Interview: Mike Solana on tech and its critics

Words by Nick Whitaker
19th October 2020
Issue 2

In spite of major technological progress, tech is often envisioned in the media with pessimism and dread. How have people’s attitudes towards tech companies changed over time and what’s in hold for the future?

CulturePolitics

Mike Solana is a VP at Founders Fund, creator of the podcast Anatomy of Next, and writes on his Substack, Pirate Wires. He’s a frequent commentator on technology, media, and politics. Below is a transcript of our conversation edited for length and clarity.

There’s this idea of “Techlash,” that the public has turned against the technology industry. It seems like the public animosity has been largely overstated, but at least in elite circles and journalism, Tech seems to have lost status over the last five or ten years. Where do you think Tech initially went wrong and what has happened since?

Mike Solana: The first real instantiation of Techlash we saw in the media happened about a year ago, though there’s been talk of it for longer. It was anti-Uber and anti-Facebook stuff, and it all felt pretty fake. The average American doesn’t really care about those supposed problems at all. They love Uber and aren’t concerned with whether Facebook is “violating privacy.” I have plenty of friends who care a lot about privacy, especially libertarians, and they don’t like to hear this. But the average person just isn’t concerned when they get targeted advertisements for trendy leather boots or some other product that they actually want.

So for a while, the idea of a “Techlash” was just ludicrous; it was not a real thing. But it became real when two things happened: First, on the Left, left-wing populism and anti-capitalist rhetoric became more popular. Second, on the Right, especially the populist Right, a movement against Big Tech censorship started to take off.

Between these two changes, there really was something like a Techlash happening. Calling it Techlash, though, can overemphasize Tech’s role in it. On the Left, it’s not really about Tech, since it’s more about income inequality or the economy itself. I think a lot of the young people who are obsessed with Bernie Sanders, for example, are just crippled with student loan debt and can’t buy a house. Those problems are unrelated to anything that Tech has even allegedly done. But as big companies, they become an easy target.

But on the Right, there actually were things that Jack Dorsey and others did (and continue to do) that have really infuriated the populist right. It’s pretty clear that’s the case, even if you think that the measures they have taken, particularly censorship, are completely warranted.

So now we have a perfect storm: There is political will among both Republicans and Democrats to “do something” about tech. It’s unclear what they actually can do, legally, but they certainly want to do something. I think it’s dangerous.

There is no shortage of things that could happen in DC that would make our lives in Tech difficult, in terms of our ability to fund and build companies. Here in San Francisco, I’m actually editing an episode of my podcast where I’m going over some of the stuff that our board of supervisors has tried to implement in the last few years. For one, they tried to tax all stock options before vesting, which would have made it impossible to give stock options to young Tech workers who couldn’t afford the tax before vesting . Things like that would really, really inhibit the work we do.

The question of what Tech could have done differently is a really interesting one. I think that people in the technology industry are very bad at two things: One, telling their stories in an exciting but not cheesy way; And two, defending themselves when they’re maliciously attacked in bad faith.

Fixing the first piece presents a difficult question: How do you tell a story about yourself that is compelling? For a long time, Tech didn’t and we got away with it because our products were just so good. It doesn’t really matter what stories you’re telling about Uber; everybody just wants to use it. It’s harder now in the midst of an aggressive negative media narrative about how evil we are.

It’s also challenging because Tech companies are different. For each one, there’s a distinct successful story about how people have had their lives improved. On some level, telling that story is just a matter of marketing, and each company will have its own journey.

To the second piece, the higher-level narrative we’re fighting is that Tech is actually evil. While I think the average American is not stupid enough to believe that, it’s hard as an employee in Tech to hear the media saying this all the time and not just feel depressed about it. So I would love to see a lot more founders taking on a little more risk in defending themselves publicly.

The media is constantly spreading misinformation about Tech. I think that there should be aggressive corrections whenever that happens. Whenever the media ascribes motivations to Tech that are not true or malicious, it needs to be corrected. The clap-backs need to happen stronger and faster, and I think everyone in Tech should also defend each other. When Mark Zuckerberg is being maliciously attacked, I think a lot of other CEOs are just ducking and hoping that they’re not hit next. We should all be standing up and defending each other.

