Silicon Valley's most disturbing obsession

It’s not artificial intelligence, or even perfecting the “smart juicer.” It could be a lot more sinister.

By Nick Bilton

At the moment, I’m completely absorbed with end-of-year projects at school,” the e-mail read. It was 2012, and I was working on an article about an innovative new app that was being used by a handful of high-school students in Los Angeles. It had never been written about before, and so I found myself tracking down its co-creator, a freshman at Stanford. Evan Spiegel was elusive. He wasn’t secretive or a jerk, but just had a lot of homework to do. The day after the story was published, he e-mailed me: “If I fail my E40 midterm on Friday because of all this media attention I know who to blame ;)”

I had a similar experience at a tiny coffee shop near South Park, in San Francisco, when a young man named Kevin Systrom sipped an espresso and prodded his phone to show me an app he had recently launched: Instagram. This, in turn, reminded me of a meeting I’d had, a few years earlier, with Jack Dorsey shortly after he had been kicked out (for the first time) of his nascent start-up, Twitter. We ate Korean chicken wings and drank draft beer at a place on 8th Street, in Greenwich Village, not because Dorsey was being modest but rather because he was close to broke. It wasn’t dissimilar from my encounter with another fledgling entrepreneur, whom a friend had introduced to me at Burning Man as Garrett Camp, who worked with a guy named "Travis." As we strolled across the sandy playa, with techno music bleating through the air, I was told that Travis Kalanick worked “for a new start-up called Uber.”

In Silicon Valley, things happen fast. Uber is now worth $68 billion. Dorsey runs two public companies and sits on the board of Disney. Kevin Systrom sold Instagram to Facebook for $1 billion. And just four years after Spiegel fretted to me about his midterm, his start-up, Snapchat, is valued at $18 billion. Perhaps more profoundly, however, these young men, and so many more of their ilk, have come to rule our world in increasingly consequential ways. They control the platforms—how we view the birth of a newborn, how we learn about the blunders of a politician, or how we get to work—that control our lives.

From a business perspective, this new generation of technology moguls rival the Fords and Rockefellers of previous eras. Social networks alone are more valuable than the G.D.P. of more than 95 percent of the countries around the globe. And yet I often think back to those kids I sat across from and wonder whether they are really prepared to be making the kinds of decisions that shape the world and affect our future.

From their actions, it would seem that the answer is no. For a time, when terrorists used Twitter to recruit members, the company’s leaders would often just throw their hands in the air. When taxi drivers lose their jobs as a result of ride-sharing apps, or a driver bludgeons a passenger with a hammer, that may just be the collateral damage of Uber’s massive growth.

For those who follow the Valley, this isn’t all that surprising. Perhaps the most influential figure in the industry, after all, isn’t Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg, but rather Ayn Rand. Jobs’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, has suggested that Atlas Shrugged was one of Jobs’s “guides in life.” For a time, Kalanick’s Twitter avatar featured the cover of The Fountainhead. Peter Thiel, whose dissatisfaction with a Gawker story led him to underwrite a lawsuit that eventually killed off the site, and who made the outré decision to publicly support Donald Trump, is also a self-described Rand devotee.

At their core, Rand’s philosophies suggest that it’s O.K. to be selfish, greedy, and self-interested, especially in business, and that a win-at-all-costs mentality is just the price of changing the norms of society. As one start-up founder recently told me, “They should retitle her books It’s O.K. to Be a Sociopath!” And yet most tech entrepreneurs and engineers appear to live by one of Rand’s defining mantras: The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

This year, Vanity Fair has combined the two disparate lists of the New Establishment—“The Disrupters,” dedicated to Silicon Valley upstarts, and “The Powers That Be,” largely a locus of New York and L.A. moguls—into one comprehensive catalogue of modern power and influence. That’s because, on some level, everyone is now in the technology business. Put another way, every person on this list is competing with every other person, often for the same thing: our time. Jeff Bezos may have started out wanting to sell books, but now Amazon is contending with Hollywood, FedEx, and Apple in the entertainment, logistics, and streaming businesses. Kalanick may have initially wanted to make it easier to find a cab, but now Uber is competing in the self-driving-car industry against not only G.M., Chrysler, and Ford but also Tesla and Google, among many others. Spiegel started Snapchat to facilitate the act of sending risqué messages. Four years later his company is a legitimate threat to the entire future of television.

The people who are building our futures are fully aware of this new, hyper-accelerated world—a landscape where everyone is a competitor with everyone else and even billion-dollar ideas can be ephemeral. Walk through Facebook’s headquarters and you will see that famous white poster with red lettering that says, “Move fast and break things,” the much-professed credo of its founder. But something is lost when we travel at such high velocities. I remember once overhearing, in a San Francisco coffee shop, a 19-year-old start-up founder callously offer advice to an 18-year-old founder about how to fire an engineer. It makes me wonder, Who are these young entrepreneurs learning from? Who is teaching them that when they press a button on their keyboard, millions, or even billions, of people can be affected, sometimes in terrifying ways? Is Ayn Rand their only guiding light? One hopes that some of these young moguls, or those who aspire to be them, will take a cue from some of the other members of this list, who worked their way to the top over the course of decades. Spiegel hadn’t even yet come up with the notion of Snapchat when Bob Iger forged the successful relationships with Pixar and Lucasfilm that have made him among the most successful media executives of his, or any, era. I don’t think he was worried about who was going to stop him.

There’s a saying in tech that “the future ages quickly.” When the iPhone came out, we all drooled with delight at the flat touch screen. But it didn’t take long for people to complain that it wasn’t big enough. This truism will likely be reflected in how quickly the people who are currently disrupting our society will themselves be disrupted. As Spiegel and Kalanick and Zuckerberg move fast and break things, there are kids in dorm rooms at Stanford, or men and women arriving in San Francisco, who want to move faster and break bigger things, too. In some ways, our future hinges on what they learned from their predecessors.

[Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect how the author was introduced to Uber.]

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