The so-called “Big Tech” industry has dramatically improved our daily lives, but at what cost? Few people have gotten a closer look at these companies than Kara Swisher, writer for The New York Times and podcast host—and she says we need to wrestle more with that question.
Recently she shared her expertise with University of Chicago students as a fellow at the Institute of Politics. She taught a seminar called “The Five Horsemen of the Techpocalypse,” which examined Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. She recently joined the Big Brains podcast to give us her impressions of that experience, and to discuss the future of “Big Tech.”
(Episode published April 22, 2021)
Paul Rand: Kara Swisher has been covering technology for a long time.
Kara Swisher: I mean, I was there for the beginning. Sort of like I got to meet Edison before people know the light bulb.
Paul Rand: The journalist and podcast host started writing about tech in the ‘90s and has seen companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook grow into the giants that they are today.
Kara Swisher: Now they’re the most powerful and richest companies on the planet and they have no regulation to speak of.
Paul Rand: Now you might be wondering why is this podcast that usually focuses on professors and researchers talking to a journalist like Kara Swisher? Well, this year she’s taken a step into the academic world. Swisher taught a seminar here at the University of Chicago as a fellow at the Institute of Politics.
Kara Swisher: I thought the students were great. I have to say, I was really heartened to talking to them every week because I thought they really did understand the implications of what was happening, and not in sort of this knee jerk tech leading way either, it’s complex.
Paul Rand: Most of us call the companies that Swisher’s seminar focused on Big Tech. She calls them The Five Horsemen of the Tech-pocalypse.
Kara Swisher: This is systemic. This is not just Facebook is bad, it’s not just about addiction of tech, it’s not just about manipulation of tech as propaganda, it’s systemic, is it all fits together.
Paul Rand: Through her seminar at the university, Swisher has been working with experts and students to think through solutions to the tech apocalypse.
Kara Swisher: Because this is not something fresh and new for this country, we have gone down this road a dozen times before, and we have been better for it when we begin to understand that consolidation and concentration always leads to... Typically, not always, can lead to bad outcomes.
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago podcast network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. Today, lessons on Big Tech. I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: What would your life be like without technology? Smartphones, computers, search engines, social media, online shopping, these are tools that most of us engage with on a daily basis, but it’s more clear than ever that the cost to us as users can be very high.
Kara Swisher: Right now everyone’s realizing that technology didn’t hang the moon necessarily, although there’s been some amazing things we’re doing with technology, but that there’s problems attached to it and some very severe problems. And so that was what we wanted to talk about is being aware of some of the issues, the ongoing issues about technology.
Paul Rand: In Kara Swisher’s U Chicago seminar she focused each class on a different company, and she says it’s important to separate them because the term Big Tech isn’t entirely accurate.
Kara Swisher: There’s no such thing as Big Tech. There’s a lot of big tech companies and each of them presents their own problems, some lesser, some more, and each of them has their own solution.
Paul Rand: And the one that Swisher is most concerned about is Facebook.
Kara Swisher: Well, the concern is that they’re the biggest, and the most sloppy about managing their massive platform, two things that I think are problematic. And so, that’s one of the reasons, they have the most impact and they really do control most of social media to speak of. And I think two thirds of Americans get their news from Facebook and then around the world, it’s even higher. It’s sort of a Google with search, but this is much more important because this is new stories.
Tape: Social media platforms say they are trying to crack down on misinformation about the coronavirus, but the false claims and bad science are still running rampant.
Kara Swisher: Think they have a careless relationship with management of problematic material on their site.
Paul Rand: So when you call them sloppy, is that primarily what you’re thinking about is how they manage content?
Kara Swisher: Well, yeah, I wouldn’t say malevolent, I wouldn’t say they’re doing it on purpose. They’re not, I don’t know, Mussolini trying to take over things. I just think they have this unusual relationship with the first amendment that they think they’re protecting people when actually the way they’re managing the platform is hurting people. And you saw that happen the most dramatically in the attacks on Capitol Hill.
