What was the first thing you looked at when you woke up this morning? Chances are, it was a product from Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Apple. But who makes the rules for the very exclusive Big Tech club running our lives, from how we eat to when we travel to what we buy?
What was the first thing you looked at when you woke up this morning? Chances are, it was a product from Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Apple. But who makes the rules for the very exclusive Big Tech club running our lives, from how we eat to when we travel to what we buy?
This week on Morning Brew’s weekly podcast, Business Casual, we figure it out. Kara Swisher, who co-founded Recode and has been covering tech for as long as there’s been tech to cover, sits down in a wide-ranging conversation on tech ethics, futurism, and more.
As Silicon Valley’s resident kingmaker, Swisher ranks as one of Business Casual’s most outspoken guests yet, and she pulls no punches explaining just how cleverly Big Tech fooled us when they said they’d do no evil.
Check out the answer to this week's trivia here.
Note: Business Casual transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcription. They may contain errors, although we do our best to avoid them. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting a transcript in print. Questions? Errors found in a transcript? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:06] Hey there, and welcome to Business Casual, Morning Brew’s weekly podcast that's definitely not mining your data and selling it to foreign entities or accepting political ads. I'm Kinsey Grant, your host and Brew business editor. Let's get into it.
Kinsey [00:00:19] I want you to take out an AirPod right now and ask whoever is next to you what their favorite business sector is to read about. I bet money they don't say railroads and I bet money they do say tech. Tech has [chuckles] cemented itself as the defining sector of this generation, but, quote unquote, tech is broad and it encompasses far more than just Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon. Plus the kind of technological innovations we most closely associate with the tech space today have been in the works for at least a couple of decades. So, who knows if we’d have Google Chrome without AOL? So today, in the spirit of taking the long view on the tech sector, where it's been, who's leading it, and where they'll take us, I'm sitting down with the reporter widely known as the most feared and respected [indistinct] in the valley.
Kara Swisher [00:01:04] Feared and loved!
Kinsey [00:01:05] Yes, feared and loved. Kara Swisher. Thank you so much, Kara, for coming on Business Casual.
Kara [00:01:09] Thank you. That's that New York Magazine article. It's going to —
Kinsey [00:01:13] Oh, yeah. It’ll haunt you forever, right? [laughs]
Kara [00:01:14] Awful. They don't love me. Just so you know, maybe a few of them do.
Kinsey [00:01:18] Well, I'm sure that maybe this podcast will be the one to turn that around.
Kara [00:01:21] All right, yeah, that’s right.
Kinsey [00:01:22] So you have a really impressive CV and I don't want to touch on everything. You've had a really cool career so far. But, let's just say some of the highlights. You've covered tech as we know it today for as long as it's been around to cover.
Kara [00:01:32] Thirty years.
Kinsey [00:01:33] You started all things digital at The Wall Street Journal. You've written two books. You co-founded Recode, which Fox bought a couple years back, launched Recode Decode. The podcast is kind of the benchmark for good podcasts [chuckles] these days as a new podcast host. But also, I think one of your most interesting accolades is that you were an adviser and you played yourself on Silicon Valley.
Kara [00:01:58] Yeah. Pretty exciting season. I'm in twice. I got that one just aired, which I think was pretty good. I did deserve an Emmy, obviously.
Kinsey [00:02:03] Of course.
Kara [00:02:04] And then the last episode.
Kinsey [00:02:05] Right. The Committee [indistinct]. I mean, he's also our co-founder, Austin Rieff, dressed as you for how —
Kara [00:02:11] I saw that. That’s creepy.
Kinsey [00:02:13] Oh, well. He's a big fan. So today, I think talking tech in the big picture can be complicated. But, you've mentioned, you’ve been in this for decades. You've covered tech for a really long time. And I want to start with some of your earliest days.
Kara [00:02:26] Sure.
Kinsey [00:02:27] What would you say are the biggest differences between your earlier days of covering tech and covering tech today?
Kara [00:02:32] Well, I was a beat reporter. I was covering tech as a beat. I started off—someone sent me a link to—a lot of my stuff is not online from the early Washington Post stuff that I wrote about tech. But I wrote about a bowling alley technology, which was a pretty good piece, actually. And I use the word “hoi polloi,” which I give myself a pat on the back as I was maybe in my 20s. I was always sort of interested in it. I think I had a real interest in how it was going to affect society. A lot of tech reporters at the time, as I recall, were very interested in the actual technology. And so they talked about chips, they talked about this. They never talked about—they talked about the insides of a watch and not what time it was. And I think I saw pretty early compared to a lot of people, the impact societally from a business point of view and how it was going to just have this all-encompassing element in our lives. And so that's how I covered it. More about the impact versus the actual guts of the of the thing.
Kinsey [00:03:29] Why do you think that people, when you started out, weren't recognizing this human impact? I mean, I got a journalism [indistinct] and that’s the first thing they teach you, right? [laughs]
Kara [00:03:37] But the journalists who covered the tech industries were really geeky and very fanbois. Much like ooh—look, you can do things that—no one wants to build a computer. I mean, maybe somebody does, but not for most people. They just want to use a computer; nobody wants to build a car. Some people do, but most want to drive a car. And so I think it was written by people who want to build a car, build a computer. And that's, you know, when you have automated [indistinct] reporting or tech reporting, it was often very laudatory toward the people—they looked up to them. And so I didn't care who these figures—I wrote a lot about the figures, but I was more interested in the bigger picture.
