Baratunde has been sounding the alarm about the perils of Big Tech for years. In this episode, he breaks down his journey in tech and talks with tech expert and sharp critic, Prof G, otherwise known as Scott Galloway, co-host of the Pivot Podcast. They dive into Scott’s summary of what the hell went wrong, his recent argument that corporations need to start acting “as citizens,” and how this idea of corporate citizening informs his investment strategy.
Baratunde Thurston 0:02
Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagines citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about tech and how it can bring us together instead of tearing us apart. We're bringing you the people using technology for so much more than revenue and user growth; they're using it to help us citizen. Last time on How to Citizen, you got to meet my older sister, Belinda, which meant a deep dive into little Baratunde--yes, there was a point when I was small--but we weren't just reminiscing for old time's sake. We were sharing the lessons our mom taught us, lessons that laid the foundation for how I see tech and citizening. My mom taught me to stand up for myself, to advocate for my own education, to question authority, and to wash my own damn clothes; but beyond that, she showed me that tech could help me citizen. Now that I'm grown, or at least mostly grown, I'm going to take it one step further: tech has the potential to help us all citizens. Imagine a social media platform where people supported each other instead of tearing each other down; or a web browsing experience that doesn't assault you with advertising at every single page load; or imagine just having control over your personal data instead of constantly hearing about some company losing it again. Unfortunately, we're nowhere near any of this. Our tech landscape is dominated by a handful of wildly wealthy companies that, in so many ways, make it harder for us to citizen. How did we even get here? What happened along the way? How do we fix it? I wanted to find out, so today I'm going to retrace the defining moments of the tech industry, at least according to my definitions. I'm going to see where we went wrong and try to figure out a path forward. I don't want to just address the problems, I want to imagine a better future. This task, it's a big one, so I brought someone along to help me out.
Scott Galloway 2:22
Baratunde, first off, you are coming for my job, you are guest hosting on Pivot. I know what you're up to.
Baratunde Thurston 2:29
This is diplomacy right now. I'm, like, "if I have him on my pod, then he won't feel the threat so sharply; he you won't feel the knife going in."
Scott Galloway 2:38
You and your good looks, and your deep voice. Brother, you know, sorry. Sorry, this job's taken. This job's taken.
Baratunde Thurston 2:44
Scott Galloway is a professor of Marketing at NYU Stern, and co-host of the Pivot podcast... for now. I've actually never met Scott in person. I mostly know him from his podcast with Kara Swisher, but I feel like I've gotten to know him. He's really fiery at this intersection of tech and business. Was there a moment that got you really into this world?
Scott Galloway 3:09
As an academic, you hit a ceiling if you don't do research, so I decided to do research on how technology disrupts traditional industries, then wrote a book and kind of made mostly a living. I would say my star kind of rose, if I call it my star, whatever it is--a dark moon on Pluto--started getting some heat because I was talking a lot about Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, which became bigger and bigger parts of the economy. I love this stuff. I'm interested in technology, I'm interested in society, and to try and understand Big Tech is to understand everything from grocery to teen depression. It gives you a lot of latitude to talk about a lot of different things.
Baratunde Thurston 3:49
Clearly, Scott gets it. I knew he'd be able to help me better understand the problem, and also offer up some guidance and words of wisdom. Big Tech wasn't always a thing. There was lots of little tech being connected, especially by the internet. What do you recall as the early aspirations of this thing that is now dominating our lives, in terms of connected and networked technologies, and the internet?
Scott Galloway 4:16
Well, there was Intel and Microsoft, so there was sort of the Wintel world. Now, they seem kind of quaint compared to the impact... No one weaponized our elections using Microsoft Word, right?
Baratunde Thurston 4:28
That we know of, that we know of. Oh, yes, I remember the Wintel world vividly.
And you are?
This is Jennifer Aniston. I'm Matthew Perry. We're here to see Mr. Bill Gates about a possible starring role in the video guide to Microsoft Windows 95.
He's out right now...
Baratunde Thurston 4:45
It was 1995 and the long-awaited Windows 95 had just hit the scene. Scott is right, it was quaint compared to what we have now, but for me it represented possibility. Honestly, I was obsessed. When my big sister Belinda, who was a journalist at USA Today, got the opportunity to have someone review Windows 95, well, she gave me the best gift I could have dreamt up. The headline read, "Teen Says Program Gives PC a Macintosh Personality." Life was good, your boy was in the paper! It wasn't just Windows that made 1995 notable; that same year brought us Craigslist, Match.com, eBay, and even a little bookseller that went by the name of Amazon.
