There's something awfully cynical and amoral about our new robber-barons of Cyberspace, the Metaverse magnates and financiers making their millions now in Web 2.0 and its social networking and applications. I constantly find it troubling.
Oh, sure, the robber-barons of the 19th century were cynical and not without sin, but when you think of the Astors and Rockfellers and Chases of the world, you can now look today at streets and buildings and hospitals and banks, at art and culture, and of course, the economy of the United States, battered though it may be, as the result of their lives. There is something of a legacy; there are bricks and mortar that stand. If a Vanderbilt or a Harriman put through a waterway or a railway and cut corners or broke the law on the way to making their fortunes, at least they physically moved people from place to place, and left colleges and institutions in their name with their fortunes behind them.
Somehow, contemplating the waterways of the Metaverse, the moving of your cat pictures and your breakfast contents on Facebook and Twitter just don't seem like they have the same gravitas. And maybe as a result, the millionaires that got rich having you click on their ads or sign up for their offers have worse morals to match. And one wonders what institutions they leave behind, contemplating the institutions they've destroyed -- the businesses of media and news and even government.
Take Mark Zuckerberg -- whose worldview I thoroughly analyzed some years ago when he made a rare and long philosophical speech -- as typical of the "Betterworldism" we associate with all the new cyber millionaires, but coupled with strange authoritarian inclinations and goofy (if not sinister) ideas -- and that's usually the way when people get to wanting to make a "better world" for lots of other people who don't have a say in the matter.
All the new cyber millionaires profess some higher ideals of "helping humankind" -- people like Craig Newmark of Craig's List may have made his fortune selling ads to escorts and keeping people coming back by enabling porn chat for free in the personals, but he gives to charities with various noble ideals of helping veterans (a calculated crowd-pleaser and mainstreamer), helping Silicon Valley companies that lobby Washington to pry open government information (like Sunlight Foundation) and such. Craig may have enabled an environment where prostitutes could get killed, where the states attorneys general moved in because they began to see the free-for-all environment as conducive to crime, and of course, along the way, destroyed the news business by undermining ad sales for them with $0 job and personal ads on Craigslist, but all along the way, he believed he was Connecting People and Doing Good. (Wonder what happened to the site mentioned in the 2009 piece allforgood.com -- it's down.)
That's what's particularly creepy about all these people, I find. Vanderbilt or Rockefeller or Frick may have played fast and loose with the rules, but you didn't see them professing such ambitious world views to control people, make their world Better, and yet undermine other basic principles of society. At least, I think it would be ahistorical to start ascribing such monumental ambitions to them.
But then, none of them could say they had *600 million customers*. There were only a fraction of such numbers -- the total population of Facebook, and growing -- riding rails or buying tobacoo or using heating oil -- and those were all concrete goods, and all helped people live or maintain livelihoods. Again, that indignant rant I posted on a comment to an article on Facebook; that ad I may have clicked on for some political cause; that funny video -- weren't these really all just forms of entertainment and leisure? Calling them forms of education would be stretching it...
Take Reid Hoffman, the venture capitalist now in the news because one of his investments, Groupon, has gone public. He's also co-founded LinkedIn, which now has 100 million users and also recently had an IPO. The Wall Street Journal has a feature on him sitting in the cool room-wrapping seats of his Silicon Valley office, with a view of trees. Hoffman cashed out big on PayPal, and has gone on to invest in 114 tech start-ups, all the big companies like Facebook, Flickr, Groupon of course, and Zynga, which is also going to go public -- all companies that you look at, and wonder what their business model is, or whether it can last -- and yet he has "taken cash off the table," as the venture capitalists say.
Hoffman articulates the classic Betterworldist Silicon Valley worldview, which he got from his fellow venture capitalists and players "in the space" of social media.
"The Internet has become a medium in which we are all participants," he says, almost as if it is a mass religious experience. "And then our mobiles enable all kinds of abilities to communicate, search, collaborate and socialize our experience in the electronic medium" -- as if connectivity is an unmitigated good. The Betterworldists always sanctify all the chatter with the term "collaborate" -- it may take the form of calling from the bus 10 times on a cross-town ride that you're on your way home, and even announcing that your call may drop now that you're in the elevator; you may be chattering endlessly and texting mindlessly for hours about nothing, but it's all good, it's all "collaborating" if not just "socializing."
"We also have a deeper stack of expertise as to what works and what doesn't," says Reid briskly, comparing Web 2.0 potential bubble and Web 1.0's bust. "Stack" is one of those tekkie terms that geeks use to signify a sort of column of subject matter -- there's the social stack, and the civic stack, remember, from Tim O'Reilly? Stacks are data structures, folders, software implementation -- you can think of it as a pile of folders and the point is, it is mastered by these technicians and they talk about it briskly.