Kara [00:04:12] One of the things I did was I got to meet these people early on in their careers so that when they were in the nascent stages of creating —whether it was Jeff Bezos or the Google guys or any of them, Reed Hastings from Netflix. I was there when they were thinking through their issues, and I was interested in how they were thinking and the obstacles they went through to get to where they were going.
Kara [00:04:33] And I think it's a great place to be. It sort of reminds me, what if you were around when Thomas Edison was doing his stuff or Tesla or the automotive makers, how would you cover them? So I got to know them all really well personally, and wrote profiles of them and covered them. I covered them as people sort of on a journey. And that's the way I looked at it. And then it all just cascaded as the money started to rush in and the success started to rush in to the system.
Kinsey [00:05:01] Right. I would argue that it's more than just lucking out by getting in on all of these stories. At the ground level here, you had to gain a lot of respect from these —.
Kara [00:05:10] Yeah, I think I was very fair. I didn't —I wasn't a fanboi. I think that helped a lot. If you're a very minor student of history and someone who has some brains, you could see where it's all heading. You could start to make predictions. And so I think I really did start to look at these events is like, OK, what's that going to do if this succeeds, what's in their way? And I think they appreciated that. And I asked tough questions. There's a certain element of push-pull between a reporter and their subjects, which, you know, the subjects typically get noticed if you're getting noticed by me. Then you must be something.
Kinsey [00:05:44] Yeah. It brings to mind this whole kind of weird power dynamic that's at play in tech media. That a lot of people in power will say, hey, we'll give you the scoop, but I want to be anonymous. Do you ever feel any sort of moral compromise when it comes to something like that?
Kara [00:06:00] Sometimes, not often, no. Sometimes it's an interesting dynamic that you have, is that you have to maintain access and a friendly enough relationship, not friendly—friendly is not the right word—but a respectful enough relationship as long as they're respectable—with people in order to talk to them and give them a chance to talk about it. At the same time, everything out of their mouth isn't true. And to question what they're doing.
Kinsey [00:06:24] That has to be a lot of pressure to be that mouthpiece for people.
Kara [00:06:26] Well, you're not a mouthpiece. For example, some people I’ve had very testy—like Travis Kalanick from Uber. And I just had a very testy relationship. But I didn't—I thought what he was doing, was after I did some reporting, was questionable. You know, not to take away the idea wasn't a good one, but the method and means that he did it was really problematic for me. And as a person, and one of the things I like to do as a reporter, is I have a point of view. Sometimes reporters pretend like, oh, what's being completely fair? There's no such thing.
Kara [00:06:55] It's laughable to say you don't have an opinion about something or a take on something after doing reporting.
Kinsey [00:07:01] What if you just don't insert that take into your story?
Kara [00:07:04] Ridiculous.
Kinsey [00:07:06] Do you think that’s possible to do?
Kara [00:07:07] You can try and reporters spend a lot of time not saying the truth, which is really kind of [indistinct]. You go back and say, oh, that sucked. And nobody would write that. Right? Nobody would write it. And so they said you need the sentence that has an analyst saying this or saying your point of view.
Kara [00:07:23] And I'm like, but I have a point. I know what—from my reporting—I know what's happening here. And so you never could do it. It was a big fight. And I just called it “to be sure statement.” Like you'd say, Webvan is a ridiculous Bondi's game waiting to go down; to be sure, some people think … I hate the to-be-sures and you don't need it. When I went either to Yahoo! or whatever company like Yahoo!—this is a disaster, and here's why.
Kara [00:07:51] And I'm gonna give you the straight talk based on my experience and what I think. People can push back on it, people can disagree, but we've tended to be pretty accurate in how things turn out.
Kinsey [00:08:02] Right. And I think so much of journalism today is couching what you write with some sort of to-be-sure.
Kara [00:08:08] No, not anymore.
Kinsey [00:08:09] You think so?
Kara [00:08:10] I think I think all things [indistinct] and other sites, a lot of suck,com, all kind of things, Pioneer, even Spy magazine was like: Just a second here. Donald Trump isn't a rich guy; he’s a short-fingered vulgarian, you know what I mean? And just like —
Kinsey [00:08:21] But what about outside tech? We talk about politics or —
Kara [00:08:26] Well, when people are telling the truth —.
Kinsey [00:08:27] So what do you say to the whole fake news movement?
Kara [00:08:30] But which one?
Kinsey [00:08:31] All of the above. [laughs]
Kara [00:08:33] News that is fake, and then there's a difference being the stupid fake news thing and actual news that is fake—and that's dangerous. This is misinformation. This is disinformation, is stuff being planted by malevolent forces either to influence companies or influence countries or policy. That's very different from not agreeing with a take that a newspaper has. You can do that. OK. I think they're mean to me. OK. Write your own piece or set your own thing. But it's very different—the fake news thing is just bullshit. It's just so much bullshit.
Kinsey [00:09:04] Speaking of bullshit, if you had to think of maybe one question that you use to figure out if someone is bullshitting you. Is there any sort of game plan that you have? Or is it just a read?
