Jessica Powell, the former head of communications at Google, wants you to know that her new novel “The Big Disruption” is not a Google tell-all.
“On a very personal level, [I have] a feeling like people who I worked with for many years are gonna somehow think that I’ve betrayed them,” Powell said on the latest episode of Recode Media. “But at no point was I ever thinking I was writing a book about them or about their ... It’s much broader than that.”
The book comes out today on Medium, the publishing platform started by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. People who already subscribe to the site for $5 per month — or who haven’t hit the three-article-per-month paywall — will be able to read it for free.
As one of the architects of Silicon Valley culture, Google is part of the larger target in Powell’s crosshairs, but so are Twitter and Facebook and Uber and the countless startups that try to change the world without ever stopping to think that maybe their changes will have bad consequences.
At the same time, Powell describes herself as both a technophobe and a technophile: With “The Big Disruption,” she hopes to satirize tech from the perspective of an informed insider who still loves the industry, despite its flaws and blind spots.
“Internally in these companies, they should continue to celebrate all this stuff they’re building and continue to encourage this mentality of build and think big, and what are these big problems, because some of that stuff is really inspiring,” Powell said. “But you should also be able to say, ‘Okay. We’re getting rid of the middleman, and that’s great for all these reasons. That means we’re getting rid of a person, right?’ Or, ‘Oh, we’re building a platform where anyone can say anything they want. That means that we’re building a platform where anyone can say anything they want.’”
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Kara Swisher’s conversation with Jessica.
Kara Swisher: I’m here in Washington, D.C., with Jessica Powell. She’s the former head of Google’s communications team, a Vice President there, and she left just over a year ago. At the time, I reported she was going to grad school, but she is here with a new book, with the best title ever. “The Big Disruption: A Totally Fictional but Essentially True Silicon Valley Story.” Jessica, welcome to the show.
Jessica Powell: Thanks for having me.
Don’t you like being on the other side of this?
I know. It’s good.
I now have a whole new appreciation for what I used to put people through.
Exactly. I wanted you to start by reading a short excerpt from the book, and then we’ll explain it. I think it’s one from the introduction.
Please read it.
To interview at Anahata was a privilege. And the next, nearly inevitable step — to be rejected from Anahata — was a great honor. Just making it into the company’s lobby already indicated that one was superior to 99.39 percent of the world’s population. To be accepted, of course, required passing an even higher bar.
One by one, the gobsmacked Rejects filed past the Hopefuls sitting in the lobby, as unsure of their steps as they now were of their qualifications. They turned back to catch a final glimpse of Anahata’s collection of gleaming white buildings, and smiled then, just briefly, knowing that despite their failure — a failure from which they might never recover — at least they were among the few to have glimpsed the world hidden behind the company’s doors.
Arsyen Aimo surveyed his surroundings. It couldn’t have been a friendlier place: wide green sofas, a gigantic refrigerator full of fresh juices, and a flight simulator to help pass the time in the unlikely event of a delay.
Sitting on the very edge of the first couch was a young man, hair uncombed, T-shirt wrinkled, emitting a faint odor of sweat. Crumbs of breakfast cereal cast a pebbled road across his chest. A thin folder jittered in his hand, its transparency revealing a document whose tidy bullet points and blurbs belied the man’s unkempt appearance. His knees bounced lightly up and down, and he rocked as he sat, lips moving silently as though he were counting to himself.
On the second couch was another man, this one in his mid-thirties and wearing a suit, his cologne the essence of a crisp morning in the mountains. His back was against the sofa, one ankle thrown across the opposite knee, an arm thrown over the cushion as if he were there to watch Sunday football. He kept checking his watch, darting glances both anxious and dismissive at the female receptionists.
Arsyen immediately recognized their types. The first was an engineer, the second a salesman. And there was no reason for Arsyen to think any more of either of them — or the other fifteen iterations also waiting in the lobby — as he had seen enough of both during his time in the Valley to identify their species by smell alone.
Arsyen had other things on his mind; he was there to conquer his job interview. For he was Arsyen, Prince of Pyrrhia.
Or rather, a former prince who due to unfortunate circumstances had been reduced to working as a janitor in Silicon Valley.
Or, as he preferred to refer to it, a sanitation engineer.
Not that he liked cleaning. He hated it. Prince Arsyen had not been raised in the Order of the Red Woodpecker — buffed and preened and rubbed and polished to perfection by handmaidens each morning — with the idea that he would leave the royal palace and clean people’s toilets in America.
But like most everything he undertook in life, Arsyen excelled at janitorial work — he was so good, in fact, that he usually finished his work in half the time of other janitors. Previous employers had occasionally misinterpreted his skill as laziness and accused him of not having logged sufficient time with the mop. But Arsyen knew that a truly exceptional company would see it differently.
Anahata was that company, and this was no ordinary janitorial job. It paid better than any other Silicon Valley company by a full $3 an hour. If all went according to plan, in a few decades, Arsyen would save enough money to raise an army and reverse the unfortunate circumstances that had driven him from his country. His future, and the future of his adoring minions, depended on the outcome of this interview.
All right, so that sounds a lot like a lobby I’ve been waiting in for you, many times. So let’s introduce you, that was great. That was fantastic. This is the beginning of this book about a guy who becomes a star in Silicon Valley. But he starts, he goes in as a janitor. And so it’s sort of, I’m trying to think, it’s sort of like “Coming to America,” the backwards way, kind of a thing.
So explain who you are. All right, Jessica had a very big job at Google. She ran all communications. And she worked her way up there through many years of working there. So why don’t we talk about your background first, so how you got to here to write a book.
Well, I didn’t start off in tech. In fact, I remember when I was finishing up college, when all the tech companies were coming to campus recruiting ...
This is Stanford, right?
This is Stanford. And it’s 2000. I had very little interest in tech. I had taken a coding class. I loved it, but I didn’t wanna work at a computer. I remember going to the recruiting fairs just because they would give you huge candy bars if you gave them your C.V. Instead, I went off and had dreams of becoming a journalist, went off to New York, ended up actually hating the job I was doing and saved up and moved to Paris and got the first job I could get ‘cause I didn’t have a visa or anything. And ended up working in communications. So that was sort of how I got into communications.
But what didn’t you enjoy about journalism? What turned you off so quickly?
