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The 2010s Killed the Cult of the Tech Founder. Great!

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced they were giving up their “day to day” duties at Alphabet early this month—leaving the heavy lifting to Google CEO Sundar Pichai—an era ended in more ways than one. As much as the news made history for the Mountain View search giant, it was also a fitting end…

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The 2010s Killed the Cult of the Tech Founder. Great!

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced they were giving up their “day to day” duties at Alphabet early this month—leaving the heavy lifting to Google CEO Sundar Pichai—an era ended in more ways than one. As much as the news made history for the Mountain View search giant, it was also a fitting end to a cult of founderhood that peaked and crashed during the past 10 years.

At the beginning of this decade, “the Google Guys” were still the flag-bearers of that cult. From the time they started their company in the late 1990s, they gleefully drew the boxes that subsequent founder-savants would later check off: pursuing ideas that conventional wisdom deemed crazy; dismissing traditional business practices; and maintaining control of their company even after going public, bypassing oversight by granting themselves powerful voting shares.

The underlying philosophy was that founders knew better than shareholders what is good, not just for the company but for the world. If you gave them unlimited power, they might even eschew some profits for social good! Or, at the least, they’d postpone quick bucks for a long-term approach that only visionaries would appreciate. When Page claimed that Google was “not a conventional company,” he was speaking for all founders, many of whom would subsequently adopt that convention.

But the decade we’ve just endured has shattered their halos. The 2010s might have begun with Mark Zuckerberg posing for Time magazine’s Person of the Year, a role model for countless behoodied wannabe entrepreneurs. But it ended with him trying to look stoic while absorbing six hours of enraged verbal piñata swings from legislators.

Congress, along with the rest of us, is clearly disenchanted with the claims that founders are engines of wealth creation and change agents for global goodness. While their stated goals might have been lofty, the consequences of founder dreams have been low-paid gig economy jobs, misinformation campaigns, and the theft of our attention. Even Google/Alphabet, fabled for its happy workers, is experiencing employee unrest and regulatory pushback on privacy and antitrust issues.

At least Zuckerberg and the Alphabet dudes run profitable companies with high valuations. Some of the other founders who won glory in this decade are now known for questionable practices while piling up deficits. Remember Elizabeth Holmes, who was going to be the next Steve Jobs? It’s now her prosecutors who are out for blood, and they won’t settle for just a drop. Travis Kalanick, once celebrated as the hard-charging bro who was going to revolutionize transportation, created such a publicly toxic culture at Uber that his board tossed him aside. But even Kalanick’s misdeeds don’t compare to the Barnum-esque antics of WeWork’s Adam Neumann, whose business plan crumbled under the scrutiny of its aborted IPO. And since he had embraced the tactic of loading voting power into the shares he owned, the only way to rid the company of its megalomanical founder was to pay him off.

The founder halo will take another battering when lavishly optioned versions of those tales appear on home screens and in the cinema. These productions will make the satiric HBO show Silicon Valley look like a tourist bureau advertorial for its eponymous location.

In short, we’ve had enough. It once might have been charming that Jack Dorsey showed up for his Congressional spotlight sans tie and with hipster beard, reading his testimony from an iPhone. But what we want to know is, why is Twitter so toxic? Several of the founders who took their unicorns to market and remained in charge are having trouble explaining why their stock prices have plummeted from those high valuations in the private realm.

To be sure, founder-mania is still with us to some extent. After all, the VCs have to spend their money somewhere. During the 2010s, the chance to have an impact on the world, and maybe become a billionaire, placed founderdom at the peak of aspirational careers, much as in earlier times someone might have striven to pen the Great American Novel. (Now the dream is to write the most outlandish S-1.) The audience of wannabe founders is big enough to support best-selling books on starting and running companies; the bard of the field, venture capitalist (and serial founder) Ben Horowitz just wrote a tome urging founders to adopt Ghenghis Khan and prison gang leaders as role models.

And take a look at the startup accelerator Y Combinator. Started in 2005 with six nascent companies, in the early 2010s it began to dramatically ramp up its twice-yearly training program, which nets big seed rounds for almost all of the participants . Now a batch might have 200 companies. Since most of those startups consist of two or three founders each, that’s roughly 1,000 founders a year, unleashed on the ecosystem to fail and start again. But that’s not the full extent of YC’s influence. It also runs an online StartUp School that welcomes future Zuckerbergs and Pages from around the world, at scale. So far over 41,000 aspirants have taken the course. (The very best wind up in Mountain View for its three-month boot camp.) Just this week, YC announced it will run the online course more often.