Kara [00:09:16] I try to know a lot more than they do and try to test them on certain reactions of things I actually know a lot about. And if they give me an answer I think is just not true, I say things out loud. I was at a recent New York Times conference and Andrew [indistinct] was doing great interview with [indistinct], and he asked me to get up and ask a question. And so I go, I can do math. And your business is not economically feasible at this point. Can you try to disabuse me of this mathematical calculation I'm making here? And everyone was like Kara, I can’t believe you asked that. And I'm like, what?
Kara [00:09:51] The numbers don't—it's math. Like the same thing we did around WeWork. Me and Scott Galloway on our [indistinct] shows like this—not economically feasible, and everyone said, how can you say that? We’re like—we can do math!
Kinsey [00:10:06] Yeah. Anybody could figure it out. [laughs]
Kara [00:10:07] Math is the eternal language. It doesn't lie. One plus one is two. That's it. That's the whole thing. And everyone was like, that was tough! And I'm like, really??
Kinsey [00:10:14] Do you think that has to do with the sort of perceived power dynamic that a CEO —
Kara [00:10:18] No, nobody has power. You can ask—anyone can ask. The smallest person can ask a question. I'm a Yertle the Turtle aficionado. [Kinsey laughs]
Kinsey [00:10:27] OK. What is your favorite interview you've done with one of these big tech CEOs?
Kara [00:10:33] The last one. I just did one with Jeanette Winterson, who's a great author. She's very famous author. She did “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and her new book is called “Frankissstein.” And it's about AI and ethics and rethinking monsters and what is in tech and gender fluidity and transhumanism and robotics. It's really great. I had actually a fascinating interview with Travis Kalanick. I don't like what he did at Uber, but boy, did he tell the truth. At one point I asked him, “What's the problem with your business model?” And he goes, well, the guy in the front seat. If they got rid of him, I’d have a great business. Which was like, what? He just told the truth, which was amazing. I was like, thank you, you jackass.
Kara [00:11:12] You told the truth. [indistinct] No, but he did. But he couldn't help himself. He's like, you know what? If I could just have an autonomous car, my—and he's right. Without the person in the front seat, his business looks pretty good. The ones with Mark Zuckerberg are pretty—are the ones that get a lot of attention because he, for some reason, every time he talks to me, he puts his foot in his mouth in a way that's really unfortunate for him. I think I'm quite—if you listen to them, I don't think you’d find me very aggressive with him. I just point out some holes in his arguments. And I think he's—I let him talk. And that's my whole point: listen to what this person who's at the head of the most important company right now in media and communications and tech is saying—listen to him. I want you to hear what his point of view is on killings in Myanmar.
Kara [00:11:58] And what you come away with was many of these interviews with him—he doesn't have a clue. That's my point—he has not thought these things out very well. And that's what I want to get through. And not to say that Mark isn’t earnest and trying really hard, but I like my Elon Musk interviews because he's so strange and interesting.
Kinsey [00:12:16] And that's what I want to touch on in just a second here—whether or not these tech CEOs and leaders are the people we think they are about reading about them. But first, let's take a quick break to hear from our sponsor. — And now back to the conversation on tech with Kara Swisher. So you just mentioned this Elon Musk interview.
Kara [00:12:35] I did lots of interviews —
Kinsey [00:12:36] Is he the person who we've been kind of led to believe he is? Those of us who have not —.
Kara [00:12:42] What do you believe about him?
Kinsey [00:12:43] That he's this sort of eccentric character who has these outlandish ideas about what the future looks like and doesn't care about profit.
Kara [00:12:51] I don't know about that. You know, I think he's a really—he's so complex. He's so, [indistinct] contains multitudes, as Walt Whitman said. He's really—he's so inventive, so it's always a pleasure talking to him. At the same time, some of the stuff is appalling. Some of it's fascinating. Sometimes he's disagreeable. I do like talking to him because I do—sometimes trying to sell you. It's a real challenge, shocking him, because he's super-smart. And you can't deny how creative a lot of it is. He's not just doing dating apps. He's doing really hard things, whether it's the car or the space or the Hyperloop. Whatever you think of it, it's fascinating. Like the ideas are always interesting. So I like—I think he sort of is like Tesla. He's going to go down in history like Tesla, which was a genius that didn't end well.
Kinsey [00:13:41] So all three of these examples bring up this sort of dichotomy that we face when it comes to how we perceive leaders of tech companies or really any company that, you know, we had this conversation before this interview in the office about our CEOs, either one of two things. They're either people who are dedicated to making the world around them better or they're people who are dedicated to making a profit.
Kara [00:14:02] No, no. I think it's a mix of people. I think —
Kinsey [00:13:44] Right, I agree. I agree with this exactly. But, you know, a lot of people [laughs] view someone like Elon Musk as this altruistic—if, you know, maybe he's got a couple ideas wrong, but he has to like money. [laughs] They should not be mutually exclusive—doing good and making a profit.
Kara [00:14:22] Well, I think that doing good things will show they're just business people. [indistinct] We're here to change the world. You know what? They're just here to suck our data out and sell it back to us. I’m sorry. That's what Facebook does. That's what Google does. They're not here to—what did they make better in the world? Are they like the Peace Corps? I don't think so. They're a business. They're a business.
Kinsey [00:14:43] So when you hear someone like Mark Zuckerberg saying that he's bringing people together and—and in an interview with you that he's met people who will say this baby is because Facebook. Can we believe that?
