The Morality of Ads and The End of Zuck

The “An Open Letter To …” format has always struck me as inescapably self-aggrandizing in a particularly duplicitous way. The explicit presumption is that the addressee will actually read the letter and care about the advice and admonitions within, when in fact the entire exercise is so transparently a cri de coeur that serves only the writer’s need for attention.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that I’m writing this post for one person, and one person only. If I could send this to him directly and be sure that he would take it seriously, I would simply send it to him. If there were no chance of him ever reading this, I wouldn’t bother writing it. However, Facebook tells me that my social distance to Mark Zuckerberg is quite short, so it’s possible that someone that Mark takes seriously will send this to him. I feel compelled to write this silly letter in this annoying format, because the future of the free world is at stake.

Dear Mark,

At this point, I hope you are past the point of denying that you are in fact The Leader of the Free World. This honorary title has traditionally (in our myopic nation) gone to the President of the United States, but the current occupant of the White House explicitly denies this “globalist” worldview, and implicitly disqualifies himself with his statements and actions. If there is such a thing as a leader of the free world, you’re it. Sorry.

Surely you already know what I’m going to write about here, but you don’t know why you should listen to me, so let me start with that. I am the only person in the entire world who (a) has faced a problem of the kind and magnitude of the one you face today, (b) has hands-on experience in implementing solutions to this problem, and (c) is willing to tell you all about it.

In 2010, I was hired to lead Product Management for Ads Policy at Google. This was an odd role: Policy isn’t thought of as a Product problem; it seems more like something that might be addressed by legal or operational or PR functions. But Google recognized that they had a serious problem, and felt that a product approach to this problem was required, in addition to all the other approaches.

By the way, the existence of this problem at Google was partially albeit indirectly your fault. Google had historically implemented Ads Policy through sales ops, which was led by Sheryl. You lured her away at a critical time, when Google was reaching yet another level of scale and impact, and the leadership vacuum in sales ops resulted in many small cracks in an implicit system of rivers and dams of policy issues. It was inevitable that one of these cracks would burst a dam somewhere, which is a pleasingly vague way of glossing over the numerous ads policy problems that led to the DOJ imposing a $500 million fine on Google. As you might imagine, a half-billion dollar fine tends to sharpen one’s attention.

So I had a Facebook-scale problem … but bigger. Facebook is arguably more important now, but Google still has more of everything: more users, more data, more dollars, more decisions. Billions of users, trillions of ads, the tiniest fractions of a second to make decisions: how do you decide what ads NOT to show? The clueless commentariat think it’s easy, but I know what it really takes.

I also know there is almost no margin for error. You can get it right 99.999% of the time, but for every billion results per day, that means you got ten thousand wrong that day. Not a lot of businesses can survive getting ten thousand decisions wrong every day. Each one of those errors is not only potentially ruinous, but each one can seem almost impossible to debug. When something gets through all of your best efforts, how do you know what went wrong?

So yeah, I think I understand your problem. Here’s my advice …

Question Your Attitude

Obviously, I don’t know what your attitude is, I can only make assumptions from your public statements, and I understand that there are many legitimate reasons why we must make public statements that don’t reveal our true attitudes.

So at the risk of making obnoxious assumptions, your attitude towards this problem can be summed up as: “Well, it’s very hard. I’m uncomfortable making these decisions.

Having had the same problem, I can say that it wasn’t any harder than other hard problems. I mean, of course it was a challenge, but I’m not sure it was any more challenging than dozens of other initiatives at Google. I don’t mean that we solved it perfectly, clearly there are still challenges, but addressing these problems is just another part of the business, not some special, impossible area.

I understand why you dream of a dynamic system that reflects different values for different communities, but that is an abdication of responsibility. I also understand the enormous business advantage in claiming that Facebook is just a “neutral platform.” I happen to think that it’s high time that all tech companies stop advancing the fictions that allow them to continue to benefit from the legal sacred cow that feeds tech, but it’s not necessary for you to admit that publicly or privately. You just have to understand that you really have a business problem and you have address it with a straightforward business attitude.

Your business is ads. The funny thing is, lots of people hate ads, and ad businesses justify ads to users by saying that ads fund the great experiences that users get for free. But it’s so much more than that: Ads are the conduit for the only morality that exists when we cling to the idea that we run neutral platforms.

You can blame “the algorithm” for a lot of things that you claim weren’t the result of human judgment. The Algorithm – the holy algorithm, the all-powerful, the unknowable – sure, you’ll fool the people who don’t actually understand computing. But even if you continue this claim into the ads business, you cannot escape the pressures that ultimately impose a kind of morality through the ads business.

Ads have advertisers, and the truly important advertisers care about their reputations. They have limited tolerance for being on a platform that hurts those reputations. That tolerance is limited by the fact that their customers are actual people, and almost all of those people have some sense of morality. So even though we may have amoral (i.e. “neutral”) algorithms, even if advertisers themselves might be amoral, ultimately the common morality of people flows up through the advertisers, and through our ads systems, and finally imposes a sense of morality on the people who run the most powerful ads businesses. It is this slow flow of morality that has finally become a deluge upon you.

It’s not that hard to understand the downstream impacts of your business, and get ahead of the trickle of backwash before it becomes a deluge. The problem here isn’t about being a neutral platform, it’s not about avoiding the content business with its obligations and regulatory attention. It’s about understanding the cycle of users, advertisers and apps in the world’s most powerful ads business – that’s you now, apologies to my Google friends – and protecting each properly so that you are limiting the appearance and impact of bad ads.

I realize that the unwashed masses think that ads are evil. Only people who don’t understand business and don’t understand ads think that a powerful platform would knowingly sacrifice user interests for short-term revenue gains. Advertisers flee platforms that treat their users poorly. “Focus on the user and all else will follow” is a business mantra, not a moral mantra.

You struggle publicly like this is some kind of impossible problem. For that struggle, I can only play you the world’s smallest violin. You have a business problem, and it’s your business and therefore your problem.

Invest In People First

I had a medium size team at Google. Eight product managers working with over a hundred engineers, closely partnered with several hundred internal operations people and several thousand contract operations people. Yeah, I understand that most of the world looks at that and says “This is medium??” But as you know, that’s merely a sub-team when you’re talking about a critical function in a (then) $40 billion business.

How big is the policy team at Facebook, Mark?

All those people worked together to produce thoughtful policies, powerful computing systems, and vigilant human operations, working closely in a virtuous cycle. I could detail all of what we did, but you are better off just giving your own people in this area many more people.

Yes, I know AI can make this a lot more efficient than it was in Ye Olde 2010. I still don’t believe that AI is sufficiently advanced enough to get where you need to be without many many humans, though I’m no expert in AI. More importantly, I don’t think that the type of expert who can make that assessment is the type of person who should be deciding how many humans to put on this problem.

Here’s the part that will look like bragging, but I’ll take that risk. I want you to know what it takes to manage ads policy products, so I have to talk about myself. I studied political philosophy and law, under the great conservative theorist Robert P. George as well as the liberal giant Ronald Dworkin. I learned economics from Alan Blinder. I started my career in high finance law, working on leveraged buyouts for Mitt Romney, before I chased Silicon Valley dreams, first coming to Craig Johnson‘s firm, then going into venture capital and eventually working for “the Willy Wonka of virtual reality,” Philip Rosedale.

My point isn’t that I’m so great. I’ve done a lot of things, but I was mediocre or worse at many of them – a C grade in macroeconomics! My point is that this isn’t a job for just programmers, or philosophers, or economists – it’s highly multidisciplinary. Now that you know the template, it will take you less than a second to find the thousands of people who are basically just like me (except with higher grades). It’s not hard to put together a team to go after this particular kind of problem, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

Deep in the well of self-aggrandizement already, I’ll risk some more name dropping in order to move onto the next point. (I comfort myself by thinking it’s not name dropping when the person you’re talking to already has all these connections in his database.)

You need to truly empower the people working on this problem. I wasn’t particularly powerful by title. And yet, when I told Dennis Woodside that he was letting me down, he stepped up. When I told Nikesh Arora he was getting in my way, he pulled back. When I told Philipp Schindler he had to give up sales, he gave it up. When I showed Kent Walker we had a fire, he brought the fire trucks. When I told Claire Johnson I needed her help, she became my greatest ally. None of this was because I was great or powerful – I doubt any of these highly distinguished people remember my name. And yet they always cooperated with me, because they knew that when I got in their faces, they weren’t talking to me; they were talking to the leadership behind me. And there was never any question that my leadership would back me.

I wonder if policy leaders at Facebook feel that way? I wonder if they can go around to literally anyone at the company, insist on doing what is good and what is right for the business, and act with complete confidence that everyone will cooperate, all the way to the very top?

Assess Your Leadership

Let’s take the gloves off, shall we? You have built a company that has played a great part in letting a foreign influence endanger the integrity of our democracy. Have you even yet truly internalized the failure of leadership for which you bear complete responsibility? I mean to ask this clinically, not as an attack on your ego, character or capabilities. Do you have a complete grasp of how you have failed as a leader, and do you truly want to institute the change in yourself and in your company that would be required to make amends?

It’s really not a terrible thing if you understand the challenge and don’t think it’s yours at this point. Lots of people believe that you could be the actual President, not just the holder of the mythical “Leader of the Free World” title. Maybe you should make your impact on the world from the White House rather than Menlo Park. Given the current state of affairs, I would happily vote for a Sandberg/Zuckerberg ticket. Maybe it’s time to elevate yourself to the board Chair at Facebook, and focus on preparing for your campaign.

You’d have almost any option in the world to take on the CEO role at Facebook. I certainly don’t know everyone, but I can tell you who I know is great, because they were great with exactly the same problem at Google. Oh, I guess that this part of the open letter is addressed to them –

Nick, Susan, Sridhar: you guys don’t get enough credit for handling Google’s problems way before they could turn into the problems that Facebook has now. You would be the first to admit that of course Google still has problems, but we know they would be a lot worse without your leadership. 

– back to Mark, in closing – You probably can’t get Susan or Sridhar out of there. Why would they want the headache? You could probably get Nick, if you were serious about giving him true leadership authority to fix your problem.