None of this is to say there aren’t times I think someone in Tech has done something really wrong. For example, a handful of years ago, Google worked on a censored search engine for China. That was really messed up. I think that we could have done a lot more to critique that from within the industry. If you are really against something, you should definitely critique it.

But more often than not, the average Tech person is not on the side of the media. They just don’t want to get caught in the cross-hairs themselves, which is completely reasonable if you don’t have much power or influence. But if you have power and influence, you have to stand up and say, “No, we’re building companies that are good for the world. We are building products that are helping people. We are creating value in a way. And these anti-Tech journalists aren’t.” We have a lot to be proud of. I think that we have to just start owning that.

So while dealing with these attacks from the populist left and the populist right, where do you think Tech is most likely to find allies?

That’s a great question. I think the technology industry has natural allies, both among Libertarians and among people on the moderate Left and Right. And we should focus on connecting with these groups, rather than placating extremists who will never be happy with anything we do.

Libertarians are almost a given: They love the market, business, sciences, and technology. They believe that when these things are left alone, great things happen. Whenever the technology industry is succeeding, libertarians are going to be cheering us on.

On the moderate Left, there are lots of people who really appreciate the space industry, innovations in biotechnology, and science broadly. They’re interested in making human life better with technology. They find things like Bill Gates’ work to be very inspiring.

On the moderate Right one finds some similar thinking. The space program, for example, is much more popular among moderate Republicans than almost anybody else. Clinton didn’t talk about Mars once. Barack Obama privatized space, which is cool, but was also his way of washing his hands of it. Yet moderate Republicans, for some reason, seem really moved by stories of humanity coming together and doing something really spectacular. That’s where the spirit of the Tech industry is.

So we have a lot of natural allies, and we should focus on connecting with them.

One puzzle for me here is why Tech companies and VCs and other actors haven’t just created more friendly outlets to do the sort of work Tech-friendly work that you’ve done with Anatomy of Next?

It’s interesting you bring up Anatomy of Next. Anatomy of Next is a project where I try to tell a more inspiring story about technology and science, and its place in our lives. I want to get people excited about the human potential.

I have, at my best, an episode with 60,000 streams. But my average episode only has something like 12 or 15 thousand streams. That’s nothing to people in the media. I think it’s a niche audience. You really have to be doing it for the love of it.

So as to why there aren’t more outlets that are friendly to us, I think there’s just not much of a market. The standard media business model is pretty shitty to begin with, so a lot of investors are correctly skeptical of media companies, unless it’s something platform-oriented with the potential to scale.

And finally, most people in Tech are not writers. They might wish this stuff existed, but they’re not going to do it themselves. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be very good at it. The overlap between people who have incredible technology chops and are very talented writers is very small. They’re different skill sets. Between there not being much money in it and it not really being a natural fit for people here, it’s a tough sell.

But I am hopeful that in this new Substack world there will be room for niche writers to really make a living. Hopefully we’ll see hobbyists and enthusiasts taking over the role of Tech journalists were doing 10 or 12 years ago, when there was a small audience for something like Wired. Back then, it was pro-science and technology, whereas today it’s another anti-Tech industry bullshit zine. I think that old audience might still be there and hopefully writers will find it.

You mentioned the Google censorship search engine as an example of there being things worthy of critique in the Tech industry. A critique that Peter Thiel, Founders Fund, and, to a certain extent, you have made is that Tech has not sufficiently invested in deep Tech, or as it’s sometimes put, in the world of atoms. Do you think Tech has a certain culpability here for not making these bets?

Well, I want to be careful with the word, “culpability.” I don’t think that anybody owes anybody anything. If Google wants to do something incredible and ambitious that changes the world, that’s great. If they just want to work on search and advertising, whatever. I’m not here to bully people into building things I wish existed.

There are people who are actually working on important things in the physical world and are doing really well. One of the most high profile entrepreneurs in the world is Elon Musk.

I Just interviewed one of our founders, Daniela Perdomo, for Anatomy of Next. She’s working on decentralized communication. She’s really interested in disintermediating public utility. She’s doing something that has a real world impact that requires something physical, in the physical world. Another of our founders Palmer Luckey at Anduril, is building incredible things in the real world.

