The Persistence of Memory

One of the great things about podcasts is that they kinda never go away. The back catalog is usually there (for the most part) so if you come to a podcast late, you can always binge and catch up to the present day.

The Flop House is a podcast I’ve heard of for years but only dove into recently. They have episodes going back to summer of 2008. (TLDR: The Flop House is great; the granddaddy of the lets-make-fun-of-bad-movies podcasts; features two (!) Daily Show head writers and Brooklyn’s best bartender; check it out).

I recently dove in at the very beginning and, man, it was a weird time capsule (aside from being very very funny). There’s an episode where they talk about the burgeoning cult for The Room; they barely remember who the Rock is because the 2F2F reassessment hadn’t happened yet…

But also, there’s talk of the housing bust; there’s an episode recorded right after Obama was elected for the first time; there are the first jokes about the Tea Party, and I just listened to an episode where they mention Occupy Wall Street. There have been 2–3 Donald Trump jokes so far, which, in retrospect, jump out at you like a shotgun blast—whereas, at the time, they would have been throwaways about a reality tv star.

It’s such a weird time machine of an experience to binge a podcast. All I can think when I listen back is: “Guys, you have no idea what you’re in for.”

And that’s been making me think a lot lately about the persistence of popular memory. Can you even remember a time when it didn’t feel like the whole world was on fire? Can you even remember a time when NOT EVERY SINGLE THING IN LIFE was political, or partisan, or fraught with danger of hurt feelings or embarrassment or (in the worst cases) the possibility of actual violence?

I genuinely worry about this. What if people forget that things can be normal. This new normal we’re living in was not always normal. There was a time when just imagining the nightmare hellride we wake up to every day would have seemed unfathomable. I especially worry that if you’re 24, 26 and you’re coming into this adult world in this context… do you even know it doesn’t have to be this way?

As an example, I’m so old, I have vague childhood memories of the 1988 election. There was a time, not so long ago where you could randomly ask a friend or stranger (if you dared… you generally wouldn’t do this in those days… not our of self preservation but out of politeness) if they had voted for Bush or Dukakis and if you and they had voted for opposing candidates, the response was, “Huh. Well. Interesting.” But you didn’t think differently about them because of their answer, nor they you. You didn’t hate them. Nor they you.

The first election I voted in was 1996. Again, there was no major agitation on my college campus. You just voted for one or the other and it wasn’t a big deal or the end of the world, or anything like that. Life just went on.

This was not that long ago… the world wasn’t always on fire…

I worry that we’re forgetting that it’s even possible to live in normal times (and I’ll acknowledge that maybe that’s impossibly naive, that maybe the normal times are gone for good, but go with me on this for a second…)

I’m not qualified to discuss politics, but I am qualified to talk tech.

And when my friend and colleague Gabe Rivera posted this last night:

… it sort of meshed with what I had been thinking about above.


Tech Doesn’t Have to Be Like This

Gabe’s post is a funny because it highlights how the “problems” in Silicon Valley and San Francisco have never really changed.

But also, as Gabe points out, Nick would go on to found Gawker and was one of the first lights leading the way out of the darkness of the dotcom bubble bursting… one of the first signs that the internet was NOT DEAD YET. Far from it of course. Just three short years after this post… there was Flickr and TechCrunch and Facebook and the whole Web 2.0 thing. The rise of the modern tech ecosystem was just around the corner.

I know. I was there. Most of my entrepreneurial activities were happening in these years. There WAS a time when you had to convince people that tech wasn’t dead; that, on the contrary, tech was just about to change everything. Not everyone could see it, but for those of us who could, the early to mid 2000s where this glory period where the possibilities seemed endless, and where (generally) the things we were doing in tech were good and genuinely disrupting the world (mostly) for the better.

I’ve been doing the Techmeme Ride Home podcast now for 10 months. Over nearly 200 episodes, it has surprised me how much I’ve had to report on the shitty things tech is doing these days. The shitty way tech is impacting the world. The shitty way tech is making a lot of us feel.

It’s been depressing. It’s surprised me how much it’s depressed me. But I know why.

TECH. DOES. NOT. HAVE. TO. BE. THIS. WAY.

You don’t have to feel embarrassed to go home to your families and say you work for Facebook. You don’t have to walk out of Google because they’re not listening to you. You don’t have to worry that AI research you’re doing will someday create an Orwellian nightmare state.

I mean. You do. Because tech is shitty and broken.

But that’s the point. Tech used to MOSTLY be a force for good, instead of this… whatever it feels like it is right now.

And not that long ago either…

So, please don’t forget that. Especially you young people, don’t accept that tech HAS to be some rapaciously greedy, addiction-as-a-feature, scale-and-growth-at-all-costs, aggressively disruptive (in the negative sense) oligopoly dominated by a handful of 800lb gorillas.

Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. And it wasn’t. Not that long ago.

There are reasons why tech is in the state is in. I’ve done rants about this on the podcast. I don’t have time to go into it now, but generally the problem is that the thinking and the strategies and the people that dug us out of the dotcom bubble haven’t learned a new trick in 15 years. The things that got tech to the dominant position it now enjoys have not evolved. It’s still all about scaling to a billion users; it’s still all about quantity over quality (and that means quality of life, crucially); it’s still all about the tricks that made Web 2.0 happen and mobile and social, etc. These ponies have no new tricks.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it won’t be. It’s time for a cultural and generational turnover in tech.

So if you’re a young person entering tech today and you’re a bit appalled at the state of the industry you’re entering? Good! Change it. You’re the only ones who can. Get mad. Do things differently. No business model or investing strategy or product philosophy can survive forever. Nor should it.

Tech can be better. It needs to be better to thrive in this new era that we’re just entering.

I just want you to remember that it wasn’t always the way it is now, and it can’t be that way for much longer.

It can be better. Make it so.