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Why Zuckerberg’s Embrace of Mayor Pete Should Worry You

We recently learned that Elizabeth Warren is the kind of presidential candidate Mark Zuckerberg considers an existential threat to Facebook. She is, after all, determined to break up the sprawling social-networking empire. But what about the others? What sort of presidential candidate does Zuckerberg consider an existential asset to Facebook? We may have an answer:…

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Why Zuckerberg’s Embrace of Mayor Pete Should Worry You

We recently learned that Elizabeth Warren is the kind of presidential candidate Mark Zuckerberg considers an existential threat to Facebook. She is, after all, determined to break up the sprawling social-networking empire. But what about the others? What sort of presidential candidate does Zuckerberg consider an existential asset to Facebook? We may have an answer: Step right up, Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Bloomberg recently reported that Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, privately recommended candidates for technical positions at the Buttigieg campaign. Zuckerberg and the Buttigieg folks were quick to minimize the connections, portraying them as akin to a boss forwarding résumés rather than some kind of endorsement. But Zuckerberg’s attempts at deflection were imperfect at best.

He and Buttigieg share friends, as well as an education—they both completed their Harvard schooling in 2004, Zuckerberg as a sophomore departing for Silicon Valley, Buttigieg as a magna cum laude graduate headed for Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Most significantly, they share a persona: the confident, disruption-peddling wonder-kid with a modern startup mentality.

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To be clear, I’m not invoking the startup founder who revels in visionary, outside-the-box thinking. That would be Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate with deep Silicon Valley roots who wants to stave off what he sees as technology-led dystopia through a guaranteed income of $1,000 a month. No, I mean a startup founder like Zuckerberg, who is confident in his honorable motives, quick to adapt to changing circumstances, and determined to win at all costs.

Buttigieg’s campaign manager, Mike Schuhl, embraced the Silicon Valley comparison early on. “We want to build a campaign that’s a little disruptive, kind of entrepreneurial,” he told the Associated Press in the spring. “Right now, it feels like a startup.” The campaign’s national investment chair, Swati Mylavarapu, a former partner at the prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, told WIRED this summer that her Silicon Valley background was an asset. “At the outset,” she said, “I have a fundamental appreciation for how small but very nimble teams of talented young people can do really big things and change the world for the better.”

Look at the adjectives Mylavarapu invoked in that one sentence: nimble, talented, young, better. Not long ago, a Silicon Valley startup would, indeed, have been seen as a worthy model for someone aspiring to be president. Hell, there was a time when political pundits thought Zuckerberg himself should be a candidate! In 2017, when Buttigieg and Zuckerberg took a car ride through South Bend that was broadcast to Facebook Live, the man thought to be testing the presidential waters was Zuckerberg, who turned 35 this year and thus became constitutionally eligible to run.

For 2020, however, the problem with using the startup as a model for a campaign is that the public knows better, in no small part because of the scrutiny of Facebook’s history of missteps and abuses. In place of supposed Silicon Valley virtues like idealism, flexibility, and merit we now detect opportunism, self-dealing, individualism, overblown promises, and, as always, a great man to lead us.

For example, we once might have seen Silicon Valley’s support for Buttigieg as a meritocratic triumph in its own right—brilliant tech leaders seek out the best leader to recommend to the public and discover a young man who taught himself Norwegian and won a Rhodes scholarship. But, in fact, the connection is based in elitist networking. Buttigieg connected with his important supporters when he was not quite a teenager, making friends at Harvard with Facebook’s early team and other soon-to-be Silicon Valley figures like Mylavarapu, who volunteered with Buttigieg as part of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

These friends have helped him raise money through his relatively short political career, and, as we’ve learned from Bloomberg, have pointed talented programmers and product managers toward positions in the campaign. This is similar to how the so-called PayPal mafia worked. A group of young executives, many with Stanford educations, used their dotcom wealth and a network of talented programmers to dominate startup culture in the early 2000s.

