His new book “The Know-It-Alls” takes Silicon Valley to task.
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, author and former New York Times columnist Noam Cohen talks about his new book, “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball.”
In the book, Cohen argues that a libertarian philosophy that is hostile to outsiders and resistant to regulation is negatively affecting our society and communities.
You can read some of the highlights here, or listen to the entire interview in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Kara Swisher: Hi. I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the real know-it-all, but only when I have access to Google, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or just visit recode.net/podcast for more.
Today in the red chair is Noam Cohen, a former New York Times columnist who wrote about the influence of the internet on the larger culture. He has a new book out called, “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball.” Noam, welcome to Recode Decode.
Noam Cohen: Nice to be here.
Wow. You couldn’t have had a more pertinent book come out right now, essentially. Let’s talk a little bit about you — like your history — so we have some sense of where you came from.
Sure. I used to write a column called Link By Link for the Times, and it ran in the business section on Mondays, but I often did not write about businesses. I really liked writing about Wikipedia, free software. I was really interested in how technology was affecting society.
This was when? What years were you …?
2008 through probably 2014 or so. It was becoming clear to me that these issues were very important, that to be a critic of Silicon Valley isn’t to sort of talk about, “Is our smartphone making us dumb?” but “Is it threatening our democracy?” I felt I had to deal with where the internet had gone rather than talking about my idealistic views of Wikipedia or Craigslistings that were not commercial and wouldn’t track you. I’d look at what was really going on, and I wanted to answer that question.
I had seen that these big companies, these leaders, were really presenting a libertarian view and making it cool in a way that was very scary to me. I knew from my reporting, I’d spent a lot of time with hackers and computer programmers types, and I had a cousin like that. It was one thing in the computer lab to have these kind of views, kind of hostile to outsiders and very arrogant. Another thing to have them running our society, and that’s what made me scared. I wanted to say, “How did this happen? How did we get from computers being kind of a …”
That was the focus of your column?
Oh, no. The focus of the column was about how internet was affecting society. I would write about memes. I was sort of early to write about a lot of things. I think my wife was sort of joking that it was perfect. I have a two-year gap for this because when I’m writing, it’s now on the news.
I used to write about bitcoin before bitcoin was a big deal. I wrote about it as an abstract idea. Or I’d write about Twitter before Twitter was a big deal. I just was sort of interested and talked to a lot of people about what was going on, but I wasn’t really interested in looking at the business side of it, so I never was doing that.
You were just doing about the societal impact.
This was right after one of the crashes was in there, in the Times, and so there was sort of a big boom, and then there was a bust, and then there was another big boom and then a slight bust.
We were sort of in the Facebook phase of the internet, essentially.
True. Yeah, and I guess I was really always interested in, “Is free software going to change the world or not, or is Wikipedia going to change the world?” I’ve seen, actually, how both those movements have been subsumed by Google and, I guess, we could say Amazon, too, for helping these smart machines get answers. Wikipedia, I thought, “Wow. Here’s this other path,” but actually, it’s become subsumed and now Wikipedia is mainly used for Google results.
What’s your background? Were you technical? Did you …
No, I was a history major in college and I just … Yeah, I would write about, yeah, a history major, and I guess really didn’t have any technical background, but I had this cousin, a late cousin, who would answer all my technical questions. He’s exactly the same age as Bill Gates. I remember when I was young, always hearing him talk about how Bill Gates, the program was terrible, and when it was going on, he never thought that Microsoft would ever succeed. He was more of a know-it-all than Bill Gates, and I kind of laughed when it took over the world. That’s always the funny thing about these people, when I was doing the research, that each one is always saying how the other one is not really that smart.
Yeah. I want to get to it. I want to get to you first.
Oh okay. No, no, no, no.
Did you have interest in tech, or what was the …?
No. I guess I used some of this stuff. I was more of an idealist. I looked back, I wrote a piece in 2001 for Descent that was … I worked at a company called Inside.com. That was an early …
Oh my God. You were there?
Yes, yes, with David Carr.
Oh, so you have some stories.
Yes, I do.
For those who don’t know, explain Inside.com.
Oh, Inside.com was this, I guess …
Most ill-timed media company of all time.
Yeah, I guess it was right before the bubble. They raised all this money, and then the bubble burst.
The point was …?
The point was to hire these people who were real experts in various entertainment fields and so …
It was an all-star list.
An all-star list. I was not one of the all-stars, but I helped them, yeah, in publishing but also in film and in TV. They actually were very shrewd. It was Kurt Andersen and my friend, Michael Hirschorn. They had this idea that around the world there was a segment of the world, you could say, that like a senior vice president at Sony in Japan is the same as someone in New York, and that they all needed really quick, actionable news. Obviously, the timing was terrible.
It was a blog.
Yeah, it was a blog. News articles, only online. Of course, the funny thing is they eventually flipped and did do a print magazine for a little while, too. It was just they were grasping to try to make it work.
Yeah. What it was is a lot of old media people realized the internet … I was around for it. I remember it very vividly because I’d been covering it since the mid, early ’90s, essentially, and then all of a sudden, everyone’s like, “Uh oh. This internet thing is a big deal,” and then they all tried to figure out a way. A lot of it was porting a lot of old media stuff onto the new …
Totally. I think they thought that Variety … Obviously, Variety and I guess Hollywood Reporter to a lesser degree did migrate themselves. I thought, “We have a chance to create a whole new structure that will leapfrog,” kind of the way people, I guess, go right to mobile phones or something. “We don’t have to deal with landlines.” They thought they could jump right in and become this … There were ideas of having premium subscriptions, so they were always playing around with lots of the same ideas as today.
