Nick Bilton

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I was critical last month of a line in a Nick Bilton article I otherwise liked. The Vanity Fair “Hive” writer offered this assessment of Mark Zuckerberg: “His skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” I don’t think that’s so, and even if it were, the Facebook co-founder, multi-billionaire and perhaps Presidential aspirant wouldn’t likely be suited for the role. Despite his stated goal to divest himself of nearly his entire fortune to causes bettering humanity, Zuck has been from the start a morally dubious person who knowingly rose to prominence on the back of a company dedicated to mass surveillance, surreptitious “social experiments” and profiting from neo-Nazi social networking. The dishonest narrative about Facebook being a means of improving the world makes the reality worse. The company has always been about the accumulation of money and power.

It’s not that there’s no hope for Zuckerberg. There have been few bigger assholes than Bill Gates during his Microsoft heyday, and now the sweater-clad 2.0 version is actually eradicating diseases. (Truth be told, however, several people I’ve met who work for the Gates Foundation still don’t have great things to say about him as a boss.) But the social network CEO’s nation-wide “listening tour” and photo-ops in cow pastures and on shrimp boats aren’t convincing evidence he’s learned from mistakes, nor was his recent “Building Global Community” manifesto, which essentially just promised more of the same. Like many Facebook users, Zuckerberg seems to be presenting an image of what he’d like people to see rather than what’s really there. 

In the two excerpts below, Bilton takes a more skeptical look at Facebook in wake of this week’s anti-Semitic advertising scandal, and Matt Haig of the Guardian argues that social media is an unhappiness-making machine.

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From Bilton:

Since the election (and even leading up to it), it’s become abundantly clear that social media presented itself as a profoundly useful tool for the Russians, extremists, and possiblyeven people within the Trump campaign, to potentially disfigure our electoral process. Before Trump co-opted the term “fake news” to describe entirely accurate, if unfavorable, stories about him, real fake news was being created and proliferated at scale. Algorithms on Facebook didn’t work to try to stop this from happening, but rather to ensure that these fake stories landed right on the digital doorsteps of the people who might find them most interesting, and who might change their votes as a result of that content. Twitter’s problem with political bots has existed for as long as I can remember. Earlier this year,a data researcher noticedthat there were hundreds of Twitter accounts ending with a string of eight numbers (like @DavidJo52951945) that only tweeted about hot-button political topics, all of which followed each other. This might seem harmless on some level, but these accounts had been disseminating incredibly divisive (and oftentimes fake) stories about Brexit, Ukraine, and Syria, plus anti-immigration articles from outlets like Breitbart and excessively schismatic articles from the Daily Mail. The researcher also found that these accounts only tweetedbetween 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Moscow time, and only during the week—almost as if it were someone’s job in Russia to do so. The accounts have tens of thousands of followers, and the suspected propagandists behind themstoked the flames of dissentby creating far-left bots which would go after Trump and his supporters.

I don’t actually see these issues as massive problems within themselves. Of course people are going to try to manipulate these technologies. The larger issue, however, is that these enormous, profoundly wealthy companies aren’t doing enough to stop them, and are not being held accountable. (Twitter andFacebookhave attempted to crackdown on trolls in some ways since the election.) Curiously, Wall Street, which still remains oddly buoyant in the Trump era (it’s amazing what the rich will sacrifice for tax reform) is not chastising Silicon Valley for the extensive role it played in the mess we find ourselves in today. Facebook is worth $491 billion, despite months’ worth of news stories indicating it allowed Russian accounts to buy and target pages and adson its network during the election, which estimates say could have reached 70 million Americans. Twitter’s stock, while bumpy, has barely moved since news definitively broke about all of the“fake Americans”that Russia created and operated on the social network during the election. (Here’s a fun game: go look at Donald Trump’s latest followers on Twitter and see how long it takes you to find a real human being who has recently joined and followed him. Most accounts have names like @N4wapWLVHmeYKAq and @Aiana37481266.)

Earlier this week, Sam Biddle argued on The Intercept that Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to go before Congress about the role Facebook played in Russia’s propaganda efforts. “Zuckerberg should publicly testify under oath before Congress on his company’s capabilities to influence the political process, be it Russian meddling or anything else,” Biddle wrote. “If the company is as powerful as it promises advertisers, it should be held accountable.” There are also reports that there is now a “red-hot” focus on social media by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. But in both of these instances, there needs to be real consequences. It doesn’t take 20,000 employees to see the apathy and neglect these platforms have played, and continue to play, in the attacks against democracy by the people who want to see it fall.•

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From Haig:

Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.