Amazon.com, Earth's biggest bookstore. You can't drop by, not in person anyway. For the customer, Amazon only exists on the computer screen...
Baratunde Thurston 5:48
These soon-to-be internet Goliaths were just little David's back then. They benefited from the dramatic increase of home computers, the rising curiosity and the worldwide web that hit the scene ever-so-slightly ahead of the curve. While many of us were setting up our dating profiles and fighting with our roommates over who got to use the dial-up, these tech David's were seen as just a bunch of quirky dudes innovating out of their garage. We ate that underdog story up, allowing these future giants to fly under the radar.
Scott Galloway 6:24
I think this gross fetishization, this idolatry of innovators has resulted in a lack of scrutiny or counterbalance, because they're doing their job. The government is meant to be a counterbalance, and the government--because individuals fetishize innovators and tech--they all say, "oh, it's innovators, and our economy, and our most-productive citizens, and yada, yada, yada;" so they have gotten free rein. If I said to my 10-year-old, "you can eat whatever you want whenever you want," it'd pretty much be, occasionally, to have a peanut butter sandwich, but for the most part, it would just be ice cream sandwiches and Coca-Cola. There's just no guardrails.
Baratunde Thurston 7:08
At the time, I wasn't paying attention to all of that. I was too busy starting college at Harvard University. There's no way to not say it and not sound like that dude who's dropping the Harvard thing, but if I don't say it, you could be, like, "why are you being mysterious about the college you went to?" So, yeah, I went to Harvard University. Now, if you ask someone who met me in those first few months, they're likely going to remember two things about me. First, my Afro; it was huge and it was beautiful. Second, my 486 DX2 computer. I was always on the computer, which depending on the angle you were at, you might not see because of the afro. One of my first campus jobs was as a computer user assistant, a.k.a. tech support, and we had a mission to bring the internet to every dorm room. Basically, I set the stage for Mark Zuckerberg to launch Facebook nine years later. You're welcome, Mark. Now, where my shares at? Long before Facebook even existed, I helped create and maintain an online community built around real-life friendships. It was a small, simple email list of many of the black students in Harvard's class of 1999. It worked because we actually knew each other, we had something in common, we lived among one another. We were actually friends, not Facebook friends, real friends. That made this space safe for us to joke, to organize our politics, to organize our parties, even to mourn the loss of some of our members. None of us was in it for followers or likes, or brand deals. It was real community powered by the internet... In 1999, I graduated Harvard and I had the privilege of living through a brief moment of technological hysteria.
...Describes Y2K, the Year 2000, the computer bug, as a worldwide crisis...
...Hardware stores, where the biggest sellers are ammunition, gun safes, kerosene lamps, and water jugs; but if you're looking for a generator, forget it. There are none...
...It's going to be for a long time, it's going to be a change. I think we're gonna be setting ourselves back to about 1800...
...Others say it could quite literally trigger the end of the world, depending on what nuclear missiles think when their computer screens suddenly go blank...
Baratunde Thurston 9:41
Y2K is the first time that I can remember a collective pause about our faith in technology. It was this idea that the way we coded, literally the code that was in almost all of our systems, would implode because of a little error and lack of imagination, and destroy us because the year changed over beyond someone's expectations. Though the world didn't implode, the U.S. government did spend nearly $100 billion trying to fix the glitch. This left many people with a permanently uneasy feeling about the future of tech. At the same time, there was an emerging underground revolution of bloggers. Around the turn of the 21st century, the term blog entered the mainstream, along with the formation of blogging sites: Xanga, Live Journal, and, of course, Blogger. Blogs were a threat to traditional media gatekeepers. Folks who had been subjected to the narratives others wrote for them, they could finally write their own and reach an audience without asking for permission. I even threw my hat in when Cheryl Contee and I launched Jack & Jill Politics, a black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics. That's what we called our blog. We held institutions accountable for their treatment of black people, whether it was the Congressional Black Caucus or CNN. When I think about Jack & Jill Politics, it gave me so much: a chance to grow as a writer, community organizer and citizen. This period wasn't just good for me... We all as a society experienced this big push for at-home broadband. 2003 to 2006, we saw the launch of Skype, MySpace, Facebook popping up at my alma mater, Twitter--which called itself a microblogging site. It was on.
...That's right, the latest cyber drug-of-choice is called Twitter, an addictive concoction of blogs, Google Maps, personal websites, and text messaging...
...Consider the site the 21st-century version of the old paperbound yearbook. Now, millions of students use the Facebook.com to list not only their pictures and hobbies, but as a virtual community...
Baratunde Thurston 12:07
This was exciting. I mean, we were connecting and creating together on the internet. While hundreds of thousands of people were logging into these sites, these future tech Goliaths were growing like crazy. Some of them offering services below cost just to gobble up market share, and they were blowing our minds with what we were told was innovation. Remember, they could do some of this because the government didn't want to regulate innovation. No, innovation knows no bounds because you can't get in the way of, at least, a man--probably white--trying to make a dollar. These tech giants weren't just capturing our attention, though; they were also capturing our personal information. While we thought we were just sharing our cute selfies with our friends, behind the scenes we were sharing something much more valuable: we were giving away our data. As a result, the CEOs and shareholders of these companies would profit big time. Little did we know this data capture would eventually power the most profitable and destructive business model yet: online advertising, which has since grown to dominate almost all internet businesses.
...This is the Onion News Network, a 24-hour, nonstop news assault...
Baratunde Thurston 13:37
In 2007, when I started my job at the satirical news organization, The Onion, online advertising was really starting to take off. As the first-ever Director of Digital, my job was basically to bring The Onion online, and I loved it; but one of my biggest frustrations was also just keeping up with the tech. I say this as the tech guy. We'd have to change our entire creative process to accommodate some software or some app that I just knew wasn't going to be around in two years. This was really my first personal exposure to the intersection of business and technology. Sometimes it worked great. Other times, there was some conflict. I actually remember being in the room at an online ads award show, and folks were giving out awards for the best pop-up ad. They were giving out awards for obscuring the content, and I was, like, "oh, they think they're content too!" It was a huge "Aha!," a major turning point for me because the internet and the future tech was no longer this shiny object that excited me, and gave me a place for community and fun. It was becoming something co-opted by capitalism. The perfect example is Facebook. The company went public in 2012 and raised a record $16 billion during its initial public offering, IPO for short. To this day, Facebook is the largest tech IPO ever. As CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg started selling more and more of their company shares to the public, they also started figuring out clever ways to hoard their power. One, I want you to quickly explain dual-class shareholders, in terms of the path we've taken to get here and why it's become a problem. What is a dual-class shareholder company?
Scott Galloway 15:37
So governance... What are the systems and constructs for who's in charge, and who gets to make decisions and remove leadership? Corporate governance is loosely-based on societal or national governance. That is, we show up at shareholder meetings and we get one share, one vote, and we vote for who the board is; and the board gets to make decisions around whether or not the CEO gets fired, if they sell the company... Essentially, the notion is that the wisdom of crowds, and ownership, is linked to accountability and responsibility. Until Google, very few companies had dual-class shareholder structures. Now, dual-class shareholder structure means that Mark Zuckerberg, even though he controls less than half of the company, he has control. That is a total departure, or a fissure, from what you call democratic governance. The bottom line is, it's a group of individuals that like control and don't want to make the economic sacrifices, or don't have the economics to get shareholder control. The board isn't a board at Facebook; it's an advisory board because, at the end of the day, Mark can get rid of all of them and do whatever the fuck he wants. Apple is not a dual-class shareholder company, and I would argue that there's a link to behavior. I think Apple behaves better because Tim Cook can be fired. Mark Zuckerberg, and I've said this before, is the most dangerous person in the world. Putin will be out of office because of biology in 10 or 15 years, or less. We can vote Biden out office. Mark Zuckerberg could be with us for 60 years.
Baratunde Thurston 17:08
For the record, I'm not trying to pick on Mark Zuckerberg. He wasn't the first tech founder to adopt a dual-class structure, but when he did it in 2012, he opened the doors for so many others to do the same. According to Fast Company, in 2020, 40% of tech companies that went public were dual-class models. While Facebook was going public, I was having my own internal conflicts about tech. I didn't just like tech, I loved it. I thought it was going to free us all, but I was starting to see hints that it could do the opposite and I wanted to make sure it didn't go down that path. After the break, I leave The Onion for Silicon Valley.
That same year, I left my job at The Onion to start my own company cultivated with a vague but important mission to merge humor and technology by bringing together comedians, designers and developers. We opened an office in San Francisco, where I spent increasing amounts of time. Just as I had committed myself further to technology, I got a platform to reflect on and challenge it when I took over the backpage column for Fast Company magazine. I wrote pieces with headlines like "Social Media May Be Efficient, Don’t Forget Good Old Face To Face Conversation." Okay, Grandpa-tunde. Another headline: "Living In The Cloud: Apps Can Get You Only So Far." Or one of my favorites: "A Radical Proposal For Putting People In Charge Of Their Data." The era of technology that I loved was turning into an environment that aggressively and effectively mined our attention, and seemed to demand more work from us, rather than liberating us from work as promised. All that was by design.