Yeah, but they focused on the star system. I remember they recruited stars, yeah.
Oh, for sure. Yeah. I was around that. It lasted maybe a year and a half, I did that, but I was intrigued to do that because I thought the same way, that the internet would be a better delivery system. Seeing that and seeing that fail and then going back to the Times, I guess that shows I always was curious about the potential to … but I wasn’t thinking about it in such a …
You weren’t a techy. You weren’t a techy.
I was not a techy. I remember thinking, people were like, “Wow, you’re going to get rich from this.” I was saying, “Well, if I’m going to become a millionaire, that means someone who’s really doing these things is going to be a billionaire. I don’t think they’re becoming a billionaire, so I’m not becoming a millionaire.”
Right. They became billionaires and you didn’t become a millionaire.
Who knew that people did become billionaires? Yeah. No, obviously not.
Yeah, so after you left Inside.com, which sort of cratered, essentially, and then there was the bust, you went back to the New York Times and were working for a traditional paper.
Being there — and the only reason I’m plumbing on you on this issue is because I want to talk about how you feel now. You had interactions with them, but you worked for what was still a pretty insular old media company at that time.
Definitely. Yeah, it’s hard to know how many stories I can tell about the Times, but I remember …
Please go ahead.
No, it’s not that fascinating, but one of the ideas I had, though, was to create an internal Wiki at the Times. I remember how hard it was to do that because I was doing editing. If you know the New York Times, they have incredible rules about style, which have now, you look at it now as an outsider, I can’t even believe the things I used to worry about, about whether headlines could end with a preposition, just things that are insane.
I thought, “Wow. All these arcane rules. We should just put a Wiki and we can have them updated and deal with changing times.” It was very hard to have that done, let’s say. I think it might still exist now, but I was really pushing against the tide.
Do you remember the first story you wrote in this genre? Do you remember what it was about?
I do think that maybe this Twitter piece was the first one. It was about a guy, an early Twitter user who was tweeting about his suicide. Again, I wrote it in such an earnest way and it ran in the Style section. It really was not about the business potential. It was like, “What a weird idea, you could kind of have people watch you in real-time through these tweets.”
I guess I also wrote a very early piece about Wikipedia in 2006, going to one of their conferences, which I always thought was fascinating to go to, the people behind these faces. That’s always what I wanted to do, actually. If you asked what I was trying to accomplish, it was to say, “Here’s this thing, the internet, that’s changing everything. Who are the people who are doing it? Who is the biggest Wikipedia contributor? What is he like? Why does he do it?” I would go to these conferences. They were around the world. They’d be in Argentina.
Yeah. No, really. Very odd places. Alexandria, Egypt. I got to see in Egypt how many women were there and how they all were doctors because no one really would be a computer person. It wasn’t really a profession. I wanted to put a human face behind what was going on online.
Right. During that period, it was a very hopeful period. Because your book is not hopeful.
I think it’s trying to be hopeful.
Well, okay. All right. Talk about that period, though, because it was the change in the world zone where everything was going to be better, brought to you by the internet, essentially.
Yeah. Well, I think, obviously, you were … Right, and clearly I’m party to some of that, of the real enthusiasm of thinking that the Arab Spring was caused by these social network tools.
Yeah, Twitter. I also did a profile of Evgeny Morosov, I remember doing, and just thinking how he was so instinctively negative about everything. I was sort of telling him, as a wise old man, like, “To be instinctively negative is just as predictable as being instinctively positive,” but I think retrospectively he was definitely onto something, I remember.
I do think that I was probably, yeah, more optimistic about things. Things had taken a turn, so it wasn’t like I was just blind, but I didn’t quite see how it would become so consolidated. I believed the hype that the structure of it would lead to competition and that Google wants openness so that means there’s going to be an open system. I didn’t realize that could mean that there’d be only a handful of power players.
Yeah. Yeah, it was interesting. Someone was asking me about that recently, and I said, “Microsoft controlled by controlling everything, and Google controls by controlling nothing.” It’s a different way, but it’s the same result.
Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, it’s kind of … An analogy I always think of is like the British Navy. They just wanted open seas. We happen to control the seas, but we just believe in open seas.
Right, right, right.
We can’t have rules about seas.
You write that column. You write about all the different trends that were happening. What among those trends do you think was the most important and points to today and what you’re writing about?
You mean what trends I should’ve been seeing that were showing consolidation?
No, no. What struck your fancy at that moment?
It was things like Wikipedia. Things where people could collaborate together, where I guess it’d be very unstructured. I think free software was really interesting to me, and the idea that, yeah, that it could be a non-commercial path. Craigslist was another one. I always had this idealist, kind of my background was always to be interested in utopia, so I was more …
Which was a big thing they were pushing.
Yeah, and I was very open for that. I just didn’t see the turn coming. I was very open for that idea, that this could be new rules. It could be new …
Right. New things. In any area of any …
In any area. Sure. How amazing is it to have all the books available to … I certainly used it that way, but then you start thinking, “Wow. What do authors think about their books being in there?” I was definitely open to those kind of …
What prompted you, then, to write this book? We’re going to talk about your next …
Like I said …
Because you’re calling them “The Know-It-Alls” and “Social Wrecking Ball.” Those are kind of loaded …
Those are loaded terms, yeah, and obviously I wrote it before … I can’t say the Russian meddling in our election is why I wrote it. It was definitely not what I was thinking about. I’m sure when I realized that Gmail … I know they would say, right, that it’s only a bot, and maybe they don’t even do it anymore, that only a bot was reading your mail, but think about how I wouldn’t really type that my mom had cancer in it because I just didn’t really want that …
What would that lead to? I guess I always am trying to navigate that, and that was something that made me think, “This is really a weird deal going on,” because obviously I love Gmail. I’m not so strong that I don’t use it, but I obviously think it’s something really odd, like why would someone sign off on reading your mail? What would the world be like if they said, “We’re going to protect Noam’s and everyone’s mail as if it were some special package. We’re not going to even look at it. We wouldn’t even want to look at it.”
I think those things made me think something was going awry, and then the consolidation and seeing how Facebook … You would hear stories, obviously. Nothing is new to tell you about, but even people being reminded of anniversaries in very ham-handed ways. The scalability, the idea. I guess I’ve always thought that what I liked about Wikipedia or Craigslist … It was so funny to meet Craig. I once did a story about him out here.
Funny guy, huh?
He’s a funny guy, and he has a little car, like he’s a consumer. Yeah, you know who he is. This little car thing. He deals with customer service. That’s a very human thing. I felt like these things were getting really not human, and that was bothering me.
Yeah, so this is what prompted the book.
I think so, yeah.
What was the goal of the book? We’re going to talk in the next two sections about some of the trends …
I think the goal of the book … Thinking about explaining it, it’s making the returnism cool, and I was thinking, I saw John Markoff, an old colleague yesterday, and we were talking about … He kind of approaches his history through the hippie and the flower power kind of story, and he was asking me even, “That’s good, this individuality,” and of course I agree with that, but it’s just not caring about the social fabric that they’re breaking.
I was very on board for the “fly your freak flag” part of it, but it’s just the …
That was a long time ago. John’s been on our broadcast.
No, no. I know, and that instinct is really good, but what happens when people want to impose that kind of individuality on everybody? I think libertarianism, as we’ve been talking about, is a pretty scary philosophy and was very fringe, and now I feel it’s becoming very mainstream, and that’s very scary to me.
Well, I think he’s libertarian lite, actually, is what I …
Yeah, I think it is. It’s liberaltarianism, but yeah, some of the issues are very biting, nonetheless.
The title “Know-It-All,” explain that.
It was my editor’s idea, and I think it’s great because it had two connotations. I remember describing to my daughter, actually, who was asking what a “know-it-all” is — she’s 5-and-a-half — and it’s not just knowing everything. It’s just thinking you know everything and wanting to assert that knowledge on other people, and also I thought it had a good double meaning because these companies want to know everything about us, so they collect all that data. I thought it just worked in two ways. They want to know all about me, and they also think they know it all about the world, so I thought it was an awesome title.
It’s a perfect title, actually. All right, we’re here talking with Noam Cohen. His new book is called, “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and a Social Wrecking Ball.” Perfect timing right now for the age we are in. When we get back, we’re going to talk more about some of the ideas in the book, libertarianism, privacy issues, political impact and the weaponization of social.
We’re here with Noam Cohen. He was a New York Times columnist, and his new book is called, “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and a Social Wrecking Ball.” All right, Noam, let’s talk about the meat of the book. Let’s start with the political powerhouse part, because that’s been in the news a lot lately. This is a group of people who have enormous political impact and, unfortunately, much of it is toxic in a lot of ways. Let’s take that apart. What’s happening from your perspective?
Yeah, I think when you talk about the libertarianism or the political power, it’s the fight against regulation. That’s what’s very scary to me. I was watching the hearings about the election.
The recent hearings with Twitter and Facebook and Google, right.
Right. I thought there was a real … They bring up Al Franken. Senator Franken really had a very telling interaction with the counsel, the lawyer for Facebook, where he said, “Can you just pledge not to accept rubles for political ads?” The lawyer said, “That’s a very good signal. We’re really on it. Thank you for pointing out.” He said, “Could you just say yes, that you’re not going to take ads?” He was like, “No, we hear you, and we’re going to work on that,” or something.
I kept thinking, “Why would he not say yes?” It spoke to that arrogance, that, “We’ll figure it out. We’ll do our algorithm. You stay out of it.” I think that’s one side of just the lack of regulation. Other than the Koch Brothers, I think Silicon Valley is the biggest critic of government regulation and mocking of …
Since the beginning, since long ago …
Yeah. I think the other thing I was thinking about, in the book I talk about how libertarianism is also an ideology that some would argue really devalues women. It’s not a coincidence that these are “tech bros” and not “tech sisters.” In essence, to believe in libertarianism, to believe in this ruthless world, you have to believe that you came here as an adult miraculously. There’s no mother who raised you, no family.
I think that’s a very dangerous, pernicious view, but it’s very common. I think the idea of living forever, which maybe Peter Thiel and others talk about, is a real way of devaluing family and the way we are historically from the beginning of mankind, peoplekind, how we come about. We don’t just use other people’s blood or just live forever through medicine. We’re part of a community, and unfortunately we die as well.
Yeah. The idea of where they are in the political … You know, they have these hearings. I probably know regulation will come, given that Congress can’t do anything. If they can’t do the big regulation, they’re not going to get to the lesser regulation, but where does Silicon Valley find itself? Because at one point they wanted to get away from politics. They don’t want to be part of it. They’re always talking about not wanting to be part of Washington. On the other hand, they’re spending enormous amounts of money on political influence and finding themselves in really hot water.
I feel like … I talk in the book about the politics and no-politics. I was telling a friend how Rush has a famous lyric that if you choose not to side, you’ve still made a choice. A friend told me that’s actually Pascal who came up with that before Rush. I think it’s a real fallacy to think … It’s often a way of disguising libertarian ideas. I think Elon Musk has this tweet where he was like, “I take the best ideas from everybody.” It’s like, the best ideas from the left are gay marriage and legalizing drugs, and the best ideas from the right are no regulation and low taxes. That’s just libertarianism.
