Thought leading

Thought leading

Why is anyone listening to Tim O’Reilly?

In a new book, Silicon Valley’s favorite publisher praises the establishment while refusing to engage with its critics.

WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up To Us, the latest book from the influential conference organizer and Silicon Valley’s go-to technical publisher Tim O’Reilly, is a memoir/business text/techno-utopian polemic that gestures at a revolutionary future while endorsing existing Silicon Valley systems and excusing their part in creating economic and social strife. This is accomplished primarily through a pile-up of bizarrely miscued metaphors, the first of which pops up in the author bio describing O’Reilly as the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, “the company that has been providing the picks and shovels of learning to the Silicon Valley gold rush for the past thirty-five years.” Since O’Reilly sells metaphors as keys to understanding so heavily in his book, let’s just go with this one for a while.

When we think of the Gold Rush forty-niners today, we mostly imagine “placer mining,” plucking gold from riverbeds and streams. As these surface deposits depleted, investors built huge wooden flume systems, diverting rivers so paid miners could rip into the beds themselves. Once those deeper deposits were exhausted, miners started using new techniques like hydraulic mining, shooting high pressure streams of water against clearcut hillsides and cliff faces to reveal ore. These increasingly destructive techniques, coupled with the San Francisco peninsula’s population exploding from roughly 1,000 people in 1848 to over 36,000 in 1852, irrevocably changed the landscape of California, pulling up old growth forests, pushing aside rivers, and literally washing away into the Pacific Ocean some of the richest arable land on the North American continent. The Gold Rush turned huge swathes of California into “sacrifice zones” — geographic areas that have been permanently damaged or poisoned by industry.

Only a handful of the Gold Rush entrepreneurs made any money at all from their stakes. Instead, as Grey Brechin writes in Imperial San Francisco, “the real fortunes were made by city-based financiers in hardrock mercury mining, by commission merchants, and, above all, by those speculating in land and engaging in fraud on an epic scale.”

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To be fair, the “selling picks and shovels” quip pops up a lot in business, and one could argue it’s drifted from its original context. But the Gold Rush may be a more fitting metaphor for the technology business than even O’Reilly realizes. More than a century after the Gold Rush, the semiconductor industry created new sacrifice zones in the Santa Clara Valley and the Bay Area as it gave rise to the age of the personal computer, the internet, and O’Reilly’s career. California has nearly 100 Superfund sites, many due to the computer manufacturing process, which continues to inflict environmental damage in California and elsewhere, as has been chronicled by David N. Pellow and Lisa Sun-Hee Park in their excellent book, Silicon Valley of Dreams.

WTF, nearly 400 densely printed pages, plus notes, bibliography, and index, traces O’Reilly Media’s rise from humble technical writing consultancy founded in 1984 to its current dominant position as the tech publisher of record with titles like Designing Data-Intensive Applications, Mastering Bitcoin, and Javascript: The Good Parts. O’Reilly himself is a serial founder of technology conferences, like the Perl Conference, OSCON, and the exclusive Foo Camps (or “Friends of O’Reilly” Camps), which pioneered the un-conference format. People unironically refer to Tim O’Reilly as the “Oracle of Silicon Valley.”

In WTF, O’Reilly lays out his mile-high perspective on the current state of tech and where he thinks it should go. He argues that the path to a good future for humanity lies in systems like the gig economy, distributed sensors, and artificial intelligence. Sure, sometimes the use of technology leads to less than optimal outcomes, but O’Reilly argues that is the result of human error, not intrinsic aspects of the technology or business models he promotes here.

Unsurprisingly, O’Reilly believes that tech firms, particularly those led by people he knows personally, are in the best position to push society forward. He shares a telling anecdote where, at a dinner with LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist Reid Hoffman and the Democratic senator from Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, Hoffman explained Moore’s Law with this choice condescension: “You have to understand, Senator, that in Washington, you assume that every year things cost more and do less. In Silicon Valley, everyone expects our products to cost less every year and yet do more.” So much for the promise of the republic.

O’Reilly wants his readers to come away from this book thinking in maps and metaphors. Accurate maps, O’Reilly says, are the way to make sure “we aren’t blinded by old ideas.” This theme — that history creates blind spots — surfaces again and again. It’s this weird allergy to what is essentially knowing too much about the direct, personal impacts of his favorite technologies that causes some of O’Reilly’s most damaging missteps throughout the text.