Tape: Three top executives from Big Tech are back in the hot seat on Capitol Hill. But this time Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Alphabet, and Jack Dorsey of Twitter face questions about their company’s own responsibility in the January 6th riots.
Kara Swisher: Time and again, I had written about it in other countries when nobody was paying attention in Myanmar.
Tape: Well, a new bombshell investigation exposes Facebook’s growing struggle to tackle hate speech in Myanmar. The social media site has been used to incite violence against Rohingya Refugees.
Kara Swisher: Philippines, and other places, it just decided to come here.
Paul Rand: It did happen here, and social media companies are still reluctant to enact stronger monitoring of their platforms. Swisher says that the reason for that is simple, it would cost money.
Kara Swisher: And the reason they’re profitable is because they don’t do enough monitoring. It’s expensive. So over the years, not just me, but many others have said, ‘‘This is going to end badly if you continue to behave this way, putting growth over responsibility and not doing what you need in terms of content moderation, in terms of watching how your system is being manipulated by manipulators, and making sure not anybody gets to be in the system.’’
Kara Swisher: And Donald Trump continually violated Twitter standards. They only took them off when the attack happened. I had written a piece in 2019 actually outlining everything. President Trump lies about the election after he loses and continues to lie, and then doesn’t monitor the platform, and then there’s an attack to stop the vote. What would they do? Who would you blame? And so I don’t think this was not understood of what was going to happen, it’s sort of like watching a slow moving accident. And so they should have known that this was... But they are there always... Consequences don’t seem to matter to them at all. So don’t wait the Capitol attack, do... We knew this was going to happen, and you kept insisting it wouldn’t.
Paul Rand: You were talking and talking about Facebook and their monopoly status, and do you look at Amazon as being a monopoly now, too?
Kara Swisher: I think they’re the most significant online retailer. They have moat after moat, after moat, that is going to put them in whatever industry they want to be in. They’re a marketplace and a platform, that’s a problem, that’s always been a problem, this is not a fresh new idea. They sell Amazon batteries and then the other battery makers are at a loss. The issues of data leaking between their platform and what they decide to sell. Same thing over at Apple making Apple Music and then there’s Spotify and then like they have a more competitive advantage because it’s on their system. And so that’s the issue is should they be able to sell on the platform that they also control?
Paul Rand: And now when you had Tim Cook on recently and he was certainly talking about what he’s doing, his criticism of Facebook. Can you outline a little bit what his concerns were and how those line up with some of your thoughts?
Kara Swisher: He has taken a different stand. Well, look, first of all, let me get out of the way, it’s good for Apple for... This helps them because this is their brand, privacy is their brand. And so what? And everyone’s like, ‘‘Oh, well, that’s because privacy’s important.’’ I’m like, ‘‘So?’’ One of the things, they do not depend on advertising, this insidious online advertising problem of too much data, and none of it being properly monitored in any way, or it’s the... Look, Facebook just had a hack last week. They had a hack that was an old hack, and now it’s appearing again on the dark web where people can see that it was much more extensive than first thought.
Kara Swisher: And so this incredible grabbing of data is problematic and unsafe. And so he’s making that point. And so the thing they’re doing is this transparency thing, they’re going to ask their users to say you want to be tracked. To opt into it versus opting out of it. I think that’s totally fair. Facebook and others don’t because if you have to opt in, it requires you to make an affirmative versus opting out, which they kind of hide it, and you never do it. And so you get part of a system you didn’t quite know what you were doing. And I think people should be fully aware. They do it at rides at Disneyland. ‘‘When you get on this ride, you could be sick on Magic Mountain and you can decide whether you want to do it.’’ I feel like that’s fair. And that’s what he talked about, and he’s...
Paul Rand: Well, there’s a whole business model set up around them. People not checking that box off.
Kara Swisher: That’s right.