Even in Y Combinator’s cathedral of founderdom, there’s been a change. CEO Micheal Siebel acknowledges the shift in perception. But he says the ecosystem is course-correcting, with a new wave of founders whose focus is social good. “We’re going to see some new role models,” he says. “Founders, investors, and users all have to live in this society. We’re all seeing the problems. And everyone wants to feel like they can be part of the solution.”

Still, the bloom is off the founder rose. And that’s a good thing. In our wild embrace of founders—and that goes especially for the enablers who threw money at them—we made a big mistake by not accounting for their lack of accountability. And we forgot that no matter how amazing these dudes seemed (yes, too many were dudes, though at least we got talking about diversity in this decade), they were just human, with human frailties. Unlimited power corrupts, even when the power is wielded by people in hoodies.

There will be more Larrys and Sergeys, and of course they will be funded. And we will benefit by their innovations. But in the 2020s, new founders will also be pressed on a question they can no longer avoid by swerving their rollerblades: What can go wrong?


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3D TV Tells You Everything About This Decade’s Tech

The breakout hit of the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010 was a television set. Hard to believe now, maybe, but it’s true; for one shining moment, the Toshiba Cell TV was the most exciting new thing in tech. Its name invoked the overkill processors inside. It was one of the first sets to promise “Net…

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3D TV Tells You Everything About This Decade’s Tech

The breakout hit of the Consumer Electronics Show in 2010 was a television set. Hard to believe now, maybe, but it’s true; for one shining moment, the Toshiba Cell TV was the most exciting new thing in tech. Its name invoked the overkill processors inside. It was one of the first sets to promise “Net TV Channels” that would let you stream directly from Netflix or Pandora. And it could show pictures in three dimensions.

The Cell TV was hardly the lone 3D TV at CES 2010. Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung; everyone brought their spin on the decade’s big new breakthrough. Each of them touted the benefits of putting on a pair of clunky tinted glasses before settling in to a night on the couch, and presented as self-evident that their customers would clamor for the opportunity.

The technology had existed before; Samsung got there first, in 2007. But January 2010 presented a clear inflection point. In addition to the Cell TV there were 3D Blu-ray players, sets that could automatically give depth to flat images, and the promise of DirecTV networks that broadcast exclusively in three dimensions. The industry had lined up behind a vision of the future, marketing executives and product managers insisting that the more they had created was also better. How could it not be? It was more.

Five years later, 3D TV was dead. You probably haven’t thought about it since then, if you even did before. But there’s maybe no better totem for the last decade of consumer technology. (The iPhone was more transformative, but is also singular, and besides that was born in the late aughts.) It’s what happens when smart people run out of ideas, the last gasp before aspiration gives way to commoditization. It was the dawn of all-internet everything, and all the privacy violations inherent in that. And it steadfastly ignored how human beings actually use technology, because doing so meant companies could charge more for it.

What I remember most from those press conferences in 2010 was the assuredness that millions of people somehow actively wanted to have to put glasses on their faces in order to watch television. Even then, it made no sense. TV viewing has always been a large passive experience, something to do while you’re doing other things. And besides that, only certain types of shows—movies, maybe some sports—actually benefited from 3D in the first place. Or would, if the television sets were any good; most of the early ones stuttered and flickered even when you sat dead center in front of them. Stray a few feet to either side, and the viewing angle shot the experience altogether.

It gets worse. Different manufacturers backed different 3D TV formats and technologies, meaning one set of glasses wouldn’t necessarily work on a competitor’s set. The simple act of watching in 3D caused eye strain in a significant chunk of the population. And the list of available things to watch never hit critical mass.

Lots of technology is bad at the start, but look closely at this one. The pointless 3D TV standards war presages the manifold sins of the smart home. Its fundamental lack of justification for existence—other than selling more stuff—has clear kinship with everything from Google Glass to Amazon Dash buttons to Snap Spectacles. (Related: the dogged determination that people will endure face accessories, still hustled by Oculus and HTC Vive and Magic Leap and other self-deceivers.) This is admittedly more of a stretch, but if you squint you can see a thinly drawn line between a viewing experience that’s actively bad for your eyes and hoverboards that won’t stop exploding.

The course 3D TV charted from that first year was no better. It quickly became the default for top-line models; if you wanted the TV with the best display, you had to buy the 3D version. This was not only more expensive but actively wasteful; I once bought a Vizio set that came with four pairs of glasses—four!—that went entirely unused. (I recognize my own responsibilities and failure here as a consumer, but every decent set in those years had some sort of glasses bundle, because again, they all hyped 3D.) It’s an inexact comparison, but the stratification reminds me of certain smartphone companies (Apple, hello) who continually reserve certain features for their biggest devices, even when plenty of people prefer to go small.