The last burst bubble was because "a lot of the businesses had been financed without any real fundamentals behind them." Naturally, we're wondering what the "fundamental" for Groupon is, other than that people imagine if they leverage groups and social networks and they get a discount, they're getting a deal, but as TechCrunch has been reporting critically (and they may have an agenda there), Groupon deals can be destructive to small businesses, and in the end, perhaps the public will find it all too annoying. Group has hemorrhaged a lot of money on the way to its IPO.
Hoffman believes we aren't going to face a bust now (I think he's wrong) because the current crop of entrepreneurs grew up with the Internet -- and here's the BetterWorldism part -- "They are actually building products that they think they need and that the people around them need."
Oh, I *need* to check into my local deli and become "mayor"? I *need* to find where the nearest Dunkin' Donuts is on my app? I *need* another Facebook friend and another round of Citiville?
And here's more:
When we are evaluating new business pitches at Greylock, we look for product people and deeply passionate people. To make a great product, you have to be passionate about it in order for it to become something that will improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
That's why Apple succeeds -- product. Nobody thought everyone would want to share 140-character messages -- but they did. So now you have millions "needing" -- automatically conferring a BetterWorld.
Yet it's not only that the belief that millions are "bettered" and they "need" these things -- these things that are not roads, hospitals, railroads, colleges -- but the sheer massiveness of the systems that these nerdy guys get to control -- and there are so few of them, and they are so unaccountable!
"I am motivated by how you handle massive improvement in large human ecosystems. Most often I am only interested in an idea if it's going to get millions of users."
Oh? Who died and made you king? And do you need these large human ecosystems because only when there are millions, you can generate enough revenue from the ads? After all, we're learning now that we have 30 more times a chance of winning MegaMillions or 40 more times chance of giving birth to twins than clicking on ads. Kind of inexorable, eh?
It would be one thing if the stewards of these millions and millions had some uplifting plans for them, other than just the general belief in making them "better" or "building products that people need."
Except, then Reid gives away the store when he candidly tells you how his various companies build up these millions:
"Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins. Facebook is ego. Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed."
Then -- the apologia and the self-justification for scraping the data of millions -- "benefit":
Some data matter and some don't. People think, "Oh no! This company has data about me!" To that I say: OK, so a website or mobile application knows that you're a man or a woman, and it's giving you ads based on that. That's a benefit, not a bug. But you should also try to provide a direct benefit for every piece of data you collect from the users. Everything you gather, the user knows it's there because they are participating. They are buying into the benefit of it, and you are getting the benefit too. Data will be foundational in the next wave of mass applications that go to hundreds of millions of people.
GeoHot is George Hotz, the man who was the subject of a lawsuit by Sony for hacking into their systems. There's a lot of double-talk and word-salading about this on all the tech sites everyone reads, as if there is some God-given right to be able to "jailbreak" any piece of hardware you buy to make it play what you want -- as if it were merely about playing movies on your Sony PlayStation. The Washington Post fell to a new low in hacker-apologia with this thumb-sucker pondering whether in fact LulzSec is right that Sony itself is to blame for the hack.
In fact, what the boys are talking about is pirating games, and breaking games to copy them, and not using the device as intended, or lawfully.And their retaliation over the lawful punishment of GeoHot are serious crimes, and should be prosecuted as such.
Astoundingly, there is very little ethics in analyzing this case -- or at least, in the tech press which bleeds into the tech sections of all the major dailies. This hacking creep is lawfully prosecuted -- but then that engenders an enormous hack-a-thon against Sony, just as this Japanese company was struggling to cope with the aftermath of the devastating tsunami. I really feel for Sir Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony, whom I happened to meet last autumn at the annual dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists -- yes, he is a fund-raiser for a leading organizating fighting for media freedom. Unlike the hackers, who close down people's ability to express themselves freely...
As the toll mounted for Sony, the typical argumentations that hacker apologists make about the DDOS constituting some "victimless crime," some "temporary inconvenience" for their own fellow guildists, the geeks in corporations, began to wane. Even the Huffington Post blogger had at least to reference "critics" who were wondering what point was proven about security, or what punishment was legitimately meted out in the jungle of cyberspace, by repeated hacks, 10 of them or more? In fact, as the executives explain, it just seems like a pile-on -- every script kiddie out there has to prove himself by hacking Sony, too.
Sir Stringer's accomplishments aside, I wonder why the game companies are surprised at what sort of generation they have raised with their violent war games with their ganking of newbs and endless killing of creatues and humans -- not surprisingly, they don't show any mercy when they attack the creator of the games itself. While Sony spokesmen denied that the retiring of Star Wars Galaxies was due to the losses of the hack, you have to wonder.