Paul Rand: So how do you roll back the tech-pocalypse? Many experts, some even on this podcast, have pointed toward government regulation, anti-trust laws, and taxation. Kara’s seminar talked through all of these.
Kara Swisher: Every big corporate group with enormous amounts of power gets regulated at some point, whether it’s banks, or trains, or electric companies, whatever, they all get regulated. An unregulated monopoly is the best business in the world, why wouldn’t you want to be in that business? Of course, people are bidding up the stock of Facebook, why wouldn’t you want to invest in an unregulated monopoly, it’s literally the best thing you can do.
Paul Rand: Absolutely. And why do you think it’s taken so long for those regulations to come into play here?
Kara Swisher: Because regulators are slow. There was a need to make this industry bigger. And early on when they were nascent companies, there were a lot of problems that would have really waylaid them. If Section 230 wasn’t there at the beginning, I think they would have been sued out of existence, but now they can’t be sued. There’s a middle ground between getting some liability on some behaviors and have some regulation on data collection and none. There is some middle ground here that is very easy to establish, I think.
Kara Swisher: And so do you want to do it through taxes? There may be some interesting taxes we could do. There may be some interesting taxes that are used for media literacy, for example, is shifting it to [inaudible 00:09:40]. Or you might do fines. You might do some laws, some data privacy laws, you might do antitrust in some cases. And so, it’s a real mixed bag of what you’re going to do, but there has to be an idea from the government that there is some value in regulating these companies.
Kara Swisher: Now there’s no privacy regulation in this country, there is in other countries, there’s some in states, but there’s no national privacy bill, there’s no real national data bill, there’s no easy enforcement of some of the stuff that’s in effect right now. And the question is, enforcement will be a big deal. Antitrust is changing and we’ll see how it changes, and it’s a welcome area to shift around because it’s a complex topic.
Paul Rand: Right. Well, tell me, as you were talking and you spent all this time at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, what was it that you found was the most pressing questions coming from the students? What did you hope they learned out of your interaction?
Kara Swisher: Well, I think what they were concerned with is the systemic elements of what’s happening. And I was trying to get that through to them that this is systemic, this is not just Facebook is bad, it’s not just about addiction of tech, it’s not just about manipulation of tech as propaganda, for propaganda uses, it’s not just about an entire culture, one group being able to work at home and the other having to go into work and get diseases. It’s systemic. And I that term gets badly pilloried in lots of ways. But when I say systemic, is it all fits together, you can’t ignore addiction when you’re talking about propaganda, you can’t ignore an amplification when you’re talking about tech devices. These technologies have an ability... And as you get into more complex technologies like AI and facial recognition, it becomes quantumly more problematic because it could be used by malevolent players in ways that we can’t even begin to understand, or imagine actually, we can understand it, but we can’t imagine it.
Paul Rand: One of the things that’s always fascinating, and as I’m sure as you’re talking to these students, that the concerns that you’re outlining, people understand, but we keep using them, we keep going to Facebook, we keep going to Amazon. Does that mean that people don’t really share these concerns or the fact that...
Kara Swisher: They do. I think they do it’s just that these things are so convenient, why wouldn’t you want it? I use Amazon a lot and I’m really troubled by their worker policies. What do you do? There’s not a lot of choices from Amazon. I think the problem is you like and don’t like these things, you use them and then... I think the issue is if there’s only one, how do you have any say against a retailer that you need to use, or that is easy... Like in the pandemic, there wasn’t a lot of choices, there aren’t a lot of choices. And so neither did these restaurants with delivery, they had to go to Uber Eats, or Postmates, or whatever, they don’t have a lot of choice.
Kara Swisher: And so as things become more concentrated, that’s what I tend to focus on. And I think the students really did understand, because this is not something fresh and new for this country, we have gone down this road a dozen times before, and we have been better for it when we begin to understand that consolidation and concentration always leads to... Typically, not always, can lead to bad outcomes.
Paul Rand: After the break, Swisher’s relationship with the key players in the industry.
