Supplemental Reading — December 17, 2014, 12:00 pm

Battlefield Worth

Occupy goes to TechCrunch Disrupt      

In the January issue of Harper’s Magazine, Sam Frank investigates the sometimes elitist, anti-democratic, utopian, and millenarian politics of Silicon Valley. As part of his research, he went to the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in Midtown Manhattan. The following story, not included in the magazine, is an account of his three days at the conference. 

On the morning of April 29, 2013, on the seventh floor of the Manhattan Center in Midtown, I watched Michael Arrington, founder of the blog TechCrunch, sit onstage in a white armchair and start sucking up. “You have more money than, say, the average U.S. state has in GDP,” he said to Bill Gurley, a tall venture capitalist from Texas who had bankrolled eBay and Uber. “What is it that gets you up in the morning?”

Gurley smirked, then replied, in all sincerity: “I’ve often said that if I lived in a communist society where everyone got paid the same, I’d probably do this job, if I had a choice. I just have immense appreciation for disruption. I think it is so cool that you can build something out of nowhere and completely change an industry, and for me the economics of doing that are just a very efficient scorecard.”

Everyone at TechCrunch Disrupt appreciated disruption immensely. What’s not to love? Select startup founders get rich, customer-citizens get more for less, and the only losers are old-guard industries (never mind those they employ). “Software is eating the world,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote in 2011; people at Disrupt wanted a seat at the table. Rich founders, rich venture capitalists, and rich-founders-turned-VCs went onstage one after the next to share the deep wisdom that their wealth had granted them. After lunch they returned to judge the few promising young companies chosen to compete on “Startup Battlefield” for a $50,000 check. This was on seven. On the first floor were small-fish startups that had spent $1,995 for a table in “Startup Alley” and a TechCrunch article rehashing their press release. Low-status investors rode the elevator all day. They had paid as much as $2,995 a ticket.

Chamath Palihapitiya, formerly a Facebook executive and now of course a VC, walked onstage next to take his place atop this pyramid. He was Gurley, only more so—a founder, with Marc Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, of, which lobbies for immigration reform and the American “knowledge economy.” “Society,” he said, “is breaking at the seams, and all of us just live a life of total frustration, and it’s because none of us trust the things that we were supposed to trust, to help make the world a better, more useful, interesting place. And so the best thing that we should be doing is spending our money and our time to basically destroy that, and to rebuild things in a much more equitably interesting way.

“You’re talking about trillions of dollars up for grabs—up for grabs!—and it’s about trying something, and taking a few months to understand what the opportunity is, and then hit the seam.” Everyone can be rich. “Learn to code, and you’ll be employed for the rest of your life.” Rich, or at least not destitute. “All of you should teach your kids how to code. All of you. You should learn how to code.”

I can’t even touch-type. I went downstairs to find Dan Phiffer, clean-shaven for the first time since moving to New York eight years before.

I had first seen Dan in Zuccotti Park. It was an evening early that October in 2011 and I was drifting along, squinting, listening, thinking, waiting for the general assembly. He was smallish and slight, bearded, but his eyes looked sharp from twenty feet. I kept walking. It was not until a year or so later that I found out who he was: a programmer-artist-activist in his early thirties with a day job at MoMA. In the interim Dan had built

He hacked an off-the-shelf Wi-Fi router, plugged in a memory stick, and installed a Linux server and bulletin-board software. The router didn’t connect to the Internet, but it did broadcast Wi-Fi, which would redirect your laptop’s or smartphone’s browser to There you could chat or trade files, so long as you stayed nearby. allowed conversations to take place across a few hundred feet, over days and weeks. You could be anonymous if you wished. It was open to all comers: protesters and police and tourists. Its autonomy from the Internet and reliance on physical proximity protected against surveillance and censorship, but it was not a paranoid project. It was intended to create a serendipitous social space, like Zuccotti itself, and fundamentally unlike the algorithmic technocracy of Facebook. The idea was to remain neighborhood-scale, like the picture from a Richard Scarry book Dan had in his Keynote slide deck: a kitten on a tricycle, a grizzly-bear traffic cop, a raccoon milkman, a firefighting pig.

What might it mean, I began to wonder, for to occupy Disrupt? It was open-source software mixed with store-bought hardware, the minimum tools to do it yourself. So given that there was nothing to sell, what was our pitch?

An insane slogan, we decided. Some sort of buzzword sellout radical chic. We would go big or go home, heighten the contradictions, overpromise and underdeliver. We settled on “Disrupt the Internet with”

Dan was in Startup Alley, next to a table sponsored by Alert Energy caffeine gum. Across the showroom floor, people were pairing up, leaning close to trade mutual pitches. I ran my eyes down the list of Alley tag lines: “Personal shopping platform.” “Shopping. Personalized.” “Shop smarter with the help of your peers.” “Affordable accommodation for 1.3 billion Indians.” “Baby moments. Precious moments.” “Commonalities = ice breaker 4 biz & life.” “Share the things you hate.” “Advertising for smarketers.” “Matchmaking service for entrepreneurs.” “Algorithmic financial advice for DIYers.” “Real-time ‘groupthink’ display/analysis.” “Solving the biggest problem on [the] Internet.” Third from last was our slogan. It wasn’t as incongruous as we had hoped.