And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.

The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed.•

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There’s no doubt Mark Zuckerberg is a top-shelf CEO, even if the product he’s selling is dubious, an advertising scheme that connects hatemongers as surely as old lovers, can aid in toppling democracies as well as autocracies and is willing to quietly conduct “social experiments” on its customers, who are used as an endless source of free content to publish and private information to repurpose. No matter how much the Facebook founder claims to be repairing the ill effects of his company, he’s really just doubling down on its core tenets, which seem as likely as not to be antithetical to healthy societies.

In a Nick Bilton Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer analyzes Zuckerberg’s many recent moves which make it seem like he’s readying himself for a White House run. (My own thoughts on the same can be read here.) As with all Bilton pieces, there’s interesting insight, though I do think one line in his conclusion borders on ludicrous.

Bilton writes that Zuckerberg’s “skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” That would be a fairly ridiculous statement regardless of who we were talking about. Bill Gates is legitimately eradicating diseases and no one believes he can counteract “so much of what ails us.” No one would believe that about a President of the United States, even on those happy occasions when we have a sane and intelligent one who doesn’t believe he can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens.

It can’t be that Bilton believes Zuckerberg is capable of healing the country’s major problems just because he’s a bright and wealthy person because there are many far smarter and some modestly richer. It has to be the CEO’s management abilities and Facebook itself which elicited this judgement, but the former has been used to mixed results at best as far as civic life is concerned and the latter may permanently be more a negative than a positive. 

Considering Bilton acknowledges elsewhere in the article that Zuckerberg is clueless about his fellow citizens, his “remedy” line just sounds like more Silicon Valley idol worship, something best approached lightly in this moment of Theranos, Juicero, Kalanick, Damore and Thiel.

From Bilton:

I have my own theory as to what’s going on here. Over the years, I’ve spent some time with Zuckerberg, and I always got the feeling that he truly believed there wasn’t a problem that technology couldn’t solve. He felt deeply, and likely still does, that he was using Facebook to connect people, and that those connections were making the world a better place.

Lately, however, it appears that he has realized that there is another darker side to all of this technology. That the opioid epidemic has grown because of the Internet, that sites like Twitter enable people to spew hatred and lie without repercussions, and—most importantly—that his very own Web site was used by Russian hackers and idiot bros in the Midwest to share fake news stories that helped give us President Trump.

Zuckerberg may have ascended to prominence as a brilliant technologist, but he has turned Facebook into a behemoth because he is also a generationally gifted chief executive, someone who tends to think 20 steps ahead. In fact, I’ve never met a C.E.O. who can do this with such adroitness. I’m sure that the possibility of public office has crossed Zuckerberg’s mind, but probably for a reason that none of us have thought of, and it may also be 19 steps down the line. I don’t think he’s going to be on the ballot for 2020, but I do think he has left the option open to run for office one day. Maybe it won’t be the highest office in the land, too, but rather mayor of Palo Alto, or governor of California. Or maybe Zuckerberg just wants to join the local community board near his house. But, nevertheless, I think he’s got a larger plan in mind that we mere mortals just don’t understand: there isn’t a world in which Zuckerberg would amend the S-1 with that update, fully aware that his every move is scrutinized by investors, with zero intention of ever using an ounce of latitude afforded by the amendment.

But there’s something else I’ve come to believe about Zuckerberg over the past several months. As his surrogates have said to me, he partially wants to do this tour of America to show he’s just like us, and in touch with how Facebook (and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) can affect people. Unfortunately, though, I think his expedition has had the opposite effect, and highlighted just how out of touch Zuckerberg really is with the rest of the country. While he can plan 20 moves ahead, he can’t seem to understand that cavorting around the country with a professional photographer, snapping disingenuous images of him milking cows, touring shrimp boats in the Bayou, and having dinner with a lovely family in Ohio, seems aloof or, worse, patronizing. I have some advice for Zuckerberg: fire your photographer. If you want to post a picture of yourself at dinner in Ohio, take a selfie like everyone else on the planet.•

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What should we do if the President is a demagogue, a fascist, and a vicious bigot who surrounds himself with more of the same? What if he tramples on the Constitution, slanders other public figures and makes up bullshit incessantly? What about if it’s becoming increasingly clear that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to corrupt our election process? What if he’s using his office to greatly enrich himself and his family? What if he’s trying to delegitimize the free press and the judiciary branch so that he won’t have any checks on his worst impulses? What if he’s already committed several impeachable acts and nothing has happened?

What then?