Kara [00:14:53] Maybe. That maybe that was what happened. I don't know. But that's not what they're in business for. They’re business to make money from advertising. You can pretty much take down every single business and describe it. This is what—Facebook takes—is a rapacious data thief that uses your data and sells it back to you. And you're a cheap date because you give up so much information for very little you get in return. You like Google, you get a map. That's great. Looks great. It's helpful. It's great. It's wonderful. But boy, do they make out compared to you. Like you get good things. You get the maps. You get to find out who died, who didn't die. You can look up—I don't know—the French American War of 18-whatever. Great. You could do that before, by the way, it's just faster.
Kara [00:15:36] And they get all your information and ping you all the time and sell you advertising. It’s an advertising business. That's what it is. Tesla’s a car business. SpaceX is a rocket business. That's what they are.
Kinsey [00:15:49] So in the first episode of this podcast, we had Scott on to talk about breaking up big tech. And I don't want to harp too much on the breaking up part of it. But when it comes to some of the things you just said, like a rapacious data thief [Kara laughs], is that any harm to the consumer?
Kara [00:16:05] Yes, because it’s not transparent.
Kinsey [00:16:08] But will anybody step in?
Kara [00:16:09] Yes, of course. The [indistinct] they've overstepped. It's already in the works.
Kinsey [00:16:14] But I feel like nothing has really changed [indistinct]
Kara [00:16:15] It took five or six years. So what? Too much for millennials—you can't wait for things to happen? [Kinsey laughs].
Kinsey [00:16:20] Maybe I'm a millennial. I don't know.
Kara [00:16:22] I don't know what you—I don't know which one you are. I happen to be an OK boomer. [Kinsey laughs] But things take time—it took years for Microsoft to be brought to trial. And by the way, not all of it worked out—they didn't get stopped that much. But it takes a long time to build. Microsoft was never more powerful than right before they got dinged by the government. And so the government's doing investigations. The problem is these investigations take time. I was talking to some people from the Justice Department. They're like, boy, the problem we have is by the time we get to them, the buck will have moved so far away. And that's the difficulty with this.
Kara [00:16:55] But I think most—on every radar screen and every regulator around the world, the size of big tech is a problem, especially in relation to what could happen, say, versus the Chinese with their whole entire surveillance state. That is the surveillance state, essentially. And so I think regulators worldwide are very aware of this and they'll move in some places. You know, Europe has taken some very big stands on this and passed some very stringent laws. California's privacy law is about to come online. The problem with the U.S. passing a national privacy bill is because we can't function on anything else. It's not the first on the list. Healthcare is kind of an issue. How to deal with this idiotic border wall—people can't agree on lunch in Washington, so they're not going to get to this kind of thing and that's to the benefit of tech.
Kara [00:17:37] But there are certainly states attorney generals working on it—that's where you're going to see a lot of action. It just is going to take time. It's going to—but I'll tell you, that concept that they're not all good is certainly now pretty much out there. You hear the presidential candidates talking about it and stuff like that.
Kinsey [00:17:54] So do you think that this sort of, I don't know, impatience with how fast things are or are not moving is a byproduct of —
Kara [00:08:03] Yes.
Kinsey [00: 08:04] All these millennials?
Kara [00:18:06] No, it's not millennials. It's everybody. It's not just young people. It's this idea of twitchy solutions—that these are complex issues that people have to weigh in. And what's happened is—I did an interesting interview with Margrethe Vestager, who I think is terrific. She's from Europe. She's a big regular. She's been the one really out front of a lot of this stuff. And she said, we've traded the good for convenience. Convenience is great. So that's what we've done. We've made the trade. And again, it's a bad trade. And so at some point when it hurts us—although, look, guns, obviously—most people America thinks guns should be regulated. You look at every poll, everything. Are we passing good gun control legislation? No, we're not. Why? Because of the—there's lobbying, there's slowness. Eventually—there's an expression sooner or later, a fox runs through all its tricks and gets caught.
Kara [00:18:51] And I think that's—eventually, we will pass good gun legislation. For years we had child labor, people worked young children, and then we didn't. And then we passed laws. For years we had pollution, really bad pollution issues with chemical companies and then we didn't. Now they're back again. But I think it's the same thing. Gay rights. When I was younger, you couldn't be gay. You couldn't have children. The social pressure was enormous. There were laws against it. There were serious laws against it. And now I have children. I've been married. I'm getting married again. [laughs]
Kara [00:19:25] It's just things take time to change. And I think with tech, I think what's happened is everyone's realized the enormous power and impact these companies have on our lives, whether it's addiction, whether it's what AI is going to do, whether it's robotics, whether it's job impact. And people are beginning to understand it's systemic and not just individual. These are all systemic—the size of these companies and these private companies making decisions about our lives of which we have no agency in. And that will change things. [indistinct]
Kinsey [00:19:58] [laughs] I love to hear it. You have an interesting perspective in a lot of different things. But when—I know it's impossible—but if you could snap your fingers and suddenly we start actually making legislative moves when it comes to regulating big tech. Does this regulation in the United States look like the first steps that Europe has taken or different to you?