You know, I ... maybe if I’d had a different entry point it would’ve been very, very different. I was an energy markets analyst.
I spent most of my day talking to traders over the phone who would give me the day’s ... This was before, just at the start of the Bloomberg terminal and we were doing a lot reporting on where the markets were going and what were the theories behind why, say, the price of hydropower might have fallen.
So I’d write stuff about like salmon mortality rates and if there was ever an issue around gas prices or oil prices going up you’d always just blame a war. You’d find a war somewhere in the world and blame it on that. But a lot of times, the traders would just be like, oh you know — and they do it in this half-joking way — but it was like, “Well I’ll give you the day’s trades, I’ll give you the numbers if you tell me your bra size or if you tell me …” And it just wasn’t that fun. I wasn’t even interacting with people and the whole power dynamic was so crazy.
Gosh, it sounds like the Senate yesterday. But go ahead.
Jeez, yeah. And so, I was ready to get out of there, saved up my money and went with my then-boyfriend now-husband. We moved to France figuring that we’ll try and get jobs, it probably won’t happen and we’ll move back to the U.S. in six months and get other jobs that we hate. But in the meantime, what a fun adventure.
But we did end up getting jobs and that’s how I started in communications. I was actually working for a nonprofit that works in copyright and protecting artists’ rights. And after that, ended up moving to Japan for a short stint and then to London because my husband was doing a PhD and he’d kind of already followed me multiple places.
So we went to London. And I got there and I had this wonderful idea that I’d become a journalist in London again. I’d actually, I should add I’d written a book while I was in Japan. So I thought, “Wow, I’m gonna show up there with my book and they’re gonna love it because I’m young so I’ve got my pulse on, like, everything, and I speak English.” And turns out they actually speak really good English in England.
Yeah, they do. Yeah that’s what I’ve heard. It’s quite charming actually, their English.
Right. And I just wasn’t that much of an attractive job candidate in journalism. So I applied for everything out there. Waitress jobs, CEO jobs and a job at Google.
Yeah. CEO jobs?
I was so desperate. The Guardian had a great job listing section and I applied for everything in there.
They didn’t call me back, I don’t know why. And so I went in for the Google interview and I actually didn’t get hired, I didn’t do great on my interviews. They didn’t hire me. But then my future boss, or the woman who was in charge of my hiring process, I think really did want to hire me so she brought me on as a contractor. So I came as a contractor.
Why didn’t you do well? Did you not answer their dumb questions?
Well I remember, very specifically, I remember one guy came in and he interviewed me and he didn’t look at me the entire time. He had a computer in front of him and just stared at the computer and everything I said he would just type the answers to. And it was actually just excruciating.
I’m not a great eye-contact person. I’m not a great ... That in itself wasn’t a problem. It was actually the typing, that sound of the typing where I couldn’t focus. And then another person interviews me and asks me how I would do PR for a toolbar. It was a PR person and I just said, “Well, I wouldn’t,” and there was just silence. I mean it was a bad answer, I get it, it was a bad answer.
It’s a good answer!
Well it’s a bad answer for a PR person because you’re supposed to PR everything that they tell you to PR. At the same time, it’s ...
“Please don’t make one.”
At the same time it was a good answer in my opinion and what I was trying to defend was I said like this to me does not, it’s such, like yes, there are benefits to toolbars, kind of a shortcut to the web. But any amount of PR I do is not gonna equal what you could just do with marketing. And showing popups or whatever marketing tools you wanna use, like your PR person’s time is probably better used on something else.
Right right right right.
Yeah, so the interviews did not go well. But they brought me on ...
Wow, they didn’t ask you some weird, like if you had this many ping pong balls and a swimming pool? That’s the famous...
They didn’t. I think at that point ...
I like the guy typing.
Maybe it was because I was interviewing in communications. I think the critical thinking questions were more like ... There were a lot of issues with Google and copyright and continental Europe. And so a lot of the questions were around that.
Right, absolutely. So you didn’t get the job but you came on as a contractor. Okay. And then you stayed?
I stayed and wormed my way in and I loved it.
Did you? What did you love about it? What did you ... A lot of journalists go into PR but you hadn’t even been in journalism, really.
No, I’d never really been a journalist, unfortunately.
So you know, we have openings if you ...
What did I love about it? This is 2006, end of 2006, and I think Google was already pretty large in the U.S., this was post-IPO. But in Europe, it was still early days. And I was doing a job that, yes, I was in the communications department, but I was working on Book Search and Google News and I found, first I found the mission aspect of it really inspiring. Like this idea of digitizing the world’s books… Fascinating, as someone who had been in college and applied for a grant to go look at a book that was sitting in a library in Madrid, waited eight months for all that to go through. The idea that that book could be accessible to anyone? Pretty incredible.
So there was the mission component of it. Then there was just the, just there were a thousand things to do and you didn’t have time. So yes, I was doing communications, but I also got to do some policy work. I even got to do some product management work. It was exhausting but it was exhilarating.
Right, there were a lot of issues.
It really felt like I had a million ideas and it felt like for the most part you could just do them.
In Europe, working throughout Europe. And then in the Mideast too, right? Was that ...
In the end. So I started off coming in for Book Search and my background at that nonprofit in France had been working in copyright so I think that’s why I was interesting to Google. It was that I knew a lot of the people that were suing Google, really. So I start off working in Book Search but then started looking at more and more content products. So News and then YouTube, they acquired YouTube. And eventually went on to run comms for Southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Right. So you were there, really from the beginning? From the early earliest days. It’s not early-early days because I was there in 1999. But you know what I mean, like you were there. So what was that like then? Because now you’re supposed to be in such a mess for Google and for Facebook and others, but were the Europeans welcoming then?
They were... I mean, they were enthusiastic about Google, but I think there was a lot more skepticism just from the start because of course the Valley wasn’t there. These are American companies and Americans have a certain way about them, particularly abroad, that does not necessarily endear them to people. And here’s this company that’s coming in with a mission statement, which with itself at least back then in Europe was kind of a bizarre concept, you know? And they’re making all these claims but it’s still this, and everyone’s kind of like, “But you’re a company, you’re a company.” And then I think a lot ...
I think that’s code for, “We don’t trust you.”
