Big Technology

Why Everyone’s Wrong to Bet Against San Francisco: A Conversation With BuzzFeed News Exec. Editor Mat Honan

‘Maybe we’re having a bust right now, but it’ll boom again’

Mat Honan

OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts — edited for length and clarity — with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

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BuzzFeed News Executive Editor Mat Honan has long covered the way society interacts with technology. He joins Big Technology Podcast this week to discuss the “Zoom Class,” the rise of NFTs, and how San Francisco may change after the pandemic.

Alex Kantrowitz: Hi Mat, Let’s talk about the “Zoom Class,” or the group of people who’ve been able to keep their jobs and work from home during the pandemic. Some have even moved to “Zoom towns” a few hours away from the cities they once lived in. What do you think the implications are of having a group of people who can do that, and a group who can’t?

Mat Honan: There’s a couple of really interesting things there. If you think about what this pandemic would have looked like 20 years ago, when it would not have been possible to have a Zoom class, or a work-from-home class, or a Zoom school, all that kind of stuff. Technology really, in a lot of ways, helped this from becoming a lot worse than it could have been. It clearly helped reduce community spread.

But it’s deeply unfair certainly that some people are basically able to ride it out at home, often all being paid very well to do that. I think it’s almost a cliché at this point — I wish I could remember who said it first because it’s a brilliant truth — about the pandemic being the black light that exposed all the problems in society.

In some ways, it was just a lot of right stuff and right time in terms of the fact that it did work. You worked on a story, when this was all starting, about video capabilities when the pandemic was getting going. So many people had gone to Amazon Web services, there was so much bandwidth, people had fiber to the house, and there’s all this stuff. But it’s just deeply unfair that so many people got to ride it out at home, and it’s deeply unfair that the kids whose families had the money to have a better computer and better internet connection got a better education, or got an education. In some families, their kids just sat alone at home all day while both their parents are essential workers.

It’s really exposed the divides in society and just what kind of inequalities we have to work on as a society; I think that’s more than anything else. “Zoom Towns,” is the most obnoxious phrase I’ve heard in a long time, it’s going to have a long-term transformative effect in society, but I hope we can make a positive one.

Let’s talk about the effect. What’s that going to look like?

Frankly, I don’t want to predict the future. Like I don’t know. I don’t know what it looks like, but I certainly hope that all these conversations that we’ve had about race and class in the past year aren’t for naught, and that all the things that we’ve learned about who has the privilege to do these things, that we don’t unlearn those.

I worry that this will just add another layer of division inside an already really divided country.

I do, too. I do hope that there is some good to come out of it and we can have some sort of realignment. I saw something recently about the massive number of people who are registered as Independents now versus four years ago, eight years ago, 12 years ago.

It’s been an increase?

Yes, I think that’s a positive thing. One of the worst things that we’ve done in American society is to divide everybody up into teams. It’s been incredibly harmful. I hope there’s a chance that we can learn from it, and people become more civic-minded, and people can get more involved.

Personally, all of a sudden I care a lot more about schools, and not just my kids’ schools, but other kids’ schools. Molly Hensley-Clancy wrote a story on schools in the spring, and about all these kids who have just been completely wrecked by the pandemic and left behind. I’m certainly not the only person talking about seeing that, but I think people are really thinking about that now, and I hope that we continue to think about that.

I hope that we can do things like make sure that all families have a fast internet at home. Why is that something that only wealthy families can pay for? Why can’t we have a more equitable distribution of broadband? Why can’t there be broadband in rural areas? Why can’t we do more to have the government create infrastructure where there’s not affordable internet that people can get?

Tech development already seemed like it was happening in a bubble, and now it seems to be further ensconced in a bubble?

Some things maybe became less bubbled, like for example grocery delivery. My mother, who’s in her seventies and lives in a rural area, and is on a fixed income and doesn’t have a whole lot of resources, had never been able to get groceries delivered. Now, she can get groceries delivered, order online, and curbside pickup, and that kind of stuff, and she’s been doing it for a year. It just wasn’t available in her area, and the grocery stores that were there then scrambled to implement it. You’ll see some things like that, where places that weren’t traditionally tech, like a rural grocery store, become happy about technology that makes them more useful to people’s lives.

But what happens if the builders of technology are less exposed to folks who don’t work in the tech industry?

I think what you’re saying is because of people’s ability to ride it out at Zooms, are they going to have even less empathy than they already did have for people who they’ve not been having any contact with. It’s definitely concerning. Did you see the “giraffe money” story?

Was it about having enough money you could buy a giraffe as a test for wealth?