If the premise of the question is that there are people who could do more in the real world and are choosing not to, I don’t know that I completely agree with that. It’s more that there’s a lot of money to be made in something like SaaS (software as a service), for example. So smart people are going to go there and make money.

There is money to be made doing hardware stuff; it’s just harder to do. But when people build a rocket ship, they get all of the glory. No one cares about SaaS entrepreneurs. Sorry, I hate to break it to the SaaS guys out there. I’m sure that what you’re doing is making the world better in some way, but it’s not a rocket ship that lands. And everybody knows that. We see what is happening at SpaceX and are inspired by it. So Elon gets all of the money and all of the glory, and he deserves it. I wish he had more.

When we talk about Techlash and this Tech pessimism, it seems related to this larger cultural pessimism, where every future that people can seem to imagine is dystopia caught between 1984 and Brave New World. Where do you think that pessimism came from, and how much do you think that that affects the anti-Tech conversation?

I think it’s probably just human nature to be a little more active on risk prediction than reward prediction. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint that you would have a much more active imagination in the realm of things that could be really bad for you than really good for you.

There’s not that much that we need to live: food, water, and shelter. At least in the United States, we mostly have those things at this point. So we have a lot to lose, and I think that’s the very first hurdle. We have to work against the very first human instincts to predict calamity and to avoid risk. We’re very successful with that, that’s why we are the dominant species on the planet right now.

The second piece is that while the stories we tell in pop culture about science and technology are pretty bleak, there largely isn’t nefarious intent on the part of people in writing them. It’s not like they just hate the Tech industry.

I think that the average writer in Hollywood just really cares about story craft. When you’re telling a story, you need a really juicy plot. And to keep a plot moving, you need to put people in danger, which is really, really hard to do in a utopian world. Our goal should be to make this world perfect for people, with abundant resources and the possibility of immortality. We should try to create a world where everybody is happy, or where happiness is readily accessible by anyone who seeks it out. But what is an exciting plot in a story like that? It’s not a story.

You mentioned that we already have our basic needs provided for and that we’re better able to see pessimistic scenarios for possibly evolutionary reasons. Does that imply, then, that risk aversion is just a demographic destiny, as we get richer and older? Will there be ways to push back against risk aversion in the long term?

It’s a great question. One of my biggest fears about biological immortality, and I think it’s silly to even worry about immortality because the goal is so important that we should just do it, is that I have this weird dark fantasy about a world where everybody lives forever. If we achieved it, you wouldn’t have to fear aging, but a car accident or lightning strike could take your life. On a long enough time horizon, that means that your life would end in some sort of bizarre accident. Necessarily. This would have to happen, eventually. It would be only a matter of time. Knowing that, you might become much more risk-averse. Maybe people wouldn’t leave their houses anymore, because they would be so scared to die that they wouldn’t  take any risks at all.

I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know if maybe there’s just something hard-wired into our brain that can’t even wrap our heads around biological immortality, so we could just go out and do stuff.

Anyway that’s a sort of extreme version of what I think we’re talking about, but people do seem to be more risk-averse now, maybe more than they’ve probably ever been. And I do think it’s, at least in part, a product of being so comfortable and safe.

I don’t know how to get around it. I hope that it doesn’t get worse. Maybe it does come down to storytelling and getting people really excited and inspired about what we could potentially be doing and what we could become.

Season two of Anatomy of Next is focused on Space. Space has always seemed to have a unique way of allowing us to overcome our pessimism and think about what we could become. What do you think about Space does that for us?

The first season of Anatomy of Next was a mini-series: Five episodes about the science fiction narratives that we’re consuming and mythbusting them with a truer and more optimistic story. We covered topics like nuclear, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

While I was working on that season, tackling all of our dystopias, I realized that the thing that brought everybody together, even people who were actually pretty dystopian in their thinking, was an almost universal optimism about space. It just seems like this frontier where there is so much to explore and discover, so many opportunities for human growth. I think there’s something about space exploration that reminds people of the ultimate human purpose, which is to bring life into the universe.