The Sony hacks by LulzSec of PlayStation Network are estimated at the enormous sum of $171 million -- an outrageous amount of destruction and loss. Such Bolshevik terrorism goes way beyond punishment for the lawsuit against GeoHot -- even if we categorize that lawsuit as unjust (and I don't), the answer wouldn't be to bring a business to its knees to the tune of $171 million, disrupting its ability to deliver games to the masses! That's just overkill -- and it all reminds me of the capricious and deadly child in "It's a Good Life."
That's why I don't think these acts of industrial sabotage -- and that's what they are, really -- are merely about "testing security" and "making the systems ultimately work better because they were flawed" (a fatuous apologia coming from some of the witless media coverage on these attacks) or about youths testing their testicularity. Say, why would inflicting $171 million in damages "help" a company become "stronger"?!
I don't think these are even individual acts of sabotage by disgruntled customers. I think these movements have been used as cat's paws by much more powerful foes that are trying to destroy the heart of American business and harm its economy further -- and deliberately so. Whether it's Iran, China, Russia or all three or other bad state actors, whether it's competitors to Sony, I think the question is righly asked when you have this level of industrial sabotage and this amount of damage.$171 million dollars! Because you can't get to copy a game instead of paying for it? Huh?
And the people aren't anonymous -- they are eventually traced, some of them, and are arrested. The idea that prosecuting these people is going to bring far worse atrocities -- like the astounding losses of Sony -- makes the entire hacker movement -- and the climate fostered by the Metaverse magnates who excuse them -- even more creepy and scary. The hacker movement is now saying coldly and brutally that it will inflict $171 million in damages -- or worse -- if you mess with them -- they are law until themselves, and it's the BetterWorldists who create the amoral climate for them.
Yes, Zuckerberg thought the right thing to do was to hire GeoHot, a 21-year-old destructive and vengeful geek who unleashed a whirlwind on Sony -- and of course hacked the i-phone as well. Not surprisingly, this IEEE prize-winner and all around nerd scientist is interesting in "hacking your brain" too -- neuroscience, you know, like Philip Rosedale loves to contemplate (anything to have power over the masses, you know?). GeoHot denies any relationship to the Sony hack -- his case was settled out of court with a ruling that he was never to hack Sony products again, but soon after, the assault on Sony servers began and the personal data of 77 million users was compromised. He says:
"Running homebrew and exploring security on your devices is cool; hacking into someone else's server and stealing databases of user info is not cool"
Did he call off the dogs at any point while Sony was being savaged? Well, he again put the onus on the victim:
"You make the hacking community look bad, even if it is aimed at douches like Sony," he added.
You get a feeling of a bunch of lawless and brutal city-states, warring principalities, like the Middle Ages, and plagues, and exploitations, and the sense that one city-state might recruit a warrior to fight another city-state.
This kind of deeply deliberate immorality or cynical amorality is why I question Fred Wilson funding Moot in the comments to his blog piece basically celebrating the Cultural Revolution. And his response was a shrug -- "i'm not saying they are "lovely". there was no statement that they are good or bad. Just that they are."
And yet they "are" because people like Ron Conway and now Fred Wilson fund them.
Moot is responsible for 4chan.org, and 4chan.org is where people gather and plan attacks on companies. Like Sony! He has never repudiated them, even if he can technically claim he has no relationship to Anonymous and all the variations of b-tards hacking other people's sites. To conceive of this as "creativity" and then to fund it -- well, it's beyond.
I watched Moot (Chris Poole) during TechCrunch Disrupt. He was incredibly boring. Flat, and pale and dull as a glass of tepid water. He just yessed up and played to the interviewer, Eric Schonfield -- and I suddenly had an insight about him. The reason he has been successful is because he is a mirror, a still pool of water that anyone and everyone looks into and sees their own lovely reflection -- whatever they wish. He reflects people back to themselves. He gives them what they want -- their own narcissism. He doesn't have to have passion -- he can bend the light coming at him like a mirror and burn whatever he burns. When Schonfield was asking him about the hack-a-thon that TechCrunch put together to get young programmers working all night to produce stuff, there was almost a kind of desperation creeping in -- here's Schonfield, this already-aging boy-wonder journalist and geekster, now bought out by AOL, working for TechCrunch, which was staging something that was sort of a shell of an authentic all-nighter in a start-up garage, in a pier hanger at a $3000 conference, and he seemed almost painfully to be seeking the approval of this young griefer, wanting to know if he and his event were still cool -- nothing but fluff questions the entire interview.
Moot assured him it was cool, although Moot didn't even stay through it -- just like he assured him that the relationship with a prestigious university, as Silicon Alley is trying to establish with NYU a la the relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley, was just as cool. This, from somebody who is supposed to be challenging the establishment...
Yes, the new cyber titans make a lot of money, somehow, from all our clicking and attention-sucking. Yes, they have millions in their thrall. But what institutions are they creating, what benefits are they really leaving behind?