Yes. And I think a lot — not just in tech — but a lot of the biggest issues that face us today, I think had a lot of their birthplace in terms of the thinking, in Europe, particularly like France. You think of a lot of the copyright issues, the right to be forgotten, privacy. Those were big issues in Europe long before they were in the U.S.
And I think that actually, you know, I wrote this in 2012. And I think being in an environment where ... I was in London, but being in a city where tech was not by a long shot the dominant industry. So you’re surrounded by other people constantly, and you’re hearing what they say about tech constantly. And they were even more skeptical of tech on the continent. Being constantly in contact with that, being introduced very early on to some of the issues people had around privacy and data collection and so forth, it definitely influenced me when I was writing it.
Right, absolutely. All right, so you go to Google, and when did you start writing on the side? Because you were. What did you study in college? You were a ...?
I did comparative literature.
So you were a literature person.
Oh I love books, yeah.
Yeah exactly. So did you continue to write fiction on the side? Because you left Google for that crazy company where they would sexually harass constantly.
Yeah, you know.
Jessica has some stories I won’t make her repeat, unless you want to. But I hope they show up all the time in fiction, but they were real and terrible experiences. But then you went back to Google, right? Were you writing during this time, were you being creative, were you taking notes about all these things?
No, since I was a little kid I loved to write, but then I didn’t actually really know how to write anything. I’d never even written a short story, let alone a book. And it was while I was at the startup that I just, it was a cathartic thing, right? I’m at this startup where everything that I see is ... everything that we’re telling the outside world doesn’t jibe at all with what we’re doing. Where everything that we say are our values don’t at all play out in the workplace environment.
And in the midst of all this, seeing this own kind of “whoa,” like “this is not at all what I expected.” I mean, I really had this … it’s almost embarrassing to admit because it really was so naïve. Coming from Google, I thought that every company in tech had this really strong moral backbone and that everything was gonna be all these high-falutin’ moral principles and stuff. And I get to this place where it’s not at all the case.
You may name it if you want.
Oh yeah, Badoo. And then I get to, everyone always confuses it with Baidu and I’m like, “I don’t know which is worse.” And then I go to this conference in Germany, DLD. And founder after founder is getting up there — and we did this too, I was part of this — gets up and makes these huge proclamations about what their company is doing.
And there was a moment, and I write about it in the essay that’s up on Medium, there’s this moment where Brian Chesky gets up there and he actually suggests that maybe, just maybe, if more people were sharing each other’s houses, we might see an end to war. And then I get on a plane shortly after that and I’m sitting next to like a DJ/app producer/copyright philosopher, and I’m like, “How did this happen?” How did I get in this world? I couldn’t make sense of it. And so I really just started to write, having no idea it would be a book. No idea of anything. It was like a cathartic act/trying to figure out how this all happened.
Right, I mostly just vomit in the bathroom. But go ahead.
That’s effective too. But anyway, so then I wrote it and then didn’t do anything with that because I actually ended up leaving that startup and going back to Google. I really had missed — and by no means am I saying Google’s perfect — but I really missed working at Google. I really missed the people, I really missed what I thought was the integrity and that moral compass. And I went back there and of course I was not gonna do anything with a book about Silicon Valley while I was working at Google.
Right. So had you been collecting ...
No, I didn’t go back and take notes or anything.
So what you’re doing is collecting scraps along the way, like of your experiences and different...
Actually, not so much, because the book was already written and then I was at Google and I largely put it aside. Occasionally, I’d like ... I remember, on a maternity leave, I picked it up again and worked on it. But the stuff that I was doing was more reference.
Like at one point I had a nod to Foursquare in there. Well that clearly, that’s not so relevant these days, Foursquare. And before I published it I updated it with like, I sprinkled in some machine learning. Because you can’t have anything these days without machine learning.
What I mean is, most people in the Valley are not reflective. I’m surprised they can see themselves in the mirrors, you know, most people. They don’t think about what they’re doing and they just move ahead. I think almost all of them aren’t. When you find someone who’s reflective, it’s unusual. Or maybe they are, secretly.
Like I didn’t know you were writing... Until you told me, I was sort of shocked that you were working, that no one has ever told me they’re working on a book or something. You know what I mean? Or “I do poetry on the weekends,” or, “I paint,” like you don’t hear that. You don’t hear any kind of thing. Was it done to feel, is tech not creative enough? Or is it just ... because then you wrote about tech.
Yeah. I really do think it came from a cathartic place. I always loved writing and I hated the fact that because I was so busy with my tech job I was no longer doing anything creative. And my most creative thing would be like, how do I work this funny little line into a press release?
Did you ever get it in?
No, they’d always ... You know the one thing I always wanted to do? Remember when Google would do its April Fool’s jokes and I always thought it would be amazing if the April Fool’s joke was actually a doodle. Like one of those things that you stare at where a picture emerges. And that you stared at and stared at and nothing emerges. And just drive the entire universe crazy by ... And I actually suggested that once and everyone just looked at me like that’s not actually funny. And I was like, it is so funny.
“What is this? Don’t you…” And then have people go, “Don’t you get it? I got it.”
Yeah, for me, it was just a creative outlet. I wasn’t really thinking about it in any other way. And I think the thing I was so interested in sitting in London, because sure, I’d love to think that I’m so smart and so reflective and all that stuff, I’m probably not. I really think it was that contrast of going from this company that had become sort of synonymous with the internet, right? And all the good of it at the time.
At the time.
And then going to a place that was so opposite and asking myself, “Wow. What would happen if you actually had people that had no moral compass with the resources and the influence of like a Google or a Facebook? Like what does that look like?” And that was sort of my mentality when I was writing it.
Which “The Circle” was kind of about, right? We’ll talk about that in a minute, but the idea was that you had these, well, there are a couple companies like that by the way, just so you know.
I want you to read another excerpt from the book now. We’ve been introduced to a janitor who then becomes something else. This one is about a management team meeting.
Yeah, so Arsyen the janitor has just crashed the management team meeting and we’re about to meet the management team.
Because they don’t know who he is.
He gets a job he’s not ...
He’s not qualified to do.
Yeah, it’s like “Being There” with Peter Sellers.
Yeah. Or a little bit like ... or “Scoop.” Scoop, something like that.
Scoop is better, yeah.
Yeah. So the gimmick does not last long. I don’t make people have that the whole time. Arsyen figures it out pretty quickly. All right...
