May 24, 2021

kwee's week in reading

There was a point this week where I noticed a lot of what I was reading and holding onto was intersecting under a wider umbrella: the implications and human cost of tech scalability/accessibility; technology as mere reflection, catalyst, and/or driver of wider ills in society; how we understand/learn about tech's externalities and hold power to account; who has the megaphone/audience and what does that ultimately mean??

so here are the 5 pieces I came across this week that gave me much to stew over:

Robinhood's Big Gamble, The New Yorker
In the face of so much real harm, how does a company like Robinhood continue to regurgitate the same pithy catchphrases about "democratizing access to the stock market"? In any case, this piece shifts between human-scale reporting, comments from academics and official company spokespeople, and overview of current events like the GameStop stock memeification, so it gave me a better all-around understanding on a company that has very real impacts. Longform journalism offering a balanced, astute peek under the hood.

Grift is Good, Margins Newsletter
Grift exemplifies whatever dystopian phase of capitalism we're currently in. In our absolutely insane world of play money and megalomaniacal electric car company founders, there are no referees or rules, and thanks to social media platforms, success is measured and rewarded handsomely by the internet noise equivalent of a clap-o-meter. Can Duruk runs through the hall of fame of current technology-enabled grifts and puts it all so much better than I could have ever articulated myself, but I don't come to the same conclusion that one should start embodying grift...

The Anxiety of Influencers, Harper's Magazine
I appreciate that the author of this essay, Barrett Swanson, didn't get too much into the truly disgusting business mechanism behind everything here, but rather serves as a clear-eyed, curious, fish-out-water observer for all of us not living in TikTok houses. He weaves his way through observations funny and sad, and ends in a lament about the common exploitation happening in spaces as widely ranging as a TikTok house to the professor's lectern. I ordered his new book right after reading this piece.

TikTok Mansions are Publicly Traded Now, The New York Times
The aforementioned truly disgusting business mechanism behind everything in the Harper's essay above this one. 

Tech vs. Journalism, New York Magazine
This piece is really the one that inspired me to compile the rest of what came before it this week. The tech vs. media feud can all seem exhaustingly clubby/tribal/relevant to 100 people, but I think the implications are potentially quite important.
For example, with the way the piece explores Andreesen Horowitz's antagonism toward the media and considers how A16Z might actually be trying to circumvent/replace media:
I hadn't pieced together that at this point a lot of what Andreesen Horowitz has been throwing its weight behind recently have been tools and products that, all together, could comprise a media company for their institutional brand (Substack, Clubhouse, etc.). I *had* noticed how A16Z partners were pushing things into the world in a way that reminds me of the "Bender Should Not be Allowed on TV" episode from Futurama where Bender gets himself cast in a TV show by shouting over everyone else's auditions "Boooo, this kid sucks, we want Bender":
Bender Should Not be Allowed on TV.png

Isn't this the same stuff as the Elon Musk + Dogecoin business described in Can Duruk's grift article?? With the power vested in A16Z, if the partners speak their desires into existence enough, enough people will follow to give the thing value, which further enriches the firm. It feels like they are creating a parallel universe to wall themselves off from would-be critics:

“They’ve retained the sense of ‘us against the world’ but not noticed they’re the top four or five companies on the stock exchange and dominate nation-states,” says James Slezak, a Y Combinator–backed founder who previously led digital strategy for the Times. “Before, they were fighting for disruption; now, it’s for retaining monopoly. They’re no longer fighting power. They’re fighting a weakened check on the abuse of power.”

This piece ends with the notion that it's better for everyone (including the tech companies/VC firms) if media and tech can continue to have a working relationship, even if it's not clear how that's going to happen from here on out. And I think the first piece on this list about Robinhood demonstrates the value and necessity of such reporting.