O’Reilly believes that tech firms, particularly those led by people he knows personally, are in the best position to push society forward.

Take O’Reilly’s treatment of Uber, a company he says is a “positive business model for the technology-driven economy of the future.” He knows that characterization might rub some people the wrong way, because the company is known for labor abuses and sexual harassment, but he doesn’t believe those facts are relevant. “It’s easy to forget that many of the people who invent the future do so by crashing through barriers, crushing competitors, and dominating a new industry by force of will as well as intellect,” he writes. Thomas Edison couldn’t have gotten where he did without electrocuting a few elephants, after all.

O’Reilly’s “map” of Uber is an illustrated affair with color-coded ovals and connections running every which way linking things like “augmented workers,” “managed by algorithm,” and “magical user experience.” He assigns Uber the tagline, “Transportation as reliable as running water.” What I think O’Reilly means here is that clean water runs cleanly and freely from the tap thanks to invisible embedded infrastructure, and Uber’s algorithmically managed system of incentives brings enough drivers onto the roads to satisfy rider demand in a way that seems magical to the user. However, the reality is that running water in the U.S. is increasingly unreliable. Americans’ water bills are skyrocketing as corporate raids on municipal water tables coupled with the effects of climate change drive the levels of reservoirs down. One study found that water bills may become too expensive for a third of U.S. households within five years. And of course, over in Flint, Michigan, the phrase “running water” connotes a disastrous attempt to cut costs in 2014 that led to an epidemic of lead poisoning that is still ongoing.

Running water does have its own analogues to Uber: multinational corporations like Nestle, which routinely outbid municipalities for the rights to their own water. That water gets pumped out and shipped off to be sold in plastic bottles (sometimes while those municipalities are suffering drought conditions). Uber and Nestle both resell at a profit public or private resources that are not theirs. In Uber’s case, it’s the cars its drivers already own or lease at their own expense. In Nestle’s case, it’s water from public lands leased for trivial fees. Both companies flout regulations and norms intended to prevent labor abuses, market monopolization, or environmental and human devastation, often suffering few negative consequences; both rely on business models that rely on replacing or undermining public goods and infrastructures with private, for-profit alternatives. While describing Uber’s goal of “Replacing [Car] Ownership with [Uber] Access,” O’Reilly quotes a “customer in Los Angeles” saying, “I tell people I live in LA like it’s New York. Uber and Lyft are my public transit station.” Remember when Lyft invented a bus?

Tents on the lawn at foo camp in 2009 at the O’Reilly Media offices in Sebastopol, California.

Tents on the lawn at foo camp in 2009 at the O’Reilly Media offices in Sebastopol, California.

But it’s perhaps O’Reilly’s butchered metaphor for hashtags that best illustrates his eagerness to overlook negative externalities:

Many of [the hashtags] didn’t stick, but if enough people adopted one, it became the real world equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s words in Star Wars: ‘I felt a great disturbance in the Force… as if a million voices suddenly cried out.’ And the voices cried out: #iranelection #haitiearthquake #occupywallstreet

Because I have seen Star Wars, like roughly everyone else who would pick up a book like this, I know what scene that quote is from. It’s the one where the Empire destroys Princess Leia’s home planet Alderaan as a “demonstration” of the Death Star’s destructive power — a totalitarian genocide of literally planetary proportions. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s full quote is, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

I don’t think hashtags are like the Death Star. But I also don’t understand why Tim O’Reilly, who is by all accounts a smart guy, thinks that his readers wouldn’t recognize that scene or that quote, or why he thinks that it’s a good metaphor for Twitter hashtags. “Millions of voices” crying out and “being suddenly silenced” might be an interesting reference to Twitter’s ability to coax conversations into life and arbitrarily cut them off by censoring content, but I don’t think this was what Tim O’Reilly was thinking. I don’t know what he was thinking.

O’Reilly dumping metaphors and references into the text without regard for what they actually mean reflects how this book frames technology and business. O’Reilly simply isn’t interested in what he isn’t interested in: perspectives that aren’t his, arguments he doesn’t agree with, contexts and history he thinks are irrelevent. He narrates himself explaining technology to regulators or critics who just don’t understand “how all the pieces of the model fit together,” but doesn’t address their arguments. Discussing the “gig economy” business model, O’Reilly says:

“There are those who argue that Uber and Lyft are simply trying to avoid paying benefits by keeping their workers as independent contractors rather than as employees. It isn’t that simple. Yes, it does save them money, but independent-contractor status is also important to the scalability and flexibility of [Uber’s business] model.”