In a Medium essay, Bernie Sanders asks “What Should We Do If the President Is a Liar?” The piece was written in response to ridiculous charges made by Amber Phillips of the Washington Post, who derided the Vermont Senator for “lowering the state of our political discourse” by pointing out that the President frequently lies, which he does.

This kind of knuckle-rapping is exactly what a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini depends on–it’s what all fascists rely upon. They behave as disgracefully as possible, accepting no basic rules or laws, while decent people are pinioned by polite norms, too afraid to say what’s blindingly apparent. Her comparison of Sanders’ rebuke to Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “you lie!” during an Obama State of the Union address is foolishly disingenuous and false moral equivalency of the highest order for many reasons, the biggest one being Obama wasn’t a serial liar and conspiracy-theory peddler while Trump is. Phillips’ description of Trump’s assertion of widespread voter fraud, which is a complete lie, as an “eyebrow-raising claim,” is one way to put it, just not the honest way.

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You know what would be good? If the Twitter brain trust announced they were revoking Trump’s account because he slandered President Obama with serious, baseless claims of wiretapping. They could point out that no one has an absolute right to tweet, that it’s a privilege. It’s a very, very easy privilege to earn, but there have to be some rules. If Trump can produce proof his tweets weren’t slanders, he can have his account reactivated. Until then, farewell.

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In “How Trump Became an Accidental Totalitarian,” Nick Bilton’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer theorizes the new President’s outrageous and unhinged behavior isn’t the product of a Machiavellian mastermind but the acts of an unintelligent person who “doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing in the White House.” The opening:

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot of late about Donald Trump and his infamous Twitter meltdowns—trying to deduce exactly what he’s up to regarding his constant, and seemingly never-ending, attacks on the press. The more that Trump has pushed the narrative that all unfavorable reportage of his regime is “fake news,” the more I’ve noticed a leitmotif. Trump, it seems, is using Twitter the way despotic politicians have manipulated the media throughout the past century when they needed a comfortable vessel for their lies.

Just travel back to Weimar Germany, where during his ascent to power in 1920, Adolf Hitler purchased outright a newspaper called The Volkischer Beobachter, which would grow its circulation to more than 1 million readers in the 40s as it became the organ of the National Socialist regime. The Beobachter, as it was often called, facilitated the Nazis’ revolting propaganda and culture of genocidal hatred. It allowed Hitler and Goebbels the opportunity to publish countless fake news stories about adversarial countries, about Jews, and, indeed, the press.

In some ways, Hitler set an early precedent for how to propagate fake news (or call real news “fake”) at the dawn of the information age. Kim Jong Il would control state media to his advantage much the same way. Saddam Hussein and his sons “owned” a dozen newspapers in Iraq, controlling virtually everything that was printed, and what was not. Vladimir Putinmanipulates the press in Russia. (He also allegedly has journalists killed.)

Freedom of the press is a sacrosanct right of Western democracies. But Trump, who has upended so much of what we believe in, has proved that the First Amendment is no longer enough to keep honest reporting unmolested. Indeed, were Hitler or Saddam to operate in our modern times, God forbid, they wouldn’t need to go through the hassle of running a state organ or Beobachter news outlet. They could simply open up their smartphones, sign up for a Twitter account, and start tweeting lies 140 characters at a time, both pushing their own agenda and decrying as false anything that they disagreed with.•

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Perhaps what’s most stunning about Peter Thiel’s lack of self-awareness is that he’s yet to surmise that he’s an “elite living in a coastal bubble,” a charge he levels at those perturbed by his support for Donald Trump, the Worst American™. An immigrant from a country with a horrible, Holocaust-fueled past who’s able to look around the authoritarian, racist threats of an evidently unstable person clearly doesn’t see the burning forest for the trees, but this billionaire ideologue truly believes he understands the hearts and souls of Main Street. Well, he may understand the absolute worst of that block, but that’s more an accident of similarly damaged psyches.

There’s a thought by those who know him in Silicon Valley and can’t fathom his support for a hatemonger that Thiel possesses some hidden master plan that would explain his exhortation of a bigoted monster. I would guess this is a huge rationalization by a group of people unable to accept that one of their own is an unrepentant prick. Even if their theory is true, only the most hubristic troll can be so lost in his ludicrous theories that he can sit in his well-appointed living room and dream about tearing down America and rebuilding it in his own vision. The technologists who continue to stand by Thiel have a blind spot for him as capacious as the one he has for Trump.

What is Thiel’s grand design for recreating America? I don’t give a fuck, but Nick Bilton has a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece that tries to discern just that and reveals much about the investor’s psychology in the process. An excerpt:

The predominant theory in Silicon Valley about Thiel’s Trumpism—or at least the version you hear uttered the most in public—suggests it’s largely a personality tick. Thiel is “a contrarian,” as Jeff Bezos noted at last month’s Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. Others have said that he just wants the attention. “What Peter has done, is not comprehensible to me,” Michael Lazerow, an investor, said to me. “I’ve yet to be able to figure out what Peter is supporting. It’s very clear about what he’s ignoring.” Lazerow went on to say that Trump’s policies are as erratic as his temperament, but his hatred is not. Thiel appears to be supporting the latter. And then there’s the theory of ego.

Thiel evidently approves of the attention he’s getting. (In the Times story, after all, he appeared quite aware of the “intensity” of the criticism he had provoked.) But there’s also another thesis floating around the Valley. “My belief is that Peter does not personally believe in Trump, but that he wants to create what I call the ‘burn it down party’,” investor Jason Calacanis told me. “Peter would like to see Trump win because it is the quickest way to break the two-party system and create Peter’s vision for America, which he is slowly unpacking.”

That theory, no matter how dystopian, may have some credence. Thiel, wittingly or not, has been articulating a very particular vision of late. During a speech at the National Press Club, Thiel hit on some familiar territory. He noted that the tech industry is deeply out of touch with the impact that their financially successful products have on the rest of the country. (This is one area where I actually agree with Thiel: in the Valley, a majority of pointless app founders are often too able to convince themselves that they have somehow “made the world a better place.”) In general, as Adam Davidson recently explained in The New Yorker, Thiel articulated a vision of national despair and ruin centered around inequality, student debt, and the trade deficit. “The protagonists in his national drama are Trump voters,” Davidson writes. “The villains are élites in their coastal bubbles of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., who do not intend to tolerate the views of half this country.”

When Thiel is intellectually convinced of something—an idea, an injustice, a preference—he often seems unbothered by many of the smaller details or sensitivities or possible ramifications.•

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In the aughts, when first exposed to philosopher Nick Bostrom’s idea that we’re living inside a computer simulation rather than reality, I accepted the premise as a fun thought experiment and something perfectly fine to consider.

It’s lost a lot of charm ever since Elon Musk went on a Bostrom bender after reading Superintelligence in 2014, as he and some other Silicon Valley stalwarts have taken this notion, theoretically possible if unlikely, and transformed it into almost a sure thing. Musk, an aspirant Martian, has said that “there’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality.” It’s this certitude, an almost religious fervor, that seems the actual threat to reality.

It reminds me of when I worked for Internet companies during the tail end of Web 1.0, a time of supposedly self-fulfilling prophecies, when everyone, it seemed, was sure NASDAQ would soon leapfrog the Dow, right before the tech bubble burst.

In “Silicon Valley Questions the Meaning of Life,” a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Nick Bilton articulates exactly why a mere philosophical exercise has become so disquieting. An excerpt:

The theories espoused by many of the prominent figures in the tech industry can sometimes sound as though they were pulled from The Matrix. That’s not really as unusual as it sounds. Hollywood, after all, has been exploring strands of the simulation idea for decades. World on a Wire, Brainstorm, Inception, the entire Matrix franchise, Total Recall, and many other movies have envisioned this theory in one way or another. Most of the technologies we use on a daily basis were first envisioned by sci-fi writers many years ago, including smartphones, tablets, and even a version of Twitter.

But these ideas are often put forth for the purpose of entertainment—the movies end, and we all leave the seemingly real theater, and go back to our real, seemingly un-simulated lives. What’s fascinating, however, is the velocity with which the fictional premise has become a serious, and seriously considered, theory in the Valley. I have been asked, on more than one occasion, if I believe we’re in a simulation. And I have listened, on more than one occasion, as people carefully articulate how our very conversation could be taking place in a simulation. Like a lot of things in the Valley, I have lost track of the line between where the joke ends, if that line even existed at all.

Whatever the case, the conversation is moving from the confines of cubicles and research labs to the mainstream.•

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Not an original idea: Driverless cars are perfected in the near future and join the traffic, and some disruptive souls, perhaps us, decide to purchase an autonomous taxi and set it to work. We charge less than any competitor, use our slim profits for maintenance and to eventually buy a second taxi. Those two turn into an ever-growing fleet. We subtract our original investment (and ourselves) from the equation, and let this benevolent monster grow, ownerless, allowing it to automatically schedule its own repairs and purchases. Why would anyone need Uber or Lyft in such a scenario? Those outfits would be value-less.

In a very good Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Nick Bilton doesn’t extrapolate Uber’s existential risk quite this far, but he writes wisely of the technology that may make rideshare companies a shooting star, enjoying only a brief lifespan like Compact Discs, though minus the outrageous profits that format produced. 

The opening:

Seven years ago, just before Uber opened for business, the company was valued at exactly zero dollars. Today, it is worth around $68 billion. But it is not inconceivable that Uber, as mighty as it currently appears, could one day return to its modest origins, worth nothing. Uber, in fact, knows this better than almost anyone. As Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, candidly articulated in an interview with Business Insider, ride-sharing companies are particularly vulnerable to an impeding technology that is going to change our society in unimaginable ways: the driverless car. “The world is going to go self-driving and autonomous,” he unequivocally told Biz Carson. He continued: “So if that’s happening, what would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by, basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.”

Kalanick wasn’t just being dramatic. He was being brutally honest. To understand how Uber and its competitors, such as Lyft andJuno, could be rendered useless by automation—leveled in the same way that they themselves leveled the taxi industry—you need to fast-forward a few years to a hypothetical version of the future that might seem surreal at the moment. But, I can assure you, it may well resemble how we will live very, very soon.•

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Maybe Nick Bilton has been dining with Peter Thiel too much, but he feels, as the prickly PayPal cofounder does, that technology is in a creative torpor. In his latest Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the journalist looks at the Pokémon Go pandemonium, which has mobilized more people than Turkey’s coup attempt, as proof Americans are waiting for the roar of the next cool tool and settling for Augmented Reality Meowiths. 

Perhaps. But that may be a confusion of real progress and our desire for gadgets, which are often used more as toys than tools. Sometimes those two dovetail, as in the case of the iPhone, but actual advances don’t necessarily arrive on schedule nor fit in a pocket–it’s not just about consumerism. True game-changers aren’t uniformly just fun and games.

An excerpt:

Sure, the game is fun. But it’s not necessarily indicative of a larger trend in augmented reality, a technology that goes back over a decade. Rather, it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem in the tech industry: that there is no major new innovation on the horizon. We have quietly slipped into an era of technological stagnation, where the next several years will bring few meaningful changes to the industry. The reason for this, and the larger problem that investors should be worried about, is that today’s technological advances have hit a ceiling, or are pretty close to one. It’s not that the visionaries are out of ideas, or that they are unaware of what consumers want next. Instead, it’s that the limitations of physics are preventing today’s tech companies from releasing things that today’s consumers are pining for. The ideas behind driverless cars are here, the technology not so much. The same is true for virtual reality, where you have to be plugged into a wall to really experience it’s power. Or for wearable gadgets, or Siri, which are too lethargic and inaccurate to be true products—yet.

Even the technology we readily use today isn’t in need of an upgrade. Our smartphone cameras are sharp enough. Our iPads are fast enough. Our laptops are thin enough. While the electronics industry has been trying to cram 3-D television and curved televisions and not-very-smart “smart televisions” down our throats for the past several years, most people have ignored these advances. The 50-plus-inch TV we paid $500 for at Best Buy is thin enough and crisp enough. There is nothing that TV-makers can offer that will entice us to run out to buy a new one. There is no new social-media platform on the horizon, either. According to a study last month, people in more than than half a dozen countries are spending less time on most social sites. We don’t need another Twitter. We don’t want another Facebook. Snapchat is fun enough.

This is exactly why everyone is obsessing over a game on their smartphones. Consumers are yearning for something else; something new and exciting. But it doesn’t exist.•

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So glad Vanity Fair is a vital, lively thing again, no mean feat to accomplish during the media’s winter of discontent. The magazine has always published some great articles in the Graydon Carter years, but for awhile it began to feel like the house organ of the Kennedy Administration, an odd choice for this millennium. With what appears to be the same people atop the masthead, the title reinvented itself for the Digital Age. Good work by all involved.

Nick Bilton, a recent hire at VF, weighs in on the Peter Thiel-Gawker contretemps, applying lessons learned from the ugly gamesmanship more broadly, examining how wealth inequality plus Silicon Valley hubris is a danger of some degree to democracy. The Libertarian billionaire and freshly minted Trump delegate may be elated over forcing Gawker into bankruptcy, but he’s proven to be a very good argument for a return to the Eisenhower era’s draconian progressive tax rates. The arrogance isn’t limited to the politically dicey and thin-skinned, either. Even a seemingly progressive person like Elon Musk believes he should decide what type of government Mars should have. How nice for him.

The former NYT scribe came to realize Thiel’s lack of empathy when he visited the Paypal co-founder’s home for a dinner gathering of business and media types and was subjected to the host’s weird diet of the moment. A petty complaint perhaps but a telling one when applied to matters of greater importance. An excerpt:

I was struck by a profound epiphany about Silicon Valley: Thiel, in many ways, sums up the entire mentality of the tech industry. He doesn’t necessarily care what other people want; if Thiel is on a weird and special diet, then we should all be on a weird and special diet. If Thiel thinks that people shouldn’t go to college because it’s a waste of time, as he’s said innumerable times before—regardless of the way such a decision could affect people’s lives in the future—then we are all fools for not dropping out. (Thiel, for what it is worth, has a B.A. and law degree from Stanford.)

If Thiel thinks people who wear suits are “bad at sales and worse at tech,” then you better change your sartorial choices. Go buy a hoodie; look the part. And if Thiel wants to disrupt how Washington works, he will become a delegate for Donald Trump. If he thinks that a blog called Gawker shouldn’t exist, then he will try to eradicate it. (Thiel did not return my request to comment for this article.)

I’m not telling this story to defend Gawker. I personally feel that citing the First Amendment to justify outing someone as gay (as Gawker did to Thiel, in 2007), or publishing a sex tape as “news” (as the site billed its Hulk Hogan scoop), is heinous. But the First Amendment in our country says the press has certain rights. That’s the law. As citizens, we have to abide by it.

But reality doesn’t seem to be the case for some of the elite in Silicon Valley. They play by their own rules. There is, of course, a positive side to all of this. These so-called disruptors have given us the iPhone and Uber and PayPal. But there is also a darker side, too—and we’re really starting to see those forces at work now. For a long time, technology pundits have wondered what will happen to the relatively young, very rich, Silicon Valley elite after they leave the companies that they created, and that made them wildly and incomprehensibly rich. What does Mark Zuckerberg, who is just 32, do after Facebook? Where does Travis Kalanick, 39, go after he’s done at Uber? What about all the young V.C.s in their 30s and 40s worth hundreds of millions?

These aren’t the kind of people who simply retire on a beach and sip Soylent through a thin straw.•

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Donald Trump, the dunce cap on America’s pointy head, has been enabled by traditional media, new media and a besieged American middle class, as he’s attempted to become our first Twitter President. Mostly, though, I think he’s been abetted by the large minority of racist citizens who want someone to blame, especially in the wake of our first African-American President and recent myriad examples of social progress.

Trump is no mastermind. He seems to have gotten into the race impetuously to burnish his idiotic brand–you know, Mussolini as an insult comic. His main asset in this campaign season has been an utter shamelessness, a willingness to stoop as low as he needs to go. Whether that’s a prescription for general-election victory, we’ll soon see.

It’s true that in a more centralized media and political climate, the hideous hotelier would have likely been squeezed from the process by gatekeepers, but the more unfettered new normal only gave him opportunity, not the nomination. I don’t think dumb tweets and smartphones made the troll a realistic contender for king. It was we the people.

In a pair of pieces, Nick Bilton of Vanity Fair and Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC see technology as the main cause for the rise of Trump, if in different ways. Excerpts from each follow.


From Bilton:

I’ve heard people say that if it wasn’t for CNN, FOX, and a dozen other television outlets that have “handed Trump the microphone,” there would be no Trump. But with all due respect to the television media, they’re just not that important anymore. Perhaps his popularity is a result of a broken political system, others suggest. But let’s be realistic, people have always believed the system is broken. (It’s that same broken system, it should be noted, that has helped create many of the disruptive unicorns in Silicon Valley.)

The only thing that’s really changed between Trump’s other attempts to run for office and now is the advent of social media. And Trump, who has spent his life offending people, knows exactly how to bend it to his will. Just look at what happens if someone says something even remotely politically incorrect today: the online immune system, known famously as a Twitter mob, sets in to hold that person accountable. These mobs demand results, like seeing someone fired, making them shamefully apologize, or even seeing their life torn to shreds.

Yet someone like Donald Trump doesn’t get fired, or apologize, which only makes the mobs grow more fervent and voluble. And the louder they get, the more the news media covers the backlash. The more the TV shows talk about him, the more we all talk about him. If you want to truly comprehend why Trump is so popular, you just have to behold what people are saying in 140 characters or less. It’s the same thing Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and anyone else who wants attention, understand. If we’re talking about them, they’re winning the war for attention. No one knows this better than Trump. Prod the social-media tiger, you get attention: say Mexicans are rapists, make fun of the disabled, pick a fight with the Pope, attack women, call the media dumb, and social media shines a big, bright spotlight on Donald.

Arianna Huffington may have once famously decided to cover Trump in the entertainment section of the Huffington Post, but the reality is we now live in a world where there is no line between entertainment, politics, and media. And I know Silicon Valley knows this, because they are the ones that helped eviscerate it.•


From Cellan-Jones:

Over the past year we have seen plenty of warnings about the potential impact of robots and artificial intelligence on jobs.

Now one of the leading prophets of this robot revolution has told the BBC he is already seeing another side-effect of automation – the rise of politicians such as Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots won all sorts of awards for its compelling account of a wave of automation sweeping through every area of our lives, posing a serious threat to our economic well-being. But there has also been plenty of pushback from economists who reckon his conclusion is wrong and that, as in previous industrial revolutions, the overall impact on jobs will be positive.

In London to speak at a conference on robots held by the Bank of America, he told me that he didn’t think this latest technology upheaval would be as benign as in the past: “The thing is that this time machines are now in some sense beginning to think. And what that means is we’re seeing machines encroach on the kind of capabilities that set humans apart.”

He sees the robots moving up the value chain, threatening any jobs which involve humans sitting in front of screens dealing with information – the kind of work which we used to think offered security to middle-class people with average skills.•

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One of the neat fictional things that Gene Roddenberry dreamed up, the holodeck, might actually be coming to our living rooms soon, so that we can be completely drenched by even more entertainment, until it’s oozing from every last pore. Because we’re all children now who have to be amused every last fucking second. Everybody is excited about a holodeck potentially bringing us even more diversions. Well, not everybody. Starving children and colorectal cancer patients probably don’t care. But they have perspective, so they don’t count. From Nick Bilton in the New York Times:

“This is all part of a quest by computer companies, Hollywood and video game makers to move entertainment closer to reality — or at least a computer-generated version of reality. Rather than simply watch movies, the thinking goes, we could become part of the story. We could see people and things moving around our living rooms. The actors could talk to us. Gamers who today slouch on the couch could step inside their games. They could pick up a computer-simulated bat in computer-simulated Yankee Stadium while a computer-simulated crowd roared around them.

‘The holodeck is something we’ve been fixated on here for a number of years as a future target experience that would be truly immersive,’ said Phil Rogers, a corporate fellow at Advanced Micro Devices, the computer chip maker. ‘Ten years ago, it seemed like a dream. Now, it feels within reach.'”

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As absolutely everyone has mentioned, it’s the 30th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh and the great “1984” ad that introduced it to the masses. The Mac, even if it wasn’t a tremendous success in and of itself, changed everything by popularizing GUI, making text interfaces obsolete, and coming up with a design that aspired to update the modernist beauty of Olivetti.

Steven Levy, the best tech journalist of the personal-computing age, is releasing an unexpurgated version of an interview he did with Steve Jobs just as the Mac was about to drop. In that conversation, the Apple co-founder asserts that the invention of the light bulb influenced the course of history more than Marxism. I probably disagree with that, though a lot fewer people died by misuse of the light bulb. From Nick Bilton at the New York Times:

“There are some aspects of the 30-year-old interview that might answer some unanswerable questions about what Mr. Jobs would have done with his life if he were still alive today.

When Mr. Levy told Mr. Jobs that there was ‘speculation’ that he might go into politics, Mr. Jobs replied that he had no desire to enter the public sector and noted that the private sector could have a greater influence on society. ‘I’m one of those people that think Thomas Edison and the light bulb changed the world more than Karl Marx ever did,’ Mr. Jobs said.

One thing Mr. Levy was continually searching for in the interview, was what was driving Mr. Jobs — a question that was echoed in 2011 in Steve Jobs, the biography written by Walter Isaacson.

In the 1983 interview, it’s clear that money isn’t the answer. Mr. Jobs talked about his net worth falling by $250 million in six months. ‘I’ve lost a quarter billion dollars! You know, that’s very character building,’ he said, and notes that at some point, counting your millions of dollars is ‘just stupid.’

Mr. Levy pressed again. ‘The question I was getting at is, what’s driving you here?

‘Well, it’s like computers and society are out on a first date in this decade, and for some crazy reason we’re just in the right place at the right time to make that romance blossom,’ Mr. Jobs replied, noting that the 1980s were the beginning of the computing revolution. ‘We can make them great, we can make a great product that people can easily use.’

Such passion is something that would follow Mr. Jobs through his career, and what he said next seemed to be the driving force behind that passion.”

