Last week at the DLD conference in Munich, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith appeared onstage to talk about a range of things related to the tech giant. But while everyone in the largely European audience was deeply concerned about and riveted by Donald Trump, Smith completely avoided the topic.
That is, until I asked him about it in the Q&A period of his session. I wanted details about the meeting tech’s top leadership had with Trump at his tower. And I wanted to know the reason for the deafening silence from top techies, before and after the meeting, despite significant policy differences with the incoming administration.
Deft lawyer that he is, although he said a lot of words, Smith managed to not answer my questions in any way. Although I was struck by one thing he said just before: “No one ever dies of humility.”
It’s clear that putting out an image of extreme humility — even if almost no one in tech really is — has become the approach that a lot of tech leaders are taking in the wake of the Trump victory, reacting to the raging mood of less than half of the electorate that got him there. While there is clearly no true mandate, Silicon Valley’s top execs have become quickly acquiescent, as if the walls of the citadel have been breached by the mob.
Instead of understanding that we are essentially a completely divided nation — those who believe in and benefit from the future and those who do not — they have taken the message that this election was a complete repudiation of them and all that they stand for, and they are clearly rattled by the anger that has emerged.
As in: Fuck Kombucha and designer hoodies. Screw the sharing economy and artificial intelligence that is going to replace everyone’s jobs. Take your wireless AirPods that look like ladies’ earrings and fancy rocket ships to Mars and shove them. Hey, Elon Musk, climate change is a fiction. And, by the way, universal basic income sounds like a fancy way of saying communism.
It’s not just the formerly aggressive nature of Microsoft that has shifted. Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Texas to testify in the thorny $2 billion trial over problems related to its Oculus acquisition, specifically that the virtual reality company stole intellectual property and poached employees from another company called ZeniMax.
Facebook essentially bought that company over a weekend in the typical damn-the-torpedoes style that has made it such a great success. While Zuckerberg tried to explain that speedy process, he also struggled to underplay the obvious aggression inherent in it.
When the opposing counsel brought up the famous Facebook “Move Fast and Break Things” motto — which has been plastered all over its headquarter walls — Zuckerberg endeavored to distance the company from those hacker-inspired roots.
“Our new motto is, ‘build fast by building stable infrastructure,’” he said. “It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
No. It. Does. Not. It has no ring to it at all. It sounds even less enthusiastic than my grumpy plumber, who just installed a new hot water heater in my basement last week.
To add to the benign imagery, Zuckerberg then set off on what some think is the start of a presidential campaign effort.
For a guy who isn't gonna run for President one day, Mark Zuckerberg sure looks like a guy who is gonna run for President one day. pic.twitter.com/nkTjFrTTdU— Nick Bilton (@nickbilton) January 19, 2017
He pet a calf. He wore a yellow work vest. He talked to “real” people in an earnest discussion of “real” topics. He even posted earlier that he had become religious after a life of atheism.
(Now that was interesting, and made me realize that in my decades of covering tech, I have had exactly zero discussions with any tech leader about their religious beliefs, whether they had them or not.)
The softer side of Mark is very adorkable, to be sure, but jarring, as was the we-love-U.S.-jobs press release from Amazon last week, when it said it was committed to adding 100,000 more jobs in the U.S. within the next 18 months.
Those who have dealt with the secretive but pugnacious tone set by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos know that aim-to-please press releases from Amazon are rarer than a San Francisco liberal at the Trump inauguration.
So this one was a surprise, though hardly unexpected, as the Wall Street Journal noted:
Amazon’s announcement highlights a new reality for companies as Mr. Trump prepares to take office: His public praising or shaming of corporations for their business decisions is pressuring them to stay in his good graces and to adjust their public-relations strategies.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump made job creation a central message and blasted companies, including technology giants, for purportedly sending jobs overseas. Since his election, companies across a range of industries have scurried to announce plans to retain or add U.S. jobs.
So even as his laudable Washington Post bangs on Trump shenanigans daily — and kudos to that publication for that — Bezos has been forced into a role that is very unlike him. Which is to say a silent, smiling visage of forced cooperation.
Here is the real story that none of the leaders of tech are telling: Job creation is complex. Nowhere in that press release did you read that when Amazon adds those 100,000 jobs, it might very well kill off even more retail jobs at other companies as it moves from sector to sector like the Borg. That’s because Amazon — which includes the use of robots — is more efficient and can do much more with a lot less.
But you are not going to hear that truth from Bezos or any of the tech leaders who know this very well. And none of them will say out loud that creating new jobs will not be easy in any way and will require a very differently educated work force.
At lunch this week, at a Washington, D.C., eatery popular with the political elite that the Trumpkins rail against, one D.C. insider told me they were not hoping for much from the tech sector in the way of leadership on any one these issues, unless it is in their direct financial interests.
“They are just like banks and insurance companies now, even if they pretend otherwise,” he said. “The era of the pirates is definitely over.”
Ah, the pirates of Silicon Valley — that was the image that was made famous by the late Steve Jobs and his Macintosh team in the early 1980s. "It's better to be a pirate than join the navy,” Jobs told his crew in 1983.
Where has that once-celebrated sentiment gone? Pirates. Break things. Disrupt. Resist. Win by being smarter and better. Believe in and embrace the future. Gone, it seems, with the election of one loud-mouthed politician, which makes me worry about what will inspire the next generation of innovators. As the old saying goes: If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.
It also makes me wonder how Jobs would react now to this Trump situation and what he would say in the face of an administration hostile to much of what Silicon Valley has stood for for so long.
I was lucky enough to interview Jobs many times over the course of my career, and it was entirely true he was deft at throwing up an epic reality distortion field, which was still in no way like the “alternative facts” that the Trump administration’s most deft Pinocchio, Kellyanne Conway, spews with an enthusiasm last seen in public when Joe Isuzu ruled the airwaves in the 1980s.
Look, Jobs did sometimes dissemble, as do many in tech. He committed an epic whopper, for example, when he told me and Walt Mossberg onstage in 2005 that he was not likely to make a mobile phone, even though he was working hard on the breakthrough iPhone he introduced in 2007. And the controversies around how he revealed the progress of his own illness also rocked the tech landscape at the time, even if those now seem — given the outcome — forgivable.
But, just as often, Jobs also answered hard questions with candor and aggression and did not often back down from a fight on numerous issues over his life, often deploying a mischievous smirk as he said something very naughty. Sometimes that came off as witty and sometimes petulant and sometimes even mean, but it never came off as silent.
I wonder if Jobs would do that now, given it was he who urged the world via inspirational marketing to “Think Different” and fight the man. And I wonder why, given how celebrated that attitude was for so long in tech, it seems to have fallen out of favor.
But I sure would like to know what he’d say about all this, even if I am probably being willfully nostalgic that it would be something stronger than what we are hearing today. Now and again, such sentiments seep out of Amazon’s Bezos, though that seems over for now. Other than that, no one, out of this powerful group of people, has the gravitas any more to speak up, too strangled as they are by worries about shareholder value and possible retribution from Trump.
Maybe Jobs wouldn’t say much either, and we can’t know now, since he’s been gone for five years. So all we have to consider is what he said in his famous speech at Stanford University, which focused on his ultimately unsuccessful bout with cancer. At the time, he was in remission and shared a profound insight he had with the audience that would be nice to hear again from someone:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Nothing to lose. Naked. Follow your heart. God, I miss Steve Jobs today. So should Silicon Valley.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.