On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, author Corey Pein talks about his new book, “Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley,” a critical look at how tech might not be the solution to all our problems.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone with a savage heart, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today in the red chair is Corey Pein, investigative reporter and a regular contributor to The Baffler. He’s the author of a new book called “Live Work Work Work Die” — which is my favorite headline ever of a book — “A journey into the savage heart of Silicon Valley.”
Savage heart. Corey, welcome to Recode Decode. What are you, Joseph Conrad?
Corey Pein: That was the allusion.
I figured. Anyway, so let’s talk about your background. I want to get to how you wrote this book, but give me your very quick bio, how you got to where you got.
Oh, that’s difficult. I grew up in a trailer park in eastern Washington State. I tinkered with computers since I was a kid, then discovered that there was a whole world of arts and music and writing, and I made the foolish decision to become a journalist.
Not go into computers, right. Okay.
I got into the campus newspaper at my college, and then went to Columbia Journalism School.
I did too.
And then I’ve been globetrotting. So I hear.
Yeah, a waste of time. But go ahead.
Oh, J school was a waste of time.
Yeah, my time, but I don’t know about yours.
I met a lot of rich people. That’s been useful, so that’s my ...
I already knew a lot of rich people.
Well, congratulations. Not all of us are so lucky.
I grew up in a very large mansion myself, not a trailer park.
So I kicked around newspapers for about 10 years until the bottom fell out.
Yeah, I know. You talked about that in the book. I want to go into that a little bit. So you didn’t just kick around newspapers. You worked for newspapers, but you also did some news startups, so talk a little bit about those.
That’s true. Well, the first time I left a newspaper job, I launched a one-man-band investigative reporting operation back when crowdsourcing was the thing. It was called WarIsBusiness.com. I would say that editorially it was more successful than it was financially.
Okay, explain what you were doing because I love ... You called it a journentrepreneur, and it’s a reportrepreneur, just so you know.
Yeah. Well, when I thought that was a really good idea and still possible. I did before I got educated.
The idea was to put a name and face on the people who were profiting from war through defense contracts for the arms trade. There wasn’t really a resource like that. You could go online and look at where federal contracts were going, but the data was really low quality, and nobody still had a picture of who these people were. So that was the original mission, and then I combined that with investigative reporting. I did that for about a year and raised a little bit of money, but it burnt out pretty quickly.
What was the problem?
Well, I don’t like selling stuff, so.
Right, it’s a hard sell. It’s a hard sponsorship, “Brought to you by GE.”
Part of it, I realized the only way I could actually monetize it was to sell ads or at least services.
To defense contractors.
Yeah, to the people I was supposed to be covering critically, so there was a growing contradiction that I couldn’t get around after about a year. I also realized that although I had broken some stories that had gotten picked up by places like Mother Jones and Maddow’s program, the only people that really cared were people in the military. I mean, the American public just isn’t that interested. We don’t have a draft anymore. So, I burnt out for a lot of reasons, but mostly it was overwork. It was trying to be the lead developer, the lead content generationer ... What did I just say, content generator?
Generationer, but that’s okay.
All right. We’re not going to cut it. The lead content generator.
And the incompetent salesman publisher in chief, so I kind of gave up and went back to my old newspaper job in Portland, at Willamette Week, which has a bunch of excellent reporters. And then rejoined my wife in London after a little while so she could finish her PhD, and there I joined another startup called Demotix. It doesn’t exist anymore.
Fascinating company. Explain what it did.
It was a great idea, actually. It was a photo agency, so middleman, essentially, for freelance photographers. When I signed up, we had about 35,000 all over the world. Many of them were in risky places like Syria, Turkey, India, shooting protests and wars.
So you were creating a marketplace for war photographers, essentially, or conflict, or difficult places.
That was kind of our bread and butter, but we also had just people covering press conferences and red carpet events and anything you could think of.
Yeah, about 35,000 when I joined. I came on as editor in chief, and my job was essentially to professionalize the operation. Because we had people from all over, but many of them, English wasn’t their first language, and they didn’t have any ...
Right, so you were taking pictures and maybe selling them to a big [outlet], AP or ...?
AP, AFP, Reuters, BBC, New York Times, and some would be very big-selling, tens of thousands of dollars if you get the right shot. I mean, that’s how that market works. But most were much, much less than that.
So, with the acquisition — it was bought by Bill Gates’ company Corbis, which he then solely owned — I was expecting a big windfall. Here comes my budget, my great editorial budget. This is why I left newspapers. And of course the opposite [happened]. First thing they wanted to do was cut the staff 50 percent, and they had no plans to make people who were in dangerous positions safer, which I thought was ...
Or pay them more.
Or pay them more. They wanted to pay them less. I thought it was completely unethical. Even though they were going to sort of nudge me out of my editor in chief job, I quit because I wanted to be able to speak openly about that. Because I think that, not just journalists, but any company that employed a freelancer has a duty of care to make sure they don’t kill themselves in the line of their employment.