This is the only time O’Reilly addresses the benefits and labor rights dodge that is central to the gig economy. His comment is, independent contractors are what makes the wheels on the Uber go ‘round, so it’s fine. He rips into big retail companies later for using tricky scheduling algorithms to keep workers on benefits-less part-time status and goes after Walmart for relying on the welfare system to subsidize its poverty level wages. He doesn’t realize that these companies originated the playbook Uber adapted: selling a model of precarious labor based on on-demand piece-work, masked with the prestige of being a “flexible independent contractor.”

O’Reilly sees the “new generation of users” as baby boomers who were part of the counterculture movement in the ‘60s but now enjoy enough financial success to drop $150 on dinner for two in Oakland.

O’Reilly has flashes of lucidity, where he seems to be able to see the forest and the trees. His chapter, “Supermoney,” summarizes many of the problems financial capitalism — capitalism’s latest evolution that depends more on the stock market and complex financial instruments than the traditional market of physical goods and services — has spawned. His writing on how tech’s focus on venture capital valuations and stock options has twisted the priorities of entrepreneurs and funders, incenting them to chase sky-high valuations and acquisition instead of creating stable companies with a solid, satisfied customer base, is incisive. But since that analysis arrives after nearly 300 pages of genuflection to the insecure independent contractor labor model and the magic of algorithms, I worry that most readers will never get to it. These conclusions are oddly abrupt, appearing to contradict the arguments that precede them. Financial capitalism is bad, he concludes, but all the values and practices and ideologies that make financial capitalism an inevitable system — those are great!

Like a lot of business books by big names, Tim O’Reilly’s book is for people who are already like him. In the introduction, O’Reilly gives us an example of what a “new generation of users” might ask their AI-enabled smartphones:

  • “Siri, make me a six p.m. reservation for two at Camino.”
  • “Alexa, play me ‘Ballad of a Thin Man.’”
  • “Okay, Google, remind me to buy currants the next time I’m at Piedmont Grocery.”

Camino is, according to the New York Times, a “Cali-Med-Asian” restaurant in Oakland, California, the kind with an open kitchen and communal tables and $36 grilled chicken. “Ballad of a Thin Man” appeared on Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited, a grinding dirge that repeatedly chastises its hapless, hopelessly square protagonist, “Something is happening here and you don't know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?” Piedmont Grocery is a gourmet grocery store, also in Oakland, whose website wants you to know that “Yes, we do carry things like truffle paste, fleur de sel and Umami Paste [sic].”

In short, Tim O’Reilly sees this “new generation of users” as baby boomers who were part of the counterculture movement in the 1960s but who now enjoy enough financial success to drop $150 to $200 on dinner for two in Oakland. As far as this book goes, he simply doesn’t see anyone else.

This is ironic because O’Reilly’s favorite riposte to those who will not be led down his primrose path is that they lack imagination. Commenting on the Luddites, weavers who destroyed automated looms rather than allow themselves to be replaced by machines and let their local, rural communities be devastated in the name of short-term profit, O’Reilly faults them for not instead imagining “...that their descendants would have more clothing than the kings and queens of Europe, that ordinary people would eat the fruits of summer in the depths of winter. They couldn’t imagine that we’d tunnel through mountains and under the sea, that we’d fly through the air, crossing continents in hours, that we’d build cities in the desert with buildings a half mile high, that we’d stand on the moon and put spacecraft in orbit around distant planets.…”

If you’ve lost your job, and can’t find another one, or were never able to find steady full-time employment in the first place between automation, outsourcing, and strings of financial meltdowns, Tim O’Reilly wants you to know you shouldn’t be mad. If you’ve been driven into the exploitative arms of the gig economy because the jobs you have been able to find don’t pay a living wage, Tim O’Reilly wants you to know this is a great opportunity. If ever you find yourself being evicted from an apartment you can’t afford because Airbnb has fatally distorted the rental economy in your city, wondering how you’ll pay for the health care you need and the food you need and the student loans you carry with your miscellaneous collection of gigs and jobs and plasma donations, feeling like you’re part of a generational sacrifice zone, Tim O’Reilly wants you to know that it will be worth it, someday, for someone, a long time from now, somewhere in the future.

Molly Sauter is the author of The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet.