Silicon Valley Is Obsessed With Its Evil Twin, TikTok
Plus: Reminiscing on Steve Jobs, a question for his loved ones, and a meltdown on the West Coast.

Steven Levy

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    CoHost of Pivot Scott Galloway speaks onstage during the Vox Media's 2022 Code ConferencePhotograph: Jerod Harris/Getty Images
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      Hi, everyone. Summer is gone but not the heat. People might return to the office not because of employer mandates, but to save on their air-conditioning bills.

      The Plain View

      To learn the obsession of an industry, attend an event where its leaders are gabbing for three days.

      That old saying, which I just made up, was borne out this week at the Code Conference, a yearly event (pandemic permitting) hosted by the ubiquitous tech journalist and podcast host Kara Swisher. She cofounded the conference with Walt Mossberg, the celebrated product reviewer. At the event’s 2003 premiere—when the gathering was called D: All Things Digital—the first guest was Steve Jobs, whose presence imbued instant credibility. The Apple CEO was a frequent speaker at the conference thereafter, including a historic joint interview with his rival Bill Gates. Swisher had earlier made it clear that this was her last Code Conference (Mossberg retired several years ago), and to mark the milestone, she organized a panel of those who knew Jobs best: his designer Jony Ive, his successor Tim Cook, and his wife Laurene Powell Jobs. After bittersweet reminisces, Powell Jobs announced that she had started an archive to preserve her husband’s legacy.

      Ten years ago, in the first Code since Jobs’ death, I wrote that his ghost haunted the conference, as session after session made posthumous reference to the recently departed CEO. In 2022, however, a starkly different subject kept popping up at the Los Angeles confab—TikTok, the hugely successful app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The platform, which delivers short user-generated videos magically tailored to what the user likes, has drawn more than a billion addicted fans, dominated culture, and established a giant business. The invocations of TikTok were not that of a haunting, but of a looming terror. Each mention should have been accompanied by the soundtrack of the movie Jaws, as its presence at the conference was unseen but gut-wrenchingly menacing, like the shark in the first half of the Spielberg classic. (A TikTok executive had been originally scheduled to appear but got sick and couldn’t attend.)

      The drumbeat began when tech gadfly Scott Galloway, in a presentation boosting his upcoming book, called out the made-in-China app for its addictive qualities and its alleged financing from the Chinese government—and called for its ban in the US. Minutes later, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner, almost quivering with rage, amplified Galloway’s call. “TikTok should be banned in every democracy,” he said of the company he defined as his biggest competitor. “It is of course a tool of espionage.” He was referring to the Chinese government’s fondness for gathering data on apps that host servers in its own country. Though TikTok claims that this doesn’t happen with US users, leaked audio from internal meetings indicates otherwise.

      Not long after Dopfner’s session, Senator Amy Klobuchar made an appearance and indicated that she was on the case. “There could well be legislation on TikTok,” she said during an interview with Swisher.

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    Speaker after speaker invoked the threat from abroad, though Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai took the opportunity to cite TikTok’s success as a counter to Klobuchar’s contention that his company and other tech giants are monopolies. But most comments adhered to the threat narrative, such as when former Biden press secretary Jen Psaki, getting ready for her bloviator spotlight on MSNBC, discussed the “moral dilemma” of TikTok—you’re locked out of the cool party unless you dive into it, but participating in a Chinese data grab if you do!

    The TikTok panic reached a crescendo during a session with Snap CEO Evan Spiegel. Galloway, who teamed up with Swisher for the interview, began noting what was now obvious: This year’s Code, he said, had two themes, “First is Tik and the second is Tok.” While Spiegel didn’t join Galloway in calling for a ban, the Snap cofounder did bitterly complain that TikTok, which started with the acquisition of a small app, devoted bundles of currency to popularizing it and then used its growing base to train the algorithm to become more effective in keeping people hooked. He didn’t seem aware that he was describing the standard operating procedure for building a dominant platform.