If you still intend to fix Facebook yourself, I sincerely wish you luck. You’re going to have to change: the “Zuck” who created Facebook is not the person who can fix it. I haven’t seen you doing the things that I know would work, and it truly worries me. The future of the free world depends on your success.

the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party

Your emotions are real, but they are not reality.

Snake cake

These days, reality seems to be a matter of opinion, or perhaps mere assertion. But this isn’t just a recent phenomenon; it’s a divergence of the modern world from evolutionary biology that has been progressing for many generations, with increasingly stark effects.

Your body does not, cannot, and should not give you a truly faithful representation of the world. The world is too full for you to take in everything. Even if you were standing alone on an empty savannah, with no other living creature in sight, you would be overwhelmed by sensory overload if you could really take in everything around you: the infinite cocktail of light and shapes, sounds and scents, the feel of the particles in the air and the ground beneath your feet. You are like an ant in the ocean of all that surrounds you. To compensate, your five senses evolved to filter information down to a set that your brain can process into a different set of data that your body can act on. What you can sense is smaller than what exists, and what you perceive is different from what you can sense.

But even this finely processed data is a confusing panoply of input. Somehow, you have to figure out what to do about your perceptions. The most primal tools you have in making these decisions are your emotions.

Your emotions evolved so that you are urged to act in a matter that best suits your survival and the propagation of your genetic heritage. You might like to believe that you are not such a simple machine, but you surely are or you wouldn’t be here. Had you and all of your ancestors not experienced emotions related to hunger, you would not have survived to this point.

Now the world is a vastly different place than it has been throughout nearly all of our evolutionary history, and we are well into a time where our emotions easily lead us to wrong decisions. But it’s not so simple to determine when we are being served poorly by our emotions, because despite the mismatch between prehistoric evolution and our modern world, our emotions can be: always wrong, wrong but right, or really complicated. I can explain this more clearly with three scenarios named “the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.”

The Cake

Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly on the hunt for food, and food was not always easily accessible. On the rare occasion when they stumbled upon some luscious morsel of fat, or some delicate repository of sugar, it was to their evolutionary advantage to immediately devour that treasure.

Today of course, our industrial food supply surrounds us with tempting confections of fat and sugar, combined in manners that are exquisitely tuned to trigger our desire to eat. When you see a piece of cake, you may have an emotion that compels you to immediately cram as much of it into your mouth as quickly as possible.

This emotion, however, is always wrong. Unless you are in an unfortunate state of deprivation, it is not true that this is a rare piece of cake that is critical to your survival and a boon to your odds of producing progeny. The truth is exactly opposite: incessant indulgence of this instinct to eat cake will lead to your premature death and very probably to a reduction in your mating prospects.

So this is the simplest example of second-guessing your emotions: In the past, this emotion was always right, and today it is always wrong.

The Snake

Imagine you are walking through the forest, enjoying a lovely day, when out of the corner of your eye you notice a deadly snake at your foot, poised to bite and fill your body with poison. You jump away from the threat even faster than you perceive it.

Your heart pounding in your chest, the fear coursing electric in your body, you look down at the ground and see that what you thought was a snake was really just a stick.

The next day on another idyllic walk, nearly the exact same thing happens: the sudden appearance of a snake, a shocked leap out of harm’s way, and then the sheepish realization that there’s no real threat. Maybe this time it’s a lizard. Or it is a snake, but it’s just not a deadly one.

And this happens over and over again, and you never learn your lesson, you just keep jumping like a fool. Until one day, you look down and it really is a deadly snake. You pick up a rock and you bash its head in.

This emotion, this often irrational fear, survives today. You may not walk in the woods that often, but maybe you park your car in a dark parking lot, and when you hurry to your car late at night, you grip your keys tightly, interlaced in your fingers to defend yourself from the attack that never comes. Maybe you walk down a dark street in a neighborhood of ill repute, and you nervously cross the street when you see strangers approaching on your side.

Are you paranoid, are you making unkind assumptions? Yes. Do you need this emotion to survive? Absolutely, yes. The genetic lines of people who completely lacked this emotion are gone now, as they were all killed by deadly snakes.

So in this case, the emotion is almost always wrong, but nevertheless you must honor it in your actions for the unacceptable consequences of the one time that it is right.

The Cocktail Party

At a festive gathering of a few dozen people, you are talking to a person that you have never met before that evening. The conversation is pleasant enough, but in an unguarded moment you make an errant comment that you suddenly realize might have offended this person. You are about to clarify your words, but just at that moment you are interrupted by a friend who appears at your shoulder, and when you turn back to your previous conversation partner, she has disappeared into the swirls and eddies of the party.

Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter. But then why does it keep you up at night? You replay the scene in your head and pick over every detail, wondering if you offended this perfectly pleasant person, agonizing over how the words came out and what you should have said differently. The emotions of social mortification can be gut-wrenchingly powerful. What gave them such power, and should we still honor that power today?

In pre-historic times, people lived in very small groups, and for many millennia your largest social context might only be the size of a small village. Almost every person that you met would be someone you would interact with many times over the course of your lifetime. If you had an awkward social interaction with someone, you would want to repair this social tear, and you will quickly have many chances to do so. Reconciliation would be important not only for your relationship with this person, but so that you would not gain a reputation in the village for being unsociable. Such a reputation is an evolutionary death sentence, as effectively all of the people you meet in your lifetime would become unwilling to to procreate with you.