I agree with you.
I was pretty disillusioned after that. Kind of kicking around the apartment wondering what to do or if I’d ever work in journalism again?
Actually we’d moved to Brighton by that point, another Silicon Beach, one of the 20 Silicon Beaches. You know what I mean?
Okay. If you say so.
And it took me a while, but eventually I decided to do a novel about tech because I heard that Google hired Ray Kurzweil to be director of engineering.
And I thought, “Why? Do they believe this stuff?” And I figured, given my experience ...
He’s still there, I think.
Yeah, he’s still there. I don’t know what he’s up to.
Extending his life, or trying to. I think one time I said, “You’re going to die,” or something to him. It doesn’t matter, I think I’ve ...
The early version of this book had an extended dialogue with his ghost. That got cut, cutting-room floor.
So you decided to come here. So talk about that journey.
Well, I decided eventually to pursue this as a nonfiction project, and I decided to pursue it in a way that I felt like other books that had ...
There had been that. People had done this idea of ...
Well, I missed it. Not by me.
I decided to have ... The entrepreneurial experience as authentic as I could concoct it was the best way to cover all of the things I wanted to cover about the tech industry. If I’d taken a more conventional approach and followed one company or one entrepreneur, then I wouldn’t have been able to hit all the points I wanted to hit, so I had to generate the narrative through my own actions.
So, I showed up, and I decided, “Well, How do I break in?” I did what I thought anybody fresh off the boat here trying to sell their company would do, and I opened up Eventbrite and Meetup and I’d just start going to parties.
There’s a lot of freebies to be had, and a lot of people hustling and pitching their startups, and everybody’s looking for a better job, and that’s where you get the gossip. So it was a great way in, not just as somebody doing the entrepreneur thing but also as a reporter, because that’s where people talk, is when they’re lubricated.
Right. Give me some examples of places you went to. Had you lived here?
No. I’m from the Pacific Northwest, but I’d never really been to San Francisco.
What was your concept of Silicon Valley before you ... Just exactly when it happened, or just the show “Silicon Valley”?
I’d seen the show. I’d seen the first season. I haven’t really caught up with it then. My concept was, of course I’d read books too.
Which ones guided you? I’m just curious.
Well, there was the ...
Dan Lyons’ one was pretty big, but that back was in Boston, very funny.
I didn’t read it then. Yeah, that was after I signed the contract.
There was the one about the Google guys that came out pretty early. The Amazon book “The Everything Store” had come out. The book about Apple, not the Isaacson book but sort of the main tome before it. I’m really flubbing the titles here.
Crazy or something still ... Whatever, yeah.
Yeah. And the one with all the psychedelics and the counterculture origins. So I’d read all those, but actually I would say that Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier, and their kind of polemics were more influential in how I approached the book.
I think they’re right, and they’re not obviously selling something, unlike many of the other writers on Silicon Valley.
So when you got here, you were expecting what? And then what did you find?
Honestly, I was expecting to walk into some easy money. You know, I have an Ivy League degree. I’m a white man. I was wearing a hoodie. I thought I had everything that I needed to have. There were stories coming out all the time about these ridiculous startups that were getting funded and I thought, “Well, how hard could it actually be?” It was harder than I thought.
All right, so let’s go through that. You arrived and your idea was ...?
I had a few, but only one made the book. The startup that I write about pitching in the book was called Laborize. It’s a unique SAS product. It’s strikes as a services. The idea was, you would hire us to organize a union drive at your competitor, thus slowing their operations, distracting their management, and demoralizing their ...
Did people realize you were fucking with them or not?
Well, people ... no. I mean, some, maybe. It’s a good question. I never quite let them know one way or the other, honestly.
Right. Explain your process of going around.
Well, I tried everything. I tried cold calling, cold emailing. I tried going to networking events and buttonholing VCs. I went to Cougar Night out at the Rosewood Hotel, there are a lot of VCs there. I just tried to have my ear to the ground. Where are people? Where can I get them in social situations? And that proved completely fruitless. Like there was an incubator in the Twitter building that I went to an event there and saw that somebody, a VC, had office hours. It was written on their whiteboard, so I just took a note of that and then showed up later for the office hours hoping to crash. And none of that ... I had very bad luck.
So talk about those experiences. Give me a bad luck [example]. What happened? You go into ...
Well, once there was one down in SOMA, and I forget the name of the place but I waited outside and followed somebody in when the doors were opened. I gave them my card. I had these business cards printed up that said, “Future billionaire at AOL.com.”
Oh, no. Oh my god. You were just fucking with people.
What do you mean? I’m just ...
Okay, go ahead.
People complimented my chutzpah, but I didn’t get any meetings that way. Eventually I resorted to something that I haven’t really seen a lot of reporting on, and which should probably be illegal. Because it’s illegal in Hollywood to scam aspiring actors by doing fee workshops to ...
But there’s a huge pay-to-pitch industry around here.
Yes, there is.
And so that’s really where I ended up getting in front of people that supposedly could invest in my company.
Go through that experience.
Let me ... There were a couple. Startup Weekend isn’t really ... I mean, you do have to pay a fee, but that’s not exactly the thing.
There was one I went to down in San Jose, and it was like a $30-$40 ticket. You would show up. There would be 100 other people there who’d paid to get 20 seconds or 30 seconds in front of a couple of VCs, like a “Shark Tank” kind of situation. And everybody would just get up and pitch and people would clap or not. And then the investors would ... I guess the supposed value proposition is that they’d give you feedback that was supposed to be helpful, but. I’m not sure subjectively, and I’m not really the expert, I’m just a humble reporter, not a genius investor, but it seemed like the feedback kind of changed just on a whim. You know, like they were just trying to think of something to say to shoo the people along.
They were, just so you know. So what was your goal here? Is it a game for you, or that you really wanted to see if you could actually succeed?
I wanted to write an entertaining book.
Right, that’s what I figured. So what happened to your startup? What happened to the ...
It’s still online, Laborize.com. If anybody’s interested, there’s a contact email, and we’re accepting all C-stage ...
So you got no money. You got no money whatsoever. So that means Silicon Valley works, right? That it didn’t give you ...
Why? I mean, it was a great ... I had a lot of people say it was a great idea.
Really? It’s a terrible idea.
It’s just terrible. There’s so terrible ...
The only problem with it is that it’s illegal.
I didn’t even know that, but I just think it’s terrible on the face of it.
I don’t think it means Silicon Valley works. I mean, look around.
So go more into your experience. I want to ...
I think it means that I was not very persuasive, so that’s perhaps on me.
But talk about, what did you hope to accomplish by doing this? Is it just to see the scene and how it worked? You tried to get meetings. You didn’t get any.
I got the pay-to-pitch meetings.
You did the pay-to-pitch meeting, and then what? I want to hear your story.
Well, this is ... I mean, I want people to buy the book.
No, I get that. I get that. The goal of it is to show how it works, or to give a guide.
I hope to illustrate some of what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have a lot of connections, and it’s one wall after another. We’ve heard the story of the winners time and again, and you don’t hear about the overwhelming majority of startups that fail. So that’s part of the goal, to show what it’s like for the losers, and there’s a lot of them. But also I was kind of hoping that somebody would say yes so that I could humiliate them.
Meaning I have a chip on my shoulder about the tech industry. I’m a newspaper guy and they ruined it for me.
All right, so we’re going to talk about that more when we get back, about your chip and what you think tech is doing to media and other things. I do want to hear more about this journey of yours and what you were trying to do.
We’re here with Corey Pein, investigative reporter and a regular contributor to The Baffler. He’s author of a new book called “Live Work Work Work Die: A journey into the savage heart of Silicon Valley.”
We’re here with Corey Pein, the author of “Live Work Work Work Die,” which is about his experience — fake experience or sort of experience — as a ... trying to become a ...
I was definitely trying to have it both ways. I’m not.
All right, that’s what I mean. So can you explain the title, “Live Work Work Work Die”?
Well, that’s the future that I believe Silicon Valley is building for all of us.
Our lives are turned into a profit source through data mining. If we are an employee or a contractor or even a user of these ... I mean, users are part of the labor force for the big platforms now. I think the vision is they have obligations to us as labor, and we have no or few options but to do what they say, and to abide by the terms of service until we’re all used up.
So talk about that idea, because it’s one of the things that Facebook and others pushed back on. I just did an interview with Tim Cook and he said, “You’re the product.” He was declaring what I think everybody thinks, which is the user is the product in most of these business. Which caused Facebook to be very angry at him for pointing out what I think was the obvious.
It’s not like he’s the first person to say that.
Exactly. No, but they got real mad because he did it, I guess. I don’t know why, whatever.
They’re very touchy, aren’t they? It’s kind of weird.
They’re very touchy. Yeah, it is kind of weird. Tell me of that idea of recently ... Use Facebook in the example, the concept of what you’re putting out, which I think is completely right.
Look at this so-called Cambridge Analytica scandal. As far as I can tell, they were using Facebook for the purpose that Facebook exists. Facebook’s business model is to package, compile, collect and sell our information to whoever pays. Along the way there’s a lot of perhaps under-examined damage that it’s doing to us as human beings, I mean in terms of the reward, the dopamine cycle in our brains. I would really like to know what they’ve learned in their own internal research as far as how the algorithm works, what we see when we log on.
And then what we do.
Yeah, and what we do. What it’s showing us. What it’s not showing us. How it tracks our usage and perhaps sends messages through notifications to manipulate our responses, which are totally ... I mean, we’re animals. It’s not a big mystery that we have predictable behavioral responses. I think it’s troubling that a few tech corporations seem to know more about that than most governments or certainly the public at large. And I don’t think that ... Frankly, I don’t think it should be legal to make money the way that Facebook does.