On his website and in web ads, Buttigieg readily deploys startup rhetoric, inspirational but also individualistic and clear-eyed. “We are living through a moment of huge upheaval, but also of great opportunity,” his website intones. “This moment demands that our policies reflect a deep understanding of Americans’ everyday lives and embody our country’s highest values—values like Freedom, Security, and Democracy.” Also, there is this credo for his campaign: “This is about more than winning an election. It’s about winning an era. Join our 2020 team today if you believe it’s time for a new generation of leadership.”

The overt competition—the winning—is front and center. The area being fought over, apparently, is “an era.” Who exactly is the foe isn’t quite clear. The Republicans? The rich? Silicon Valley? I don’t think so. From context, the only opposition is the past, an older, inferior generation of leadership. With familiar Silicon Valley logic, progress from Buttigieg’s ascension is inevitable, the result of bold new ideas pushing out tired old ones. As we’ve all seen, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way.

Elizabeth Warren’s rhetoric, it should be said, is also confrontational, but there are differences. She stresses collaboration, and her foes are plainly identified. Come to the Warren website and you are greeted with a series of predictions and a question: “We will save our democracy. We will rebuild the middle class. We will end Washington corruption. Will you join our fight?”

In recent days, Buttigieg has deployed a favorite startup technique known as the pivot, the idea being that when what you’re selling isn’t catching on, sell something else. After being mild mannered in earlier debates to little gain, he turned aggressively on Warren in the last debate, questioning how she would pay for “Medicare for all” and depicting her as a typical, old-fashioned politician: “Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything—except this.”

The attack on Warren was a good way to identify himself as a centrist, a possible heir to Biden should he falter as a front-runner. It also sent a not-so-subtle signal to his supporters in Silicon Valley that he was a realist, not a crusader like Warren. Leave your existential dread at the doorstep.

In interviews, Buttigieg has walked a fine line when it comes to Silicon Valley. He has made “structural democratic reform” a priority, including increasing the number of justices on the United States Supreme Court from 9 to 15 to reduce its partisanship. Reining in the political role of social networks would seem to be in his wheelhouse. Indeed, in May, Buttigieg told the San Jose Mercury-News that he thought his Harvard friend and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes had “made a very convincing case” that no company “should have the type of power that … these tech companies have.”

But in the same interview, he stopped short of Warren’s proposals and instead suggested “a spectrum” of regulation that could include fines, blocking new mergers, or splitting up companies. He also took up the Facebook line about how Congressional hearings have revealed that legislators are so poorly informed, they lack the standing to properly regulate Silicon Valley, a situation he called “incredibly dangerous.”

What we have today in Silicon Valley is a startup culture that is consolidating monopolistic power. Disruption, especially from a populist president on the left, is the last thing these companies are looking for. Buttigieg’s sympathy with Silicon Valley isn’t intellectual, nor is it exactly corrupt either—he has simply absorbed its values and attitudes and has even tried to apply them to his political life.

From Silicon Valley’s perspective, Buttigieg is the dream candidate: a change agent who doesn’t want to change them.


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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from…

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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from daily use.

Called reCharge, the concept looks at how to curb the waste that plagues Goodyear’s industry: About 250 million tires were scrapped in the US in 2017. “The tire is one of the few components that doesn’t stay on for the life of the vehicle,” says CTO Chris Helsel. “It’s replaced quite often. So the first problem to solve was to make the tire more of a permanent structure, as part of the vehicle itself.”

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To make that happen, Goodyear’s engineers designed something that works a bit like a stick of lip balm. At the center of the wheel sits a cylindrical, pressurized cartridge filled with liquified, biodegradable tire compound. As the miles stack up and the tread wears down, the pressure differential between the interior of the cartridge and the tire surface draws out the compound. It oozes out of channels radiating from the center to the tread surface automatically, passing through a grid-like frame that molds it into the proper shape. (The system is envisioned as incorporating both tire and wheel, with a non-pneumatic support structure instead of a tire attached to a metal rim.) When exposed to outside air—where the rubber meets the road—the compound hardens, and your tires never go bald.

The reCharge tire is very much a concept, but some of the ideas it promotes could make it onto your car in the next few years.