The daily management meeting was itself an exercise in yogic patience and discipline, with all five members of the team doing a generally poor job of tolerating each other.
Although they were a small group, the men spread themselves out around the table, allowing spaces of two or three chairs between them. In addition to Gregor, there was Old Al, the company’s only gray-haired engineer, occasionally useful for his fifty-four years of wisdom. A few seats down sat Greg Fischer, the chief financial and corporate affairs officer (CFCAO), who ran all the departments — legal, finance, marketing, and PR — that were seen as necessary evils in helping run a large company. Equal in irrelevance was HR Paul, the head of the human resources department, who was generally regarded as a nincompoop psychology PhD with a flatulence problem. And then there was Niels, aka The Salesman.
The master engineer and the master salesman did not like each other, but today Niels seemed to be paying Gregor no attention. Gregor grimaced as Niels bent his gel-slicked head over the small notepad that he carried around in his front pocket. He found the mere existence of Niels’ notepad an insult to the advances of technology and word processing software.
Gregor had disliked Anahata’s new head of advertising from the instant he spotted him on campus, a plastic smile fixed on his face, fancy designer suit falling from his shoulders like a second skin. With his wingtips pointed sharply in the direction of his target, Niels had approached Gregor to suggest the engineering team fix the advertising system interface so that Anahata’s advertisers could more easily place their ads online. Gregor quickly informed Niels that Anahata was about its users first and foremost, and that its users — and just as important, Anahata’s engineers — did not care about an improved advertising system. Implicit in his explanation was the unwritten philosophical hierarchy of Anahata: Engineers at the top, then users, and then, long after that, cheerleaders, janitors, creationists, and, finally, the Anahata sales team.
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. That is Google. That is all of them. That is all of them, pretty much. So, you changed it, obviously, over time, and I’ve read different versions of it. What was the goal here? First of all, let me get back: So, you go to Google and you work your way up to the top. You got to the top. You took over after Rachel Whetstone left, first for Uber. That’s a big job.
Yeah, it was.
Did you have any time to work on this when you were doing this? No, you didn’t.
No. No, no, no.
Not at all. And you have kids and everything else. Yeah, those. Three kids. What was that like, being at the top there when you were thinking things like this, you know what I mean? Because you were at the top of what is considered one of the more powerful PR organizations on the planet, and you and I have gone through so many different things, from Sergey’s issues to ...
Whenever I’d see your phone number pop up on my phone, I’d be like, “Oh, no.”
”What happened? What’s the terrible thing?” Well, we went through a lot of issues. There was just one after the next after the next, until Facebook took over as the bad person of Silicon Valley, essentially, bad company of Silicon Valley. Talk about that job and then thinking about this. You were at the very top of your profession, essentially.
Yeah. I mean, I think the job was definitely a hard job. It felt very different from my early jobs at Google, not just simply in terms of the responsibility, but when I was working on individual products, I was working with small teams. You knew everyone you were working with, and you really felt ...
Like when they were introducing, what?
Like Chrome, or Book Search, I was on a long time.
I remember that. I remember working on that.
And it felt ...
Didn’t I scoop it by accident?
What did you say?
Didn’t I scoop that by ... I did.
Was that you?
That was me.
I was in Europe, so I kind of ... yeah.
Yeah, that was me.
I went from really knowing the people I worked with and really understanding a particular product or a particular issue really, really deeply, to then being across everything. Most of the stuff that I’d be doing from day to day was actually corporate issues, which is funny because, as a product company, what you really want is for people to be focused on your products all the time, but if you’re doing the top job at a product company that is massive, like Google, really what you’re doing is actually how do you keep people from writing all kinds of stuff, not about products, but all these corporate issues? So really it just felt like we went from one big corporate thing to another.
I don’t know if I really thought about the book and how I reconciled the two because I was so overwhelmed, frankly, and just going from one crisis to the next and just trying to make it through each day that I think I had things pretty compartmentalized. I don’t recall going, “Oh, but there’s this book.”
For those who don’t know — and then I wanna talk about why you left — what is it like being a top PR person in Silicon Valley? It sounds like a broad question, but I think we don’t think of how important that function is to these companies, and I think within the companies they’re not as well-respected as they should be, even though they’re critical. When things go wrong, it’s always PR’s problem.
It’s always PR’s fault.
For these people that are so irrelevant, it’s always our fault.
Yes, exactly. It’s a hard situation in Silicon Valley because they enjoyed an enormous amount of positive press for a very long time, and then it shifted really ... not suddenly, but over time, but there was always a crisis as they got more and more powerful. Talk a little bit about that.
Yeah. I think from a personal and a professional answer to that … On a personal level, I think what’s really difficult being a “top PR person” is you never ... there is no downtime. And not in that sense that we all say, “Oh, we’re all online all the time right now,” which, of course, is true. But I couldn’t go to a wedding. I couldn’t go and do anything without checking my phone every few minutes or the chance that there’d be some huge explosion of something. For the most part, too, you go on vacation or something like that, and if there’s truly a crisis, you’re the one that, say, the people on the management team talk to every single day, so you can’t not be involved in it.
Yeah, you’re like their babysitter.
That’s just really, really difficult to balance, I think, personally. It very much contributed to me wanting to leave. I didn’t want to be tech 24 hours a day.
On the professional side, I think that when you’re in PR along with policy, some parts of marketing, you are really interfacing with the outside world all the time, and so your job is to — and I think legal has this, too, in a different way — your job is, you can’t always be the person that says “no” to everything, but your responsibility’s very much to try and reflect what the outside world is gonna think about things.
Sometimes that can be very small things, like, “Actually, no. This little tiny feature that you’ve added or you’ve changed the color of your product, that is actually not an exciting PR story and we’re not gonna do PR around it.” Other times, it’s much, much bigger things.
Right. Or, “If you do X, this is what’s going to happen and you need to understand the consequences.” So, I feel like a lot of my job was trying to inject a little bit more realism into what we were doing. I think people were generally receptive to that, it’s just that sometimes you would come into the process so late in the game that you felt like you were molding at the edges rather than fundamentally ...
Fundamentally, in the beginning. I just had Nicole Wong on, I don’t know if you listened, talking about that same thing she was trying to push it from a legal point of view, in a certain way before things ... Anticipation. I think one of the things I talk about a lot is the fact that they don’t understand consequences. They never anticipate consequences. What were you trying to get to in this book, then? What was the idea? Because there’s a lot of these themes in this book.
