Billionaires Behaving Badly
According to Webster’s, “cloud cover” is a mass of clouds. Fair enough. But the term carries more weight in the figurative sense — shielding something from sunshine or scrutiny with something bigger or more dramatic.
This week has been the mother of all cloud cover. It could also be summed up as “billionaires behaving badly.” Our business leaders seem to have been told there’s a prize for whoever makes the biggest ass of himself. So let’s start with cirrus clouds, the thinnest possible cover, over “an extreme pulsating red supergiant” star, VY Canis Majoris.
A deeply insecure child from a privileged background grows up with no conscience, empathy, or grammar skills. In an attempt to impress his father, he dreams of global success and status and borrows money from Russians, who turn him into a double agent. Through a hard-to-believe series of events (even for fiction), the asset becomes president of the United States. However, despite pulling off the most formidable mission in covert intelligence history, the successful double agent is stupid. So stupid he unwittingly blows his cover during a press conference with the Russian president, broadcast across the globe.
The cloud cover here has shielded two of the more outrageous statements in the history of big business, by tech CEOs, and a regulatory step in the EU that may be too little too late. Both statements were on the record and would normally get a CEO fired. However, we no longer worship at the altar of kindness and character. Our new idols are billionaire innovators, a protected class where no other CEO or citizen has membership.
Altostratus and Altocumulus — Natalie Portman
In his interview with the forceful, yet dignified, Kara Swisher of Recode, Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook would not take down the content of Holocaust deniers: “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong. It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
A few hours later, after likely receiving 700 emails from the 700 communications execs that work at Facebook, Zuck emailed Ms. Swisher to clarify his comments: “Of course if a post crossed [the] line into advocating for violence or hate against a particular group, it would be removed.”
Ok, so anti-Semitic content is fine until they begin to round up Zuck, me, and Natalie Portman. Then Mark would spring into action. Note: I included the sublime and intelligent star of Black Swan and Garden State for dramatic effect, as I don’t think people find something bad happening to me or Zuck that awful. But I digress. So, Natalie … that’s his red line.
I don’t feel any safer.
The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee (Richard Burr, R-NC) in his closing remarks after testimony from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, pleaded with the firms to behave more responsibly, as “You are our front line of defense.”
Yeah, fuck that.
We would much rather have the skilled and strong young men and women of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard as our front lines — not the Zuck. Facebook’s founder reminded us of our mistake enabling a 33-year-old college dropout, who cannot be removed from office, to oversee a flock greater than the population of the Southern Hemisphere plus India.
Children Sleeping in the Tube
My grandfather did not wake up one morning and feel some random need to escort my mother (a four-year-old Jew living in Britain), and her four siblings, to the London Underground, which served as makeshift bomb shelters. The Holocaust and other mass atrocities are the result of a number of gradually increasing factors, including symbolization, polarization, and propaganda. The Nazi message was successfully communicated through art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the press. Radio had just come of age in Europe and allowed the broadcasting and simultaneous translation of Hitler’s speeches throughout Europe.
Film was a fairly new medium that connected with people via innovative use of images. Nazi films portrayed Jews as “subhuman” creatures infiltrating Aryan society. The Eternal Jew (1940) argued that “Jews are the vermin of the human race and similarly spread disease and corruption.” Dehumanization is a key step to genocide. The Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl glorified Hitler and the National Socialist movement.
Genocide doesn’t just happen… We work up to it. And media, long before overtly advocating violence, plays a key role. It can reinforce stereotypes. It can empower “us vs. them” thinking and polarization. In an atmosphere of fear and outrage, “fast thinking,” in Kahneman terms, prevails over “slow thinking,” the brain’s rational, open, empathetic capacity. I think Mark knows this. I also think Sheryl knows they are a media firm. And finally, I think they both know they could fix most of these problems. Facebook can allow free speech, but it’s under no obligation to amplify it. However, Sheryl and Mark will say or do anything (legal) that maintains the upward trajectory of content, audience, clicks, engagement, growth, earnings, and share price.
To be clear, I’m not comparing Mr. Zuckerberg or Ms. Sandberg, or anybody at Facebook, to Nazis. I am, however, comparing Mark and Sheryl to theater owners who know the movie playing in their auditorium could/may/will lead to terrible outcomes, spreading hatred and outrage, reinforcing stereotypes, denying groups their heritage, digging deeper divisions between groups — instead of “connecting the world.”
They wrap themselves in First-Amendment or “we want to give voice to the unheard” blankets, yet there’s nothing in either of their backgrounds that hints at a passion for First Amendment rights. Zuck’s robotic repetition that their “mission is to connect the world” at the congressional hearings in May was an appeal to pathos that flies in the face of abundant research of the human propensity towards division, tribalism, and violence. Getting a Facebook account doesn’t magically melt users’ hatred for groups they are convinced are inferior. Instead, outrage spreads faster than love. And that’s the goal: more clicks. Reactions equal engagement — a model Facebook could change.