I think they want to present themselves as not political, because obviously this is sort of the old story with Michael Jordan. Republicans still use Facebook and they don’t want to be identified with one party, but I do think it’s a fallacy, and we’re learning that it has real cost, this idea of just stepping backwards, just neutral. It allows you to be easily manipulated by people.
Absolutely, which is exactly what happened. What kind of situation do you think they find themselves in? Is it a situation where regulation will happen? I don’t believe that it will.
I totally understand your skepticism, but I was really struck …
Underestimating the talent of politicians seems to be a really good bet.
I understand that, but I was really struck that John Kennedy, this Republican in Louisiana, if you watched him, asked the most trenchant questions possible. Maybe I’m kidding myself thinking he’s speaking for middle America, but obviously, middle America is also the ones who are being strip-mined by these companies.
That’s a very good point.
All the money is going to the outside edges, in New York and San Francisco, and all the local stores, local advertising is being hurt in the middle. He asked questions to Facebook that were really … He said, “So you keep track of who is depressed. Can you tell who’s depressed?” They’re like, “Well, you know,” and he denied it, but I guess there’s some paperwork that show they do, and he’s like, “Is it wrong to give advertising focused on depressed people? Is it wrong to focus on overweight people and sell them candy?” It was really getting at these really important questions. I thought, “Wow. It is bipartisan. It’s not just the Elizabeth Warrens of the world who are worried about it.” I’m a little hopeful.
Do you feel these companies are listening to the message, in the political sense? What will they do about it?
Yeah, I think they always are kind of hedging. It seems like what they think is going to happen, they’re going to agree beforehand, but I just think there might be a consensus on this miraculously. But no, I think they will grudgingly agree to regulation. I guess that will make things a little better. I think political advertising is too important. Obviously, politicians are very concerned about political advertising. I think it might be the one thing they really will act on. The other kind of question is about monopoly.
Yeah, I’m not that optimistic. I think that might be the other thing we need to do, are you controlling your own data. I don’t know if they’re going to do that. Those are things that really require a consensus and a more … Maybe if there’s a democratic way of election or something, things could change, but I do agree with you. That kind of stuff is not going to happen in this world.
They’ll hew to the rules of political … They’ll be …
I think so. Yeah, they have to. Then you wonder about advertising for children, as well. Will that be another no-brainer? It doesn’t hit politicians quite as directly as political advertising, but advertising and whether children are being exposed to ads seems pretty … There’s been some real stuff published online about that and about the potential for YouTube to really influence children.
Do you feel like the people who run Silicon Valley, do they understand this, this damage that they’ve caused, politically at least? Then we’ll move on to …
I guess I don’t think they do because what I did for this book, I really read a lot of the comments of everybody, and I read this amazing site that keeps track of everything Mark Zuckerberg has ever said since he’s been 18. It’s called “Zuckerberg Files.” You have to register for it. I read …
I have to listen to it. I remember it all.
Ah. Well, read the text. I can’t say I’ve listened to a lot of it. His perception of reality, I think he might genuinely think he’s doing good. It might be hard to shake him out of it because I think …
One hundred percent.
Right. That’s a little worrisome to think that he just isn’t able to see reality.
It’s interesting. I always think the DNA of a company starts at the beginning and it’s what kills them at the end, really. It’s the same exact thing, and it always carries through. Someone was talking about these Russian hearings recently, and I said, “You know, it’s the 10th anniversary of Beacon,” which you may not remember, but I do because I wrote about it, which was a privacy … They would publish what you bought in order to up the ante on social discussion. It was trying to just populate your feed with something interesting, and so they would say … If you bought something, it would pop on your feed without your permission, essentially.
At the time, they found nothing wrong with this. Of course, privacy gets everyone crazy, and they started doing … It was all kinds of glitches. They would publish things people didn’t want to know, and it was just such a massive overreach without any thought put into it. Then they initially said it wasn’t a problem, and then it was sort of a problem, and then it was, “Okay, maybe it’s more of a problem than we thought,” and then it was, “Let’s close it.” It was fascinating. You can watch that, one after the next, over and over again they do it.
With Facebook Live. “Oh, they’ll be no murders. Oh, okay. There’s was a murder. Oh, maybe we should have rules.” Oh, tools. Same thing with Russia. “Oh, no, there’s no Russians here. Oh, wait. Looks like there’s a Russian over there. Oh, there could be two. Oh, there’s a lot of them. Maybe we should do something.” It seems …
Yeah, the two liabilities you’re focusing on are that, A) — and you read this in his comments, Zuckerberg, that they just believe people want to be connected even if they don’t say they want to be connected, so give them stuff so they’ll get addicted to it and … Yeah, I do think that is something that he’s not able to see the problem. I think it’s amazing if you look at a document he writes about “How Can Facebook Deal With All the Polarization in America.” You’re like, “Do you even have …”
This is the 9,000-word manifesto.
Yeah, and there’s not one mention that Facebook might have caused the polarization.
No, of course not.
It’s like, “You might not be assessing it correctly.”
Actually, Facebook’s the solution. I think my headline was, “Mark Zuckerberg’s Solution for Problems on Facebook is more Facebook.”
Totally. Right. The other thought, kind of looking at the history and what the book covers, is this idea that computers are a closed world. The first program that Mark Zuckerberg wrote was a Julius Caesar program. I think when you’re in control of your screen, you kind of have these magical powers. Up is down, whatever the rules are. What I’m trying to say is, the scary thing is when that mentality, which might work for programming, becomes part of our world, so Mark Zuckerberg actually thinks up is down for us, is a little scary, and that’s also true of Sergey Brin and Larry Page. They’re more low-key, but it’s the same kind of ultimate power.
We know best.
We know best. We’ll tell you what’s interesting, and stuff like that. Let’s go through the others, because they’re older now but they still have the same sort of “Break everything and who cares the cost?” kind of mentality.
Yeah. You know this history, I’m sure, as well as I do, but I was struck how idealistic they were at the beginning. I do make a lot, and I was talking with John Markoff about this, too, that early paper where he went Appendix A, and it’s very well known that this paper they wrote when they were still students, it said advertising was antithetical to a really fair search, how it had to be kept transparent in an ivory tower, and to see how they were converted from that very idealistic viewpoint to this incredibly practical money-obsessed version through, I would say, Stanford and the influence of Stanford.
That’s another thread of my book. I feel like that’s a real gap in the writing and as a story. As someone who studied history at school, there really isn’t a good critical history of Stanford and it’s so important. I was asking librarians at Stanford, is there just a critical history of it? Not yet.
Why is that the case? This is Stanford University, where a lot of people went …
I give them credit or lack of credit for producing this entrepreneurial spirit and making everything be judged by how much money it can make. I think it’s the same thing as these Silicon Valley companies. There’s just a good feeling about them. They’re successful. It’s sunny. People are having fun. You are a little bit of a downer to go like, “Stanford’s actually scary.” It seems like a great place. It’s making the world better.
Yeah, yeah. Google, where are they now in this lexicon?
I do think that Google seems to be hiding behind Facebook and letting Facebook take all the bullets.
Sure. Why not?
Why not do that? I think they’re in the same kind of … They have the same kind of issues and the same sort of hostility to regulation and the same kind of ideology. Let’s say Facebook’s ideology is that connecting people is an inherent good. Google’s is like, “Freedom is an inherent good.” I think we’re learning that this, again, is a libertarian kind of argument that all speech is good or that the European idea of the right to be forgotten is not important, where to me, it makes perfect sense. It definitely violates this idea that all speech should be shared and everything needs to be known, but it’s a human value that’s higher. I feel like they don’t really respect that, and that’s again, a libertarian idea that I think we need to fight against. It makes sense in the computer lab, I think, but not in the world.
Yeah, I was just arguing with someone about free speech. I was like, “It’s never been free. Truth in advertising, all kinds of things.”
There’s all kinds of ways it hasn’t been, and there’s been regulations, not just fire in a theater. It’s not just that.
Absolutely. I think that’s the kind of, what I’m saying, the libertarian-ness is leaking out to the world because, yeah, you feel weird having to make that argument with people, that there isn’t absolute free speech, but of course there isn’t. There should be limits on political advertising. There are a million things we can think of. Not even a fire in a movie theater. Some will say that’s just really an alarm, but there should be codes of conduct, and also there are private companies. They can make it civilized so people, women and minorities aren’t scared away. Yeah, it seems like a no-brainer to me.
What about Twitter?
Twitter, again, that’s one where I also don’t want to come off as a luddite. I think about, “Look at how Twitter in the positive way,” like with the #MeToo movement. It’s really amazing how it’s given this support system …
Or after Charlottesville.
Yeah. It’s amazing. I don’t mean to trivialize it, but I think Twitter had the same kind of extreme views where they won’t regulate and won’t kick people off for hate speech. I think the second thing that Twitter embodies is the false incentives. Someone writing a piece in the New Yorker, and the editor sent me this — Newyorker.com — sent me this tweet that talked about that Mark Zuckerberg was on a call, an investor call, to say, “We care so much about this manipulation, I want to tell my investors we’re going to lose money over it,” and someone just wrote on Twitter, “Well, doesn’t that mean that you made money from it in the past?” I think Twitter has these huge incentives that people are saying to have more bots, to have more traffic. That’s what’s scary, when the profit motive is affecting our speech.
Absolutely linked to growth.
Yeah. That’s really scary. That should not be how we have our marketplace idea. That’s another why Twitter is scary, too. They’re all three …
Talk a little bit about the influence that they’re having. One of the things that I’m always struck by is, and we’ll talk more about solutions in the next section, but when they talk about social media, they don’t tend to focus on the media part. They’re always trying to say they’re not media companies.
They are media companies.
Yes, you and I say, “Of course.” They say, “Absolutely not. We’re platforms. We’re benign platforms. We’re just where people are.” To me, as I’ve said a million times over the past year, that abrogates responsibility that they have, and they need to take up as the owners of these platforms. It’s sort of like saying, “I have this bar where everybody gets killed. It’s not my fault. It’s just a bar.” Well, it’s your bar, and you created the bar, and you made the rules and you don’t make sure people don’t come in with guns and … You know what I mean? It’s an interesting thing. Talk about that idea of their lack of interest in being called a media company, as if they just say it enough times, they won’t be one.
Again, what’s scary to me about that is this idea that the free-for-all and the Wild West — again, maybe that was something that the early internet was great about it, that it was this place where you could experiment, anything could go, but turning our country into the Wild West is really scary. There are all these various factors, but think about even with gun control and the way that that’s kind of become this … Half the country or more are looking at this world like, “What is going on? There’s no rules?” They take this extreme attitude about the Second Amendment, too. “It’s my gun. I can do what I want. Leave me alone.”
I feel like it’s seeping out into our country where we’re just losing any sense of the ties that bind us and standards and values. I think this idea of … Who would want a world where what’s published, no one’s thinking about it. There’s no one vetting it. No one … Even they are moving on … I guess they’re going to now try to start vetting it, but the other dangerous thing is the scalability. You talked about growth. The idea of scale is just so scary because it really … because it makes it not human. I talk about AI in the book because this very weak AI is used for these kind of things, to doing very trivial sorting and not the human sort of sorting of what is good …
It’s so big, it’s hard to have human …
I know, but maybe it shouldn’t be so big. That’s another problem we’re paying a price for, the need to grow so much.
All right. We’ll talk about that when we get back. We’re here with Noam Cohen, whose book, “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball,” we’re discussing.
We’re here with Noam Cohen. His new book is called “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball.” Now let’s talk about that wrecking ball. You just suggested it, because the growth-at-all-costs mentality is really quite massive.
Yeah, one of the totems for that was this piece that Marc Andreessen wrote in, I think, 2011, in the Wall Street Journal called “Software Is Eating the World.”
He loves that, yeah.
Yeah, well, to me, that’s a pretty scary document, because here’s a little parenthetical thought that we have to think about all the people who are being displaced by this, and we need more education and more training, and then he goes on from there. I guess the way I think of it is, the wrecking ball part is almost like these are companies that are polluting, all the benefits from Amazon and Google and Facebook we can see, and all the detriments, the pollution from it, we’re all paying collectively, and that’s a real problem. That’s always been a problem with companies that are unregulated. Again, that’s not unique to them. No company wants to be regulated, but we need to find a way to pay for all the social costs.
That’s how it’s explaining that problem. Yeah, that’s the social wrecking ball part. There are these social costs that they are just shifting away, and until I think the Russian meddling in the election, we as a public weren’t really seeing it. The way that you can pollute a river and not care until it affects the drinking water. Then you’re suddenly like, “Wow. I think the bill …”
It’s a really good analogy.
It’s like they’re shoving dirt into the water and saying, “That’s not my dirt. You created the dirt,” or “My users created the dirt.” I’m like, “But you created a platform for this.”
Right. Also, the thing about that pollution idea is that it only triggers. It isn’t immediately obvious it’s a problem. The first few times we pollute are fine.
Let’s talk a little bit about what are the things you’re most worried about, and then let’s talk about some of the solutions.
Yeah. Sure. I guess I do think the monopoly power, to me, is scary. I just think that competition is good, and I do think it’s funny that people haven’t really focused on Peter Thiel in his book. It’s kind of hiding in plain sight, that he talks about every company should want to be a monopoly, that you don’t want to be a competing …
Yeah, he’s looking for them. Yeah. Why would you?
Yeah, why would you? It’s like half the time they’re denying. He says in the book, “Zero To One,” that you have to deny because people don’t like monopolies, but that monopoly power, to me, is very scary because it limits all of our ability to have other choices. Sometimes when I’m on radio shows, people will question me and say, “Well, why would anyone do it differently than Facebook or Twitter if they were rivals?” It’s like, you want different versions. You don’t want the same consolidations. That’s one thing that really worries me.
Everybody loves the monopoly except until they don’t.
Yeah. Then we see the cost of it. The political advertising story was also very scary, and I think about children advertising, too, something I just think about, because I’ve noticed with my daughters when we watch YouTube, and it’s just … We used to have a system that said this was a sphere that was protected. I guess YouTube would say, “How would we know?” Maybe adults watch Peppa Pig, too. I don’t know, but it just seems like, again, we’re abdicating any responsibilities. Those kinds of things frighten me, how …
How do we fix this? What is the solution for a couple of these different things?
Is it just, “Let’s just regulate them,” or “We’re going to have to sue you.” Me, there’s no political energy to do that.
Yeah, I wonder. I was listening to my publishers at New Press, and they had Michelle Alexander, who wrote “The New Jim Crow,” was there with Bryan Stevenson. They were talking about the power of narrative. He was talking about in social justice the power of narrative, how the Civil War was won by the North, but the South won the narrative of it. I was thinking about, the narrative in Silicon Valley needs to change. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do. I always sort of talk about more regulation, and maybe the better way to think of it is, “Why can’t we have a very individualistic view that says people control their data and making that the priority?’
The way I was talking with a friend who’s a doctor, the way your health records are yours, why can’t your data be yours? I’ve seen the people right now focusing much more on data. There was an article up in the Times about how we could tax them, the data, the money made from data, but I think maybe that’d be a better narrative. I would ask you to sort of talk about it in terms of personal … giving individual rights. I want to know what Google knows about me, and I want to decide if they can have it. If I do like the fact that Amazon can recommend things to me, then I’ll be fine with it, but if I …
Right. You have to make the choice. You make a choice.
You can make a choice, and they can opt in.
I think what happens is its so onerous and so complicated, to make a choice is exhausting. They make it so exhausting for you. It is. It’s like checking your credit rating. It’s one thing you just don’t bother with because you get so much convenience on the other side. They make it so convenient for you.
It’s interesting. Google maps was just saying, “Can we take your map history?” Initially, I was like, “Oh, that’ll be easier.” Then I’m like, “No. You can’t have my map history. No, you can’t have this.” Then one time I did it, now it appears all the time. I have to turn it off and clean it off now.
They keep banging you to …
They do. They keep banging at me to do it, and they’ve been asking me a lot. I was really like, “Why do they keep asking when I said no?” Because they were hoping I’ll change my mind, like I’ll give in because the convenience of it is so great.
Right. Yeah, so maybe …
And it is. You do get benefits. It just reminds me, many years ago when Steve Case was giving a presentation. He was running AOL, which was the big company at the time, is that he said, “Oh, we make 75 dollars off of each user,” or something like that. There was some number. I put my hand up and I said, “When do I get my half?” Like, “Where’s mine?” It’s me. You’re making your money off of me. You’re strip-mining me. That’s exactly the right word.