Right. “Are you going to get giraffe money from this IPO?” or just fancy dog money. I don’t know. And you want to have giraffe money. Even that those discussions are taking place is messed up. The U.S. is pretty messed up. I think a lot of that is due to long-term tax policy, long-term policies around race, long-term policies around who got to get a loan to buy a home, and that type of thing. I would hope that the people who are listening to this podcast, who are the builders, are thinking about the unglamorous middle class and working class and working poor who are not living in those bubbles and are not able to be on the Zoom all day.

There’s a company that has an ad where one of their drivers says, “I’m my own CEO,” and it struck me as tone-deaf. Because yeah, you’re your own CEO, you don’t have health benefits, you don’t have unemployment benefits, you don’t have any of the safety nets that come with full employment, and actually, you’re not even your own CEO because you don’t really even set your hours.

You’re managed by an algorithm.

Yeah. But that that mindset could come out now is shocking to me and appalling. We talk about these people as essential workers, yet we treat them as if they’re completely inessential, and it’s discouraging to me that you could have so little empathy that you might not see that as a problem.

When meanwhile there’s a thing going on in San Francisco right now. There’s a driver, I believe it’s an Uber driver, maybe a Lyft driver, who was assaulted by some people because he had asked them to wear a mask in the car. People are out there scrambling and working hard and putting themselves at risk so that other people are able to be at home and sit there on Zoom and Google Docs, and get your work done and check your workflow in Asana, all that kind of stuff. You know? It happens because other people have ventured out and took risks. And I just hope we think about them.

Okay, what do you think about this whole non-fungible token craze and the fact that bitcoin is going to the moon? I think you have a mountain full of bitcoin sitting in some Wired server from your Wired days.

They burned that, actually.

We should tell the story of the Wired bitcoin server, if you’re able.

This wasn’t me, but it was while I was there and it’s pretty amazing. I believe it was Bob McMillan, who’s now at the Wall Street Journal, who had a Butterfly Labs bitcoin mine, and it was in the gadget closet, and it’s just in there churning away mining bitcoin.

What year was this?

2012, maybe 2013. And at first, it’s just in there churning out stuff at whatever bitcoin was at the time. Even when it was $100 a coin, nobody really thought about this being a big problem. Then, all of a sudden bitcoin shot up, I think it was a thousand bucks or something, and I’m not going to get these numbers right, but it became a problem, and people were like, “Wait a second. It’s a thousand bucks today. It could be 50,000 bucks tomorrow,” which I don’t think anyone believed.

Here we are.

Yeah. Here we are. And there was a big debate internally over what we should do with it. I remember Adam Rogers, who’s a longtime writer and editor there, who’s on the science desk there, making the case that we should give that money to charity, “There are people sleeping on the street. We can’t keep this and sit on this bitcoin stash because it could in some ways compromise our integrity.” At this point, I want to say it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 bitcoin. They had mined several, but not a lot. They didn’t have like a thousand bitcoin or whatever; it wasn’t that early. Anyway, at some point after a lot of arguing over it, they made the decision basically to get rid of the key, and so they burned the key; and once they did that, I mean there’s no getting it back.

How much is this worth?

Like when they trashed it. Let’s say it was 10 bitcoin. I don’t know, it would be worth what, half a million bucks now? It’s a substantial amount of money now the way that it wasn’t when they got it.

Do you kick yourself for not buying bitcoin when you knew it was happening back in the day?

You can’t just think about what could have been. You’ve got to go back to that moment in time to really think about it. But there was a point in time when, I want to say it was John Herman, maybe someone else who was there, bought some bitcoin for a story when it was still trading for pennies a coin, and they had to send a money order to somebody who literally went by the name Morpheus. Who could have seen that it became that?

I actually did buy some bitcoin, which I wish I still was holding, for a story one time, and I got beat by Kash Hill who wrote another story about living on bitcoins, which is what I wanted to do. When you think about the million-dollar pizzas or whatever, or whatever Kash spent, she spent some fortune on a bitcoin sushi dinner, I mean it wasn’t worth anything back then, and it became worth stuff because people bought pizza and sushi dinners. That’s why it’s worth something now.

Do you think it’s going to crash?

I think it’s less likely to be valueless now than it was because there’s so many institutional people in it. I have no idea where the money is going or what’s happening with it.

Can I talk about NFTs?

Let’s define NFTs first because I’m still wrapping my head around how someone could sell a JPEG for $70 million.

I think we can define it as not a JPEG that sold, but as a unique digital object; that’s the way to think about it. I think if you define it that way, that it’s a digital object that is one of a kind, you can understand why that’s exciting.