I heard Ron Wyden onstage at the conference in Portland. He said, “People should own their data. That should be the new legal principle.” I think I couldn’t have said it better myself. Why should we allow companies to profit from things about us that we don’t even know simply so that we can access a phone book?
So what do you think is the result of these hearings? Ron has talked about that for years, the concept of it. Why has it not gotten to the general public?
Do you know what I think it is? Well, first of all, the democratic party has been very close to Silicon Valley all through the Obama years and since Clinton’s, right?
Yes they have.
I did a reading in D.C., and I was just there. The word around the Hill was, I’m paraphrasing. I’m putting this in the simplest and most cynical terms that I can: “We don’t care if you disrupt newspapers or schools or the trucking industry and put all these people out of work. But, you mess with the elections and that’s where we eat.” So that’s why they’re mad, and that’s why I think that you’ll see more mainstream media coverage be more critical of the tech platforms, because the Democratic party is maybe just not as friendly as it was during ...
That’s putting it mildly. Oh, they’re very unfriendly, not all of them.
I had an interesting interview with Chuck Schumer where he was way too positive about Facebook, and then I had one with Cory Booker and others who were not.
Well, Schumer probably just hasn’t been briefed yet.
That’s a fair point.
But what was interesting was the tonality had changed really drastically. You’re 100 percent right. I don’t know if it’ll stay that way because I thought those hearings would ...
There’s a lot of money. There’s a lot of money in it. That’s part of the book, too. It’s not simply a misadventure story, although that’s part of it. I tried to make it fun. I do go through the unicorns and what made them all work. One pattern I discerned of successful startups large and small was just a willingness to flout the law and regulations and then patch it up later once you’ve made a lot of money.
Right. Well, we’ll get to that in a second, but I want to talk more about the concept of what, when you talk about this, the uses of data and you as the product, essentially. Where does that lead, from your perspective?
To a feudal society.
Okay. Explain that.
There’s not really ...
What does that look like? How is it feudal?
I think it looks like ways that you would hear it described by some people in the Valley. I suppose Balaji Srinivasan would be the most carefully worded advocate of something like this. He’s advocated what he calls a cloud kind of governance structure for the world where people choose their countries or how they want to be governed in a very consumer fashion. So, you don’t like your government; you pick up and leave. And I think that’s actually a really popular idea in Silicon Valley.
Another way I’ve heard it expressed is from Peter Thiel’s friend, Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug, who talks about having a global patchwork of small city states, which would be essentially corporate shareholder dictatorships. I suppose you could have one where all the hippie anarchists would go and do their own thing, but it’s hard for me to imagine how democratic states would survive in that kind of environment considering that corporations have all of the money and power.
Right. I do look at these companies like nation states, and some of them are better than others.
There was a point in the conclusion ... Apparently last year, I think it was Denmark hired the first ambassador who’s not an ambassador to a country, but is an ambassador to like Google, Apple and the American tech companies. I think we’ll see more of that, especially with Trump in charge. I mean, if you’re a foreign government, would you want to deal with the Trump administration?
Exactly. I think a lot of companies are going to make that calculus and frankly consumers already are. In many ways we already treat these platforms as the suppliers of bread and security. We just had this news about Twitter today and it’s like, “Oh my ...” It’s like a national security crisis.
Explain, because this will be later.
Yeah, sorry. Twitter just announced before we recorded that there was a breach and they had basically every user’s password in plain text sitting around somewhere. For the citizens of Twitter this is a big deal. This is like the gates are open.
For a second, yeah, 100 percent. They should force-change everyone’s password.
Well, that would be the right thing to do.
Turn it off and then ...
But here’s the thing. This is another way that they’re already more powerful than governments, these companies. You would think that there would be a government agency or entity or a regulator or somebody who would be able to hold a company accountable for a breach like this, but I’m not aware of what that is.
There isn’t. Yeah, later. Later, when it happens. Yahoo was just fined a certain amount of money and probably faces other charges but has yet to really pay for a massive data breach.
And it happens again and again and again. Elizabeth Warren talks about this, but very few others. I think there’s still a lot of educating to do with the political class. It may take a whole new class or generation of ...
You’re right. They are catching on because of the election manipulation, not anything else. And they should be paying attention to job disruption .
So let’s get back to your book. Talk to me about some lessons you learned from doing it, from your journey.
No. 1 lesson, if you’re hearing about an opportunity, it’s probably too late. The people that have made their money have moved on to the next thing. I was a little naïve about that.
When I came to do my reporting, most of which took place in 2015, I thought that the easy money was still flowing freely, and I was mistaken. I think it had pretty much, the ladder had been pulled up by that point.
Clearly you hadn’t got into blockchain yet. That’s the perfect time.
Well, right. I thought it was all Internet of Things.
It is hard ... And also that it’s essentially random, what the next big thing becomes. It’s all marketing. I learned that. I was surprised how little tech and innovation actually mattered when it came to which companies blow up and which wither away.