Kara [00:20:17] No, they're a little more stringent. We've got the First Amendment here, which is another—it's a good thing—to deal with. I think a national privacy bill would be one that has clear about transparency, opting in versus opt opting out. Right now, we opt out of most things. A national privacy bill would go a long way. A really serious national privacy bill would go a long way. I think things where we're really doing election security would be another thing I would focus in on and how we vote, and voter registration would be something that's critically important. I think probably I would—I think these companies are too big and they're quashing innovation. So I would break up their companies. I think the reason why it took them so long to do stuff to protect children is because they didn't have to. Look, I think there needs to be—more competition always leads to better outcomes in general.
Kinsey [00:21:08] So let's talk about innovation for a second. Like I mentioned, when Scott was here, he made a comment that we worship at the altar of innovation. I've heard him make it before. But also, he says that the people who are making these decisions about innovation lack an ethical backbone. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
Kara [00:21:25] I've written a couple columns about it. I talked about having a chief ethics officer, and I don't think they're going to have one. I just wanted to bring it up—shoot first and ask questions later is pretty much the whole ethos for tech. And so they don't do consequences. They don't think about implications. They don't think about the result. And I always tell the same joke all the time, which is that they should think of their inventions as an episode of “Black Mirror” and then maybe don't make it or make it different or put things in place that would cause things. People who thought of Facebook Live should have thought real hard about it—about a murderer killing people. Mass murder. They should have. They should have sat there, made a list of all the ways it could be abused. They probably did, but they didn't do anything.
Kinsey [00:22:10] Do you think an ethical—a chief ethical officer would solve that problem?
Kara [00:22:13] No, because they won't have any power. They just wander around, ignore them. I mean, if you watch “Billions”; there's a guy who's the compliance officer and they all make fun of him because he keeps making espressos and no one pays attention. [laughs]
Kinsey [00:22:22] Yeah. People make back-office jokes all the time. So I imagine the same thing would happen in tech.
Kara [00:22:29] Well, unless the CEO empowered that. The CEO should be the chief ethics officer. But you know who gives up power easily? I just read about dual stock the other day. I was trying to give people a lesson in why they don't have to listen to us because they own—they've gamed the system. There's no accountability. And so if there's no accountability, they can do anything they want. I just would like to see some reforms around dual stock that—there's a point where they give up total control of a company. If you can't be fired, we all know how that ends.
Kara [00:22:53] And in countries across the world, when there's a president for life, we know how that ends—badly for the people. Eventually the guy ends up in a ditch, but still—takes too long to get him in the ditch. [Kinsey laughs]
Kinsey [00:23:04] I want to talk more in just a second about this hypothetical guy who ends up in the ditch. But first, let's take a quick break to hear from our sponsor. — And now back to the conversation on tech with Kara Swisher.
Kinsey [00:23:18] So I would maybe argue that a big reason why we cast these CEOs and leaders at tech companies and such, you know, typecast sort of characters, is that we're asking them to make really big decisions that affect everybody. We can tweak an algorithm and suddenly half of media is out of a job. There are other broader issues too. And one that we've kind of touched on here is this aspect of political ads. We've seen Google and Twitter kind of take steps toward [indistinct]. Twitter, I think was maybe more of a good optics thing that was —
Kara [00:23:53] It's symbolic. It’s like we can't deal with this. This is a mess. We're not going to—we're doing more harm than good. We're gonna get out of it.
Kinsey [00:23:59] But it's not as meaningful to their bottom line as it is to Facebook, though.
Kara [00:24:02] It was meaningful. There was more—yes, of course, not to the bottom line. But it's meaningful from—it got people talking. It did get people talking. Now the pressure’s on Facebook. So, yeah, it did work.
Kinsey [00:24:13] And there's my question—is that, we're talking about it. But how come we haven't seen Facebook kind of crumble under this pressure of social pressure?
Kara [00:24:22] You think that’s how things happen? People crumble, like, now I see the error of my ways. [laughs]
Kinsey [00:24:25] I mean, I don't know, maybe.
Kara [00:24:26] No. It doesn't work that way. [chuckles] I think Google did move because they thought—these are things they've talked about within it. But there's no pressure to do anything. And there's social pressure. There's economic pressure. There's always the pressure. Well, now, look, there's no economic pressure. Google and Facebook couldn't be more successful as businesses right now. And so the question is, how do you get them to do it? I employ constant shame. Like, how could you—how could you—look at what they're doing and pointing it out and repeating and repeating it. And so I think you can put pressure on employees to really think hard and push upwards at their leaders, which has been happening at tech companies more and more.
Kara [00:25:03] You can put pressure from a people boycotting things, which eventually— Facebook’s trust numbers are way down. It doesn't impact them today, but it certainly impacts the—young people don't want to use Facebook. They use Instagram, which is interesting, but they certainly start to get the message. And so I think that the problem with—I think Google did change because they were like, we've been talking about this already. We're going into an election. This is bad optics. This is terrible. We can have a discernible impact by making a tiny change. And it doesn't affect our bottom line that much. It's the right thing to do. Let's do it. I think that's what worked at Google. Like this is just too much of a friggin’ headache for the money we make on it.
Kara [00:25:43] And we're actually hurting people or like making a cigarette with too much tar. And so I think one of the issues around Facebook is, one, Mark Zuckerberg is super-stubborn. He's got this idea in his head, which is intellectually specious, that he is protecting free speech. This has nothing to do with free speech; it’s about paid speech. And he's trying to conflate free speech with paid speech, which is really kind of intellectually weak. And then he's trying to say, we want politicians, you know, politicians lie. The public figures it out; he’s conflating—say it's in a newspaper or a radio program or a podcast.