Today the situation is very different, but not entirely different. You will certainly never meet all of the people in your reasonably reachable geographic vicinity. However, a great many of us, perhaps even the great majority of us, continue to live in small social circles. Consider the example of an entrepreneur in San Francisco attending a cocktail party filled with the most connected investors in the Bay Area. An egregious party foul here could effectively end the entrepreneur’s ability to continue working, a consequence as extreme as any village faux pas on the prehistoric savannah. The same concerns might apply to certain types of gatherings for a writer in New York, a union laborer in Pittsburgh, or a rug dealer in Morocco. Or even a social media addict posting to her favorite group on Facebook.

But the context is really difficult to assess. Are the investors at this party really that connected? Does that merchants’ association in Morocco really enforce its unwritten rules? Is that Facebook activity really going to spread anywhere outside the group? And who is really in this group anyway? The modern world has made this assessment extremely complicated.

So the cocktail party is an example where the emotion used to be nearly always right, and today whether to honor that emotion in your actions involves a complex assessment of reality.

But what is reality?

Reality is the set of information that allows you to make rational decisions that further your best interests. There are many, many things that get in the way of your clear perception of reality, and foremost among them are your emotions. Emotions have not evolved to accord with the reality of the modern world. For the most part, you cannot change the emergence of your emotions, as they remain encoded to respond to stimuli of many thousands of years ago.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a prisoner of your emotions. You can allow them to occur while nevertheless choosing to act in accord with reality. However, you must continue to honor the emotions that have beneficial effects in the modern context. To make choices among those emotions wisely, you should keep in mind the cake, the snake, and the cocktail party.

2nd chances

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Second Amendment is unique among the Bill of Rights for appearing to protect an object you hold in your hand rather than an idea you hold in your head. The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech and religion, the Third protects a person’s dominion in their own home, the Fourth through Eighth protect criminal and civil procedural rights, the Ninth and Tenth limit the scope of the Constitution – these are all concepts, not things. Is the Second Amendment really about protecting an object, rather than an idea? If it’s the latter, then what is the idea?

Imagine if the First Amendment read something like, “Congress shall make no law infringing on the right of the people to keep and operate a printing press.” The sentiment would be clear: a free press is vital to a properly functioning democracy, the spread of information and debate is a bulwark against government tyranny. And of course, a printing press is necessary to print newspapers, so it would make sense to protect this physical object, as one of the most important instruments of our freedoms. This version of the First Amendment would have worked just fine for the first two hundred years of the nation.

And then it would become ridiculously outdated with the rise of digital information and the dominance of the Internet as the means through which speech is disseminated among the masses. Perhaps there would be a strong subculture of holdouts who would insist on the totemic power of the physical printing press, absolutely convinced that this thing was the idea of the First Amendment itself. They would fight furiously for the right to own and collect their printing presses, and the National Printing Press Association would fight every minor infringement, insisting that it was perfectly normal and supremely American for a person to own dozens upon dozens of presses, each with gigantic capacity, capable of printing millions of newspapers per day, in a world where no one reads newspapers anymore.

But those holdouts could not be considered seriously engaged in the project of upholding the freedoms established in the Bill of Rights. It would be obvious that those people had lost all sight of the purpose of protecting the citizenry from the tyranny of the government.

You could criticize the holdouts as bitter people, clinging to their printing presses in the face of a changing society that confuses their simple minds. But that would be a poor engagement with their legitimately held underlying concerns. A complete engagement would ask what the First Amendment is really about, and whether the physical printing press can still be considered an important object in the concepts behind the First Amendment.

The analogy is exceedingly obvious at this point. In the Second Amendment debate, we have a contingent of Americans who are certain that their guns are the object that must be protected, and another contingent who insists that private gun ownership is a public menace and must be limited, or eliminated entirely. In the ferocious argument between these factions, there is almost no serious discussion about the true concepts underlying the words of the Amendment.

What discussion there is barely gets beyond the surface, a trivial debate about the term “a well-regulated militia.” Gun control advocates seize upon the phrase to insist that use of guns in a militia context is the core of the right, rather than individual gun ownership. Whether or not that is true is completely irrelevant, when compared to the true purpose of the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment, like all of the rest of the Bill of Rights, is about limiting governmental power. It is about ensuring that governmental tyranny will ultimately have to contend with the will of the people. The other amendments protect intellectual liberty, procedural rights, legal limits – these are important weapons in the arsenal of freedom. But another important weapon is the actual weapons. The Second Amendment is intended to preserve the threat of armed revolt against tyranny.

Thomas Jefferson believed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” These thoughts led directly to the Second Amendment, which protects the idea of armed rebellion as a limitation on governmental power. This idea is what is intended to be protected, not the physical objects of guns, whether or not in the context of a militia. But guns are now as obsolete for rebellion as the printing press is for freedom of the press.