Courtesy of Goodyear

So instead of tossing old tires every few years, you’ll keep the bulk of the structure as long as you’ve got the car. The central cartridge would need replacing a few times over the wheel’s projected lifespan of between 100,00 and 300,00 miles, Goodyear estimates. That means less waste, Helsel says, since worn down tires get tossed even if the structural components beneath the tread and in the sidewall remain perfectly intact.

The reCharge concept comes with some other neat ideas built in. Helsel says sensors embedded within the reCharge structure can analyze wear patterns and driving style, and tune the type of compound the user might install next in order for it to better match. Aggressive brakers and performance nuts would get one kind of chemistry, hyper-miling road-trippers another. Goodyear could account for climate and road quality as well.

The tire is also well suited to electric vehicles. Because they’re usually heavier than their gas-powered counterparts and apply greater torque during acceleration, they can wear out tires 20 to 50 percent faster, Helsel says. “So you’re going to need a tire that lasts longer. This idea will allow for extended tire life and much easier swaps, and replacing just the cartridge will require one tenth of the number of parts that would need replacing compared to conventional tires.”

The concept, though, isn’t near production. Goodyear hasn’t made the all-important compound, and getting it to work as described would be complex, especially the bit about hardening with oxidation. Helsel says the company envisions something including fibrous material to enhance strength, inspired by the renowned toughness of natural spider silk. But different elements of the reCharge concept could trickle out sooner than a complete product—potentially within a decade. So the proposed tire compound, the structural framework, or the embedded sensors and artificial-intelligence-based analysis of use patterns might appear earlier in conventional tires. So your tires may get smarter—but they’ll still eventually lose the tread.


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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think…

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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.

The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think the triple-folded paper brochure you get at state parks, except replace the paper with a phone. It’s one of the first concepts we’ve seen with two separate hinge mechanisms working simultaneously, converting a 6.65-inch phone into a 10-inch tablet.

Photograph: TCL

I got a chance to play around with a prototype. It feels very rough around the edges—namely, it’s stiff and tough to unfold—but the device veritably went from a traditional-looking phone into an iPad-like tablet. You can also fold one-third of the screen away for the times you don’t need the maximum available amount of screen space. I can easily see myself unfolding this in a coffee shop and pulling out a slim Bluetooth keyboard to type up some words instead of lugging around a laptop.

Unfortunately with so much folding going on it, it’s a very thick phone—around the chunkiness of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, if not more. It’s not terribly fun to use one-handed.

That’s why the second concept is a little more interesting. It’s not exactly a foldable phone, rather a phone with a “rollable” screen, as TCL puts it. It looks just like an ordinary smartphone with a 6.75-inch screen, but spectacularly, you can tug on the right edge of the handset to roll out more display and increase the screen real estate to 7.8 inches—about as much as the iPad Mini, and with no folding required. This design keeps the phone really thin at 0.35 inches. The dummy unit I used required me to manually extend the screen, but TCL said it has a motorized version that automatically does it.

Since TCL manufactures its own displays, the company has gone wild playing around with various form factors. It has more than three dozen other concepts floating around in its factories. However, it’s likely the two concepts being unveiled today (as well as the wallet-like foldable device that debuted at CES) will never make it to market.

“We are not shy to show some of these ideas to engage in a discussion, to get your feedback, to learn,” says Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing at TCL. “We believe this is much more important than just putting a product out, keep the volumes low, charge a very high price, and make the consumer a beta user and pay for it. That’s not TCL’s style.”

This testing phase lets the company identify which types of foldable phones resonate with people the most. Once it nails down a particular design and form—and there’s apparently a leading candidate—TCL intends to create a portfolio of foldables that give several options to buyers.

Being patient also gives the company time to figure out how to make foldable phones more affordable overall. Most of the products we’ve seen from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, and Huawei start at $1,380 and go all the way up to $2,700. That’s far more expensive than some of TCL’s most popular TVs.

“We’re not here to make novelty products,” says Jason Gerdon, head of global strategic communications. “We’re here to make innovation accessible.”

