The tech CEOs’ year of reckoning

The head of a technology company won’t save the world.

It wasn’t so long ago that tech CEOs and their wares were changing the world. In fact, we heard that quite often: This or that “innovation” will make the planet a better place. Silicon Valley was clearly getting high on its own supply as it ramped up the hype that the earth was a wasteland until the titans of tech had graced us with an easier way to post a filtered photo or share our thoughts on the finale of Lost.

We were blind, and our eyes were opened by zeros and ones. The tech utopia was at hand, and we should just sit back and not ask too many hard questions.

Then things went sideways. Social networks that were the catalyst of the Arab Spring were suddenly being used by nation-states, shit posters and bot armies to destroy democracy and fuel racial violence. Using public roads to beta test software resulted in deaths and of course billions of dollars were essentially wasted. The messiahs thought-leaders innovators disrupters run-of-the-mill ultra-capitalists who promised a better tomorrow crumbled under the slightest scrutiny.

People started asking questions, and the answers weren’t what tech promised.

As the year came to a close, The Verge revealed that Away (which makes suitcases with batteries in them. I guess that means they’re a tech company) CEO Steph Korey was abusing employees via Slack. After the usual mealy-mouthed apology, Korey was fired.

There have been the usual back-and-forth articles and think pieces about whether Korey was targeted and/or if the dismissal was warranted. The reason some people might feel like treating employees badly shouldn’t be a fireable offense is that a long time ago most of us excused the behavior of Steve Jobs. There are far too many stories of Jobs’ cruelty to employees. We allowed it because “OMG, look at that shiny new iPhone” and “Wow, the MacBooks are so great.” Oh also, he saved Apple from complete collapse.

A generation of tech CEOs believed that this is how you manage a company. It’s not, and now their bad behavior is being called out by employees that work long hours in high-stress situations all hoping they’ll make it big via an eventual IPO. Dear CEOs, You’re not Steve Jobs. Stop trying to be Steve Jobs.

By the end of 2019, on the other side of the spectrum was the tech CEO who thought everything was a party. WeWork CEO Adam Neumann burned through billions of Softbank’s (and other investors’) money. The “visionary” offered up shared office space for thousands of startups and a few publications. Subletting space to those in need seems like a good idea. Hotboxing private jets and buying the real estate that your company is leasing, not so much. Ahead of its IPO, investors took a good look at Neumann’s company and realized that it was incinerating cash: $1.9 billion last year to be precise. In the first half of 2019, it lost $904 million. The real estate wunderkind was let go and for all his failures he got a sweet golden parachute of $1.7 billion in shares and loans. Meanwhile WeWork employees have been let go in the wake of his management decisions.

Tossing other people’s money into a pit of snake oil-fueled flames was the basis for the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about the rise and fall of Theranos and, more importantly, its CEO Elizabeth Holmes. We all knew the story thanks to the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou’s investigation of the company way back in 2015. But seeing this unfold on our TVs in 2019 was a reminder that even though things didn’t seem right at the company, Silicon Valley’s sway as the answer to all the world’s ills blinded established companies, reporters and members of the US government.

The blinders that allowed companies like Theranos continuing to bilk people and companies out of money are not just turned outward. Sometimes, the person in charge seems to have no sense of what’s going on. Jack Dorsey wants to be the cuddly “woke” CEO of tech. At the end of 2018 Dorsey tweeted about his silent retreat in Myanmar. The country that has committed genocide and spread hateful propaganda via social media. He issued the usual non-apology apology. Then his account was hacked via an SMS SIM hijack.

This type of hack has been around for a while but it wasn’t until the CEO was compromised that the company put the brakes on the ability of Tweet via SMS. It felt like things were only worth fixing or updating if it affected the boss.

Twitter’s been a headache for another CEO. After some rather weird, unlawful and downright dangerous tweets about his company, reporters and individuals, Musk seems to have tamed his tweets as of late. His company is making a profit, and Tesla is building test vehicles at the new China factory. But, his past Twitter behavior came back to haunt him in the form of a lawsuit brought by the diver he called a “pedo guy.”