Scott Galloway 19:13
I would say that when one of my colleagues, Jonathan Haidt, sort of raised my awareness when he started talking about... He wrote this book called, The Coddling of the American Mind, and said that the emerging mental health crisis among teens was in large part due to the rise of social media and dual-class shareholder companies, such that these companies didn't have to really listen to shareholders, regulatory overrun. All these things added up and I just noticed, personally, my addiction to Twitter. You just have all these little moments. I remember my kid at the age of nine doing a handstand and asking me to record it, and then saying, "could you put it on YouTube?" I said, "sure," because I think technology is wonderful. I want my kids to understand it. Then on the way home, he said, "oh my gosh, I got a like," and then every 15 minutes for the next day he wanted to go back onto YouTube to see if he got more likes. It was one of those moments like, there's some externalities here. While we focus on all the wonderful things about technology--the shareholder return, the innovation, it does unlock a tremendous amount of value--it seems like the gross idolatry of technology has resulted in, we ignore the externalities. It's been, I think, really detrimental to mental health, really detrimental to our economy, really detrimental to our democracy. I feel as if there needs to be a counterbalance, and usually that counterbalance--our regulatory bodies--they have been in a deep slumber for 20 or 30 years as it relates to technology.
Baratunde Thurston 20:35
In my personal life, I felt like I was on a hamster wheel producing content for my feed, taking pictures of my food instead of eating it, posting about books online instead of reading them. I was doing all that more than living my actual life. This lack of accountability that you've been bringing up, whether it's inside the company's governance structure, whether it's our collective will through our government--an unwillingness or inability to regulate them--I think of it in another way about the funding of some of these businesses. When I see a lot of VC-backed firms that have never made a dollar after five, ten, maybe many more years, that doesn't, to me, deserve to be called a business. It's like a special project that's subsidized by people who should have been taxed more at some point in their lives. What role do you think the funding mechanism for these companies has contributed to some of the downsides we're experiencing now, in terms of that lack of accountability? They're not failing.
Scott Galloway 21:36
The thing that has kind of change everything--and this is your point and it's an important one--is that before Amazon, a company was kind of given three, four years of runway, and then it was expected to start making money. Two-thirds of companies that went public just 10, 20 years ago were profitable. Right now, as we sit here today, 70% of the companies that go public are not profitable. The markets have taught--because of Amazon and Netflix, which were extremely unprofitable, but still became gargantuan companies that dominate their sectors and have had enormous returns to shareholders--it's taught investors to replace profits with vision and growth. It's really changed the ecosystem because the big shift you're talking about, where there's a new class of companies that are afforded cheaper capital and more runway, it's just an enormous advantage. If I told AT&T they no longer needed to be profitable, they no longer needed to have a dividend, they could go negative for 10 or 20 years and their shareholders would continue to bid their stock price up, they could be remarkably innovative. This is a real shift in our economy and the markets, and that is: the key is disruption. The key is being perceived as a leader, not necessarily profitability. It used to be that the numbers kind of spoke for themselves, and now it's the numbers that everyone's looking at is growth and also just a certain level of innovation; so you end up with Facebook with 700 people in PR and comms.
Baratunde Thurston 22:58
Let me set one thing straight: it's not necessarily a bad thing to bet on companies with a vision. I love risk-taking, I support it. There are so many innovative people out there with brilliant ideas that deserve to be funded, even overfunded, even if it may not immediately be profitable; but who's getting this no-strings-attached funding? It's cisgendered men, it's mostly white men, a.k.a. the visionaries that we've been taught get to have that title. They have this endless supply of chances. They can be unprofitable for years and often their share prices still go up, but are we doing the same kind of investing, the same kind of risk-taking, for women, for LGBTQIA+ business owners, for BIPOC folks? Hell no. Let's not forget, the Big Five companies who control the industry get to cherry pick who succeeds. They decide who to acquire, who to buy out. Anti-monopoly expert, Stacy Mitchell, said it best on this podcast last season...
Stacy Mitchell 24:09
If you control the roadway that the vast majority of traffic is traveling down, then you control what that traffic sees.
