Innovation Invites Hucksters – The New York Times
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I’m angry with start-up founders who promise too much, misbehave, and sometimes crater their businesses and get away with it.
But deep down, I also wonder if unscrupulous, limit-pushing executives are a staple of innovation – rather than an aberration.
If we want technology that changes the world, are hawkers part of the deal? This is a version of a question I struggle with when it comes to tech like Facebook and Uber: Is the best that tech can do inextricably linked with all the horrors?
I thought about it recently because of the amazement of two start-up founders, Adam Neumann and Trevor Milton.
Neumann was the managing director of office rental startup WeWork. He boasted that his company would transform the nature of work (on Earth and Mars), forge new bonds of social cohesion and make tons of money. WeWork didn’t do any of these things.
A new book details the ways WeWork is content to just rent cabins, burn piles of other people’s money, treat employees like garbage, and make Neumann rich as the company nearly collapsed in 2019. WeWork has remained in a less wacky form without Neumann.
And last week, federal officials accused Milton of fooling investors in his electric truck start-up Nikola into believing that the company’s battery-powered and hydrogen-powered vehicle technology was far better than it actually was. Among the allegations, Milton ordered the falsification of a promotional video to make a prototype Nikola truck appear to be fully functional when it was not. (Milton’s legal team said the government was seeking to “criminalize lawful business conduct.”)
It’s easy to shake our heads at these and other people – including Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, soon to be tried for fraud – and wonder what personal failures have caused them to mislead, to do from hype, to crash and burn.
But people like Holmes, Neumann, and Milton aren’t obsessed. These are the extreme results of a start-up system that rewards people with the biggest, most outrageous ideas possible, even if they have to fake a little (or a lot).
I’m constantly furious with this system that seems to force start-ups to target the moon, or whatever. WeWork came up with a fundamentally smart, if not entirely original, idea to eliminate many of the headaches associated with leasing commercial office space. But that wasn’t enough, and I hardly blame Neumann for it.
Disproportionate rewards go to entrepreneurs and businesses who can sell a vision of billions of users and trillion-dollar values. That’s why Airbnb doesn’t just say it lets people rent a home in an app. The company says Airbnb helps “people meet a basic human need to connect.” That’s why delivery companies like Uber and DoorDash aim to deliver any physical product they can to anyone, and companies believe they need to make virtual reality as popular as smartphones. Mere earthly ambitions are not enough.
These conditions cause people to circumvent what is fair and legal. But I also wonder if limiting the excesses would also slow down the ambition we want. Sometimes the zeal of imagining ridiculously grandiose visions of the future brings us Theranos. And sometimes that brings us Google. Are these two sides of the same coin?
Elon Musk shows both the good and the bad of what happens when technologists dream insanely big. Perhaps more than anyone else, Musk made it possible for automakers, governments, and all of us to imagine electric cars replacing conventional cars. This is a change that can transform the planet.
But Musk has also put people’s lives at risk by exaggerating driver assistance technology, repeatedly pledging technology that didn’t work and circumvented both the law and human decency.
I used to half-jokingly ask a former colleague: why can’t Musk just make cars? But perhaps it is impossible to separate the reckless carnival barker who deludes himself and others from bold ideas that really help change the world for the better.
I hate to think that. I want to believe that technologies can be successful without aiming to reprogram all of humanity and without the temptations associated with fraud or abuse. I want the good Musk without the bad. I want the wonderful and empowering elements of social media without the genocide. But I don’t know if we can separate the wonderful from the horrible.
The next target of technological repression in China? Authorities have shown that they can be unhappy with video game companies, my colleague Cao Li reported, and stock prices have plummeted for some of the major Chinese game makers. The Chinese government has recently pushed for tighter regulation of tech companies, including targeting Chinese companies that go public outside the country, those that provide food delivery or tutoring online, and the The country’s ubiquitous WeChat app.
This is one way to get Facebook’s attention: It is nearly impossible for people who lose access to their Facebook accounts to seek help from anyone in the business. Some people have found a workaround, NPR reported: Buy one of Facebook’s $ 299 Oculus VR headsets, call the Oculus customer service team, and ask them to help you restore an account. Facebook. Yeah, it’s crazy, and it doesn’t always work.
The mystery of the missing book by Dan Brown: My coworker Caity Weaver descends into a rabbit hole to find out if a botched barcode explains why online book sellers kept sending the wrong headlines to someone trying to buy a new 1995 dating book from the author of “The Da Vinci Code”.
Kisses to that
A very quickly and acrobatic cat interrupted a baseball game for several minutes, as the crowd cheered and hooted at the pesky humans trying to chase the cat off the field. My colleague Daniel Victor wrote about animal antics in professional baseball on Monday night.
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