The jury found that Musk was not guilty of libel. But being hauled into court for calling someone a child molester via a tweet is never a good look. It’s ridiculous. Also, because of the trial, we found out that Musk hired a private investigator that was a convicted felon to dig up dirt on the diver. Musk’s fans truly believe he will save the world. If that’s his plan, awesome. But maybe concentrate more on climate change and less on hurt feelings and Twitter fights.

Lost money, angry tweets, unsafe medical practices and being blind to the woes of the world should not be something that shows up on the resume of a CEO. But the actual coup d’etat is the destruction of democracy.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress again in 2019 (the litany of misleading statements he gave in his 2018 appearance concerning election tampering and Cambridge Analytica kept fact-checkers busy) to answer for his company’s Cryptocurrency scheme Libra and paid political ads on his platform. It didn’t go well. But he still insisted that his company would continue to allow politicians to lie in ads on his platform.

Zuckerberg always mumbles something about Facebook not policing free speech, which is a hilarious shield for a company that’s kicked abuse survivors off its platform for using pseudonyms or, worse, changed their names without their consent making them targets. The company has also policed and banned accounts and ads which it deemed has violated its nudity guidelines for ridiculous reasons. Like an ad for a breast cancer nonprofit.

Oh also this year he rewrote the history of Facebook during a college commencement speech laughably citing the first Iraq war as a reason he built his social network. In reality, he built a “Hot or Not” clone for Harvard classmates then decided to expand it for dating.

After years of essentially lying to the press, investors and the government, Mark Zuckerberg and his company continue to make a staggering amount of money on the backs of those lies.

Most of these CEOs are still rich. Golden parachutes, expensive lawyers and great quarterly numbers mean we’ll see these folks again. Some will fail upward. Some might get better. Others won’t.

What’s important is that, maybe once and for all, we’ll see that tech CEOs are not going to save the world. Like CEOs in other industries, they care more about making themselves and their investors rich. 2019 showed us that we’re not better off because of these folks. If anything, things have gotten worse. Technology and billionaires won’t make the world better. It’s up to us.

Albertans feel they don’t have a future in Canada: Former Encana CEO

Gwyn Morgan, former CEO of Encana, discusses the growing sense of Western alienation after the Liberals didn’t secure a single seat in Alberta or Saskatchewan. He says it isn’t about the industry anymore, it’s about the sense that they will never be treated equally with the other provinces.

The Nihilist in Chief

How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.

What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.

Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.

The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.

But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.

Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.

By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.

And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.

Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.

One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a

  • more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
  • foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
  • decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
  • our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.

But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.

So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.

The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.

But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.

A Really Good Thing Happening in America

A strategy for community problem-solving does an extraordinary job at restoring our social fabric.

.. SAM embodies a new civic architecture, which has become known as the “collective impact” approach. Americans feel alienated from and distrustful toward most structures of authority these days, but this is one they can have faith in.
..  it creates an informal authority structure that transcends public-sector/private-sector lines, that rallies cops and churches, the grass roots and the grass tops.

Members put data in the center and use it as a tool not for competition but for collaboration. Like the best social service organizations, it is high on empathy and high on engineering. It is local, participatory and comprehensive.

.. Cincinnati had plenty of programs. What it lacked was an effective system to coordinate them.

.. Collective impact structures got their name in 2011, when John Kania and Mark Kramer wrote an influential essay for the Stanford Social Innovation Review in which they cited StriveTogether and provided the philosophical and theoretical basis for this kind of approach.

.. Such structures are now being used to address homelessness, hunger, river cleanup and many other social ills. Collective impact approaches have had their critics over the years, in part for putting too much emphasis on local elites and not enough on regular parents (which is fair).