Kara [00:26:16] You can quickly fact check those things. You can't fact check the internet; it’s too big. It's too viral. It's too weaponized. And so you can give a million different ads to a million different people. That's very different than one ad that everybody sees in a, say, the Kansas or whatever it is. And so he's holding out. And the why can you hold out? Because he has dual stock and he controls everything. And so we're waiting for him to change his mind. No one else can change it for him.
Kara [00:26:42] Maybe his wife goes, you know, when I'm sick of being enemy number one's wife or I'm tired of this, or maybe some of his boys leave or maybe the employees object—they have—they sent him letters about it. Or maybe there's one mass murder too many. I don't know. I don't know what's going to make him change, but he doesn't—the issue is he doesn't have to because of the way the stock works. And so that's what we're essentially waiting for.
Kinsey [00:27:05] And he's kind of done this whole “I don't want to be the arbiter of what's true and what's not” for so long.
Kara [00:27:11] No one asked him to do that. I wish Mark had finished college. I would say [laughs] I think he just isn't thinking hard enough. And I get his basics. But he's feeding into what was a really cynical culture around speech right now with the right wing saying, oh, we can't speak. Are you kidding? They can speak all the time. What they're doing is they can't propagandize. And there's a very different thing—there's a very difference between propaganda and speech. What would Hitler do with this? These techno—wow—he'd win this time. You know what I mean?
Kinsey [00:27:42] You think that?
Kara [00:27:43] Oh, yeah, 100%. I think that these tools are tailor-made for abuse. And it doesn't mean—it's just like a nuclear—nuclear war can be used for a weapon or can be used for energy. But, it can be used as a tool and when people get a hold of it and these tools are very potent and they're controlled by single people. And so that's the problem. It's not we don't get to vote on this. We don't get—if you don't agree with Mark Zuckerberg, you can leave Facebook.
Kinsey [00:28:12] It’s like Zuckerberg having all those shares is like the nuclear codes for Facebook.
Kara [00:28:15] Yeah, he has to say it's bringing people together. Oh, cats meet together or whatever. Someone met there and married online. So what? Like someone met and married in my local church. Who cares?
Kinsey [00:28:27] OK. Now I want to move on to another kind of thorny, thorny topic here. The aspect of Saudi money in tech. It's not just the $100 billion in the fund. [Kara coughs] It's a lot of other things too.
Kara [00:28:40] They're everywhere.
Kinsey [00:28:41] What are your thoughts? I mean, I know you've written [laughs] are you so poor that all you have is money? Explain to me more what you mean by that.
Kara [00:28:50] So I used an old phrase—oh, you're so poor. All you have is money—is that they're accepting money from what is clearly a government. I don't even want to call it government—I don’t know what it is—that it murdered a journalist. First of all, it is provably murdered a journalist. The only person doesn't think that is Donald Trump. Everybody else knows what happened with Mohammed bin Salman. He directed a murder of a journalist because he could. And not just that. You know, Saudi Arabia's been behind so many, look, they're putting—they run a state that is just so abusive to women and people who talk against them. And Silicon Valley laps up their money like it's OK.
Kara [00:29:32] And here's the problem. Look, if they had said, you know, we're taking dirty money, it's fine. I'm good with that. I just find it problematic if these are people who talk about—who talk and talk and talk about how they're bettering the world and then take money from autocrats. I just sort of am like, hmm.
Kinsey [00:29:49] What about when [indistinct], he called it a mistake.
Kara [00:29:51] That was a mistake by [indistinct]. I think he's in a bad situation and he handled it badly. I don't know what else to say. I don't think that is his—I hate to let him off the hook, but I'm going to in this case. It was stupid. It was really stupid what he said. But it does reflect a mindset in Silicon Valley to gloss over very serious issues. Are you OK with that?
Kara [00:30:11] It's just like the same thing with are you OK with addiction—that you were making devices that are not quite properly—are you OK? Like, just say it. Say you're OK. Yeah, I'm OK with young girls never feeling worse about themselves. Are you OK that you're contributing to possibilities that democracies are much more frat? Are you OK? Because if you are, I want you to say it and then stop telling me how good you are. I want you to take ownership of both the pluses and minuses, and they spent a lot of time getting credit for the pluses and they don't want to take any responsibility for the minuses. That's what they tend to do. And I just wanted to do that. It's like raising children. It's like sometimes they're good. Sometimes they're bad. I want them to take responsibility for the upside and the downside.
Kinsey [00:30:54] OK. And last kind of complicated one in this. I feel like this is a highlight reel [laughs] of some of your recent columns in the Times, but the one Trump is too dangerous for Twitter. Do you get asked about this a lot?
Kara [00:31:07] Oh, that one. Yeah. Well, I think he is, I think. But they're not taking him off. So what's the difference? This isn't—he's going to stay there. They're not going to do anything about it.
Kinsey [00:31:15] OK. So this concept of eventually and you know, we just have to wait for sort of the straw that breaks tech’s backs until we see any sort of meaningful change. I want to take a second to think about moving ahead and the future of tech. You've been entrenched in this space for a while. You were covering tech I believe in—when we had the turn of the century and then the 2010s. Now we're heading into a new decade. [laughs]
Kara [00:31:38] Y2K.