Digital stuff is replicable on pixels anywhere. If I buy a painting, at least that painting hangs in my house. If I buy a digital object, anyone can see it on the web. I can’t display it. I guess I could buy a screen and put it up there, but anyone could buy a screen and put it up there, so what’s going on here?

I can put a replica of the Mona Lisa in my house tomorrow, right? You can replicate anything, you can already do that.

Is this Beeple’s First 5000 Days thing that sold worth $69 million? I have no idea, man. Who knows? I don’t know.

Why do you think this is cool?

I think it’s cool when you start thinking about it not just in terms of art. I think it’s cool when you start thinking about the ability to have a unique digital item that is yours and yours alone that you have ownership of. I think art is an easy place to start. But I think just in the same way that you weren’t able to really use bitcoin for anything except drugs, you will at some point be able to buy and sell other things, and there’s some weird stuff.

There’s that tweet that Jack Dorsey offered up as an NFT, and so the tweet is always just going to exist on Twitter anyway. It’s the person that’s setting up my Twitter tweet, but someone else is going to own the NFT of the tweet, I think is how it works.

What prevents Jack from selling an NFT of the same tweet to someone different?

Right. But could you fork the tweet? I don’t know. Maybe.

Because it’s all made up.

Yeah. It’s all made up. But I think it’s an interesting way to transfer ownership. This is going to sound crazy, but what if all ownership became some of those transferred NFTs, not just art, but like anything that you own that you don’t necessarily have in your possession, like the title to your car? I don’t know. I possess my car, but the title lives on a blockchain somewhere? It’s just an interesting way to think about ownership. I think there’s obviously all these huge problems with the energy usage that people are talking about —

Because mining bitcoin takes the carbon of an absurd amount of computing power.

The energy involved in mining and transferring bitcoin, and transferring NFTs, is apparently quite significant. But I think being able to prove unique digital ownership is a pretty cool concept.

Do you think you’ll buy any NFTs?

Not $69 million.

But if we put this podcast up and sold the rights as an NFT, would it be valuable at all?

I don’t know, Alex. Why don’t you try it? There’s a service that you can use to sell your tweets, which is I think what Dorsey used.

Oh, yeah. I put something up on there; it didn’t sell.

One of the things I’m going to think about doing is selling. I had someone hack my Twitter a long time ago, they posted to my Twitter account, and it’s always been so interesting to me that when you look at Twitter’s — I own my account, right? Twitter owns my account, but I technically own the content and their terms of service because I created it, the content is mine. Well, I didn’t create that. I didn’t create it. I didn’t display it. Someone else did all that. I’ve been wanting to sell that tweet just to see how you transfer that, how it works to transfer ownership to something that I clearly don’t own and didn’t make.

Could people tell your Twitter was hacked? Because there was one time where you were tweeting one night like, “Oh, God,” and “No, not this,” and…

I was watching Game of Thrones and I was just reacting, I think it was a season finale or something, and I tweeted like, “Oh, shit!” something like, “Oh, my God. This looks terrible.” It’s that total context collapse thing, and then I went to bed. The show was over. And I guess Marc Andreessen saw the tweets and flagged them to Ben Smith, who flagged them to our security, who was trying to call me in the middle of the night. I had my phone turned off. I woke up the next day and there’s all these messages from Ben and our security team like, “Are you okay?” And I said, “Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”

Was this the moment when Marc Andreessen turned against journalists?

I don’t think so. This was before he went on the blocking spree. This is when he actually followed lots of reporters and was saying those things about how Twitter was his way to inject his thoughts directly into a newsroom.

You wrote a piece on Substack saying that you’re pretty optimistic about San Francisco coming back. What do you think is going to happen here and why are you optimistic?

I guess I see people doing interesting things in the city, especially around media. There are a bunch of small interesting media startups in the city now that I think are cool, but I also see people becoming more engaged, you know?

I do think that we’ve got so many problems to solve in San Francisco. It’s clearly got a horrible, absolutely just incredible, fentanyl crisis, not just an opioid crisis. It’s a fentanyl crisis. It’s got horrible issues with people’s authority to actually live there. Like if you want to rent an apartment, if you want to buy a house: good luck; it costs just a shit-ton of money to try and do that. I think they’re starting to do a little bit of building in San Francisco. Like even people are still fighting it, but you’re starting, for I think at least the first time since the 20 years that I’ve lived there, to see a lot more support for new construction and for affordable construction. And I’m seeing a lot more people involved in knowing what the Board of Supervisors is doing.