The problem is that the disparity of destructive power between the weaponry of the government and the weaponry that people can own has become too great. Even if all citizens were armed with fully automatic assault rifles, this arsenal would pale in comparison to the firepower available to state and local police forces, never mind the world-ending power of the national armed forces. Private gun ownership might be a problem in many ways, but it is not at all a problem for the government’s power over the people.

And it would be nonsensical to try to balance this out by escalating the firepower in the hands of the citizens, for example by arming every citizen with their own nuclear weapons. The Second Amendment wasn’t meant as a pact of mutually assured destruction. Jefferson said “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing” – meaning that the limitation is created by an insurrection that can be forcibly put down by the government, not that the government should fear world destruction. When patriots take a cause seriously enough to put their lives on the line, the government might have to put them down violently as well, but the bloodshed on both sides forces all to consider the sensible limits of governmental power.

So “a little rebellion” based on guns is a laughably ineffective tool in today’s society. Government power is no longer truly threatened by private gun ownership, and hasn’t been for about a century. The Second Amendment worked well enough for the first hundred and forty years or so, but we have been in a different world since the end of the Great War. Still, it would be myopic to declare that the Second Amendment should now be considered obsolete. The idea is not obsolete, merely the objects specified in support of the idea.

The Second Amendment protects the idea of armed rebellion as a limitation on governmental power. Even though guns are obsolete for the protection of this idea, no serious discussion of the Second Amendment can propose their elimination without also proposing the armaments that should replace them.

It should be obvious by now that the weapons that matter are no longer ballistic, they are digital. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be online. The government does not fear guns. The government fears anonymity, connection and encryption (ordered this way not for importance, but just for the ACE acronym):

  • Anonymity – the right to interact with government without revealing your identity
  • Connection – the right to digital access to governmental resources
  • Encryption – the right to unbreakable encoding of messages

These are the armaments that matter in terms of a little rebellion now and then – their power far exceeds the combined firepower of private gun ownership. Second Amendment reform should be pushing in this direction:

A digital Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to remain Anonymous to the government, Connect online to all governmental information, and use and possess tools for unbreakable Encryption, shall not be infringed.

Gun control advocates and their opponents are equally subject to the charge of dereliction of patriotism, when they focus on guns rather than reforming the Second Amendment so that it can rejoin the rest of the Bill of Rights as a truly effective protector of our freedoms.

death of a tech salesman

We sought a special person to sell product for our company. It’s not easy to find someone who’s great at selling a highly technical product to smart engineers, who usually understand their own problems much better than the people selling to them. It takes unusual resilience, affability, humility and persistence.

We were lucky to find Bijan Dhanani. He had made a name for himself in his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, working at several local startups, and becoming widely known and loved for his community projects and musical talents. Coming to Silicon Valley was a dream come true for him, and he fit right into our little band of colleagues on our startup adventure. In his first few weeks, he learned our product like a pro, already displaying the knowledge and charm required for success. At the end of his fourth week, he died, just 30 years old.

There are no lessons in his death. It was the hottest day on record in San Francisco. He had just moved into his new apartment in Mission Dolores. In my mind’s eye, I see him moving the last piece of furniture into place, surveying his new space with a deep sense of satisfaction, thinking about his new situation with sunny optimism, excited about the future ahead. And then he lay down to rest, never to get up again.

This is my nineteenth year working in tech in Silicon Valley. There are no new stories, this isn’t the first time that a young colleague of limitless potential has passed too early from this earth. The universe is not short of reminders that life is precious, time is limited, you must hold your loved ones close while you can.

There are no new lessons, only reminders. The important lessons are so basic, so few, so oft repeated, that no one can fail to hear them. Value your time. Optimize for love and friendship, live with gratitude and compassion. It seems so simple, but if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to get the worst, most stark reminder of just how hard it can be. Memento mori.

ch-ch-ch-changes

This has been a watershed week for sexism and Silicon Valley. The New York Times published a searing article implicating well known VCs in harassing behavior. It feels like the culmination of a years-long effort spearheaded by Sarah Lacy, whose relentless reporting helped lead to the resignation of the CEO of the most valuable private company in tech as well as the dismantling of a VC firm.

For men in tech, it’s been a good week to reflect on the injustices done to women, to think about the women in these stories and the women in our own lives. A focus on the women’s perspectives is clearly the most necessary, just and safest line of introspection. This post is not for people who haven’t undertaken that line of thought. This post is about the men.

Chris Sacca and Dave McClure are two of the men highlighted (lowlighted?) in the Times. Each responded with a well-written admission of guilt. Sacca said “I am sorry” five times in a single post. McClure admitted “I’m a creep.” I’ve seen two kinds of responses to these mea culpas:

Group 1: “This is a transparent PR move. These guys are only interested in saving their own skins. They don’t deserve praise for coming clean after being exposed, and the actions they’ve taken in their ‘woke’ stage will never be enough to clean their record. People don’t change, they are what they did.

Group 2: “Kudos to these guys for coming clean. It takes some bravery to face the crowd, to admit what you did, to make a public statement about your efforts to do better. Everyone makes mistakes, it’s the rare few who can improve upon their past. People can change, there’s no hope for any of us if that’s not true.

Group 1 is right … and so is Group 2. The day I write my admission of guilt, even if only to myself, it will be driven by this truth: You can’t change who you are, you can only change your reaction to it.