As it is, Facebook doesn’t remove fake news (they call them “false news”). Fake news still spreads, just to fewer people. (No one knows what “fewer people” means, in percentages, ratios, or numbers.) So Infowars claimed to its 900,000 followers that Dems were going to start a second Civil War on the 4th of July. That wasn’t seen as inciting violence, and it wasn’t removed — neither for inciting violence nor for being “false news.” Unclear if it was “shown to fewer people.” Neither, apparently, was Pizzagate seen as inciting violence, though it involved real-live violence. Facebook has turned to their playbook of delay and obfuscation, and refuses to cool the echo chambers of misinformation, as it profits from them.
It would be nice to believe that the third-wealthiest person in the world and an executive who’s written eloquently about work-life balance for women and personal loss would have more concern for the commonwealth, and society writ large. But they have not demonstrated this. Their defensiveness is dangerous blather crafted by the army of PR execs at Facebook. To be fair, they’re no better or worse than tobacco executives claiming, “Tobacco is not addictive” or search execs professing, “Information wants to be free.” They have all lied to buttress their wealth, full stop. This is an externality of capitalism that’s usually addressed with regulation. Usually.
This will continue to happen unless we, American citizens, elect people who have the domain expertise and stones to hold big tech to the same scrutiny we apply to other firms. We don’t even need new regulation to break them up, but just to enforce the current regulations on media firms.
Which. They. Are.
For Sale: 2018 Tesla Model X, Low Mileage
On Tuesday, after a Brit cave diver was critical of Mr. Musk’s submarine concept to get the kids out, Elon Musk called the diver a pedophile. So, this is wrong. Lucky for these boys and their families, the 63-year-old diver had been diving these caves for years and co-led the rescue effort. In exchange, our generation’s Thomas Edison felt the need to show his Twitter following, a population that rivals Australia, that he’s triggered to the point of calling the diver an absurd, homophobic pejorative.
So, what was Elon’s thought process here? “Need to get more Model 3s built. Hmmm, wait, this guy doesn’t like my submarine idea. A crime worthy of punishment. I know, I’ll tell 21 million people that this man, risking his life for others, is a child rapist. Oh and let’s call this other guy criticizing my submarine a jackass. Great, now that I’ve deftly put everyone in their place, must figure out a way to build more Model 3s.”
I’ve been on six public company boards, and a dozen others. If a CEO of a public firm sent this tweet, the board would immediately call for an executive phone session, everyone but the CEO. The conversation would go something like: “Ok, what the fuck was he thinking?” But here’s the rub, and I’m not exaggerating: No CEO I’ve ever worked with, met, or could imagine (until this week) would do this. Not even Travis Kalanick. There must be something wrong. Is he losing it? On drugs? CEOs do not, and should not be allowed to, behave this way. If this were the CEO of Kroger or Caterpillar, they’d be gone. But we’re talking about our new Jesus Christ (Steve Jobs) and his younger brother, Elon. They live by different standards.
So, as I’m sick of whining, I’ve decided to put my ranting where my electric vehicle/mid-life crisis is and will part with something I love:
The only government official, globally, whose testicles have descended when it comes to pushing back on big tech is Margrethe Vestager. Ms. Vestager asserts that, similar to Microsoft in the nineties, Google is using its bundling power and economic might to suppress competition. Btw, if the DOJ hadn’t moved in on Microsoft, we’d be saying “I don’t know, bing it.” At the end of 2017, I predicted the war against big tech would break out in Europe and Margrethe would levy the first $10B fine. I got it half right #stilltime.
In response, Sundar Pichai tweeted, “Rapid innovation, wide choice, and falling prices are classic hallmarks of robust competition. Android has enabled this and created more choice for everyone, not less. This is why we intend to appeal today’s Android decision.”
“I’m sorry, László, we can’t eat this month. We promised Reka an iPhone for her birthday.”
Enter Google, who has an ecosystem of relatively cheap phones, where you are the product, and your data is the coal that powers their supernova business model. Claiming that Apple’s iOS keeps Google honest is the same as if Toyota, after putting all car companies out of business, professed that Boeing keeps the market competitive. Yeah, they’re both in the transportation business, but have starkly different offerings and business models.
However, this low-level nimbostratus is barely noticed. The fine, amounting to 5% of Google’s cash on hand, was announced Wednesday morning. By end of the trading day, Google’s stock was up. Big tech CEOs have embraced their Jesus-like status and believe they are beyond reproach. Leaders and CEOs, once role models, shielding each other with increasingly insouciant actions and words — clouds of treason, obfuscation, slander, and lies so thick, we’ve lost sight of the sun.
Life is so rich,