We’ve done this over every quarter of the planet. Now we’re thinking about going to Mars; we’re thinking about leaving the solar system. I really believe that we’re going to do those things eventually. It seems deeply ingrained in us. There’s something inside of us that wants to not only explore unknown places, but to bring with us life and everything on planet earth. No other living creature that we know of in existence has the ability to preserve life beyond earth but us. The sun’s going to die one of these days, and we’re the only species that can make sure it does not extinguish the only fount of life that we know to actually exist with it.

There’s something about seeing a rocket ship blast off into space on its way to another world that brings almost everyone together. The average person is unambiguously in favor of this. They think it’s just incredible. It subverts all negative Tech narratives. It speaks directly to our soul somehow. There’s just something so fundamentally correct about that, about moving on and seeing new things, conquering new worlds, and extending life into the dead galaxy and beyond. It’s like we all know on some level that that’s what we’re here to do.

A few questions about cities: We’re in the middle of Anatomy of Next, season three. It’s about cities and as it’s been releasing, between COVID and the fires and everything else, it seems like we’re finally seeing what may be a collapse of SF. Do you think the city is over, at least as a capital for Tech?

I think San Francisco will slink along in its current state for a very long time, and the people who live there will continue to be unhappy with the state of local governance for a very long time. But I don’t think any new companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Square, Stripe, Flexport, or Apple will choose the Bay Area for their headquarters. VCs will stay there because it’s a financial capital now, and there will always be a reason for young entrepreneurs to come to pitch a bunch of VCs at the same time.

But why start a company here? The government is anti-Tech and anti-industry. It wants to dismantle a lot of these companies. At the state level, we just saw Lorena Gonzalez try to take down Uber by herself. She created a bill to target Uber specifically. It was so poorly crafted that it ended up targeting every single contractor in the state, so the State of California granted loopholes to pretty much everybody other than Uber, Lyft, Doordash — big Tech companies basically. Clearly the bill was designed to go after Tech companies, but for what reason?

I think that the politicians in this state are really unhinged. They want to go after the people who are producing value. They’re going to continue to do so. They’re going to find new and novel ways to do that for the next five or ten years.

Separate from the question of business and nature, you have the question of just civic life. Walking around in our urban areas, there are serious problems with homelessnessm, crime, public defecation, and public insanity. The fires will get worse. I don’t think these problems are going to go away and I follow this stuff pretty closely.

So what do I think about San Francisco? I think it’s going to be a sort of sad place to live until there’s some kind of real huge failure, maybe the government completely fails and people finally start voting in new politicians. It’s really unfortunate because San Francisco should be the greatest city in the world.

Will Tech need a new physical capital because of the agglomeration benefits, or do you think this stuff will truly move online?

I think things will move online. A physical capital made sense for a long time but more and more people are technologists these days. There are so many more software engineers than there were 30 years ago; it’s one of the most highly pursued majors. Every young person knows that learning to code is a really bankable skill. Pair the popularity of the field and the increase in remote work capability, and there’s no reason that you have to be in a Tech capital to build a Tech company.

It was great to be in a community where everybody was roughly aligned with you in terms of the world that you wanted to build. But again, this is what happens when you don’t defend your home, the physical place you live, when you don’t participate in government. Tech people didn’t participate in government. They abdicated that responsibility and in its place came horrific policy that crippled the entire region.

Hopefully there’s a lesson to be learned here, but I’m skeptical anyone in Tech will learn it. There are too many starry eyed optimists who are so focused on their own little thing that they don’t think about their government or community. But maybe it won’t matter if the lesson isn’t learned, if there isn’t going to be a capital again. I don’t think there will ever be such a high concentration of Tech in a single place again.

So what’s the optimistic future for Tech in the post-COVID world? What does it look like? What does the industry look like?

The really optimistic take is that everything becomes a Tech company. Everyone is Tech. Everywhere that you go. Every city, every country, everybody’s working on Tech. We have more engineers across the board. This may not be great for Silicon Valley, but who cares? We’re talking about humanity now, and with a huge engineering base and a world excited about building things, that sounds like a much better world to me.