Actually, it’s the stupidest thing to do, to invest a lot in research and to invent something new. I mean, you want to sell the product first and then have somebody underwrite all that stuff. Usually it’s the government, right? For the largest, most-successful companies. Now, I don’t know, but I was actually surprised. I was maybe not cynical enough about that side of the process, how much of it was sales. I was surprised how unhappy a lot people that work at tech companies are, especially considering their salaries.
Why do you think that is? Talk about the unhappiness.
Well, I talked to one guy. I took him as an inspiration. I met him at a conference, and he was just kind of a chubby, goofy, young guy, and he was glad-handing everyone and schmoozing and pitching a startup, and he’d already raised four million in the seed round or something. I was like ... And just for a Groupon clone, right?
And I thought, “Wow, that’s really impressive.”
Good for him.
I’m talking to him, and after a few drinks he says, “I was happier when I was working as a manager at a restaurant. I’m losing friends. I mean, my friends are in this startup and it’s too stressful. It’s become tense. I never see anyone anymore. My apartment sucks. I should have stayed at the restaurant.” He said, “I would have been happier if I’d just gone to work for the government, had a steady nine to five.” I think there’s probably a lot of people who feel way.
Why do you think that is? You have this “Live Work Work Work Die,” but what do you think is wrong with the culture in that regard?
I think as Americans we’re raised to believe that hard work and a good idea will lead to success and riches, and that’s simply not true. The main factor is probably who you know, and then on top of that luck. And who you know is a byproduct of luck, so you can really just boil it down to that. I think people create a lot of unnecessary stress and misery for themselves trying to achieve something that, one, may not be possible for them because of who they are or just their luck. Two, it may not be that desirable anyway.
I don’t see a lot of startups that are even pretending to do good anymore like they did a few years ago. Now it’s like, “Who’s throat can we slit to pick their pocket?” It’s really ruthless and mercenary now about extracting value from users. And labor and all the usual suspects, and privatizing public assets and on and on. I mean, they’re giving Wall Street a run for their money here.
So why does that idea persist that they’re doing good? Because they still do have a do-gooder mentality. I agree with you completely. I get that. I don’t know if they’re very adept throat slashers particularly, but.
Well, it is a little silly sometimes, right? So the Trump people are incompetent too, and they still do a lot of damage.
Why does it persist? It’s a more appealing story. I did a reading at Stanford last night and I got a question. It was like, “So what’s a good thing that the tech industry’s doing that’s just unambiguous?” I said, “No, nothing.”
Yeah. Well, I was happier before I had a smartphone. I’ve downgraded to a dumb phone. Most of this stuff I don’t need. I like my 2008 MacBook Pro a lot better than my new one. I could change the battery. Every new release and innovation is just designed to extract more money out of us and degrade the product. I’m not sure how my life has been improved.
So what should happen? I want to get into the next section about where tech is going because I think it really is in a crisis in the area that they did it in. When it initially started there are, compared to, I don’t know, a chemical company, there were bigger goals.
I think that’s probably fair.
You know what I mean? There were bigger goals of expanding people’s intelligence, expanding people’s meaning. I do think they were there at the start, and it certainly wasn’t, “Let’s make some pesticides and sell them,” you know?
Right. But I think there were blinders on in that period. Guys like Ray Kurzweil, who was kind of the inspiration for the book, I respect his intelligence.
Explain why that was.
Well, because he got hired at Google, and I just thought it was crazy that a company of that size and power was interested in the singularity. So they’re trying to accelerate this vision? And I think yeah, actually, they are.
I think Google just collects china dolls. That’s what I think. I’ve seen them do it for decades.
Okay. That’s a good theory too.
I used to when I was a ... Years ago, when it was very small, every now and then someone would pop out of a room at the old Google, which was a very small place, when I was walking around with Larry or Sergey. It would be like Doug Engelbart, or suddenly there was Vint Cerf. “Oh hi, Vin. You created the internet, right?” But he was working there, just working. I think he still is.
He’s the chief internet evangelist.
Whatever, they just collected people, like someone from very early days. You’d be like, “Oh, hello you.” Or they were doing something. It was like you were collecting dolls.
Well, I think the optimism was misplaced because I remember from one of Kurzweil’s books, it was like, “Oh. Well, we don’t really need to change anything right now. The important thing is that we keep funneling resources to the tech sector so that we can accelerate the singularity, and then the nanobots will clean up all the pollution that we’ve made.” And I just ... I don’t think that’s a safe bet when we’re talking about seven billion people.
You don’t believe that nanobots are our future?
Well, even if they are, what if something really bad happens in the meantime? I mean, it already is.
Yeah, contingencies is not what Silicon Valley does well, do they?
No. And also immediate harm reduction.
Like what can we do to make things better now? You just saw Jeff Bezos talking about, “The best thing I can think to do with my $130 billion is to build rockets.” And it’s like, people are starving. The world’s on fire. Rockets are great, but there’s not room for everybody on them.
Yeah, but then they can leave.
