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I am angry at the founders of companies that promise too much, misbehave, and sometimes crater their companies and leave unscathed.
But deep down, I also wonder if the unscrupulous executives pushing borders are an inescapable part of innovation, rather than an aberration.
If we want a technology that changes the world, are hucksters part of the deal? This is a version of a question I struggle with on technologies like Facebook and Uber: Is the best thing technology can do inextricably linked to all the horrible?
I’ve been thinking about this recently due to the dazzle of two new business founders, Adam Neumann and Trevor Milton.
Neumann used to be the chief executive of the WeWork office rental start-up. He boasted that his company would transform the nature of work (on Earth and Mars), forge new bonds of social cohesion, and make money. WeWork has done none of these things.
A new book details the ways WeWork used to rent booths, burn themselves through piles of other people’s money, treat employees like rubbish, and make Neumann rich, as the company nearly collapsed. 2019. WeWork has been left in a less extravagant way without Neumann.
And last week, federal authorities accused Milton of misleading investors into its Nikola electric truck startup by believing the company’s battery-powered and hydrogen-powered vehicle technology was far more capable than it really was. Among the allegations is that Milton ordered the doctorate of a promotional video to make a Nikola prototype truck appear to be fully functional when it was not. (Milton’s legal team has said the government was trying to “criminalize lawful business conduct”).
It’s easy to shake your head at these and other people, including Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who will soon be on trial for fraud, and wonder what personal failures have led them to cheat, make a fuss and get burned.
But people like Holmes, Neumann and Milton are not oopsies. They are the extreme results of a start-up system that rewards people who have the biggest and most outrageous ideas possible, even if they have to fight a little (or a lot).
I’m constantly furious at this system that seems to force start-ups to shoot to the moon, either. WeWork had a basically smart, if not entirely original, idea of eliminating many of the headaches of renting commercial offices. But that was not enough, and almost not to blame for this on Neumann.
Disproportionate rewards go to entrepreneurs and businesses that can sell a vision of billions of users and worth billions of dollars. That’s why Airbnb doesn’t just say it allows people to rent a house in an app. The company claims that Airbnb helps “people meet a fundamental human need for connection.” That’s why delivery companies like Uber and DoorDash aim to deliver any physical product possible to anyone, and companies think they need to make virtual reality as popular as smartphones. Earthly ambitions alone are not good enough.
These conditions tempt people to border on what is right and legal. But I also wonder if reducing excesses would also curb the ambition we want. Sometimes the zeal to imagine ridiculously great visions of the future leads us to Theranos. And sometimes Google brings it to us. Are these two sides of the same coin?
Elon Musk shows both the good and the bad of what happens when technologists dream extravagantly big. Perhaps more than anyone else, Musk has made it possible for carmakers, governments, and all of us to imagine electric cars replacing conventional ones. This is a potentially transformative change for the planet.
But Musk has also endangered people’s lives by oversizing driver assistance technology, repeatedly promised unfulfilled technology, and bordered on both law and human decency.
I used to half-joke ask a former classmate: Why can’t Musk make cars? But it may be impossible to separate the reckless carnival embroiderer who is fooling himself and others from the bold ideas that are really helping to change the world for the better.
I hate to think that. I want to believe that technologies can succeed without trying to reprogram all of humanity and without the temptations associated with committing fraud or abuse. I want the good Musk without the bad. I want the wonderful and empowering elements of social media without genocide. But I don’t know if we can separate the wonderful from the terrible.
Before you go …
The next goal of China’s technological repression? Authorities showed they may be unhappy with video game companies, my colleague Cao Li reported, and stock prices fell for some major Chinese game makers. The Chinese government has recently pushed for stricter regulation of technology companies, including those pursuing Chinese companies that go public outside the country, those that offer food delivery or online tutorials, and the country’s ubiquitous WeChat app.
Here’s a way to get Facebook’s attention: It’s almost impossible for people who lose access to their Facebook accounts to get help from anyone in the company. Some people discovered an alternative solution, according to NPR: Buy one of Facebook’s $ 299 Oculus virtual reality headsets, call Oculus ’customer support team, and help them restore a Facebook account. Yes, that’s good, and it doesn’t always work.
The Mystery of Dan Brown’s Missing Book: My colleague Caity Weaver goes down a rabbit hole to find out if a failed barcode explains why online book sellers were sending wrong titles to someone trying to buy a 1995 quote book from the author of “The Code Da Vinci ”.
Hugs to that
A very fast i an acrobatic cat interrupted a baseball game for several minutes, while the crowd cheered him on and yelled at the annoying humans trying to kick the cat out of the field. On Monday night, my teammate Daniel Victor wrote about the pitfalls of professional baseball animals.
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