Nick Denton: Free Market Monster?
In a long interview with Jeff Bercovici in Playboy, Gawker chief Nick Denton makes some claims that, coming from anyone else, would make for perfect fodder for mockery on one of Gawker's tech sites Valleywag:
You can make a strong argument that Tim Berners-Lee and the dozen people who were involved at various critical stages of the development of the web did more good than all the foreign aid workers and all the liberal military interventions over the past 50 years. Think of a peasant who has historically been hoodwinked by middlemen on the price of his harvests, and now you're giving him the information he needs for a stronger negotiating position. Here you have somebody playing around with the operating system of the information economy. Actually, it's sort of accidental; some of the early pioneers didn't realize what they were doing, yet it's far more meaningful than any deliberate effort to help the poor. You could argue that Uber may do more for the planet than foreign aid workers in Mozambique because at some point some version of Uber will allow for more efficient use of resources and a better standard of living.Put those words in the mouth of, say, Path's Dave Morin (or our own Sarah Lacy) and just think of the potential Valleywag headlines:
The Free Market Monster Strikes Again: Aid Workers Make Rich Person Want to Vomit
Hater of Poor People Thinks Taxi Apps Will Solve World Hunger
Silicon Valley Wants to Surge Price All the Poor People Off the Planet
Of course Denton wasn't suggesting any of those things. What I think he means is that platforms like Uber, which add a layer of software to physical transactions to provide services with as little friction as possible, can be potentially powerful tools in solving a host of problems other than catching a cab. Perhaps Uber wasn't the best example to cite considering CEO Travis Kalanick's affection for the altruism-hating novelist Ayn Rand. But it's hardly outlandish to argue that these software companies and platforms have the potential to empower citizens.
Nevertheless, Denton's claim that the Internet, and more specifically one of Silicon Valley's most controversial companies, could provide a better solution to world problems than old institutions like NGOs, is the kind of claim that would place him squarely in the crosshairs of his own writers.
Back when Pando CEO Sarah Lacy wrote that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system should be disrupted, Valleyway co-editor Sam Biddle went on a tear, calling her a "Free Market Monster" and a member of the "techno-libertarian goon squad." Writing at Slate, Farhad Manjoo (who has contributed articles to Pando) agreed that Biddle overstated things: "From a single clumsy quote, Biddle extrapolated an entire storyline about techies keeping nontechies down. That narrative didn’t match the facts. Lots of people in the Bay Area—not just tech heavies—were down on the BART strikers."
Biddle ended that post by writing, "All that matters is preserving the myth: that Lacy and her peers matter, are a vanguard, and will remake the world without labor, a world built ("built," mind you) by startups that place pink mustaches on Range Rovers."
That Range Rover comment references Lyft, but he might as well have referenced its direct competitor Uber, the company Denton namedrops. Meanwhile, Biddle has criticized Uber for being "condescending assholes" to its customers -- Not exactly an inspiring description for the company his boss thinks could supplant humanitarian aid workers. (For Pando's part, we've criticized both Uber and Lyft on a number of issues).
Even the mockery of the word "built" flies in the face of what Denton told Bercovici:
DENTON: Now, through technology, there's a new generation of builders. Evan Williams of Blogger and Twitter, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and of course Steve Jobs.
PLAYBOY: Would you say Steve Jobs is one of your heroes?
DENTON: Yeah, absolutely. Don't tell Denton, but Biddle just called his hero Jobs a "China-Exploiting Daughter-Abandoner and Mean Boss."
I'm not saying Jobs doesn't deserve to be called those things. Nor am I so certain Uber and Lyft are as life-altering as many in and outside of the Valley claim them to be. Most importantly, I don't think there's anything wrong with an employee disagreeing with a boss, especially in an editorial environment. We disagree all the time at Pando.
But the fact that Biddle goes into hysterics when one of his pet targets expresses exactly the same views as his boss appears to hold, reveals a strong bias in how Valleywag chooses to report, and whom it chooses to report on. Not that this is news to anyone. The site has continued to call us a "Silicon Valley mouthpiece" even though we've never shied away from criticizing companies we share investors with, like Facebook, eBay, Palantir, and Uber. This trend has continued since the NSFWCORP acquisition with writers like Yasha Levine and Mark Ames lobbing weekly bombs at some of the region's most beloved tech companies.
(I'm not the first one to make this observation about Valleywag and Denton's politics. This morning, Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal asked Biddle when Valleywag planned to call Nick Denton a "monster." Biddle replied, "the difference, my dear boy, is that when I write about uber, I don't have to worry about nick deleting the post," referencing a "scandal" Biddle manufactured himself that Pando editor Paul Carr already provided evidence to debunk).
Even though Valleywag may hate me, I don't hate Valleywag. In theory at least, it exists as a counterpoint to the froth of excitement surrounding startups, and the misguided belief that all it takes to change the world is a 29-year-old who knows how to code -- governments and old world institutions be damned. But it doesn't serve Denton, Biddle, or their readers when so much of Biddle's coverage seeks to portray as "monsters" people who think exactly like his boss.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]