Well, that’s the idea, isn’t it? I talk about that at the end.
We’re going to get into that next when we get back. We’re here with Corey Pein. He’s the author of “Live Work Work Work Die.” Obviously, he does not have a positive outlook on where Silicon Valley’s going. But we’re going to talk about that and where it is going, next.
We’re here with Corey Pein. He’s the author of “Live Work Work Work Die,” three “works.” You write for The Baffler. Explain what that is to people who don’t know.
The Baffler was sort of an indie magazine founded in the ’90s by Thomas Frank, who people probably know from “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” and I think his most recent book is “Listen, Liberal.” He’s a leftist commentator, a historian, economist. I’m not sure of his exact field, but he’s known for his biting sarcastic wit, and that’s really the tone. And the mission of the magazine is to, as they put it, “blunt the cutting edge.”
When you think about tech and where we are, you were going into it, I think, to point out the ridiculousness of it, the canard that is Silicon Valley.
That’s what I do.
Yes, I know. Let me go back to that question. Is there anything good about it? Do you feel like it’s ... that it has things? And where is it going? Or will it just continue to sort of twist and eat itself?
I’m not sure where it’s going. Two years ago, or even last November when I was finishing up the last draft of the book and getting it ready for publication, I thought, “Maybe this bubble won’t end. Maybe they’ve actually succeeded in reordering the economy in such a way that it doesn’t matter if they screw up, and they’re too big to fail, in a sense.” And now I’m not sure. My idea about how it’s going to play out changes on a weekly basis, I wouldn’t hesitate to say. I can tell you where I think it should go.
All right. Let’s talk first about where it is right now. Where do you put tech now?
On a very precarious point. I think they need another major breakthrough along the lines of the smartphone or touchscreen computers to bail them out of what looks to me like a kind of inflated numbers game like we saw in the first dot-com bubble. Because when you look at what’s really underpinning the growth rates of the big platforms, I think if somebody ... If a reporter like John Carreyrou with the resources that a major news organization has were to ...
This reporter who wrote about Theranos?
Yeah. Were to dig into the metrics that companies are using to justify their growth figures, I suspect we’d find a lot more stories. Maybe not as shocking as Theranos. I thought it was significant. Before Cambridge Analytica shut down but when Facebook was essentially saying they were a rogue actor, their bigshot, brainy engineer was on CNBC or on some network like that saying, “Well, you know the interesting thing is that the data that Facebook was supplying to us was not all that accurate or useful,” which I thought was quite a counterpunch.
“Yes, we’ve used it, but it wasn’t effective.”
Yeah. Well not only that, we had to take what they had and piece it together into a useful product. So if you’re listening carefully, what kind of message does that send to advertisers?
It’s shitty data.
It’s crap. Garbage in, garbage out.
It was interesting. Nonetheless, they have a lot of it. Shitty or not, it’s a lot of it, and it’s got a lot of signals.
And if they’re selling it to the Russian mob, I’m sure they’re smart enough to figure out ...
They don’t sell data. They just hoard it relentlessly, and then massage it and lend it out. That’s what they do.
Right. Somebody got mad at me the other night ...
They don’t sell data. That’s their line. Every time he said that, every time Mark [Zuckerberg] said that on the thing. I’m like, “They hoard it relentlessly and reuse it.” Like it’s the same thing.
It’s a distinction without a difference.
Oh but it’s perfect because then the senators went, “Oh, okay. Good.” And I was like, “No, no. The next question is, what do you do with the data then?”
That’s like the same thing that happened in 2008 when everybody was bedazzled by all these Wall Street jargon terms like collateralized debt obligations. And nobody was brave enough to be like, “What the hell are you talking about? What does that mean?”
Right. Well, in that case there was actual money and houses on the line. Here, it’s data.
What is it exactly?
Well, exactly. I mean to say, I don’t think it will be quite the same economic repercussions because those were real houses with real people.
And these are just some companies with a lot of ...
No, the data has ... They can manipulate elections. That’s what they can do. I mean, it has a different kind of damage. It’s not a necessarily a house damage. It’s not a physical damage. It’s a psychic ...
Let’s go Joe Rogan here and arrest this fuck.
So you think they’re on precarious place. Where does it go then, from your journeys?
Well, like I said, I think you need a big breakthrough. What I’m worried about is you saw the demonstration from MIT Media Lab with the ...
Oh, the thinking.
The mind-reading helmet.
Yeah, the mind-reading thing.
I’ve been trying to figure out if that was a rigged demonstration or not, and I don’t know the answer.
It reminds me of the Jeff Bezos drone thing on “60 Minutes.” I remember that.
Well, look, it’s been their ambition for a long time, and I’m worried that eventually they will figure out how to get in our heads. And then we’re looking at a ... I don’t see how an invention like that, unless we get a handle on tech from a regulatory point of view, would not quickly become mandatory, and that would be a nightmare. Given how much every major tech company has screwed up on security, privacy, just basic decency. You know, how come it took so long to get rid of the Nazis on Twitter? They’re still there, and same on YouTube.