    I’m not going to argue for or against a ban on TikTok here—that’s a geopolitical issue that should be determined not by the behavior of a single company, but the entire methodology of the Chinese approach to competition and the way the US deals with privacy in general. But I found it ironic—and self-serving—that after decades of China allegedly appropriating our hard technology (with plenty of evidence to back up that “allegedly”), its companies have now swiped the methods that made American social media products so successful: Create addictive products. Downplay their potential for propaganda. Gather massive data on your users. And spend huge sums of capital to hype growth—until not using the product is unthinkable. TikTok has swiped the Silicon Valley playbook, and Silicon Valley doesn’t like it at all.

    Time Travel

    At the 2011 D: All Things Digital Conference, the first after Jobs’ death, Swisher and Mossberg brought Larry Ellison (self-proclaimed “best friend” to Jobs) and then-Pixar president CEO Ed Catmull on stage to remember Apple’s fallen leader. But the event itself was full of reminders of the tech figure who wasn’t there, at least corporeally.

    Tuesday afternoon’s last session is the one explicitly devoted to Jobs. Even the music is fitting—Bob Dylan as the audience enters, the Beatles as they leave. Just like a Steve Jobs keynote. At D, the memorial begins with a video showing snippets from all of Jobs’ All Things D appearances. In each one Jobs wears his trademark black turtleneck, but depending on the year he fills it out less and less. Mossberg announces that starting today, videos of the full sessions will be available on iTunes for free.

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    Ellison and Catmull swap memories of Jobs—how he learned from his experience at Next and Pixar to become a better executive, how he worked tirelessly to solve problems, how he became softer and more empathetic in his later years.

    My favorite story is Ellison’s, about how he accompanied Jobs frequently to the prototype Apple store in a nearby warehouse, set up so Jobs and his team could constantly tweak the experience to approach perfection. Ellison noted how contrarian the effort seemed. “Don’t you read the newspaper?” he would ask Jobs. “They’re saying bricks and mortar are dead.”

    “We’re not using mortar,” Jobs replied. “We’re using glass and steel.”

    The memorial session evokes the character of Ellison’s friend—his single-mindedness, his creativity, and his humanity. But the most significant tribute is that Steve Jobs is everywhere here.

    Ask Me One Thing

    Nayeema asks, “What question were you going to ask Powell Jobs, Tim Cook, and Jony Ive?”

    Thanks, Nayeema. You were of several who asked me that after the Code Conference panel remembering Steve Jobs. I was among those who approached the mic to ask questions at the end of the session, but Swisher passed me over, saying that I’d had plenty of chances over the years to ask the speakers questions. But I did have a good one that seemed appropriate for the occasion.

    Here’s what I would have said to those who knew Jobs best: You three are uniquely poised to address something that’s been baffling me over the years. Tim, you mentioned that Steve was a once-in-a-century person. That’s right—he was the ultimate outlier. But any attempt to explain what makes outliers, like Malcolm Gladwell’s, doesn’t even begin to explain the phenomenon of Steve Jobs. Since you three have had such a deep experience with him, you must have wondered about this. Have any of you managed to come up with a theory to account for this single human’s epic personality and talents?

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    Of course there’s no right answer—it’s part of the mystery of who any of us are, writ large. But I would have loved to hear what Powell Jobs, Cook, and Ive had to say. When I privately shared the question with Swisher later in the evening, she blithely replied that the secret was Jobs’ response to being adopted. But millions of people are adoptees. There was only one Steve Jobs.

    You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

    End Times Chronicle

    At one point in the conference, the entire Beverly Hilton ballroom erupted with buzzes and whoops from everybody’s phones. The notification alerted us to a heat emergency, urging people to turn down the AC and get the batteries and lantern ready for possible rolling brownouts. California—and much of the world—has been melting down in record heat.

    Last but Not Least

    Apple had an event this week! Here’s what they announced, including a watch for those who compete in iron-man competitions.

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    All hail the new capo, uh, boss, at Y Combinator.

    Who is Balaji Srinivasan, and why does he want to build a new techno-libertarian society in the cloud?

    This edition of Plaintext is the last one shepherded by WIRED Deputy Ideas Editor Ricki Harris. For almost three years she has been making this newsletter better every week. She’s off to something new, and she’ll be terrific. But I’ll miss her suggestions, corrections, and endless tolerance. Best of luck, Ricki.

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    https://www.wired.com/story/plaintext-silicon-valley-evil-twin-tiktok/

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