Kinsey [00:31:38] So we're now going into a new decade. And what are you kind of expecting?
Kara [00:31:44] I'm worried. I have children. I worry about a lot of things. I'm worried about democracy. I'm worried about the environment. I think there are tech solutions that I'm worried about—addiction, tech addiction. I'm worried about [indistinct] the civic society. And I think that it contributes a great deal. So that's different from the possibilities of tech. I think we—cars and planes have been great overall for bringing—bad and great—you have an ability to take to get those two things in your head at once. And I do think that there are innovations in healthcare and climate change and food could be fantastic for this world. It could be amazing if we apply some of this intelligence to that. I think I'm super-excited about self-driving cars.
Kara [00:32:29] I'm super-excited about removing a lot of cars from people's hands and putting them in the hands of things that do a better. I'm very excited that people don't have to have jobs that are rote, and that we can think of more creative ways to have people. I'm very excited—how can we solve this healthcare—how can we be healthier people using technology in a way that's great? How do we monitor people? I think the stuff around currency difference—how do we make currencies more stable? It's really all—just like I said, it can be a very great thing, like it's there's an old Mae West quote, did you know with—I think it's Mae West , it might be someone else, but—You never know with fire, it's either going to warm you or burn your house down.
Kara [00:33:11] So I want to know where the warming part is. If we can only listen to each other, we could see our commonality and we’d be better people. But we could have empathy for each other. We could have community. What it's done is it's separated us, it's brought us apart. And it doesn't have to; it has it has an ability to do that still. And so that's my hope, is that more people that have more responsibility and more thinking of consequences will rise to the fore of technology. I think a lot of young entrepreneurs are like this, by the way. They're coming like, what can we do to help people and things like that? And I think that's where I want to focus on next, is where are the solutions to the world's major problems, instead of just wreaking havoc based on making money. And maybe I'm being optimistic, but I do think a lot of people do care.
Kinsey [00:33:57] OK. Well, I mean, it's—I don't know—I don’t want to say comforting—but almost comforting that there are people who have your attention who maybe are set out to do better things. [laughs]
Kara [00:34:05] I did a great interview with Brian Chesky from Airbnb recently, and he's got a lot of issues. But boy, is he thinking about his impact.
Kinsey [00:34:12] OK, so that's kind of the fire that warms you. [Kara laughs] What about the fire that burns your house down? I mean, the defining issues of the last couple of years, have sort of been data issues, paid speech, dirty money, privacy [indistinct]
Kara [00:34:28] That we will become—I'm very nervous around facial recognition. I just did a series of two or three podcasts around facial recognition and policing.
Kara [00:34:34] So I'm super nervous about that. I can think of 10 awful things around facial recognition. I can think of one or two good things. But most of them are bad, like most of them are a police state. And so, I don't know, you can see it happening in China. You can see—and the apathy of people, like, so what? I got nothing to hide. That's not the point. It’s that people shouldn't be tracked like they're animals. And then, the answer from tech is, let's all go to Mars. That's their answer, isn't it? Well, guess what? You're not going to Mars. I'm not going to Mars. The billionaires are going to Mars. We're not going with them.
Kinsey [00:35:11] Do you think that if your kids were billionaires, they would go to Mars? Will that happen in their lifetime?
Kara [00:35:15] I don't know. I hope not. I hope that they sit here and fix this world. It's a great world. I hope they do that.
Kinsey [00:35:22] OK. So we've covered a lot of heavy stuff [laughs] in the last couple of minutes.
Kara [00:35:27] [shouts] I love my new AirPod [laughter]. It’s so good. [indistinct chatter]
Kinsey [00:35:31] I haven't gotten the Pro.
Kara [00:35:34] Oh-oh. Change your life.
Kinsey [00:35:35] Really?
Kara [00:35:36] I love tech. See? That's exactly right. There we go.
Kinsey [00:35:39] OK. So at the end of Morning Brew’s newsletter, we like to play some games with our readers. So I am pulling out our wheel here. Hit the middle button and we'll see what you get.
Kara [00:35:50] Oh, my God. What’s this. Would I rather die by fire or ice? [Kinsey laughs] Neither.
Kinsey [00:35:56] All right. It is —
Kara [00:35:57] Rapid fire.
Kinsey [00:35:58] All right.
Kara [00:35:58] Oh, my God, you really do have an app.
Kinsey [00:36:01] Oh, yeah. There's an app for everything, right? You should know. [laughs] OK. Rapid fire. Is it better to be feared or to be loved?
Kara [00:36:08] Loved.
Kinsey [00:36:09] OK. Why do you say that?
Kara [00:36:10] Because it’s better.
Kinsey [00:36:11] OK. And [indistinct] I don't know if I've been feared yet. Give me a year. [indistinct]
Kara [00:36:19] It's better.
Kinsey [00:36:20] All right. And if you had to pick one tech CEO to go get a drink with after work. Who would you pick?
Kara [00:36:27] Marc Benioff.
Kinsey [00:36:29] Is he as good as we hear he is?
Kara [00:36:30] He's funny. He’s a lot of fun. You always have an interesting conversation with him.
Kinsey [00:36:36] OK. What podcast do you listen to other than your own? And do you listen to your own?