Baratunde Thurston 24:25
For example, all the movies on Netflix are basically stored on Amazon servers, Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp; and think about it, Google's algorithms determine what posts you see first in your search results. If someone new steps onto the scene, maybe someone who's trying to help us citizen better, these five companies can basically determine if they succeed. To me, that sounds really undemocratic... I'm still lingering on something you said earlier about disrupting major industries. I'm focused, and I think we're focused in this upcoming season on the disruption to our democracy itself and to the fabric of our society, not just their competitors, which, in some ways, should happen. How are you seeing the structure of the industry, the design of the technology, the lack of oversights? What elements are making the impact on us less bearable?
Scott Galloway 25:25
I would say ground zero for what I'd call the unraveling of the fabric of America one-thread-at-a-time is algorithms. These algorithms have been trying to figure out a way to capture as much of your attention for as long as possible. We are a tribal species, we are very suspicious of each other, we're very prone to making stereotypes and believing bad things about people who don't look, smell and feel like us; that's one of the flaws of our species. Modern societies learn to cooperate, and they learn from more progressive ideals. If you think about capitalism, which is the least bad system of its kind, it's based on this collision of cooperation and self-interest, which is this gangster cocktail. What these algorithms have done is said, "let's tap into our primal instincts, and let's amplify content that is really divisive and create violence online because people can't look away from violence." By the way, it's not just social media, it's the Situation Room at CNN, it's Fox gaslighting America constantly. There's less money in news and content that says, "you know, everything is kind of incrementally getting a little bit better. Isn't that great?" That's just not an exciting story. Remember the kid... Remember when you were in fifth grade and two people started having words, and someone would scream, "fight, fight fight," when they just didn't really have the intention of fighting? Facebook, a billion times an hour, is saying to any two entities, "fight, fight, fight..." It's just promoting this coarseness. One of the things I checked around myself is, I started identifying people as Blue or Red. What I realized is, if you don't separate the person from the ideology, you lose 50% of all potential relationships. What you find is that the majority of conservatives don't dislike Democrats, and the majority of Democrats don't like conservatives because of their viewpoint, but because our ecosystem has taught us to hate each other, and taken the worst aspects of our dialogue, and turned it into insults and made it very personal. I think these companies lie at the center that.
Baratunde Thurston 27:27
With infinite computing capacity and bottomless venture funding on their side, these companies had the power to keep us in their world by luring us to click, and scroll and swipe; such that by 2013, I had written a Fast Company cover story talking about taking a social media detox. I can't express to you how dramatic and public this rejection was of the tech I had long celebrated, and been celebrated for. That cover piece, yo, it kind of unleashed me. For the next few years, I spoke up louder about the gap I was seeing between the promise of tech and the reality unfolding. My critiques were bolstered by others seeing the same things who taught me even more than I thought I already knew. The most fun group of fellow critics were the people I met through Cultivated Wit's Comedy Hackathons. These events brought together comedians, designers, and coders to build apps in a single weekend. The apps themselves were designed to be jokes satirizing the industry we were all a part of, and trust me, there was a lot to satirize.
Who's been here? You got one bill, multiple people, a wage gap plaguing women and minorities, plus Molly drank most of the wine... That's why I created Equitable, the only bill-splitting app that uses real labor statistics to adjust for income inequality between races and genders.
Baratunde Thurston 28:58
Now during this period, I was bouncing back and forth between San Francisco, where I had this office with my colleagues, and New York, where I actually lived. When I was in New York, I worked out of the offices of a group called Data & Society. It's a research institute that studies the social implications of data-centric technologies, as well as automation. These researchers were pointing out, with data, how the systems we were building discriminated against folks who were already overlooked in our society: poor people, LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC folks. Today, it's become fashionable to talk about things like the surveillance economy, and criticize how we make money with tech by observing and mining data around people's behavior; but I first heard that phrase years ago when I was at Data & Society. I remember being there and seeing Rebecca Wexler, a lawyer-in-residence who was part of the group, give a talk about how the New York government was using evidence derived from computers in prosecuting black and brown people; but that digital evidence from cell phones and social media was often deemed proprietary, or some company's trade secret, so folks had no ability to challenge it or even understand it. As smartphones and apps became more the norm, attention, mining and addiction became the new currency. You know that little thing called the Terms of Service that no one ever reads? Well, it gives these companies the authority to use and sell our data to their heart's content. Eventually, this data mining became a full-on surveillance apparatus monitoring and monetizing our whereabouts, social interactions, tastes, and more...
...International intrigue and an American fugitive on the run. Edward Snowden, the man who told the world about the federal government's sweeping top secret domestic spying program, is on the move as we speak this morning...
