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I get annoyed with startup founders who promise too much, misbehave, and sometimes ruin their businesses and get away with it.
But deep down, I also wonder if unscrupulous, limitless leaders are an inevitable part of innovation – and not a deviation.
If we want world changing technology, are dealers part of the deal? This is a version of a question I grapple with about technologies like Facebook and Uber: is the best that technology can do inextricably linked with all the terrible?
I recently thought about it because two start-up founders, Adam Neumann and Trevor Milton, were glaringly blinded.
Neumann was previously the managing director of the office rental start-up WeWork. He boasted that his company would change the nature of work (on Earth and Mars), forge new bonds of social cohesion, and make shiploads of money. WeWork didn’t do any of this.
A new book describes how WeWork mostly just rented cabins, burned other people’s money, treated employees like trash, and made Neumann smelly rich when the company nearly collapsed in 2019. WeWork remained in a less fancy form without Neumann.
And last week, federal authorities charged Milton with tricking investors in its electric truck start-up, Nikola, into believing that the company’s battery and hydrogen vehicle technology was far more powerful than it really was. The allegations include Milton ordering the editing of a promotional video to make a Nikola truck prototype appear fully functional when it wasn’t. (Milton’s Legal Department has said the government is trying to “criminalize lawful business conduct.”)
It’s easy to shake your head at these and other people – including Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who is soon on trial for fraud – and wonder what personal mistakes have led them astray, hype, and crashed.
But people like Holmes, Neumann, and Milton aren’t oopsies. They are the extreme results of a startup system that rewards people who have the biggest and most outrageous ideas, even if they have to fiddle around a little (or a lot).
I’m constantly angry about this system that seems to force startups to shoot for the moon or something. WeWork came up with a generally smart, if not entirely original, idea for eliminating many of the headaches of commercial office rental. But that wasn’t enough, and I almost can’t blame Neumann for that.
Disproportionate rewards go to the entrepreneurs and companies that can sell a vision of billions of users and trillions of dollars in value. Because of this, Airbnb isn’t just saying it allows people to rent a house in one app. The company says Airbnb is helping “meet the basic human need for connection.” Because of this, delivery companies like Uber and DoorDash aim to deliver every possible physical product to everyone, and companies believe they need to make virtual reality as popular as smartphones. Only earthbound ambitions are not good enough.
These conditions lead people to circumvent the limits of what is right and legal. But I also wonder whether curbing the excesses would also curb the ambition we want. Sometimes the eagerness to imagine ridiculously grand visions of the future brings us 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 big. Perhaps more than any single person, Musk has enabled automakers, governments, and all of us to envision electric cars replacing conventional ones. This is a potentially planet-transforming change.
But Musk has also endangered people’s lives by overdoing driver assistance technology, has over-promised technology that has failed, and bypassed both the law and human decency.
I used to ask a former colleague, half jokingly, why can’t Musk just build cars? But maybe it’s impossible to separate the ruthless carnival screamers who deceive themselves and others from the bold ideas that really help change the world for the better.
I hate to think that. I want to believe that technology can be successful without reprogramming all of humanity and without the associated temptation to engage in fraud or abuse. I want the good muscle without the bad. I want the wonderful and empowering elements of social media without the genocide. But I just don’t know if we can separate the wonderful from the terrible.
Before we go …
The next target of China’s technical crackdown? Authorities have shown that they may be dissatisfied with video game companies, my colleague Cao Li reported, and the share prices of some of the major Chinese game companies have plummeted. China’s government recently pushed for tighter regulation of tech companies, including tracking down Chinese companies going public outside the country, those offering grocery delivery or online tutoring, and the country’s ubiquitous WeChat app.
Here’s one way to get Facebook’s attention: For people losing access to their Facebook accounts, it is almost impossible to seek help from anyone in the company. Some people have found a workaround, NPR reported: Buy one of the $ 299 Oculus virtual reality headsets from Facebook, call the Oculus customer service team, and have them help restore a Facebook account. Yeah, that’s crazy, and it doesn’t always work.
The Secret of the Vanished Dan Brown Book: My colleague Caity Weaver goes down a rabbit hole to find out if a botched barcode explains why online booksellers keep sending the wrong titles to someone trying to get a new 1995 dating book by the author of The Da Vinci Code “to buy.
A very fast and acrobatic cat paused a baseball game for several minutes while the crowd cheered it and whistled off the pesky people trying to shoo the cat off the field. My colleague Daniel Victor wrote about the animal antics in professional baseball on Monday night.
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