Paul Rand: For more than 20 years, Kara Swisher has meticulously documented the rise and fall of Big Tech companies, the development and damage they create. But as much as that’s a story about money, and power, and technology, it’s also a story about people, and Swisher has gotten to know almost all of them.
Kara Swisher: I was there for the beginning... I was there like Addison and Ford, I was there when the car was being built, that kind of thing, and so I really was aware that... And I didn’t quite know who was going to win and who was going to lose. Being there when the founders are there and they’re at an age... I met Marc Andreessen when he was... It might’ve been 20, you know what I mean?
Paul Rand: Right out of the University of Illinois.
Kara Swisher: Yeah. I met Mark Zuckerberg when he just left Harvard, he just left Harvard. I met Jerry Yang and Dave Filo when they had six employees, Jeff Bezos had five employees when I met him. So I’m obviously going to have a step up on that. Now over time that changes, like what people want to talk about and stuff like that.
Kara Swisher: So our relationship has changed. I don’t talk to them as much. They used to talk to me all the time and very casually. And of course, as you get richer and richer, you try to put yourself out of harm’s way, and I guess I’m harm, I don’t know, I guess. But some of them, I have a long-term relationship. Brian Chesky, who started Airbnb, and I talk constantly all the time. Depends on the person. I talk to a lot of people, I had talked to Bill Gates for 30 years now, I guess.
Paul Rand: Yeah, amazing.
Kara Swisher: I’ve also spent a lot of time, and so Tim Cook comes back for interview after interview and they change over time. And so there’s a level of trust. Even Elon Musk, who I always tangled with, we’re always arguing over something, and we don’t agree... I think in many ways I have... Like a lot of things in life, I tend to make things... Think things are complex, not reductive. And so, I think amazing things about Elon Musk, at the same time his COVID reaction was gross. Just we have an on going conversation.
Paul Rand: So then how did we end up here?
Kara Swisher: Most of the time, it’s sort of a lack of ability to think about consequences. It’s also when you become really wealthy, especially at a young age, look, this is Mark Zuckerberg’s first job, think about it that way. They tend to surround themselves by people who are in violent agreement with them, and therefore don’t make as good... I’m not a management expert, but I do know if you have everyone around you is you pay, you have a problem.
Kara Swisher: Look at Tony Hsieh, who I loved, who’s lovely guy, lovely guy, the guy who started Zappos. You have something like that where he was surrounded by enablers, and not just that, he indulged himself. You can end like that, you can end in a way where people don’t say no. And I think there’s a lot of people in Silicon Valley who’ve sort of gotten warped in ways, and sort of whacking at the press, or couldn’t be luckier on this planet or this moment in time and still have this grievance, this sort of constant grievance that they’re victims, and nobody understands their genius. No one takes away someone’s genius just because they make mistakes, and I think that’s the inability to hear about problems is a problem.
Paul Rand: Well, oftentimes you spend your time talking about these groups that they’re male dominated.
Kara Swisher: Yes.
Paul Rand: And I wonder how much of that plays into some of the problems that we’re talking about, and do you think it would be different if they were female led organizations?
Kara Swisher: Well, I’d like them to be anything but white men. It’s fine, I have two white men I’m raising, my sons are wonderful, but when you have homogeneousness in any aspect, it typically leads to children with no teeth. Come on, let’s be... It’s just like, ‘‘Come on.’’ It’s a miracle that that’s the case when it doesn’t happen. And so I think homogeneousness is always problematic. It creates the same kind of thinking, it just does. And it doesn’t lead to better innovation.