I think that, in some ways, having school board meetings, and board supervisors meetings, and all these other government meetings happening on the internet where people can tune in and see them, and not have to go to a building and be there in person, it encourages participation, and so that’s encouraging to me. I think it’s only encouraging though if people are willing to dive in and start doing things and trying to make a difference, and I certainly hope they are. But also part of the point of that piece was that San Francisco has always been a weird fucked-up place, right?

From the very beginning, and it’s been this kind of place that’s always attracted weirdos doing weird things, whether they’re looking for gold, or coming for the summer of love, or whatever. Certainly, there are the origin stories that are connected to Stanford and Xerox PARC, and Fairchild Semiconductor, and all that kind of stuff. But one of the reasons that there are a lot of tech people in San Francisco is that it was a place where people were trying interesting and different new things. There’s a great book called What the Dormouse Said about this, but there’s a direct line between people that experiment with drugs and experiment with technology.

And I think that San Francisco has been a town that’s had a lot of booms and busts, and maybe we’re having a bust right now, but it’ll boom again. It’s a beautiful place that’s on the ocean, you can ride your bike across the bridge and be in a national park. It’s got a lovely climate, even if we do have fire season now.

And people are going to want to live there. This myth that everybody’s vacating San Francisco for Miami — also a great city, but one that’s sinking underground and brutally hot in the summertime — it’s ridiculous. People are always talking about problems. But before 1990, San Francisco was pretty grim, and yet the tech boom happened after its grimness.

They tried to draft you to run for mayor at one point. Are you going to do that?

No. I tried to draft myself, honestly. But no, I’m not. Of course not. I could never do that. What a terrible job that’s got to be, right? Man, that’s a shitty job.

Maybe to be governor, but it’s also super interesting to me that San Francisco politics have become so dominant, in the sense that the politicians have become so dominant: Nancy Pelosi, Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris. All those people come out of San Francisco local politics, and it’s amazing.

If you think about the dot-com bust which happened in 2000, but it took a couple years to shake out, lots of interesting stuff happened in San Francisco in 2003-’04, ’05, ’06. Before, it was totally on its feet. If there are people who are there just for a job and they want to leave, they should be able to go.

Going back to one of your earlier questions, I do think that we’re never going to go fully back to the office, and there are going to be people who are working on Zoom, we’re going to be working from all over the place; and if they don’t want to be in San Francisco, they shouldn’t necessarily have to be. I think things will shake out, and things will change, and we’ll fix some problems, and we’ll get new ones.

I think you need to have a certain level of affordable rent to have the weird people that make a city enjoyable, so maybe this will be one of the silver linings, that San Francisco will be a place where weird can flourish again.

I hope so. And I hope it’s also a place where people who have grown up there can stay there. My wife, as you know, is a nurse, and she works with people who commute in from hours away because they can’t, especially if they’re younger, afford rent. I hope it’s a place where artists and nurses and teachers and musicians and people who are the soul of the city can live, and I think that all comes down to housing. I think when you think about the homelessness crisis, the people experiencing the homelessness crisis, that’s driven by housing. So much of what people complain about with San Francisco can be solved by starting housing, and it’s encouraging me that we’re starting to see a little bit more get built.

And it’s encouraging to see that some of the focus that’s been happening out of city hall, including today, is on livability. I think when you really start thinking about what makes a city livable, it’s people’s ability to fucking live there, right?

That sounds so stupid. But if you can’t actually live in the city because you can’t afford to, I mean it’s not going to be a lovely city. Like who cares how many slow streets you have. You’ve got to have a house.

You’ve written eloquently about the fire season here that’s become a fact of life. Are we going to have a fire season on the West Coast every year? This year was particularly brutal.

It was awful. I don’t remember how long it was. I just remember it was just absolutely awful. Especially combined on top of the pandemic, I mean it’s terrible. It destroyed some people’s homes and their lives. Peter Aldhous has written a lot about it, and everything that I’ve read that he’s written has made me discouraged that it’s going to get better anytime soon.

Yes. I mean the trend is certainly that they’re getting worse. I don’t know what the snowpack is like right now, but it was low, which is not encouraging for fire season. I think it’s a fact of life in the West. It was happening in Colorado, happening in Montana, in ways that it didn’t used to. To me, that’s the thing that’s really alarming about living in San Francisco and California and the West and the world is like, “Oh, shit. What have we done to the planet? And are we going to be able to do anything to fix it?”

My wife’s cousin was emailing us and they’re like, “Well, we wanted to come out in August, but we’re worried that it’s going to be very smoky,” and my response is, “Yeah. I don’t think you should come in August.” I wouldn’t plan a vacation in California in August right now.

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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