I thought the YouTube Kids ... I thought some Republicans were going to jump on that YouTube Kids scandal last year and run with it, but it hasn’t happened. I guess they just got lucky or something. But these things happen again and again.
People don’t maintain their indignance, I think. It’s hard to ... In this environment which is made, amplified, the quick, twitchy environment amplified by social media, indignance is too fast burnt. It burns, burns.
Isn’t that interesting? It’s an interesting byproduct of ... I mean, we have to look at these companies as they’re big media now.
They don’t like to call themselves that, for sure.
Well, we still hear a lot about the mainstream media, but who is it really?
I think it’s hard to sustain any story. I’ve noticed that just in this short time. We would have lots of impact sometimes, years ago, much more impact than that. But now we have impact, and then it goes quickly.
I have an expansive definition of literacy, I think. That to be truly literate, you need to have a background of knowledge and context, and you need to be able to maintain your attention span for more than five seconds, so I’m worried about a degradation of literacy across the board.
Yes. No, 100 percent, you just see it. You can certainly have impact because us and other reporters did a lot of stuff on Uber, and he finally was kicked out. You can have that impact.
It took a steady drumbeat.
It took a while. You were like, “Stay down. No, stay down. No, stop getting up. Stop getting up.” It’s the same with Trump. It’s like, “Stay down. No? Okay, you’re going to get up again?” And ultimately you get weary versus the subject, but they get up a lot more than they used to. You know what I mean? They don’t stay down.
I know. It is discouraging. So talk about where tech should be then. Let’s finish up talking about the idea of where you imagine it should be.
There are a lot of heartening things. I think if The Dodo can organize then Facebook can organize, let me just say, and I think that would be to the good.
I also think that we need a fundamental rewrite of the networking protocols that create what we call the internet. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and come up with something that’s more secure, that guarantees privacy, that perhaps has a built-in way for creators to get compensated for their work.
A new internet, perhaps, which is the plot of “Silicon Valley” this season, just so you know.
Well, I know. But they want a private one. I think we need a public one, and not to privatize it again like we did in the ’90s.
Yeah. Is it a private one on the show?
The show. The TV show.
I haven’t made it past Season One.
The HBO show, “Silicon Valley,” this whole season is creating a new internet because the old internet, it isn’t privacy protected, doesn’t have a way to ... It’s funny.
And just the other day I was talking to someone, a pretty big wheel in Silicon Valley, and I said, “What are you working on? Blockchain, of course, because you all are, because you think it’s where to make even more money, obscene amounts of money?” And he was like, “No, the new internet.” And I was like, “That’s the plot of ‘Silicon Valley.’” He’s like, “No, there’s going to be a new one.”
Well, they’ve been pressing it, I guess. That’s what Curtis Yarvin’s startup does. Essentially it’s that kind of effort. And the European Commission is funding efforts to do the same thing, so maybe it is the next big thing, the new internet.
I also know that ... I think part of the reason Internet of Things fizzled out is that there’s a fundamental infrastructure problem. I remember hearing a guy from Akamai talk about how there’s not a bandwidth limitation but there’s a ping problem with the current architecture, so you really can’t have a network chip in everything that’s talking because it will jam up the tubes.
Well, it wasn’t created for this.
No, and the only reason it’s been allowed to persist is because our society values profit over everything else, and some people are making really good profits with this current infrastructure, but it’s not in the public interest to keep it how it is.
So design the way it should be.
I’m not an engineer. Some of the proposals I heard from network engineers who were thinking and working on this stuff included ways ... So if you were to post something, an image, a piece of writing, you could perhaps be compensated automatically through the protocol whenever somebody looked at it, for instance. So there you have a kind of built in ...
Can’t be stolen.
Yeah, and I don’t see why that wouldn’t be possible.
I suppose that what the crypto people have been asking for with end-to-end encryption on everything, I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a basic principle. And what was the other thing? Security, privacy, that kind of covers both. Yeah, and again, I think should be publicly owned because I think public ownership of at least the physical infrastructure and probably the protocols is the only way to ensure that we don’t wind up with a huge private black ...
Fight over net neutrality.
Well, black boxes of data, too.
When it comes to the relationships some of these companies have with the government, in government there aren’t enough people who are technically literate enough to understand the basic problem with having Amazon run the CIA’s cloud, or with having Palantir having access to all of this government data and selling it back to the government.
I remember all this news. It was that Amazon’s going to get attacked by Trump for the cloud thing. I’m like, “Is that so bad?” You know what I mean? A little bit of me was like, “But then the alternative is Oracle.”
You sort of sit there and you’re like, “I don’t like either of these choices.””
It’s basically a Philip K. Dick novel.
Yeah, it is. And I’m like, “No.” But then there is nobody else. What if you’re the government? What do you do?
They’ve already outsourced the talent.
Right. That’s what I mean. You create it yourself.