...Revealing the incredible extent to which the U.S. government is monitoring and keeping records of, not just our phone calls, but also, apparently, our emails, internet searches, downloads, photos, Facebook pages, and on and on. Snowden told The Guardian...
Baratunde Thurston 31:08
All this led to a massive shift for the little boy who was so excited for that Apple IIe. Instead of feeling like a technology user, I was feeling used. The tool that had empowered me was now sapping my power, and it's no wonder. These Big Tech companies were set up with essentially zero oversight, and in a position to do pretty much whatever they wanted. The extra-frustrating part is that, despite all these warning signs, it still felt like this was all happening under our noses. Big business had essentially pickpocketed the people's internet and made it their internet. How did we as a society let this happen? What do you think happened along the way, in terms of the development of the internet and the role of technology in our lives, to give us the internet we have now that has so much more harm than we remember in the early days?
Scott Galloway 32:08
Well, a lot of good things. There's more utility. I can order a car and see where it is before it gets here, I can have almost everything delivered to me off my phone, I can find out almost... answer to almost any basic question from our new God, Google; so the utility and the innovation has been extraordinary. That's one of the many positives. One of the many negatives is that as a society becomes wealthier and more educated, its reliance on a superbeing and church attendance goes down; but we still need that spiritual guidance, or what I call a superbeing, that can answer very complicated questions. Into that void has slipped tech because technology is kind of the closest thing we have to magic or some sort of godlike action. I just have no idea how my phone does what it does, but it's amazing, so it feels somewhat mystical, somewhat spiritual, somewhat godlike. As a result, I think our new Jesus Christs are Jack Dorsey and Steve Jobs, and that we no longer go to church. We go to Apple, and there's a certain... that's dangerous.
Baratunde Thurston 33:17
Now hold tight because after the break we'll find out why, despite all this doom and gloom, my optimism has returned; and we'll learn about Scott's take on investing in citizenship as a way to get us out from under Big Tech.
At this point in my personal journey, we're now in the year 2016. I know, it's almost as hard of a year to say as 2020. Why do we get traumatized every four years in America? That same year, I was at South by Southwest ringing the alarm bell even before the election. Upon receiving the Hall of Fame Award--yes, I am in a Hall of Fame and it's exciting--my acceptance speech sounded a very different tone from my more optimistic past self.
Archival (Baratunde Thurston) 34:16
Could we end up with virtual reality racism? Could we have machine-learned sexism? Could poverty be policed by drones and internet of craft? This is all very possible if we don't engage consciously in the work that we're all doing...
Baratunde Thurston 34:31
Hate to say I told you so. After that historic election went down, so many of us saw that the human manipulation and tricks learned through attention economics weren't just stressing us as individuals, but also as a collective, as a democracy. This is where I mention Robert Muller. I'm so sorry to bring you back to that era of our history...
...It explains that under long-standing department policy, a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office, even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view. That, too, is prohibited...
Baratunde Thurston 35:11
I remember reading through his indictments against the Russian hackers and learning how they poured gasoline on our existing, highly-flammable divisions. Their techniques were not novel spycraft. They were simply effective digital marketing strategies; the kind I'd seen myself, the kind I'd used myself and had become increasingly critical of, the kind that, even I, hadn't imagined could help weaken a whole nation. By 2018, I was screaming even louder than before. I wasn't sugarcoating anything and comedy alone wasn't going to cut it for me. This led to my longest tech piece yet, my technology manifesto--humble guy here--Technology Manifesto, demands from a citizen to Big Tech. This manifesto included five overall demands. Number one: transparency around data collection and usage. Number two: data sovereignty, as in we are in charge of our own data and consent to use it is in our hands. Number three: inclusive design and participation by diverse stakeholders in the development of all these tools. You can't design for the world, if you don't look like the world. Number four: we need new regulations and new accountability. Number five: decentralization of tech power back to the people, the way we designed this thing in the first place. Between pursuing profit, regardless of the social harms, and the lack of transparency and oversight, we've reached a point where tech is actually making it harder for us to citizen. When we're overwhelmed by the seratonin-inducing algorithmic hits from our tech products, we can't show up for our communities. When tech platforms just view us as dollar signs and click potential, they make it harder for us to feel connected to each other. When economic and computing power is concentrated in a handful of companies, that makes it harder for all of us to be fluent in our power and use it for collective benefit. One of the things my mother encouraged me to do often was question authority. She wanted me to think for myself and understand my own power. We seeded too much authority to too few controlling how we use technology. It's passed time to question that and come up with some better answers. That brings us to season 3 of How to Citizen, the technology edition, because despite all that we've gone through, I see a light and that's what this season's gonna focus on. There was a moment when I was listening to Scott and Kara Swisher's Pivot podcast walking down the street in my hood, and Scott said something that stopped me in my tracks...