Right. I think the thing that I became increasingly frustrated by as I sat there and this book is just gaining digital dust is these two narratives that I felt had merged around tech. On the one hand, within the companies — and when I say the companies, I don’t just mean big tech; I think startups, in some ways, can be even worse about this because I think the big companies have been slapped on the wrist enough that they’re starting to learn. This self-delusional Kool-Aid drinking about how they’re saving the world. They’re doing this grand, grand, wonderful thing.
At the other extreme, you have this external narrative around tech, which is, these dystopian narratives that everyone in tech wants to steal your data and steal your jobs. The problem with the dystopian narrative is that, if you’re sitting in tech and you’re sitting in the Valley and you’re building something and someone’s coming along telling you, “You’re an evil tech overlord” and you’re just sitting there like ...
That would be me.
Yeah. But you’re like, “I don’t know. I’m building a cloud storage solution for dogs.” How does that penetrate? How does that get you to start thinking about things in a different light?
On top of that, some of the people that write these dystopias — not all of them — don’t really understand tech. They don’t understand what a browser is or they don’t understand the differences between platforms and that kind of thing. Again, that’s one more reason to not listen to them.
What I wanted to do is do something that showed all the love and appreciation I do have for tech, for the really, truly unique things about the culture and the amazing products they build, but at the same time cast a critical light on all of that. And my hope is, by doing something that is funny and light and, yes, exaggerated, like satire, that people will listen to it and it might spark some conversation that might not have happened otherwise.
When you’re doing satire, it’s not kind. It may be a funny way of doing it. Like, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop was not kind to journalism, let’s just say. It was this idiot that made up a war, essentially, and pointing out the ridiculousness of the entire endeavor. You were just saying, one thing is you don’t wanna give up what’s good about tech. What’s good about tech? Who do you think you reflected in the book?
If I just think about this morning, I used a Lyft. I DocuSigned something. LastPass is everything to me. I can’t think of — sorry, guys — more boring products than DocuSign and LastPass, and yet they’re life-changing for me, the amount of time they’ve saved. I used Google Maps to get here. There’s so much good, from a utility perspective, behind a lot of these products. I feel so bad for DocuSign and LastPass now.
Yeah and they’re great and I really appreciate the companies that are just like, “This is what we are,” and you can still be a little aspirational; you gotta do your marketing, but don’t overstate what they’re doing.
I like all the utilities.
Yeah. The utility stuff is great. Then you have ... at different times, I really do think that tech has set the bar and led the way in taking strong stands on stuff. I think we’re actually in the start of a really great time where people are expecting companies to have a voice on things.
Well, just this morning Melinda Gates said, “Thank you for your courage, Dr. Ford,” which I was like, “Whoa. She never does that.” You know what I mean? She doesn’t represent Microsoft, but she certainly represents the Gates’, which is interesting.
Those two things really stand out to me, and the different way of doing things. I think there’s a lot of downsides to the mentality for sure, but one aspect I really appreciate — which I do hope comes through in the book — is the inventiveness. I do think you’re in an environment where people are not constantly saying no to you and that you’re generally encouraged to come up with stuff, and certainly, particularly I would say living abroad because there are a lot of countries where entrepreneurship is not encouraged the same way it is in the U.S. You really start to appreciate that kind of mentality.
Right, right. And then the downsides? There’s so many.
I mean, there’s many, but I think the biggest one to me ...
That one thing, around the table. I know those people, and I don’t like many of them, I gotta tell you.
Yeah. I think the biggest thing for me is this black-and-white thinking. I think it lends itself to a level of moral abstraction. Just last weekend, I’m out with my husband and sitting near us are two men. One works at Facebook. He was in BD [business development]. I learned a lot about him because they were talking really loudly.
That’s what happens in Silicon Valley.
I know. So, there’s Facebook BD guy and then there’s some other guy who works in tech. The other guy is asking the Facebook guy about Cambridge Analytica and, “Oh, you guys are going through a rough patch,” type of stuff. The Facebook guy says, “Yeah, but when you serve two billion users, bad stuff’s gonna happen and that’s just a small amount.”
Of course, that’s a horrible answer. I cringed first because there’s a level of me going, “I hope I wouldn’t have written that as a talking point for an external person,” but I could’ve. Part of me was recognizing that there was a line that had been given and that this guy was repeating.
That’s right. I’ve heard that line.
But the much bigger problem for me is that the argument itself, because if these all just become data points, if it’s just two billion users, well, 1 percent of two billion, that’s still a lot of live suicides and Myanmar and electoral interference, and you lose that human element of it. Everything is so ...
Why does that happen? Because I think you do reflect that in this book, this idea of not understanding the power of what they’re creating. Like you were saying, what if a bad company got a hold of a lot of ... bad person get a hold of a lot of power?
Right. I think there’s an over-reliance, at times, on data, and of course, I understand why that happens.
Right, what you’re talking about.
You’re dealing with very large populations of users, but I think data only really tells one side of a story, and when you forget the individual stories and the users and the people there, you quickly find yourselves in a place ...
Just to think about Cambridge Analytica again, when that story came out and someone — a journalist, I don’t remember who it was — accused them of a “data breach,” how did Facebook react? Their immediate response was, “It wasn’t a data breach.” It was actually far worse than a data breach because they knew it was not a breach.
Yeah. They used the system as it was designed.
But they processed that as, “We’ve been accused of a breach,” and just sort of like with the NSA, “We don’t know of a program called PRISM.” Well, you might not have known of a program called PRISM; the question was, was there a backdoor? That was the fundamental question. So, Facebook digs in their heels and they’re like, “It’s not a data breach.” Sure enough, three days later, they’re having to apologize.
And it was similar with fake news. What really people were saying to them on that first day, whatever words they were using actually were not as important as what the sentiment was, which the sentiment was, “You have betrayed us. We’re upset. What are you gonna do about it?” And that’s not how Facebook handled it. I think that, across the board...
I think the data point issues, which I think you get through, is they don’t understand the power that they have. They fundamentally do not understand. All of them. Google, Facebook. I think Apple does a little more than others, but they have less power, I would say, overall, compared to those two companies.