You are what you’ve done, full stop. You might think that there’s more to it, that your own private thoughts count for something, that the high opinion of your loving friends and family mean something, that the dollars and ratings and likes and tweets show the true score. But no. You are what you’ve done, that’s it. And you can’t change what you’ve already done.

Everyone has done bad things. When we do bad things, we often want to believe that they’re not so bad, that they’re not consistent with our “true” character, that we somehow can make up for it in other ways. This kind of self-denial, of course, allows us to continue doing bad things. I’d argue further that this self-denial leaves us with little choice other than to continue doing bad things.

Being a good person is about choice, for most of us. If you are someone who has just always been a good person, who’s never done wrong, who’s always been on the side of the angels – well, I think you’ve probably just been lucky in this regard, if unlucky in others. You had good parents, good friends, good influences. You’ve never been tempted by sex or power or money or fame. But you’ve lived a life outside of the more typical human condition.

Once you’ve done something bad, your options typically diminish: you can only feel guilt and shame, or denial. You would think that a “good” person would choose guilt and shame – but that’s just as dangerous as denial! Guilt and shame lead to self-flagellation, often self-medication, and ultimately to an amplification and repetition of the behaviors that led to the bad actions.

It may seem perverse, but accepting your faults gives you more options for how to react in any situation. If you can accept what you’ve done, accept that it’s who you are, you are more free to choose how to react to it. You don’t have to choose the cover-up, you don’t have to choose to deny it, you don’t have to choose to ignore it. You are much more free to address it, and to make a different choice in the future.

I think that’s what Sacca and McClure are doing in their posts; they are publicly accepting who they are, and trying to make choices in the harsh light of that reality. Is it self-interested? Yes. Is it brave? Yes. I know that some people reading this are going to think I’m going all Stuart Smalley, and I get it. That’s their choice. You can’t change who you are.

the jungle

Upton Sinclair was a novelist, but the impact of his work was more akin to today’s investigative journalism. He went undercover to expose the harsh labor and unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry, he exposed the sensationalist “fake news” of his day, he pilloried Wall Street as well as the coal, oil and auto companies that drove the American economy. Industrialists hated him; the mainstream press only begrudgingly acknowledged his accomplishments. President Theodore Roosevelt called him “a crackpot,” and said further, “He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth.”

I doubt Sinclair cared at all what the President thought, and he probably did have less concern for truthful details than he had for the larger cause of social justice. We should be glad for that. Today we still enjoy the fruits of Sinclair’s relentless fervor and incendiary writing: food safety standards, journalistic ethics, and heightened scrutiny of the giants of business on matters of fair and safe labor practices.

I regard Sarah Lacy as the Upton Sinclair of the tech industry, especially with regard to fair treatment of women in Silicon Valley workplaces. She has been a consistent and powerful advocate of social justice, and her impassioned writing has contributed to highly visible changes in highly visible businesses. She might occasionally trample on a smaller truth in pursuit of a larger justice – and if she can be anywhere near as successful as Sinclair in bringing about social change, I don’t really blame her. But nevertheless, we hold our idols to higher standards than our enemies.

Pando recently published an article about a VC firm, with one partner who had recently resigned due to highly credible allegations of sexual misconduct, one about-to-join partner deciding not to join after all, and the remaining partner dealing with the fallout. Since the firm stridently denied the initial claims of the victims, this remaining partner continues to receive Sarah’s scrutiny. In criticizing the firm’s promotion of “baller bro culture,” Pando published pictures of this remaining partner at parties with women.

This is where she lost me, a bit. These are just pictures of a guy at a party, he does not appear to be doing anything inappropriate. The women in the pictures are not doing anything inappropriate. How is this “baller bro culture”? I felt bad for the women, as it seemed that publication of the pictures was a sort of “party-shaming” implying that these women could have no possible role other than objectification. It seems oddly Puritan and retrograde in a way that doesn’t fit Sarah’s other writing.

But I get her point. If it turns out that these pictures were used in promotion of the VC firm’s activities, then they are illustrative of a “baller” image that the firm wanted to convey. Even if these particular pictures were never used that way, Sarah claims to have enough off-the-record information to be sure that the firm consciously promoted such an image, and I believe her. And more importantly, I believe the women who have come forward to claim that they were victimized by the VC firm. So at the end of the day, we are aligned on the larger cause, even though I am very sure that Sarah has done an injustice to the innocent women in the pictures she used. (She’s taken one of the pictures down, but not because she admits she was wrong, but because the copyright owner objected to its use.)