I thought that was an interesting …
Yeah. It’s funny when you ask about conclusions. I’ve seen a couple other books that are critical of Silicon Valley, and they often fall back on, “You have to value your time more. Don’t let them take/suck your time.” Again, that’s also really hard to ask of people. I guess it would still require regulation, but something that would empower people and create a respect around people. Again, I guess it can’t even be a transaction where they can say, “Look how much great stuff you get from us mining your data,” but really saying, “We can’t mine this data. It’s yours.”
Right. Right. We won’t even let you.
You can selectively give it, I guess. I don’t know. That might be a way of doing it, but I also do think, yeah, regulation and some other kind of values that respect our democracy or I think the right to be forgotten. I think Europe does have some real …
Yeah. I just interviewed Margrethe Vestager from there, and she’s amazing. She’s way ahead of it, and they would accuse her of being anti-innovative or Mommy State or something like that, and she’s being reasonable about your data.
Right. I think they have more history with how it’s abused, obviously, in Europe and what the importance of protecting your data … I do, I wonder whether it might be kind of a hopeless quest, but also I do think this cult of efficiency is part of the problem.
I was talking with a friend. The Bible has this idea of gleaners, where you’re supposed to harvest your field once and let people glean off of it. Agnes Varda did a nice movie about this idea, a documentary. There’s something a little obscene about always thinking everything the most efficient way and, again, not think of the social cost or the ties that bind us together. I do think at some point you’d hope that these respected leaders of these very important companies would see that themselves. Maybe that’s also too unrealistic.
They’re billionaires in private planes.
Yeah, they don’t see a lot. That’s true.
They’re on homemade kombucha. Do you think they’re thinking about it first? Then they feel badly. That’s one of the really interesting things is I’ll have so many meetings recently, and it’s like, “We feel badly.” I’m like, “Fuck you.” I really am.
No, I thought that, too.
Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that you …
Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook had this thing where, “I’m really disappointed.” No, she was like, “I’m very disappointed.” That phrasing is also … It’s kind of like your mother or something. I have such better hopes for the world. It’s letting me down.
“You’re running the place, right?” It’s a really interesting dynamic that you do get these sort of delicate flower, papier mache personalities. “I feel badly. I feel badly.”
Distancing themselves, yeah.
Yeah. I was like, “Don’t you run the place?”
Own it. Yeah. Own it.
Which is interesting. I do think it’s part of the juvenile toddler culture they build. They were joking about Donald Trump’s White House being adult daycare, but sometimes I feel like Silicon Valley is adult daycare, too.
I think it’s very apt. I have a friend who works at Google and she was telling me how she … They were explaining the idea of these Google, Facebook buses. Yeah, I was down in Mountain View and she was saying how she went on the bus and was like, “Why is there no coffee? I need coffee in the morning.” She was like, “Oh, I guess I should make it myself and then get on the bus.” Sort of open to the idea that, “Why are they not providing it for me?”
Yes, they’re used to everything. My other joke was that San Francisco, I say it all the time, is assisted living for millennials, essentially. They create these comfort zones and then do not recognize that everyone doesn’t live in them. You know what I mean?
I think in my book I’m trying to say that’s kind of recreating the computer lab and the hacker mentality.
Right. There’s some really good …
Yeah, and then that’s what’s dangerous. All these ideas of …
It’s like Cheetos all night.
Yeah, and it’s like, you don’t want these people running the world. This might be a way to run the computer lab. I don’t know.
What has to happen? Because definitely Microsoft was chastened. I’m not so sure Bill Gates was, but they were. They were pulled back from what they were doing.
Well, didn’t the government call … I mean, the lawsuit …
Yes. The government came in. That’s why. They were chastened. Chastened is a nice way of saying they were brought to trial, but it did create a change in that company, for sure. Is that what has to happen, or is there some adultness that happens? I think of a company like Apple. I find them to be adults when I deal with them, and it’s a different mentality. Is it just a question of growing up or …?
People point out that I don’t deal with Apple, and Steve Jobs is not in this book, and I guess I do think of Apple as a hardware problem, and it has different kind of concepts. It does seem like Apple for almost strategic reasons is acting like the adult, for sure, in all of this. I do think it’s a lot to ask a company, or anybody. Isn’t there some quote that it’s harder for someone to see something that affects their own income? I don’t think Microsoft, even if they were chastened and see why they made the world better by stepping back, it does take the government or someone to …
To do something.
Do you ever feel like a nag?
A scold, yeah.
Scold, yeah. Scold.
I do, and I guess I’m always trying to stress that I do love these services, and yeah, I think it’s easy, especially now where there’s such a … The latest thing to say is to be this kind of a scold, and I guess I wanted to focus, yeah, on the libertarian idea, something I could bring unique to the table, and maybe the history, but I do worry about being perceived as a scold.
Yeah, don’t worry about it.
Don’t worry about.
Is it working for you?
It’s worked for me for decades.
Very good. I like that.
Well, no. I think it’s a question of … Someone was like that, and I’m just like, “No, I’m tired of you tramping over everybody’s things and taking all the money.” You know what I mean? At some point, what you’ve gotten with Trump should not be a surprise, the populace and the people being upset. You’re part and parcel to the entire thing, whether you think so or not.
I think so. Yeah, I do, and …
It’s not the corrupt Democratic party. It’s not that nobody likes Hillary Clinton. It’s that you have weaponized social. You have created an atmosphere of fake news. Listen, you can lump Fox News in there, you can lump a lot of things that have led to the thing, but it’s a continuing diminishment of intelligent conversation and debate among much of the populace.
Do you feel like being called a scold, if you’re being called that, is a kind of gas-lighting or kind of manipulation?
Oh, sure. Sure.