.. Frankly, I don’t need studies about outcomes to believe that these collective impact approaches are exciting and potentially revolutionary. Trust is built and the social fabric is repaired when people form local relationships around shared tasks.

A Quebec Comedian Is Happy to Offend in Any Language

A fearless comic with a talent for provoking both laughter and outrage, Sammy, born Samir Khullar, is a 42-year-old son of Indian immigrants. He is also a child of Bill 101, the polarizing Quebec law behind the sign infraction, which requires immigrants to send their children to French schools. As a result, he glides effortlessly between English and French in his shows, and has made Quebec’s tortured identity politics his main preoccupation.

.. “In Quebec the ultimate taboo is identity,”

.. diving into his favorite subject: those who want Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada.

“Are there any separatists here?” he asked in perfectly accented Québécois French. “Come on, don’t be shy.”

.. He switched to English for a joke on President Trump’s security strategy on the Mexican border. “We don’t have a lot of Latinos in Canada,” he said. “It’s too cold. We don’t need a wall. We have winter.”

.. When he first came up with the idea of doing a bilingual act, “You’re Gonna Rire” (“You’re Gonna Laugh”) in 2012, comedy producers told him he was crazy: The Anglophones wouldn’t understand the jokes in French, and the English humor would be lost on the Francophones.

So he produced it himself, and the show became an overnight sensation. It transformed Mr. Khullar, a virtuoso improvisor whose looks have been likened to Elvis, into a household name in Quebec, garnering him coveted comedy awards and making him a millionaire.

.. He was variously labeled a dangerous “Francophobe,” a federalist “fanatic,” and a political activist masquerading as a comedian.

..  GQ enthused that “the funniest person in France is Québécois.”

.. He recently opened a show in Paris, where he is living for a time, with the line, “I’m happy to be in France. You guys are my favorite Arab country.”

.. Mr. Khullar occupied a unique place by bridging Quebec’s cultural divide. “He’s a good barometer of a society that has come of age and can now laugh at itself,” she said.

.. Mr. Khullar embodies a new generation in Quebec less burdened by the language and culture wars of the past, added Marc Cassivi, a columnist for La Presse, a leading French-language newspaper, who wrote a book about bilingualism in Quebec.

“It is doubtful that Sugar Sammy would’ve survived as a comedian in Quebec of the 1970s, and would’ve left on the first train to Toronto,” Mr. Cassivi said.

.. Immersed in French in school, Mr. Khullar and his younger brother spoke Punjabi and Hindi at home, and learned English on the street and by watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.” At his high school, where he was anointed the class clown at age 15, his best friends were Jewish-Moroccan, Haitian, Guatemalan and Chinese — a comedic focus group of sorts that he credits for his ability now to cross borders and make people laugh.

.. His decision to become a comedian was clinched when he first saw Eddie Murphy’s 1983 stand-up comedy television special “Delirious” as a teenager and was attracted by his raw, unbridled humor. “Here you had this guy in bright red leather owning the stage with the charisma of a rock star,” he said. “I wanted to be that guy.”

.. His political awakening as a comic came in 1995 during a referendum that asked Quebecers whether the province should become an independent country. After the “no” camp won with a bare 50.6 percent of the vote, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, a leader on the “yes” side, blamed the result on, among other things, “the ethnic vote.

.. The comments stung Mr. Khullar, who was 19. “Here I was a teenager who was doing everything to be part of Quebec society and I was being told that I was responsible for the failure of Quebec’s dream of statehood,” he recalled. “I realized that I would always be the ‘other’ in Quebec, no matter what language I spoke.”

Instead of stewing, he used his sense of alienation as fuel for his comedy.

.. He became co-creator in 2014 of a successful French television sitcom called “Ces gars-là,” (“Those Guys”) in the spirit Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and began crisscrossing the globe.

.. Determined that his comedy have the whiff of authenticity, he obsessively prepares for his shows abroad by observing people on the subway, doing his laundry at public laundromats and eating at restaurants.