Archival (Scott Galloway) 38:15
...I've been printing money in private companies and my theme, my entire theme for the next five years of my life around investment strategy, is citizenship...
Baratunde Thurston 38:22
Other than lobbying to get on this podcast, why did you choose to use the word citizenship in connection with your own investment strategy? What do you see coming? What do you hope is coming that's an alternative to what we've been talking about?
Scott Galloway 38:35
First off, just the asterisk around all my virtue signaling, is I'm doing this for selfish reason. I think there's money to be made in what I'll call the citizenship or immunity strategy, and I like the strategy. I like the idea of trying to do stuff or invest in companies that I think are good for the Commonwealth. When Amazon becomes abusive to their partners, a Shopify emerges. When the toxicity of Twitter and Facebook become so noxious, I think Snap and Pinterest, which are less toxic, are outperforming Facebook and Twitter right now on a shareholder level. I think the people at Robinhood--I'm gonna use an academic term here--are mendacious fucks. I think that they are addicting young men. I think they are absolutely using dark psychological techniques to create a dopamine addiction among young men. I do not think they are building wealth. There's just so many "gotchas" that make them richer and their shareholders poor, much less their customers. I've invested in OpenWeb, which manages comment sections. The comment section is actually more important than the actual content; it's where you get a lot of back and forth, and they're trying to make that...
Baratunde Thurston 39:39
It's where people yell "fight, fight, fight!"
Scott Galloway 39:25
That's right! This company, OpenWeb, manages it for big media companies ranging from News Corps. to Gwinnett, and helps them create a comment section that elevates productive, thoughtful comments. I invested in Better.com, which is online mortgages. We have found that whenever we get humans involved in improving mortgages, we end up with terrible things such as systemic racism, and mortgages are just too expensive and intimidating. Take a young immigrant family, they don't want to walk into a Bank of America and apply for a mortgage; they don't have the confidence, they've heard really bad things about mortgages and redlining, and all that bullshit. I think there's just some really outstanding opportunities from companies that are zigging when other companies are zagging, in terms of not addressing the externalities they create.
Baratunde Thurston 40:25
What obligations do you think a tech company in particular, a company in general, has to the public, to us, other than generating as many profits as possible for their shareholders?
Scott Galloway 40:37
We've basically prioritized companies and shareholders over workers. We have done that for the last 30 years, and the result is since 2008, the NASDAQ has quintupled; CEO compensation, as a multiple of their average workers compensation, has gone from 60 to 30; and minimum wage has exploded from $7.25 to--wait for it--$7.25. We say that, "oh, this is a function of a processor network economy and isn't this terrible, and let's pretend that we give a flying fuck." We have managed this. We have orchestrated a transfer of wealth from poor people to rich people, from young to old, with almost every major economic policy and construct in our approach to this. I'd like to think that companies have an obligational call on their better angels; that is not a good strategy. The government needs to regulate them. The government needs to say, "if you have grown your wealth $100 billion in the last five years and paid less than 1% of that in taxes, we need to rethink our tax system." When you have a profit incentive around making young girls feel bad about themselves, the government needs to step in, because here's the bottom line--and I'm guilty of this too--when it's raining money, it blurs your vision. The people at Philip Morris weren't bad people, but they talked themselves into believing cigarettes were no worse than ice cream because they were all making a shit ton of money. We need to elect leaders who will hold these firms to the same standards we've held other firms.
Baratunde Thurston 42:02
We call this show How to Citizen, and we interpret citizen as a verb, actions. When you think about citizening as a verb, how do you define it? What does it mean to Scott Galloway to citizen?
Scott Galloway 42:18
First and foremost, I'm trying to raise secure, loving kids that have empathy and a sense of how fortunate they are to be American. More than anything--and this is hard for me, because I'm naturally an angry, depressed person--I'm trying to be less coarse in my dialogue. I am really good at dunking on people and I've tried to stop that. I've tried to say, "okay, your opportunity to get a couple thousand likes because you call out someone, make a caricature of their comments and take it to an ugly place, it's just not adding any value to our Commonwealth." It might feel good. I think it's sort of what I call comedy of manor, being good to your neighbor, and imagine that everybody you meet online is your neighbor. You would never say this shit to your neighbor. You would never say this shit to another American who maybe served, and was a good person, and got up in the morning. You would never say this to someone who'd been raised by a single mother and was struggling with economic shame. You would just never say this shit, so why would you do it online? I fall into that trap. I get angry at people and I respond. The easiest way to live your life I think--I give a lot of advice to new dads--try and be the man your kids think you are, especially your young kids. My 13 year old kind of is figuring out who I am, unfortunately, but my 10 year old still thinks I'm the bomb.
