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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Innovation Invites Hucksters


I’m enraged by start-up founders who over-promise, behave badly, and sometimes crater their businesses while walking away unscathed.

But, deep down, I wonder if unscrupulous, boundary-pushing executives are an unavoidable part of the innovation process — rather than an aberration.

Are hucksters a part of the deal if we want world-changing technology? This is a variation on a question I have about technologies such as Facebook and Uber: Is the best of what technology has to offer inextricably linked to all of its flaws?

I’ve been thinking about this recently as a result of the spotlight on two startup founders, Adam Neumann and Trevor Milton.

Neumann was previously the CEO of the office-rental startup WeWork. He boasted that his company would change the nature of work (on Earth and Mars), forge new social bonds, and make a lot of money. None of these things have been done by WeWork.

As the company nearly collapsed in 2019, a new book details how WeWork mostly just rented cubicles, burned through piles of other people’s money, treated employees like garbage, and made Neumann stinking rich. WeWork has survived without Neumann in a less outrageous form.

Last week, federal authorities charged Milton with deceiving investors in his Nikola electric truck startup into believing that the company’s battery- and hydrogen-powered vehicle technology was far more capable than it actually was. Among the allegations is that Milton directed the tampering of a promotional video in order to make a Nikola prototype truck appear fully functional when it was not. (According to Milton’s legal team, the government is attempting to “criminalise lawful business conduct.”)

It’s easy to shake your head at these people and others — including Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who will soon face fraud charges — and wonder what personal failings led them to mislead, hype, and crash and burn.

People like Holmes, Neumann, and Milton, on the other hand, are not blunders. They are the extreme results of a startup system that rewards people with the biggest and most outrageous ideas, even if they have to fudge a little (or a lot).

I am constantly enraged by this system, which appears to force start-ups to aim for the stars or else. WeWork had a generally sound, if not entirely novel, idea for removing many of the annoyances associated with commercial office leasing. But it wasn’t enough, and I almost don’t blame Neumann.

Entrepreneurs and companies that can sell a vision of billions of users and trillions of dollars receive disproportionate rewards. This is why Airbnb does not simply state that it allows people to rent a home through an app. According to the company, Airbnb helps “people satisfy a fundamental human need for connection.” It is for this reason that delivery companies like Uber and DoorDash aim to deliver any possible physical product to anyone, and companies believe they must make virtual reality as popular as smartphones. Only earthbound ambitions will not suffice.

These circumstances tempt people to stray from what is right and legal. But I wonder if limiting the excesses would also limit the ambition that we seek. The zeal to imagine ridiculously grand visions of the future sometimes leads to Theranos. And it occasionally brings us Google. Is it possible that these are two sides of the same coin?

Elon Musk exemplifies both the good and bad of what happens when technologists dream ridiculously big. Musk, perhaps more than any other individual, has enabled automakers, governments, and all of us to imagine electric cars replacing conventional ones. This could be a game changer for the planet.

However, Musk has also put people’s lives in danger by overhyping driver-assistance technology, has repeatedly over-promised technology that hasn’t materialised, and has skirted both the law and human decency.

I used to ask a former colleague, half-jokingly, “Why can’t Musk just make cars?” But it’s possible that it’s impossible to separate the reckless carnival barker who deludes himself and others from the bold ideas that are truly changing the world for the better.

I despise thinking about it. I want to believe that technologies can succeed without the goal of reprogramming all of humanity and without the attendant temptations to engage in fraud or abuse. I want Musk without the flaws. I want all of the wonderful and empowering aspects of social media, but none of the genocide. But I’m not sure we can separate the wonderful from the awful.

  • Who will be the next target of China’s tech crackdown? According to my colleague Cao Li, the authorities indicated that they may be dissatisfied with video game companies, and stock prices for some major Chinese game developers plummeted. China’s government has recently pushed for tighter regulation of tech companies, including cracking down on Chinese companies that go public outside of the country, those that provide food delivery or online tutoring, and the country’s ubiquitous WeChat app.

    That is one method of attracting Facebook’s attention: It is nearly impossible for people who have lost access to their Facebook accounts to contact anyone at the company for assistance. According to NPR, some people devised a workaround: Purchase one of Facebook’s $299 Oculus virtual reality headsets, then contact Oculus’ customer service team for assistance in restoring a Facebook account. That’s insane, and it doesn’t always work.

    My colleague Caity Weaver goes down a rabbit hole to see if a faulty bar code explains why online book resellers kept sending the wrong titles to someone trying to buy a novelty 1995 dating book by the author of “The Da Vinci Code.”

A fast and acrobatic cat disrupted a baseball game for several minutes, as the crowd cheered it on and booed the pesky humans who tried to shoo the cat off the field. On Monday night, my colleague Daniel Victor wrote about the animal antics in professional baseball.


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