So I wondered, how can I help the larger cause? If I knew of any investors or company managers that abuse their positions for sexual advantage, I’d speak of it openly. But I don’t, so I asked myself whether I knew of anyone who was promoting a “baller bro image” that supports an environment that disadvantages women …

And here’s where I got stuck. I know one investor who frequently posts images of himself in glamorous locations, often with attractive women (and attractive men, to be fair). I know him pretty well, in fact. Everybody knows this guy, I’m sure Sarah knows him too. And everyone knows he’s a good, honest and fundamentally decent human. He’s known so well and spends so much time around attractive people, with such a sparkling reputation, that it’s basically impossible he could have done anything inappropriate without everyone finding out. Is he baller? Hellz yeah, he baller. Does that mean he uses a “baller bro culture” to promote his business and take advantage of women? I don’t think so …

I feel very confident that he’s never taken advantage of the inherently unfair investor power dynamic to pursue sex. But now we have to consider the question of whether his distribution of the images of innocent fun supports an overall culture in tech that’s bad for women. Again, I don’t think so – but I also don’t think I’m the best judge of this question. So let’s say for the moment that yes, these images contribute to an overall culture that objectifies women. What then? Do I reach out to this guy and insist that he stop posting pictures of his fabulous life? That seems oddly Puritan and retrograde.

WWSD? (What Would Sarah Do?)

I don’t know. Despite how unfairly she treated women in those other pictures, I have a hard time believing she’d engage in a crusade against this kind of aspirational Insta-journaling. I don’t think I can ask her, as she regards my concerns as absurd. So I’m left with few options … other than that impotent cry into the ether known as blogging, aka the last resort of a scoundrel.

the force awakens

Yep, it’s an end-of-the-year technology prediction post …

We’re at a special place in the consumer technology cycle. I’ve seen this movie before. Consumer technology trends are often described as waves, but I like a movie metaphor better, because it captures the notion that I actually saw these events when they were first released in the theater, and that we keep seeing the same plot points, themes and character types. I’ve lived through three really big waves of consumer technology. The third wave – the third movie – is finally coming to an end, which is a relief, because it kinda sucked. I’m really looking forward to the next show.

I’m a fan of the franchise generally, despite the repetitive plots. Each movie starts with the introduction of products that clearly show the possibility of what’s to come, although these are not the products that actually survive the revolution. Those products depend on a crucial underlying technology trend, which is not itself the consumer-facing technology. There is a spectacular platform war that decides the big winners and losers. The story ends, until next time, when the business patterns in the field have matured, and outsized returns for investing in those businesses have therefore disappeared.

The Origin Story: Personal Computers

pirates-of-silicon-valley

Like the first movie in a series, this one defined many of the patterns, tropes and heroic character types of the sequels to come. In a digital desert, a lone gunslinger appeared on the horizon, known only by the mysterious name Altair. The story really picks up when the Commodore PET, the TRS-80, and the Apple II appear on the scene. That trio of bandits opened up the Wild West, only to be dominated by the strongman IBM PC. But IBM only won a hollow victory, as it turned out that they’d unwittingly given the keys to the kingdom to Microsoft, the ambitious vassal that became the overlord. The story of the rise of the PC is the classic foundation of everything that came after in consumer technology.

But it would be a mistake to only pay attention to the foreground. In the backstory, the silicon chip is the key enabling technology that’s powering the other players. Moore’s Law is the inexorable force of progress, and Intel was the master who kept on top of the industry despite laudable challenges by AMD, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and a host of international competitors. This global tale of intrigue and ambition is a worthy accompaniment to the marquee narrative. In fact, the invention of Silicon Valley can be considered the prequel to this series.

The Worthy Sequel: World Wide Web

the-matrix

Many people say The Empire Strikes Back was a better movie than Star Wars. The Godfather was in many ways outclassed by Part II. The explosive success of the World Wide Web was at the very least a worthy sequel to the PC story. A knight in shining armor, Tim Berners-Lee, led a devoted band of heroes on a worthy quest to unite all of the world’s information. Early services like Prodigy and CompuServe leapt on the ensuing opportunity, but latecomer AOL won the day by sending a CD to every mailbox it could find. That was only the first act, as Netscape and Yahoo emerged as the real heroes … until the third act, when eBay and Amazon and Google trampled the field.

It’s usually not worth the effort to make a distinction between the Web and the Internet, but it makes sense to do so here because “World Wide Web” is the story with a beginning and an ending, while the technologies of the Internet are the more enduring enablers of that story. As protocols, the details of TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP and the like are not exactly gripping narrative. But like silicon chips powered the PC revolution, and could be considered the more enduring story, the Internet will live on long after the Web sinks into irrelevance.

The Failed Trilogy: Smartphones

phone-booth

Return Of The Jedi was a very successful movie. And it did have some awesome special effects for the time. But it was all of the same characters, and pretty much the same plot, soiled by dominant commercial motives and treacly pandering to a younger audience. By which I mean, fuck Ewoks. And Godfather Part III? The less said about that, the better.

The story of the last dozen years or so has been the move of personal computing and the Internet to smartphones. There’s some compelling pathos in the storyline of the death of the Web, overrun by mobile apps. But it was mostly dull to watch the Treo and Blackberry reprise the role played in prior movies by the Altair, Prodigy and CompuServe. I’ll admit it was great fan service to see the Apple character repurposed, and maybe there hasn’t been a more colorful personality than Steve Jobs, so that part of the story was pretty entertaining. You could say that the return of Jobs was as momentous as finding out about Luke’s father.

