The Cult of the Tech Genius

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There’s a certain type of technology personality that automatically leaps into our imagination. You know him. (It’s almost always a him.)

It’s the audacious, maybe slightly off kilter, sharp-elbowed technology genius who makes all the magic happen. People like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Many of us — including journalists like me — are fascinated by these tech geniuses, and we can be quick to turn against them if they make catastrophic mistakes. The fall of singular geniuses is often blamed on their personal flaws. How could he, we ask?

The problem, though, isn’t only personal failure. It’s the mythmaking that creates the singular genius in the first place. When a person is imbued with the power and confidence that he can do no wrong, should we be really surprised when he does wrong?

This is a year of reckoning with big structural problems. It’s also worth thinking about how the cult of singular individuals helps create a structurally rotten tech industry.

Let me point you to Anthony Levandowski. The technologist who led Google’s self-driving car project was sentenced this week to 18 months in prison for stealing company secrets on his way to another job. Levandowski’s lawyers said that he made a life-changing mistake. But it didn’t come out of the blue.

Levandowski openly flouted Google’s rules for years and exercised bad judgment. I’ll never forget a 2011 incident reported in The New Yorker when Levandowski took a Google driverless car on a freeway before it was ready and swerved to avoid a collision in a way that seriously injured his colleague. Instead of reflecting on whether his forbidden test drive was irresponsible, Levandowski seemed to regard it as a useful data-collection exercise.

That type of behavior was lavishly rewarded — until Levandowski left Google and the company turned against him. And he’s not the only rule-breaking genius that Google loved.

Determined, confident and rule-bending people have birthed successful companies and world-changing inventions. That makes it easier, perhaps, to shrug off the occasional company implosion or federal prison sentence.

But we should all pause and look deeper at the fallout created by the singular genius myth.

Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic for The New York Times, wrote this week about the phenomenon of the genius chef. It sounded familiar to me.

She wrote that the reimagining of chefs as auteurs gave them license for creativity that improved food and dining, but it also justified systemic deficiencies and abusive work cultures and ignored the contributions of almost everyone else.

In technology, we can see the good done by singular individuals like Bezos, who created Amazon, and Jobs, who co-founded Apple. But we can’t tally the full cost of the genius myth.

How many Levandowskis are there rotting companies from the inside? What new ideas never got off the ground because a lone genius obscured everyone else’s contributions? Who got pushed out of the industry because they didn’t fit the mold?

Some iconic tech companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft, Uber and Oracle — are now run by hired hands, not the singular geniuses that they’re associated with. This may be natural turnover as companies mature. But I hope it’s also a sign that the industry is rethinking whether singular geniuses are the best path to success.

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Yes. Yes, you can.

The history of the technology industry is littered with evidence that having a great idea is no guarantee of success. Someone can take the same idea and improve it, or outright steal it.

Microsoft was not the first company to make a visual interface for a desktop computer. Facebook was not the first social network. The iPhone was not the first personal pocket computer. Those were the right products at the right time backed by the right company, with the benefit of a little luck and ruthlessness.

It’s easy to mock Facebook for making a copycat of TikTok, the hottest app of the moment. And before that, for making … uh … a different TikTok copycat. And before that, for copying Snapchat’s photo-and-video diaries called Stories.

But as I said, copying happens. A lot.

The danger is, the company doing the copying can sometimes miss what made the original so good.

Some of the early feedback I’ve seen from people trying Facebook’s TikTok copy, Instagram Reels, have pointed out that it isn’t centered around something like TikTok’s “For You Page,” which is a constant scroll of one video after another tailored to your tastes by TikTok’s computer systems.

You don’t have to follow people or hashtags to find entertaining videos. The app does all the work. (Yes, a computer system steering you to one video after another can also be dangerous.)

The question for Facebook, then, is not whether it copied TikTok — it did — but has it copied TikTok effectively.

  • The tricky line of health misinformation from the White House: On Wednesday Facebook deleted a video clip posted by President Trump’s campaign in which Mr. Trump said that children were “virtually immune” to the coronavirus. (That view is not supported by most medical experts.) Twitter also temporarily put limits on the campaign’s account until it deleted the same video clip.

    Both companies’ efforts to crack down on false or misleading information about the pandemic have been tested by the president’s sometimes questionable claims about potential coronavirus treatments and cures.

  • Drilling into a specific example of Google’s power: The dominance of tech superpowers is a big-picture issue that is best explained by going deep at one slice of it.

    Bloomberg Businessweek looks at how therapists’ reliance on finding clients from Google ads has hurt some of their businesses, because they’re getting outbid by therapy consolidators that are savvier at marketing. And Google’s push toward computer-generated advertising copy and real-time answers to searches often doesn’t work well for mental health information.

  • The potentially high cost of a tiny convenience: OneZero writes that the technology to wirelessly charge smartphones and other gadgets uses substantially more electricity than merely plugging devices into a wall socket. The extra power consumption is negligible on the individual household level, according to the publication’s calculations, but the collective environmental cost might not be if wireless charging becomes widespread.

When piggy meets puppy, it is adorable.

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