Kara Swisher: Now, even though there’s been amazing innovation, do we know what hasn’t been innovated on? No, we don’t. That’s the thing, we don’t know what we didn’t make, but I can tell you when you look at things like safety, I know that’s because it was homogeneous, I know because most... Many white men do not feel unsafe. So some of the lack of safety on these platforms is because these people never felt unsafe. I’ve said this a dozen times and I’ll say it dozen times more, they’ve never felt unsafe. How would they know what is it like to be in the body of a young African-American woman? Not saying that we all have to grab hands and sing together, but we do have a sense of one community, and collectivity that we all care for each other, or at least care the impact that we have on other people, instead of one’s a winner, one’s a loser. And so you can’t have that if you have one single of people, they will tend to reinforce each other and you tend to get the same outcome, and it’s always no teeth.
Paul Rand: There’s an age old problem in journalism of access. You need people to talk to you and share information, but if you cover their faults, honestly, they’ll sometimes stop speaking to you. It’s a problem that Swisher has been able to navigate better than most. And with podcasts on two of the biggest media properties today, plus a column in the New York Times, and millions of Twitter followers, Swisher plays a unique role in the journalism landscape. You still think of yourself as a journalist, or is that too narrow of a definition for you these days?
Kara Swisher: I ask questions, that’s what I do.
Paul Rand: Okay.
Kara Swisher: I ask questions and I write very funny things about them.
Paul Rand: Did you start off, by the way, thinking you were going to be funny?
Kara Swisher: Yes, I was always really sassy with the people I covered. I’m not the journalist in the sense that you think, but I don’t think... When we started Recode, I immediately thought voice was critical, and we were the first, not the first, but we were right in there with doing reporting that also included voice. Like, ‘‘Here’s what’s happening. We have the scoop, but let me tell you what it means.’’
Paul Rand: Well, in terms then of other ways of getting information out there, you’ve obviously embraced podcasts. And as you think about the medium of podcasts, what do you like about it?
Kara Swisher: I get to really draw it out. A lot of people don’t trust the media, well, listen to what they say to me, the Parler CEO was perfect. I could have written that article, and it’s like, ‘‘Oh, Kara, you’re unfair to him. You’re misrepresenting him. You’re doing...’’ In the way I do, what he looks like, or what he said, or I just did part of the quotes, that’s what he said, folks, and that was my question. If you listen to that interview, there was not one unfair question in there and you couldn’t accuse me of manipulating the situation. That’s why that ended... That’s why he got fired because he... And that’s why they knocked him off... Because he came out and said the quiet part out loud, not my fault, I asked a question, he just answered it. And so in that case, how can you not trust me? I didn’t do... I just asked the question.
Paul Rand: Good. And so do you see your podcasts evolving? Do you see doing additional ones? Where do you take your career?
Kara Swisher: I don’t know. I think of probably doing series. There’s a lot of people doing... I have an idea for a limited series around Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that I think would be great, but I wouldn’t want to talk about them all the time. But if I did eight of them, I think that would be good. A lot of what’s happening on... If you see Netflix, you can see where things are going. Some things are four episodes, some things are eight, some things are seasons, some things are whatever. And I kind of love what Netflix is doing around global stuff. You can see them all over... There’s something for everyone on that platform. Really interesting. And it also brings more voices out, it’s more diverse, it really is. And it works, it’s also a business that works, it’s not just that it’s actually a great business.
Kara Swisher: So you could say you could see things jumping to TV, certain things could jump to TV. Some things become articles. I’ve always thought of things in multimedia sense and not in a single media. I’m a multimedia person, so wherever it fits, I’ll do it. And then I’ll try something else. I don’t know, maybe AR someday, VR. I don’t see VR for Kara, I’m leaving by that time, I’ll be in Hawaii having no devices and enjoying my quiet life reading books and not being very digital.
Paul Rand: Well, watching you evolve, keeping up with the program, it’s been wonderful to keep an eye on what you’re doing-
Kara Swisher: Thank you.
Paul Rand: ... and I enjoy your work tremendously. So it’s a treat to have you.
Kara Swisher: And then there’ll be a hologram call, that’ll be that. And I’ll be dead and it’ll still be talking, that’s the issue, that’s my plan. Me and Peter Thiel are working on it [inaudible 00:21:25] we’re not.
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