Let’s face it, it just wasn’t that exciting to watch Google and Amazon continue to grow. Facebook is a great new character as a flawed hero, and that whole subplot with Twitter and the rest of social media was a very strong B story. Other new characters like Uber and AirBnB have their minuses and pluses, but I don’t believe they’re going to be big characters in the next movie. (“Uber for X” companies are the goddamn Ewoks.) The overall experience has been like coming in to watch a huge blockbuster mega-sequel: you can really see the dollars up there on the screen, and there’s a certain amount of entertainment value that comes through, but the whole exercise just lacks the originality, joy and passion of the earlier entries.

Not a bad backstory though, and as in the other movies, this one will continue to be meaningful in all future sequels. Cloud computing, software as a service, the evolution to microservices – these things fundamentally changed the way that new businesses start and grow. They reduced the capital costs in starting a new information technology company by orders of magnitudes, letting in many more characters. Unfortunately, most of those new characters are Ewoks.

The Force Awakens

So what’s the next movie going to be about? Will it reinvigorate the franchise? Or will it be a terrible prequel (or worse, prequel trilogy) that we’ll all have to agree to pretend never happened?

I think we don’t know all of the elements, but we do know some of them. Let’s first recap what we saw in the first three installments:tfa-chart

And here’s what I think we know about the chart today:

tfa-chart-f

Main Story: There is a flood of products that don’t have an agreed category name yet – Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, chatbots, chatbots and more chatbots. Some industry terms that are cropping up are intelligent personal assistants, virtual assistants, conversational search. Or chatbots, fer chrissake.

The point is, you will have things in your house (your car, your pocket, etc) that you talk with, and these things will talk back to you in a way that makes sense. You’ll regard your interaction as a conversation rather than button punching or screen swiping. Until people converge on another name for all of these things, I’ll call them “conversational devices” – this captures that you have a productive back-and-forth with a physical object. Yes, you can already do something like this on your smartphone, but those implementations are only a hint of where this will go.

As early as it is, there are plenty of curmudgeons who don’t see the point. Smarter people have said we’ll never need more than five computers, no one wants a computer in their home, the Internet is a fad, the iPhone is going to be a flop. Predictions are hard. But screw it, here’s mine: within 3 years, it will be apparent that the adoption curve of conversational devices is in the same category as PCs, the Web, and smartphones.

Conversational devices will be the story of the next decade in consumer technology. Not that there won’t be other stories, it’s just that this one will be the lens by which we understand the era. I still love virtual reality, but it’s still not time yet. The blockchain isn’t consumer-facing, and  I don’t believe in Bitcoin. Not Internet of Things, not 3D printing, not self-driving cars, not wearable devices (unless they are also conversational devices) – some of these will be big stories, but not the biggest story of the next dozen years.

Backstory: Conversational devices rely on this chain of technologies: Machine Learning -> Natural Language Processing -> Speech Synthesis. These technologies are complex and interrelated, and rather than explain why this is their moment (the foregoing links give that explanation), I’ll just skip to the punchline: People will be able to speak to machines, machines will understand and speak back. Most people already have experience with primitive versions of these technologies, and find those experiences frustrating and unsatisfying. (“Press 9 to go back to the main menu.”) But the rate of improvement here is at an inflection point, and this is about to become undeniably apparent on a mass consumer level.

Platform War: The most successful conversational devices will be on a common platform of delivery. Amazon Echo and Google Home are devices that sit in your home and listen to everything you say, and respond back to help you. Facebook Messenger has bots that will have a conversation with you. Each of these is currently displaying only the limited strengths available in their existing businesses (Amazon:Shopping, Google:Search, Facebook:Brands), but they are all trying to expand to become a delivery platform for third-party conversational devices. Amazon and Facebook already offer developer platforms, Google is focusing on partnerships.

This platform war will have elements of past wars, in hardware vs software, apps vs operating system, open vs closed. That complexity makes it very interesting, but remember, this is theme rather than story. The platform war is the Empire vs the Rebellion, the Mob vs America, it’s the thematic texture that gives the story meaning. You shouldn’t mistake it for the main narrative though. In Mac vs PC, Microsoft won, not Apple or IBM. In open vs closed web, Google won, not Tim Berners-Lee or AOL. Ok, the winners in iOS vs Android were also the platform owners, but that’s yet another reason that movie sucked, maybe it’s the fundamental reason that movie sucked. I hope everyone involved is smart enough not to let that happen again.

Pioneers and Winners: We are far enough into the story that we can guess at pioneers, but we can’t be sure until the extinction event happens: in all previous movies, the early pioneers proved the market, and then died, crushed by an onslaught that included the eventual winners. I’m convinced that this plot point will repeat in the new movie. Look in the chatbot space for potential pioneers – it’s certain than one of these will become historically important. And then it will die.

I’m hoping the platform war victors aren’t also the heroic winners of the main story, as happened in the smartphone movie, because it’s boring and tends to result in Ewoks. Facebook is the pivotal character to watch, as it has a platform opportunity with Messenger, but has huge weaknesses relative to Google, Amazon, Apple and even Microsoft in hardware production and delivery, and hardware will be key to platform ownership. So it will be interesting to watch whether Facebook dives into hardware, or partners with one or more of the other platform players, in the hopes that there’s a bigger opportunity in the main story than the theme.

Well, that’s all I have to say about that. Enjoy the show!