Kara [00:36:39] Yes, of course. Pivot. [indistinct]
Kinsey [00:36:41] [indistinct]
Kara [00:36:43] I listen to a lot. I actually listen to a lot of books. I don't listen to as many podcasts as I do—I listen to [indistinct] and I watch TV. I watch it individually and episodically. The Dolly Parton one. I love Dolly Parton so much. So, so much. I'm so glad she's getting her moment. I've been loving her forever. [indistinct] She's a genius. I listen to a lot of books on tape. I'm listening to a book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge right now.
Kinsey [00:37:14] Interesting.
Kara [00:37:15] By David McCullough. It's great. I love books like—I listen to all those building—the Brooklyn Bridge was an amazing technological feat at the time. John Roebling in Washington. Roebling amazing feat of engineering.
Kinsey [00:37:27] All right. Another spin around the wheel.
Kara [00:37:29] Oh my goodness.
Kinsey [00:37:31] Oh, yeah. Put you through the ringer.
Kara [00:37:34] Truth or truth? Oh God.
Kinsey [00:37:35] All right. What's your wildest story from an interview?
Kara [00:37:38] [laughs] What's my wild—what do you mean, wildest?
Kinsey [00:37:40] Anything crazy that's happened in one of these big interviews you've done, something you didn't see coming.
Kara [00:37:45] [indistinct] I think that was a really amazing thing. I think—it was Steve Jobs, right near the end of his life. We did last big interview he did before he died. And he was very thin and he had been sick, and then he was well and had gained weight, and it was great. We interviewed him eight times or nine times over the years at our events. And he was very thin at this point, like skeletal. And he was sitting there and—I have to tell you, he was so full of life, even as he was dying—it was so clear he was dying. And there was nobody who could not see that. And everyone's was sort of being sensitive around it. And I don't know why I did this, but I said, what are you gonna do with the rest of your life?
Kara [00:38:27] And I was like, I can't believe I just asked that, but I wanted to know—like he had days to live, not days, but it was like a number. Everyone has a number. His was very short. And I can't believe I asked—there was a sharp intake of breath. Did you just ask that? And he gave him amazing answer about how to fix TV and this and that. And it just was so full of life. And I really—it was just a great—one of my best questions I ever asked.
Kinsey [00:38:53] OK. All right. One final spin here. Go right ahead.
Kara [00:39:02] Role reversal. I have to get myself an app. [Kinsey laughs]
Kinsey [00:39:05] It's fun, right? [laughs] OK. So you mentioned and I've read before, as I'm sure many people have, that your alternate career choice was a spy. If you had to pick something other than what you're doing or being a spy, what would you choose to do with your life?
Kara [00:39:19] How do you know I'm not a spy right now?
Kinsey [00:39:22] That's a good question.
Kara [00:39:23] It might be the longest con in history. How do you know I'm not? This whole time spying on tech.
Kinsey [00:39:28] Business Casual breaking [indistinct] stories.
Kara [00:39:30] You know what? I know it sounds crazy. [laughs] My kids and I were talking it about the other day. There's a place called the Hot Dog on a Stick. And it's in Santa Monica Pier. You ever been there?
Kinsey [00:39:40] I have not.
Kara [00:39:41] And it's great. It's just this weird little booth. And they sell hot dogs on sticks.
Kinsey [00:39:45] Is that a corn dog or —
Kara [00:39:46] A corn dog. Yeah. Exactly. And they sell lemonade with it. And the ladies inside wear these really puffy, weird, awful hats from like the ’70s. They have terrible uniforms. And I thought, I just want to work for Hot Dog on a Stick and nobody knows who I was [laughs] or anything else.
Kara [00:40:02] And I would just go in and I'd say very little. And I would sell my hot dogs and then I'd leave and nobody would know what I was. And I would not let them know anything about me. And I think that would—I was like, I want to sell hot dogs on a stick.
Kinsey [00:40:14] Yeah. Maybe in another life.
Kara [00:40:15] I still could.
Kinsey [00:40:16] Yeah.
Kara [00:40:17] I could end up —
Kinsey [00:40:18] There's still a chance.
Kara [00:40:19] [indistinct chatter and laughter between Kara and Kinsey]
Kinsey [00:40:29] Well, that's fantastic. [Kara laughs] So, Kara, thank you so much for joining me. This has been an incredible conversation. I feel like there's a lot to be learned, but also that we're getting a lot here from the work you're doing. So thank you very much.
Kara [00:40:43] Thank you for taking the time for talking to me.
[00:40:44] [sound of coffee being poured]
[00:40:47] [outro music starts]
Kinsey [00:40:51] Thank you so much for listening to this week's episode of Business Casual. Next week on the show, we are giving you a very special holiday gift. A look back at the stories that defined the decade. I'm sitting down with the Brew’s very own managing editor, Neil Freyman.
Kinsey [00:41:05] And we're going to break down the most tumultuous decade in business news that maybe we've ever seen. You don't want to miss it. And I will see you next week. [sound of a ding]
Kinsey [00:41:14] And if you're still listening, how about a little trivia? So a survey earlier this year from the Center for Data Innovation found that one in four Americans believe the federal government should strictly limit the use of what? Now, if you want to hear the answer a little later on, you already know the drill. Go check out my Twitter @KinseyGrant.