I think it’s a generational effort.
But then you go, “Do I want these guys to run it either?” Not so much. Like once you start to even read even the small amounts of stuff ...
So I guess first things first, the government has to let people who smoke weed get the security clearances to work because that seems to be the bottleneck right now.
So I want to get back to your book. I want to finish up telling about your book. What do you hope to accomplish? Without giving away, what ...
With the book?
Yeah, what is your ... besides being the cynical guy on the sidelines saying, “This sucks.”
I want to take this industry down a couple notches. As a reporter, I’m a little bit disappointed because I read my book and I’m like, “I didn’t break a whole lot of news,” in the sense of there’s not a lot of scoops in here. But I think it’s written in a way that will make people that haven’t thought about this stuff or maybe haven’t caught every story like the kinds we’ve been talking about will see the tech industry and the services they use in a new way. That’s my main goal, in addition to being funny and hopefully selling some books so I can do another one, because I don’t have a plan B as far as my career goes.
Do you think people will become aware of it? Because part of me feels like there is people’s awareness.
I was in an elevator the other day and after the Facebook hearings, I kept saying, “Oh, nothing’s going to happen with this. He did fine.” He managed to snow them in some fashion. And two guys, elevator operators fixing something, said, “All my public information is on Facebook. That’s really disturbing.” Not because they were elevator guys, but it’s not people I expected to ...
You didn’t expect them to be that tech literate.
Not tech literate, but just like understand in a lizard-brain way like a lot of people, like, “Wait a minute.”
I think a lot of people do.
Like people who aren’t technical.
I think a lot of people do understand it in that intuitive way. Also, I taught a university writing class for the first time this year, so the students were like 19, early 20s, that age. They got it. If anybody would be expected to not understand, you’d think it would be people that grew up with this, swimming in this water, but they understand exactly what’s wrong with the current state of affairs when it comes to social media especially. It’s an anxiety machine for them.
Well, it is. But they have ... I don’t know, I find my kids have a lot more control of it than I thought. You know what I mean? I thought they were addicted to it. It’s an interesting thing. My 13 year old, I was taking a picture and I was going to put it on Twitter. Alex was like, “Yeah, I didn’t give you permission to do that.” And I was like, “Okay. You’re right.” I didn’t. And it was sort of like, “Good for you.”
Yeah. Well, that’s to be applauded. But I don’t think that ... I mean, you obviously didn’t have to ...
Listen to him.
I was going to say you didn’t have to teach her that.
He knew it without me teaching him.
Excuse me, him.
He had a sense of his privacy that was very different. We just went along with it, and they aren’t. That’s my perception from my kids and their friends.
I don’t want to ... I remember very clearly when Facebook came to my campus and everybody signing up, and I didn’t want to because I was reading blogs like GoogleIsEvil.com or whatever it was. Remember those old days?
Remember sucked.com? Oh, I loved sucked.com.
Yeah, sucked.com. And he was like, “Whatever. You’re crazy. It’s going to be fine. Just do it. Who cares?” And I was like, “Okay, fine.” I basically succumbed to peer pressure, and I still think back sometimes. What if I just held firm? But that was long ago, maybe in another timeline.
Well, now you can download all your information and rid yourself of it, allegedly.
Do you believe that?
No, not for a second.
What happens when you delete a post? We already know. You can’t delete anything. I mean, come on. And there’s no way to audit that. This is why we need the government involved.
Oh, that’s the other lesson. I wanted to get people off this idea that there’s a tech solution for everything, especially technological problems. Some problems only have political solutions. I think we’ve reached the point where we need a political solution.
Interestingly, Barack Obama gave that speech. It wasn’t much noticed at the end of his tenure. He said, “Tech people think there’s a tech solution for everything and there’s not. Some problems don’t have a solution.”
So I guess he changed his mind about the VC thing, right?
It was interesting. No, he’s not going to be a VC. I think he’s going around and being just cool. I think that’s his job, right?
Yeah, he’s hitting the beach.
I wish he would not do that so much. I’ve been asking ...
It’s a little painful for the rest of us to watch.
Yeah, I know. I’m like, “It’s not time to be cool. It’s time to be not cool.” I agree with you. I just said that the other day. Like, “When you’re tired of going on celebrity interviews, it would be really nice for you to speak up.”
Yeah, show up at women’s march or something.
Sure, something. But we’ll see.
Anyway. Corey, it was great talking to you. Here’s the book. You should absolutely read it. It’s very dyspeptic, but I like dyspeptic stuff. Would that be correct?
It’s very funny. It’s a very funny book. There is a genre. There’s a whole bunch of books like this, and I read them all because I think they’re all ... They remind us a great deal of thinking hard about the choices we’re making. But thanks for coming on the show. It’s called “Live Work Work Work Die.”
A journey into the savage heart of Silicon Valley.
Thank you very much.
In bookstores everywhere.
Okay, in stores everywhere. Anyway, thanks for talking to me. It was great for you to come on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.