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In promoting his new book about Twitter, Nick Bilton sat for an excellent interview with Shaun Randol of the Los Angeles Review of Books. A passage in which the Times reporter describes the changes in journalistic portraits in the Information Age:

Shaun Randol:

Can you speak about writing a narrative using at least four competing memories?

Nick Bilton:

There were over 100 competing memories. Everyone has a different viewpoint of what happened. I interviewed not only the founders and the board members; I interviewed also the people who worked there in the early days, their spouses, their ex-spouses, ex-girlfriends, and ex-boyfriends. I found people who worked at nearby coffee shops. I spoke with anyone who I could have a conversation with.

What I found the most fascinating was that I could go back to social media and use that in my reporting. For example: There’s a moment in the book when Twitter launches at the Love Parade, a rave in San Francisco. Everyone I spoke to believed it happened in June or July, or the beginning of summer. I looked up the Love Parade online and discovered it was in September. So then I went through and searched Jack’s tweets and those of other people from that time, and I ended up finding references of them at the Love Parade in September. Their memories believed it was the beginning of the summer, but they had actually documented it was the end of the summer.

That was the moment I realized that I could use these tweets and social media as a reporting tool for this book. There was a treasure trove of stuff that existed online, whether it was tweets, Flickr photos, videos on YouTube, Facebook updates, or Foursquare updates. These things existed everywhere and allowed me to pinpoint almost with exact accuracy where people were at certain points in time. I was able to untangle all of the somewhat different memories.

Shaun Randol:

There are significant implications of leaving that digital breadcrumb.

Nick Bilton:

Yes. If you want to write a book about me and I won’t let you interview me, you could potentially say what I was doing at certain points in time just by looking at my social media feeds: Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter. For this book, I had access to thousands of emails and other documents, but there were certain events that I could find via social media. The places people had gone. Videos of boat trips they took. Writing and reporting this story was a real eye-opening experience.

Shaun Randol:

I’m reminded of Gay Talese’s famous portrait of Frank Sinatra, ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,’ in which a vivid portrait of the singer was drawn without ever speaking to him.

Nick Bilton:

That’s the piece that everyone attains to when they write a story like this. Imagine how Talese’s piece would have looked if Frank Sinatra was on Twitter and there were photographs on Instagram of him. As you see in my book, there are incredible details about what people were wearing, the temperature that day, and even the gusty wind. I used the internet to find these things. I could look at almanacs to find what the weather was that day and the photos on Flickr of what people were wearing that day.”

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From “Disruptions: More Connected, Yet More Alone,” Nick Bilton’s New York Times article which wonders whether smartphone immersion is permanent or whether there will be a retreat from its ubiquity:

“In the late 1950s, televisions started to move into the kitchen from the living room, often wheeled up to the dinner table to join the family for supper. And then, TV at the dinner table suddenly became bad manners. Back to the living room the TV went.

‘It never really caught on in most U.S. homes,’ said Lynn Spigel, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Communication and author of the book, Make Room for TV. ‘At one point, a company even tried to invent a contraption called the TV Stove, which was both a TV and a stove,’ she said.

So are smartphones having their TV-in-the-kitchen moment?”

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Nick Bilton has a post at the New York Times “Bits” blog, about Google’s new Terminator-style specs. They will have to suffice until Google eventually implants a chip in your brain. It really does seem like a smartphone is enough, but Larry and Sergey disagree. An excerpt:

“People who constantly reach into a pocket to check a smartphone for bits of information will soon have another option: a pair of Google-made glasses that will be able to stream information to the wearer’s eyeballs in real time.

According to several Google employees familiar with the project who asked not to be named, the glasses will go on sale to the public by the end of the year. These people said they are expected ‘to cost around the price of current smartphones,’ or $250 to $600.

The people familiar with the Google glasses said they would be Android-based, and will include a small screen that will sit a few inches from someone’s eye. They will also have a 3G or 4G data connection and a number of sensors including motion and GPS.”

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Should someone who’s an adopter of e-books bring his paper volumes with him when moving cross country? It’s a question pondered by of New York Times journalist Nick Bilton in a blog post. An excerpt:

“During a work meeting at The Times, I began talking about my move to San Francisco, and which of my personal belongings would make the trip. When I voiced my reluctance to ship my books, one of my editors, horror-stricken, said: ‘You have to take your books with you! I mean, they are books. They are so important!’

The book lover in me didn’t disagree, but the practical side of me did. I responded: ‘What’s the point if I’m not going to use them? I have digital versions now on my Kindle.’ I also asked, ‘If I was talking about throwing away my CD or DVD collection, no one would bat an eyelid.'”

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Horror punk icon Glenn Danzig shares his book collection:

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