Baratunde Thurston 43:31
You left a lot of evidence out there.
Scott Galloway 43:32
Yeah. My 10 year old still thinks I'm the bomb. Unfortunately, they have Google and they're finding shit on me, and they're, like, "oh, God. Dad did this?"
Baratunde Thurston 43:41
You have been really gracious with your time. I want to thank you for being here with me, Scott Galloway. Good luck with everything, all the journeys you're on. I really appreciate you.
Scott Galloway 43:50
Yeah, likewise, brother. Congrats on your success.
Baratunde Thurston 43:57
Here's the thing: that young, optimistic Baratunde who went dorm to dorm connecting his classmates to the internet, he's still with me. I believe there's more to the story than vaccine disinformation, mental health crises and hyper-concentrated wealth. This season, I'm going to be speaking with 10 different people who are redefining tech. They've built systems that reward consensus, create safe online spaces for LGBTQIA+ communities, and use games to combat misinformation. It's easy to get bogged down by all the negativity surrounding tech, but it's exciting to think about the possibilities. As I wrote in my 2018 tech manifesto, "the promise of the internet isn't that a few centralized powers will do everything for us. That's the Old World, and we shouldn't try to recreate it." Imagine if we used our collective data to help us be better neighbors, partners, artists, citizens, and humans, rather than just better products to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Imagine, too, if we could hold technology companies accountable by demanding that they share power more equitably with the people who use and enable their products and services. Imagine it. Now let's go build. I still believe in that vision because I've seen evidence that it's real. I've used tools that empower us collectively, and I've met some of the people building those tools. Now that we know how we got here, let's find the people with the solutions to take us where we want to go, the people making technology that helps us live together better, that helps us citizen. Next week, we talk to co-Founder of New_ Public, Eli Pariser.
Eli Pariser 45:52
I think this is the playbook for how we've moved through times of social stress and social pressure in the past. We've invented new kinds of organizations, new kinds of institutions; public libraries are a thing that were invented.
Baratunde Thurston 46:13
Here at How to Citizen, we're committed to giving you things to do beyond listening to me talk to somebody. We're building an entire universe of citizen action over at our new website, howtocitizen.com. For this episode, I'm going to give you three types of things you can do. First, feeds and feelings. I want you to take a moment and reflect on your various social media feeds. If your Facebook or Instagram or Tik Tok had a personality, what would it be and how would you describe it? Is it sassy with a little bit of inspiration? Is a gossipy and entertaining? Does it just make you sad? How do those feeds make you feel? Once you've thought about that, consider training the algorithm by selecting accounts and content that makes you feel good, that pushes you forward rather than drags you down. This small act could have a mighty impact on your mental and emotional well being. The second category of action, check out my digital manifesto. Yes, I wrote this thing for you and I'd love for you to check it out. It's available via a link in the show notes, and there's even an open source Google Doc version that you can contribute to. I am open to expansion, modification and criticism. Share your thoughts on this and I'll share some of your feedback on my own social channels. Lastly, let's ensure the regulation of Big Tech. We talked about it a lot in this episode and there are several grassroots efforts already underway that you can lend your voice, your skills, maybe some of your money to. Check out freedomfromfacebookandgoogle.com, athenaforall.org--which is working to free us from Amazon, which we probably all need--and the economicliberties.us. You don't have to memorize all this stuff, we have a whole website with this and more. Visit howtocitizen.com and follow us on Instagram. Join with us and others on the journey, as the internet doesn't have to be terrible. #howtocitizen. See you later. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeart Radio Podcasts and Dustlight Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Euceph. Our senior producer is Tamika Adams, our producer is Alie Kilts, and our assistant producer is Sam Paulson. Stephanie Cohn is our editor, Valentino Rivera is our senior engineer, and Matthew Lai is our apprentice. Original music by Andrew Eapen, with additional original music for season 3 from Andrew Clausen. This episode was produced and sound designed by Alie Kilts. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeart Radio and Rachael Garcia at Dustlight Productions.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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