Whatever design TCL ends up settling on, the foldable phone is expected to arrive by the end of the year or early 2021. Before then, TCL is expected to launch its first US phones: the TCL 10 Pro, 10L, and the TCL 10 5G, which it teased at CES. (Gerdon said TCL doesn’t see the Covid-19 outbreak causing a substantial impact on its supply chain in the immediate term, but there is a chance products could be delayed “the longer the crisis continues.”)

Regardless, all this shows just how much TCL is now investing in its own brand name after a few attempts at leveraging others. It licenses the BlackBerry name and made a couple of keyboard-laden phones, but after making no real gains in smartphone market share, TCL is ending its BlackBerry contract this summer. Streit said making BlackBerry phones was still a very valuable learning experience.

TCL also licenses the Alcatel brand and owns Palm, both of which are here to stay. Alcatel will continue to offer ultra-low-cost phones—the TCL phone brand will sit just above it—and Palm will explore other ways to minimize screen time like, say, slapping a flexible screen on your wrist as a bracelet, Streit suggested.

Whether foldable phones prove to be a big part of our future is still up in the air. There’s no singular folding device stealing the hearts of mainstream consumers. But it’s undeniable that a folding screen makes any phone just a little more interesting.


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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.Next came Adobe…

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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.

Next came Adobe Summit. Then Facebook F8. Within weeks, Google had canceled its annual developer conference, Google I/O, and Google Cloud Next, its cloud-focused conference. Microsoft called off its MVP Summit. IBM pulled the plug on Think. TED decided to hold off on its gathering, debating only whether to delay it or put it online. The organizers of SXSW wrung their hands, even after its biggest tech exhibitors—Twitter and Facebook among them—pulled out. On Friday, the city of Austin finally canceled the event.

As concern over Covid-19 sets in, people around the world are rethinking large gatherings. Social soirees have been canceled, universities are moving classes online, and more companies are instituting mandatory telecommuting policies—Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Salesforce have each asked their employees to work from home in recent weeks. If the coronavirus is going to reshape the way we work, as some have hypothesized, it will also need to change how we do conferences, a trillion-dollar industry in which millions of people participate each year. A new group of startups is trying to sell the business world on the value of virtual alternatives, but the appeal of networking IRL has so far had a stubborn way of sticking around.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Conferences have long been the gold standard for exchanging ideas and strengthening professional relationships, both in business and academia. Sure, they can be a bit stuffy, but gathering people in the same room has measurable benefits. One study, from MIT, found that scientific collaborations that came out of conference meetings were “more novel, cross-disciplinary and more frequently cited than projects between two researchers in the same institution.”

It’s the execution of those events that’s often lackluster: People gather in hotel ballrooms, sit in stiff chairs, and watch a series of unsurprising talks and panel discussions. Many conferences end up being self-congratulatory echo chambers rather than forums for new knowledge. Technology hasn’t created much disruption either. Instead, tech conferences have become high-production spectacles as the industry emulates Steve Jobs and his commercial-style developer conferences. Those events aren’t cheap, either: Adobe Summit, before turning itself into a digital-only event, charged $1,695 per ticket—and that was the early bird price. That’s to say nothing of the cost of travel and the inevitably overpriced conference hotel rooms.

The alternate ideas have been fairly uninspired: webinars, panel livestreams. Xiaoyin Qu, the cofounder of a new virtual conference startup called Run the World, says the problem with most virtual conferences is the inability to meet other people. She attended dozens of conferences last year for market research and found that the best moments often weren’t the keynote speeches, but the breakout sessions or coffee breaks when conference attendees could bump into one another. When people met someone at a conference whose work was relevant to them, it made the $1,000 ticket worth it. When they didn’t, conferences sometimes felt like “a waste of time.”