I think that is kind of one of the ways …
“You don’t believe in innovation.” I’m like, “No. That’s not what …”
They’re always acting so pleasant, and like you’re saying, so genial, like we’re just trying to make the world … I begin the book with that idea, of saving the world in this “Twilight Zone” episode where you learn that “to serve man” is actually a cookbook.
It meant people.
Yeah, it’s a cookbook.
Best episode of “Twilight Zone” ever.
I made that joke to them. I’m like, “To serve man.” A couple people get it. The olds get it. They’re like, “Oh …”
At least it’s a sci-fi reference.
You know what I mean?
Yeah, because you’d think it’d be very … I think they aren’t always exuding that. It forces you to be very negative to say, “They want to help you, and I’m actually saying it’s all fake, and who wants to be accusing people of …” Like even when you asked me about, “Is Mark Zuckerberg lying?” I don’t think he’s lying. I think he’s …
No, he isn’t.
He’s very deluded, I would say, if I can say it respectfully, to the man.
Respectfully, you’re deluded, Mark.
Besides government, what do people have to do? Let’s finish up on that. What does a person have to do? Say, “No more,” or not use them or what’s the …?
Yeah, I was just mocking that solution. I do, personally, I don’t have Uber or Lyft on my phone.
Although, they’re more like utilities. You don’t stare and become obsessed with your Uber and Lyft apps.
No, but I just think … Reid Hoffman was on your show. I was listening to that. Even though he’s considered progressive, I make him a real focal point because I think when he wrote a book called “The Startup of You” and he talks about, “No one’s going to save you. Not the government, not your employer,” that’s part of the harsh libertarian world and market view that I’m really talking about. I understand why Uber and Lyft have great potential, but I don’t think that’s a really workable … That’s not the society I want to live in.
Yes. I was literally just talking about this with someone. It’s like, “How can you change the DNA of a whole country which started in that way?””Reid is just reflecting, I think, how our country started. We’re coming here. No one’s going to help us. We’re going to beat the environment. We’re going to beat the Indians. We’re going to beat …
I totally know what you’re saying about America, but there’s always been an up and down. There has been the New Deal. There have been the great society …
It’s very rare.
Very rare, the progressive year. No, I totally get it, and usually it’s only when things get so extreme that we do have a reaction. That’s another reason, if you want to take the long view of history, there should be reactions to this.
There should be evolving of people, absolutely. You’re talking about keep people evolved from something, but the heart of our country was a very brutal start.
No doubt, no doubt.
You know what I mean? On so many levels, and it just continued to be that way.
I don’t think this is brutal, but it’s a different kind of …
Am I being classist or something by part of why this book was … the topic was so interesting, these are all college educated, presumably study humanities. You’re talking about, yeah, when people go, “The Wild West, and they have no education, and they’re out there trying to make it work.” You sort of think, “Why are they proposing such a harsh world? They’ve had the best of America.” It hasn’t been so hard for Reid Hoffman or …
Well, I think probably you’re going to get them giving all their wealth away to libraries. It’ll be like Carnegie. We now say, “Ah, Carnegie. Ah, Rockefeller. Ah, this,” because they gave away all their money, but at the time …
Of course. You don’t wonder, “Why’d they have to do all this bad stuff?”
What a bunch of son of bitches, right? Come on.
Right. You break all these heads in order to achieve and then they give it away later? Why don’t you just cut out the middleman? I don’t really get it.
We’re creating an environment.
You said you’re hopeful. Let’s finish on that. What does that mean?
Well, hopeful because I think that maybe people are waking up because of the events. I think I’m hopeful because I do think there is another narrative, a narrative that could be more humane and humanistic and not quite as cutthroat, and maybe I’m hopeful because, as I’m talking to you, that I do believe there are cycles. You may push back against that, but I do think there’s been an ebb and flow, and we are definitely at the height of a kind of robber baron era. It did lead to the progressive era after that.
Yes, 100 percent, and this sexual harassment stuff is part and parcel to the whole thing.
I do think so. I do think Trump … When I’m being optimistic, I think Trump is inoculation. Maybe it is, because we can’t get rid of Trump for the sexual harassment because he’s our king and we don’t have a system for getting rid of him. We can get rid of everyone else, though. Maybe that’s a reason to be hopeful.
Although, immediately there was a backlash.
I literally have been in so many discussions on him. It’s like, “Now I can’t say anything.” I’m like, “No, you can’t.”
Yeah, I was thinking I was …
It was so funny. Go ahead, sorry.
No, I was going to say why’d I write this book that talks a lot about women and the misogyny that’s inherent in libertarianism. I was raised by my mom, who passed away while I was writing this book, was a judge, and she was the kind of person who would always say to me, “Why do women wear hijabs? Men should have blinders on.” She was always teaching me the other side of that equation. When people give you that pushback, it’s just absurd.
Ah. You can’t say. We can’t say anything. I’m like, “You can’t.” I said, “Do you want me say oh, too bad for you? Because you can’t. Guess what, let’s stop talking about people’s breasts. How about that? How about we start with that and we move on down the list.” It’s funny because that’s immediately the first reaction from a lot of people here, which is interesting to me.
The Pence rule, kind of the …
Yeah. Mike Pence it.
Yeah, my mom would be like, “Why don’t you just have women …”
What about you don’t do it?
Or just have women if men can’t keep it together.
Right. That’s true. Well, I think the only way to do it is to get in power. That’s my whole thing. Anyway, Noam, it was great talking to you. I recommend the book. It is called “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball,” and not in the Miley Cyrus wrecking ball way, which is highly entertaining. Anyway, it was great talking to you. Thank you for coming on the show.
Likewise. Thanks very much.
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