We’re here with Jessica Powell, the author of “The Big Disruption.” It’s gonna go up on Medium, right?
We’ll talk about this in a minute. Jessica, you brought one more excerpt of the book that I’ve asked you to read. As I see, this one is called “fake news.” Oh boy, can you read it?
Yeah, I’ve heard of that. It’s a thing.
Anahata loved democracy. Democracy meant free speech. Democracy meant an open internet. Democracy meant a boundless sea of opportunity for online advertising.
But there was even more at stake in Pyrrhia. This wasn’t just a battle to free an inconsequential country. If Anahata could succeed in overthrowing the government, Bobby was convinced the company would see a democracy uptick in its stock price.
Under Gregor’s direction, Anahata’s infrastructure engineers harnessed all their skills — IP prestidigitation, networked hot-air balloons, Wi-Fi-enabled squirrels — to work around the government’s block and make the internet accessible again in Poodlekek.
The search engineers created a new ranking algorithm, designed to ensure that negative articles about the despotic government would appear in the topmost position of Pyrrhia’s search results. Immolated monks, raped women, limbless elderly, and dead orphans would all be listed on the first page for any number of search queries, with graphic images and tales of atrocity immediately leaping to the eyes of anyone searching for even the most innocent information. Even if the government managed to keep the internet down in Poodlekek, Anahata would flood the rest of the country with the reranked results. If previous Anahata revolutions were any indication, the incendiary results would incite unrest elsewhere in the country, eventually leading to revolt and a total collapse of the government. A new, progressive leader would take over, Arsyen would be freed, and the world would celebrate the triumph of democracy and Anahata.
For eight hours, the Moodify team worked to build a new Pyrrhian search engine, going through thirty cans of Red Bull, twenty bags of Anahata’s signature organic potato chips, and trying their best to ignore the beckoning Circean pings from their Social Me app.
Finally, in the darkest hours of morning, taurine and glucose dripping from their pores, they reached the last, dramatic step. The team typed in the final line of code. The cursor blinked back at them, pulsing like an explosive light. They turned to Gregor, who gave them the nod. The team lead put his index finger atop a single “enter” key, closed his eyes, and on the count of three, pushed.
Oh, man. You’re never working in tech again, are you? So, talk about that, writing this. You’re the PR person and these are glimpses ...
I wrote that in 2012.
And now ...
I know, I know.
This story came out about possibly changing search results around immigrants, which created this feeling that conservatives aren’t being represented, which is not true, but anyway. But you’re saying they can do it.
When I wrote it ... 2012, and I think it was 2011 that the Arab Spring happened, and of course, Facebook and Twitter had been key in organizing a lot of the protests. Because Anahata does a lot of stuff around information as one of its many, many, many products, they don’t have a social media platform. I was trying to think, “Okay, if an information company was going to do an Arab Spring-type thing, what would that look like?” And that’s how that came about. But at the time, I was like, “This is ridiculous.” From when I was always working at Google, people would accuse Google of re-ranking results and that kind of thing, so I was also sort of ...
And they’re continuing to.
Yeah. I was doing a riff on that because internally what you would see is the conspiracy theories people would come up with outside the company never really matched to what was happening inside. I never saw a case of people mucking with the search results.
Right. That’s the problem. Sometimes when Donald Trump says something, I’ll be like, “No, it’s not that. It’s over here that they’re actually ...” You know what I mean? The stuff they focus on ... and it’s like, “You’re directionally correct. They’re up to things, but not that.” They’re up to something much harder to figure out kind of stuff. It’s not quite as easy to understand, which is enormous power over people’s information and picking and choosing or not picking and choosing. By doing that, you create power.
Getting back to that, you’re writing about something that feels very now, that feels very today.
Yeah. I mean, I even thought ... So, I revised this before. I mean, the whole Medium thing has happened super fast.
Explain what it’s gonna go on, and then I want to get back to this. So, it’s going up on Medium.
Yeah. So, it’s going up on ...
You didn’t go the traditional route.
No. So before I went back to Google, I showed it to a few people, and everyone was like, “There is no market for stuff about Silicon Valley,” and I was like, “Really?” Then, of course, a lot of stuff happened with “Silicon Valley” the show and so forth, but that’s why I just ...
It’s because a lot didn’t succeed.
Yeah, and I just sort of shelved it and figured, “Okay. Well, no one’s gonna ever read this.” A friend sent Medium the manuscript, and I had actually had the conversation with this friend just saying, “I think I’m done. I just don’t think this is ever gonna go anywhere,” but a friend sent the manuscript to someone at Medium and they liked it, and they do all kinds of experimentation with the platform, and they were interested in getting into ...
This is a platform that publishes ...
Yeah, and so they really focused on nonfiction, but they really wanted to see what it would look like to do a piece of fiction and a book, and the whole thing, it’s been a matter of weeks, but it’s been great, and I think it’s really cool because that means that people anywhere in the world, aside from the fact that it’s obviously a super-fast turnaround, who knows if tech will even exist in two years. Right?
Not really, but if I had gone through the traditional publishing route… but also, it’s globally accessible, which is kind of cool.
Right. So, the whole thing is gonna go up on ... This is a long-reads effort they’re doing, correct?
They’re doing that, and then you could read the entire thing. Can you download it?
You can read the entire thing, and you have three ... I think there are ways to put this stuff on your e-readers, but reading on the app, particularly on the app, it’s pretty nice because you can bookmark content and come back to it, but yeah, it’ll be in ... It’s just in a few days.
Yeah, and then you wrote a letter about it.
Explain what you said there, just briefly.
Well, I talked a little bit about why I wrote the book. I told that story about being at the tech conference. The reason I wrote that essay and the reason I wrote the book, what really interested me was exploring this idea of ...
The book is fundamentally about a company, Anahata, and its desperate quest to control everything and be everywhere, and be at the very top, and I was really interested in asking this question of, what is it that drives ... If you’re a search company or a social media company or a company that has an online bookstore, how is it that you go from that to having drones and AI and a grocery store? How does that kind of expansion happen?
Again, going back to that thing I was saying earlier about dystopian narratives, if the narrative is that, “Oh, they just want all your data, and they just want your jobs,” that’s not it. In some way, that might be more reassuring because there’s an end point to that. Right?
For me, it’s actually a much more primitive kind of ego/FOMO kind of thing, which is that, oh, well, they see all these opportunities and they can’t bear the thought that they’re not in on it.