Run the World came out of stealth this month and has backing from Andreessen Horowitz. Connie Chan, the general partner who led the investment, described Run the World as “a hybrid of Zoom video, Eventbrite ticketing, Twitch interactivity, and LinkedIn networking.” The platform allows conference organizers to livestream talks, discussions, and panels in return for a 25 percent cut of ticket sales. It also lets conference attendees fill out a profile describing their interests and uses an algorithm to match them with others; a virtual “cocktail party” feature lets attendees meet each other through video calls. (The “cocktails” are, obviously, BYO.)

Hopin, another startup that came out of stealth a few weeks ago, takes a similar approach to virtual conferencing. The platform combines livestreamed presentations with virtual networking, including a ChatRoulette-style feature for meeting other attendees. Most of the networking at conferences happens during unscheduled time, when people are milling about or hanging around the hotel bar. “That’s why people go to events; it’s not for livestreaming,” Hopin’s founder, Johnny Boufarhat, told Crunchbase News. “You go physically to network with people, to interact with people. And that’s what we solve.”

Moving conferences online can solve other problems, too: It reduces travel costs, environmental pollution, and accessibility concerns. Cutting out the in-person costs can also significantly reduce the price of admission and lets conference organizers invest more of their budget into speakers. For many conferences, Qu says, “around 20 percent is spent on the venue, 20 percent on food and beverages, and almost 20 percent is on equipment.” Most budgets she looked at had left conference organizers with less than 5 percent of their budget for program design and speaker fees.

The idea isn’t to make conferences free or accessible to everyone: some friction, Qu says, ensures that the relevant people show up and actually participate. But because conference organizers don’t have to worry about filling a big venue, in theory they can spend more on paying speakers’ fees and can create more-focused events. Qu has already seen people using Run the World to organize super-niche conferences, like an event for coaching engineers on how to date. It had 40 attendees. “If you no longer need to sign a venue lease 10 months before the conference and hire 30 people to work on that for a half a year, then it makes more sense to do these,” says Qu. “You don’t need to wait until 100,000 people show up to make it happen.”

Still, virtual conference platforms haven’t found much traction. David Pearlman, who researches travel and tourism at the University of New Orleans, wrote a paper a decade ago about the promise of virtual reality for the conference industry. Back then, he thought virtual conferences had a good shot at becoming the industry standard. But they haven’t really picked up momentum. “If anything, they’ve died back,” he says.

That’s partly because most people don’t own virtual reality headsets. But Pearlman says it’s also because meeting people as an avatar remains awkward, and digital platforms have struggled to re-create serendipitous encounters. Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, has been trying to solve this with a virtual reality event space called Sansar, launched in 2017. Participants can log on to chat with each other from around the world or attend live concerts in VR. These aren’t simply livestreams—they’re events designed to foster person-to-person interaction. (The company’s pitch for its concerts: “Meet friends, cop merch, snap selfies. Show off your best moves and emotes: the floss, the shoot, the shiggy, whatever.”) Recently, Sansar introduced a virtual conference stage too, but it hasn’t taken off.

As more conferences get canceled or moved online, organizers could have a chance to explore these emerging platforms as an alternative to the boring old webinar. Qu says Run the World will waive fees for conference organizers who have had to cancel due to the coronavirus. But that’s unlikely to create a sea change, says Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time major conferences have been forced to move online. “There are wildfires; there’s what happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina,” says Calvert. None of those events have spurred an industrywide shift toward digital conferences, she says, because attendees simply don’t get the same value. “The virtual elements are never going to replace the face-to-face meetings, because people want to connect and build those relationships and foster those networks.”

Most major conferences seem to agree. This year, Google has rebranded Google Cloud Next as Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect. It’s the company’s largest annual conference, with over 30,000 attendees, so Google decided to bring it online rather than cancel it outright. “Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company wrote after announcing the decision. What does that innovation look like? It plans to webcast the keynotes and add some digital “ask an expert” sessions with Google teams. Perhaps the most innovative thing it’s done is agree to refund the cost of tickets and offer the conference content for free.

Other conferences have made it perfectly clear that they don’t plan to stay digital-only. Collision, a 30,000-person tech conference held in Toronto, announced last week that it wouldn’t be holding its gathering this year and will instead move its programming online. Next year, though, it’s already planning another in-person event.


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