Similarly, 3D TVs were the first to connect to the internet, each company offering its homegrown apps to enable two categories of experiences: streaming video, and lots of things that shouldn’t happen on a television set. Basically, they put a chip in it, and went on to do the same to every appliance in your house, regardless of whether you wanted one there. To this day, you still can’t beat a dumb TV with a Roku. (The interfaces were also universally terrible; they still are. See in that a sort of silhouette of the decade in consumer operating systems, in that only very few companies can do it right, or at least passably well.)

And then, most egregiously and most portentously, they spied on you. They installed software without your knowledge or consent, and used it to track what you watched on a second-by-second basis, and then sold that data to third-party advertisers, along with your IP address. They did this for years, until they got caught in 2017. And that’s just Vizio. The rest of them do some version of it too, although at least they ask for permission when you turn on your set for the first time.

That activity wasn’t limited to 3D TVs. But it began near the end of the 3D TV era, another desperate lunge at revenue when the big new thing had clearly fizzled. This one stuck, though, part of a vast underground data economy that tracks you in the most unexpected places, in the most invasive ways. It’s Cambridge Analytica, and location tracking scandals, and data broker networks, and every other brick that has built this decade’s Panopticon. This decade, you became the product. Even for things you bought.

Tech hasn’t been all bad this decade. But smartphones and tablets and laptops and even smartwatches have all settled comfortably into their role as commodities, basically interchangeable, barely improving, scrambling for a new hook whether you want it or not. (What if we made it fold?) 3D TV is dead. Everything is 3D TV.


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The 5 Best Comics of 2019

All told, 2019 was a strong, strange year for comics. The past 12 months featured some of the best indie titles in recent memory, yet the output of mainstream outfits like Marvel, DC, and Image can best be described as “mediocre, with a few high points.” Considering the strongest work in the medium didn’t come…

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The 5 Best Comics of 2019

All told, 2019 was a strong, strange year for comics. The past 12 months featured some of the best indie titles in recent memory, yet the output of mainstream outfits like Marvel, DC, and Image can best be described as “mediocre, with a few high points.” Considering the strongest work in the medium didn’t come from publishers with the glossiest names, you might have missed a few things. Below are our picks for the best of the year. Use this as a reference to make sure you didn’t miss any of 2019’s most stellar comics.

The River at Night (Drawn & Quarterly)

A reworked collection of material that first appeared in his acclaimed series Ganges, Kevin Huizenga’s latest book is likely his masterpiece, finding a way to marry his formalist experimentation with a heartfelt sincerity and curiosity about how we interact with the world—and the people—around us. It’s also the most accurate depiction of the surreality of insomnia, and the strange thoughts that it provokes in those afflicted, filled with moments that will seem instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent a sleepless night. Funny, intelligent, and beautiful, it’s the book that—if there’s any justice—will finally make Huizenga into the household name he’s always deserved to be.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (First Second Books)

Mariko Tamaki’s funny, touching tale of high school relationships—not just romantic, despite the title—and of overcoming the toxic influences in your life is a joy, underscoring just why she’s one of the most vital writers in the industry today. Yet the true star of this YA graphic novel is the art by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Her work is at once firmly stylized and achingly beautiful (the color palette alone is wonderful); it’s also lifelike and filled with poignant performances from each character in the story, from Freddy—the nervous “me” of the title—to Laura herself and the rest of the cast. It’s the queer teen romance story you’ve longed for, even if you didn’t even know you were longing for one.

The Hard Tomorrow (Drawn & Quarterly)

Quietly ambitious and effortlessly heartbreaking, Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow felt like a book that was entirely in tune with the world today, and humanity’s hopes for a better world to come. Centered on a caregiver and political activist, the book makes clear how blurred the line is between the personal and political as events overtake her, and as a result put her relationships at risk. It’s an emotionally turbulent read, and one of the kindest books of the year; it’s also, visually, a break from Davis’ earlier work into something with more detail and specificity. It’s the perfect response to 2019, and perhaps the book of the year for that reason alone.