And they just keep going and going and going.
Yes, they eat. Yes.
That’s why ...
I always call them the Borg. I call Google the Borg. I call them all the Borg.
They’re all the Borg.
“You must submit to us. We’re just gonna eat everything.” I was thinking that the other day with Amazon. Someone was like, “Oh, they’re in microwaves.” I said, “Oh, they’ll be in your business tomorrow.” They have to be. They’re like sharks. They can’t stop eating and moving.
But see, they’re sharks, right? So, maybe you think they’re sharks. I think in that book, “The Circle,” the metaphor was a shark. In my mind, they’re not sharks.
They are squid. They’re the Kraken. Right? The tentacles are everywhere. They’re taking everything, and then on top of it, it’s like this goofy, charming lava lamp, hackathon, whatever kind of culture. It’s quirky and kooky-looking, and meanwhile it’s grabbing up everything.
Right. So, okay. How did you do this? You’re a PR person. This is not good PR for tech.
It’s not good PR, but I think you should be able to love tech.
Yeah, but what did you think about it? I want to know what you thought about it.
Thought about the book, or thought ...
You were literally at the most important company, one of the most important companies in tech, running their PR.
Oh, and so what did I generally think about ...
Yeah, like, uh-oh. Did you call them? Did you say, “This is what I’m doing now,” or do you feel like they’ll feel betrayed, or what?
I think Googlers are super funny. I do not always think that they are funny when people are criticizing them. The book is not about them any moreso than any of these companies.
Yes, it’s not. Yes, but people will think that.
But people will think that, which kills me a little bit because a lot of these people I care about, it makes me sad that that’s how they’ll interpret it, and I will tell them before this happens, because I just don’t think you should surprise people with things. But I should be able to like the stuff and criticize it.
I think that’s the biggest thing is that you should be able to ... and internally in these companies, they should continue to celebrate all this stuff they’re building and continue to encourage this mentality of build and think big, and what are these big problems, because some of that stuff is really inspiring. But you should also be able to say, “Okay. We’re getting rid of the middleman, and that’s great for all these reasons.” That means we’re getting rid of a person, right? Or, “Oh, we’re building a platform where anyone can say anything they want.” “Oh, that means that we’re building a platform where anyone can say anything they want.”
Hello, Alex Jones.
I think that’s the problem is that there’s always this idealistic, “We’re doing these amazing things,” and they ...
... don’t always interrogate the other stuff. I think that also comes from this black-and-white thinking.
Anticipation and consequences is lacking, self-reflection. I wrote about this this week with Kevin Systrom. He’s one of the ones who actually does. He’s like, “Oh, all right.” Almost, to a person, it’s hard to find people who think about that. There’s always some excuse. Well, this and that, and that’s what gets me exhausted, I think, but again, you feel like it has to be said. It has to be said. Why?
Yeah, and I don’t think all these companies are entirely equal in their wrongdoing. I mean, I think Google, for example — and again, I’m not saying that they are perfect — I actually think in part because they’re a little bit older and they’ve had more slaps on their wrist by dint of that, just being around longer, I think they do think about this a little bit more, and I think because the founding of it, early on, they took some very strong stances on stuff, I think there’s a little bit more of a consciousness there than in some of the other companies. Again, they still have ...
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, they still have stuff. I’m not saying they don’t. I think Facebook in particular really quickly needs to figure that out, because it was pretty extraordinary to me listening to the podcast, and everyone made so much noise about his Holocaust comment.
Oh, with Zuckerberg, to my podcast with him. Yeah.
Yes. Yeah. Mm-hmm, about his Holocaust comment, which I understand. But to me, the really extraordinary part of that was, I don’t know how many times you asked him about the sense of responsibility he feels, and I don’t know if evasive is the word. It was almost just like he wasn’t answering the question you were asking.
He’s completely not self-reflective. Like I was joking before, if there was a mirror, I’m surprised he can see himself in it. You know what I mean?
They’re vampires. It’s fascinating, and I was trying. Believe me. Nice person. That’s the thing, is getting a lot of these people, and he’s just one of the many, but pretty far down that line, to self-reflect and not feel that it’s criticism, not even criticism, that you’re attacking, you’re mean. If I hear one more time, “You’re mean,” I’m like, “I’m not mean. I’m realistic. You just don’t like reality.” You know what I mean?
They want to live in this different world. So, what happens now? Do they get it, or will it be a PR thing where they say they get it and don’t get it? I mean, if you were a PR person right now with this techlash, right?
What would I do?
By the way, you’re gonna keep the techlash going with this book, I think. It’s gonna be a very ... People are gonna be like, “Oh, man. Someone on the inside is telling us ...”
“Ex-Google exec turns on the industry.”
Ex-Google ... Right. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah. You ready for that?
I’m not saying that. I’ve read the book.
Or “Ex-Google exec writes tell-all about Google,” and then they decide that the nymphomaniac CEO is Larry Page, and no, I don’t really think so.
No, it’s another one. I’m not naming names, but we know who it is. But were you worried about that? Is that a worry for you?
I think only just on a very personal level, a feeling like people who I worked with for many years are gonna somehow think that I’ve betrayed them, but at no point was I ever thinking I was writing a book about them or about their ... It’s much broader than that.
It’s bits and pieces along the way.
Then there’s also just the nervousness generally of putting some ... Particularly when you’re a PR person, you’re so behind the scenes. No one ever sees you with all of your puppet mastery or whatever, and all of a sudden, to be that person ...
Have you puppet mastered me?
You’ll never know.
You’ll never know.
But I do remember once when early on in my career there was an issue I was dealing with, not particularly interesting, but an issue I was dealing with, and it was like this long slog to try and convince journalists and the broader group of people that what we were doing was right, and I finally got this journalist to write this story about how great we were, and my husband wakes up, and he was reading ... This is back in the day. He was reading Slashdot, and he announces to me as I’m getting changed, “Oh, hey. There’s this thing on Slashdot that says,” this product I was working on, “that this product is actually really good,” and I was like, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”
Oh, my god.
I was like, I have fooled my husband! What a triumph.
Oh, my god.
I know. That sounds horrible.
It is horrible.
I mean, but I ...
It doesn’t sound horrible. It is horrible.
