deal with this new tornado that we’ve unleashed.
And like any force of weather, we can shape it. We can’t stop it, I don’t think, like the people would just want to put the tornado away like that didn’t happen. And so, to me, the great quest is the quest of figuring out how to shape the power of these tools that we’ve created. And that is not the sole providence of any of those companies. It is not the sole providence of government. We have to figure it all out together.
It’s so rare that we actually have these conversations that detail that go into what’s the impact on society? I know journalists spend a lot of time on it but what percent of this stuff is actually—
Well, I think it’s true in all times in history that those conversations kind of had to be crammed in among doing regular business. The treaty of Detroit between the auto companies and UAW that set the template for sort of modern American full-time employment, vacations, and health care benefits, and that kind of thing. It’s not like they could just stop everything for six months and work on that. Well, they did it. That’s the nature of action is you got to keep on with the flow.
As much as I can be a critic on some things, I also use the tools. I got this daily Twitter thing that I’m doing now with giving tips about work, the election thing—
I’ve been watching it. It’s been great.
Anyway, but the election project that I was going to say that now I’m going to have to disclose in public before this podcast episode comes out—
Great. We’re going to break some news.
Yeah, exactly. I have been working with some folks around the country on a new project that we’ve been working on for just about a little less than two weeks now to try to get more votes out in this election. And as we’ve looked at the issues with the U.S. Postal Service and mail delivery and the safety issues around voting in person, we saw some of the news around ballot drop boxes and how would they work, and could you just bring your vote over?
And so we are organizing local common voting parades, sort of people in their neighborhoods marching to the polls together. We’re calling it Walk the Vote, #walkthevote.
And we could not do that but for the existence of all of these tools and platforms including by the way knowing low-code tools. And the whole thing spun up like — what is that effort? It’s not an organization. It’s not incorporated in any way but it is a Google Drive folder. And so, the way to me to think about it is like the weather. It’s a powerful force. You can’t stop it but you can shape it.