Is This How You See Me? (Fantagraphics Books)

If Laura Dean is the ideal book for our inner high schooler, Is This How You See Me? is a title from the other end of the age spectrum, as Jaime Hernandez tells the story of Maggie and Hopey, two people revisiting their youth in middle age by attending a punk reunion show and realizing how things have changed (and how, of course, some things never will). Hernandez’s work has matured to display such subtlety and sensitivity that it’s no surprise this book is capable of turning nostalgia for lost youth into a melancholic pleasure. Is Jaime the finest living cartoonist around? Reading this, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

House of X/Powers of X (Marvel Entertainment)

A bold, exhaustive—and, at 12 issues, exhausting—revival of Marvel’s X-Men comic book franchise, House of X and Powers of X (the latter pronounced “powers of 10,” confusingly) did away with the status quo in ways big (death is no longer the end) and small (everyone now lives on an island, just as they did in the “Utopia” era of a decade earlier). It’s an ambitious attempt to jump-start what had become a creatively stagnant property that leaves little on the table, even predicting its own demise through flash-forwards—kind of—and heavy foreshadowing. It’s not entirely successful, but it still feels like a shocking and necessary way to reinvigorate ideas that have been around for half a century.


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France Plans a Revolution to Rein in the Kings of Big Tech – WIRED

During a joint press conference in London with President Emmanuel Macron of France this week, President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on French goods such as champagne, in retaliation for a new tax on large tech companies. As he spoke, Macron’s digital affairs minister, Cédric O, was in Washington, DC, trying to build support for…

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France Plans a Revolution to Rein in the Kings of Big Tech – WIRED

During a joint press conference in London with President Emmanuel Macron of France this week, President Trump threatened to impose tariffs on French goods such as champagne, in retaliation for a new tax on large tech companies. As he spoke, Macron’s digital affairs minister, Cédric O, was in Washington, DC, trying to build support for even stronger actions against Google and other tech giants.

“Tech platforms have a footprint in our economies and our democracies that is a huge challenge for public power,” O said, during a visit to WIRED’s offices in San Francisco, one stop on a week-long, cross-country trip that involved meeting lawmakers, regulators, and academics to discuss antitrust tactics. O says French and European ideas about restraining tech’s power are catching on in the US—and that France’s digital services tax is just the start.

Macron signed that new levy into law in July. It takes 3 percent of digital sales from companies with more than €750 million ($829 million) in global revenue and revenues in France of over €25 million ($27 million) in categories such as online ads or ride hailing. Despite the ire it has drawn from tech companies and Trump’s US trade representative, O describes it as a kind of warmup.

“The digital tax is politically and symbolically important, but from an economic and democratic point of view, it is a really, really small part of the problem,” O says. More important? Targeting the biggest tech companies—most of which are American—with new regulations to prevent them stifling competition and damaging democracy. “We’ve designed our regulatory framework for the industrial age, and at some point it’s not relevant any more,” O says.

Unlike presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, O doesn’t want to break up tech companies. He instead quotes a slogan he says he heard this week from the man who used to be America’s top internet regulator, erstwhile Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler: “Don’t break them up, break them open.”

O says that as with banks, governments could identify the “systemic” tech companies with the most power and target them with extra regulations. Those could include being forced to allow competitors access to their services or data for free or at controlled rates, a ban on acquisitions, and even specific hate-speech rules.

Such ideas are unlikely to be popular with US tech companies or the top officials and tweeters of the Trump administration. But O claims that support for reforming antitrust rules to rein in tech is growing in the US, citing discussions he had this week with figures including Wheeler, Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who favors a government crackdown on tech firms, and Stanford economist Doug Melamed, formerly a top lawyer on the Justice Department’s antitrust case against Microsoft.

The prospects of a significant US tech crackdown will be decided in November 2020. Regardless, O predicts an international assault, warning that the EU is poised to toughen its stance on the tech industry.

The bloc recently appointed a fresh set of leaders to its executive branch, the EU Commission, which added a new position created specifically to work on “technological sovereignty”. It is filled by Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, who gained notoriety as the EU’s competition czar with investigations and fines of Google, Facebook, and Apple.

O calls Vestager a “big ally” and predicts the EU will make “huge progress” on tech regulation in coming months. He also acknowledges that for Europe to truly change the trajectory of tech will require more than just government action—it also needs to incubate tech giants of its own.

O laments that France has produced only a couple of tech IPOs larger than a billion euros in the past 23 years. “If you want to be able to set the standards in the world, you should be able to make new leaders emerge,” he says.

The French government hopes new regulations can help change that by making it easier for startups to gain a foothold. It has a new €5 billion ($5.5 billion) fund for French startups. O says improved tech policies are already helping to inspire more French tech workers overseas to think about moving home—as did the recent electoral wins for Trump and Brexit.


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