No, no. Well, no. Hold on. Here’s my one defense of that, is that the thing that I was working on ...
Oh, you’re doing PR right now, but ...
No, no, no. This is my genuine ... I genuinely very ... It was tied to Book Search, and the thing ... I really felt like the mission of Book Search was extraordinary, and that while maybe the company could’ve gone about it better in terms of how they rolled it out, and I’d have to get into the details of that, but the end goal was something that I wanted to see.
I remember when it started. Actually, Larry Page had to stay in an apartment of mine because there was a blackout in New York, and they were going around to the publishers, and I remember talking about him all night in the middle of a blackout, and the idea was great. The maw of which he wanted to suck everything in on I wasn’t quite aware of.
Yeah. I mean, I think it was probably a mistake to ... I wasn’t there when they started it so I don’t remember, but it was like they did the publisher program at the same time as this library stuff. It was the same problem.
I sat with him and talked about the idea. It was a great idea, but it’s not greed. Their insatiable need to suck in all the information, I did not see. I did a little bit. You’d see it around the edges, but they one time were taping all of television, and I walked into a room, and they’re like, “Well, because you can do it.” I’m like, “Do you have the copyright?” and they’re like, “What do you need that for?” and I was like ...
I remember thinking, “Oh, my God. What is wrong with these people?” You didn’t think they were gonna get that big, like that kind of thing, and then I realized, once they did all the books, nobody would do all the ... Then they’d have it all.
Right, and then you start to get to the other issues. The specific thing I was working on I really believed in, and so I felt really accomplished ...
... but I did love, just as some weird ... I really loved the fact that I’d convinced ...
Ha, ha, ha.
Yeah, totally, that I’d sort of infiltrated my husband’s ...
So, now you’re not doing PR. Now you’re not doing it.
No, I’m done with PR.
Are you working on another book? Is there another one in the hopper?
I’ve been for a while playing with the idea of a kind of HR department where everyone is so ambitious that they start murdering each other. We’ll see.
Oh, my god. That sounds like Uber. It sounds like Uber.
I know. I know. Who knows what will happen? I also started to write one about a cult that makes all their money by selling croissants, so who knows where any of this stuff goes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I like the murdering HR department. We know some people that probably would consider doing that. You know that. So, right now, last question: Silicon Valley, bad place, good place? How would you spin it right now, the techlash?
So, you’re saying if I was in PR at one of these places, what would I do?
Yes. Yeah, any of them. If you were the head of PR for all of tech, for big tech.
Maybe I’d hand them all “The Panopticon” and ask them to read it.
Oh, okay. Explain that, because they’ll never.
Because I also have a little bugbear about ... I do not mean to make broad generalizations about what people read and everyone’s backgrounds, but the lack of diversity across the board in tech, and every year it’s just become this annual parade of dismal figures, right?
The lack of diversity, and it goes beyond ... I think they do figures for ... They break out ethnicity and gender. Those are huge. There’s also just a lack of diversity of thought when you think of people’s backgrounds. Right? So much of what these companies are doing today, perhaps compared to in the early days, are about values and judgments, and I think that those are kind of critical thinking skills that don’t necessarily come with a CS degree, and I think that ... Again, I’m not saying that engineers don’t read. The number of people that have lectured me about “Sapiens” ...
I know everyone at least is reading “Sapiens.” But I think there’s a real value to reading historical texts, and if you’re gonna be in an argument about censorship, roughly know “Fahrenheit 451.”
Right, right, roughly.
Or have just kind of thought through those issues beyond just an access thing.
You know that’s my thing, humanities.
I think it’s a lot of our things in that it’s just ... I do feel ... I think those people are already at the company. It’s just they don’t always have a seat at the table or their voice isn’t as heard.
I think they shouldn’t be making choices if they don’t know how to do that. I think they’re ill-equipped to make the choices that they are faced with, and it frightens me that they are so ill-equipped and so not well-read. I know it sounds ... They don’t have a background in government. They don’t understand history, history particularly. That’s the one.
I’ll never forget when I got in an argument either with Larry or Sergey, I don’t remember which one it was, when they were trying to do Yahoo Search, trying to buy it, and I said, “You can’t. You can’t have all of it,” and they were like, “We’re good people.” That was that thing, and I said, “Well, what if Hitler runs Google someday?” and they were like, “What is that supposed to mean?” I’m like, “Hitler runs Google. Think about that. Can you ...” I studied that forever, and it was interesting.
So, in your final thing, what is your goal for this book, that you’d like them to read it, and what would you like them to get out of it?
I would like them to laugh. I’d like them to be able to laugh at themselves.
I’d like them to see that you can love something but also be critical of it, and for them to say, “All right. What is it that we’re building right now? And rather than having our starting point always be scale and machines, and, right now, AI,” say, “What is actually the best way to tackle this problem?”
Because actually today — maybe one day — today machines can’t stop the fact that because I searched for toddler stuff, right now, this morning in my feed I was suggested a bunch of toddler death stuff. At no point ever do I want to wake up in the morning and have the first thing I see be toddler death stories, like children falling and killing themselves. Machines can’t fix that for me. I’m sure they will one day, but they can’t today, so what are you gonna do?
And that’s in the grand scheme of things a really benign example, but what are you going to do to make sure that that tiny, tiny, tiny percent of your two billion, that that stuff isn’t happening?
Jessica, I wish you were running Google. No, I wish you were still there. I’m telling you, I miss you. I miss you. I miss you. You can tell why I like Jessica, because she was always so thoughtful, even though she was being a puppet master to me. She was a good puppet master. We’re gonna find out why you puppet mastered me. No, I don’t think you did that much.
If I did ...
I mean, would I ever tell you that?
You’ve moved me to be nicer in stories. That Sergey thing, the whole Sergey thing, I was nicer than I should’ve been.
Look at my poker face. I think that is actually the most realistic ... I shouldn’t have even told that story ...
No, that’s all right.
... because it does give PR such a bad rap.
No, but it’s true. That’s what you ...
I think really what you’re aiming for is you are trying to usually soften stories, not ...
Yeah. Okay, got it, and not have people murdered. How about a story about having journalists murdered? Anyway, no, don’t talk about that. That’s a terrible thing because it’s actually happened recently, so I shouldn’t even joke about it.
Jessica, it was great talking to you. Thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.