I arrived just after seven the next morning. Midtown was damp and gray. The floor of the Manhattan Center was studded with small circular white tables, around which thirty-odd people set up in slow motion. Our neighbors were Poutsch (“the ultimate micropolling platform”) and Yopine (“gather friends’ and public’s opinions”). When Dan showed up, I practiced my pitch on him.

“So, what I’m going to say is . . . We’re here with, which I was thinking of describing as maybe consumer infrastructure for autonomy, anonymity, and trust . . . And then I’m going to say, So the problem with the Internet is that, by definition, it’s on the Internet, and this might sound insane but we actually think that—it’s on the Internet, which means it’s not secure . . . Tor, Bitcoin, even SnapChat, are the canaries in the coal mine here, and we think that the first one to market with a distributed, consumer-friendly infrastructure for hyperlocal, trust-based exchange is going to do very well . . . as the density increases there’ll be a literal network effect . . . first among paranoid people, and people who are aware of the actual surveillance, that their phones are tracking devices and so on, and pretty soon I think among teenagers and other people who are aware of privacy concerns, people doing things on the edge, sex/drugs use cases, whatever. . . . We’re basically creating standards for a secure, trust-based Internet . . . I don’t know how plausible that sounds to you?”

We’d be on our feet for eleven hours, hustling and being hustled.

“So what’s the path to money here? . . . I’ll drop you a card, just in case, juuuust in case. My product is . . . Basically it functions like the iTunes of porn.”

“You guys are total privacy, tinfoil-hat-type guys?”

“It’s a nightlife app that manages your reputation at different locations. So this is my heat map. Doing really good right there. Doing kind of average right there. And that little blue spot is an incident at a karaoke bar two years ago.”

“Like you know if governments are trying to get a certain rebel force to mobilize or something? And then the Internet, the government can try to shut it down.
Like Iran . . . where the government can’t just shut ’em down, but they can still communicate. If you sell to the U.S. government, they would drop them in somehow.”

“And it’s a business how? . . . I’ll show you what I’ve got. It’s in quasi-stealth mode right now. It’s a social network for college students.”

“They know every shit we do online . . . I commute between here and Botswana . . . A hacker can park behind your office and access your network.”

“Chicken farms . . . at the end of the day you add value. The life-cycle of a chicken is really fast, like forty days . . . shit everywhere, feathers everywhere.”

“This is going to be the thing—I mean, I hope—this is going to be the thing that really democratizes China . . . We do Guitar Hero for real guitar.”

“Five years from now you’ll become a billionaire. Remember me today.”

“Are you guys hiring?”

Up on the seventh floor of the Manhattan Center the next morning, green lights flashed and dubstep dropped. TechCrunch editor Eric Eldon greeted us with “Happy International Workers’ Day.” RapGenius was annotating “The Waste Land.” My laptop screen was on the blink, flashing red, green, and blue. Ashton Kutcher opined on intelligent objects. A guy in Google Glass joined the waitlist for a drone.

The finals of Startup Battlefield began. Second onstage was Enigma, a “search-and-discovery platform for public data.” Enigma standardizes and synthesizes data from an array of local, state, and federal silos—different agencies, different file formats, if even formatted at all—and then sells access. The government collects this data, but is incapable of aggregating and organizing it. Privatized repackaging is required. “Do you think the ultimate incarnation of this platform is a for-profit business,” one judge asked, “or more of a public good?”

“If you look into the far future, certainly decades from now”—Enigma cofounder Marc DaCosta calibrated his reply—“all this public data will be graspable by everyone. [The] obscurity and obfuscation that exist now across all of this public data will evaporate, and be a thing that technology will come and fix.” Public data, private technology—call it a quasi public good.

Judging began, and I went downstairs. It was just about closing time. A drone darted above what had been Startup Alley. Adult men gaped at it like small children, and when it crashed its salesman tossed it back aloft. A yeshiva student in yarmulke and braces bought a Coors Light with a fake ID, and together we took the elevator up. He had pitched Dan and me the other day on a tool for querying Wikipedia via text message; now, he said, he had come from a meeting with the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. From the stage, TechCrunch editor Alexia Tsotsis thanked us all for joining “this three-day-long adventure.” Enigma got the big check and the Disrupt Cup. They popped bubbly and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Weeks went by. Dan and I skyped with Lucas Wang from Taiwan Mobile Innovation, a hardware-acceleration and VC firm based in Taipei. Nothing doing. I interviewed Enigma’s founders, former Columbia philosophy majors in their late twenties who invoked Agamben, Chomsky, Haraway, Latour, and Wittgenstein, the last of whom had inspired DaCosta’s partner, Hicham Oudghiri, to “drop philosophical stuff and get back to engineering.” DaCosta’s dissertation at the University of California, Irvine, on the cultural anthropology of big data, was also on hold. Now he was doing his best to navigate Washington. “Everyone abstractly agrees that open government is a good thing,” DaCosta told me. “It’s not that there’s opposition to any of this stuff, but there’s apathy.”

On June 5, a month after Disrupt, the first Edward Snowden story broke. He said, in outing himself a few days later, that his greatest fear was “turnkey tyranny.” This Big Brother scenario is a very libertarian form of apocalypticism: that centralized power is irredeemable and tends toward authoritarianism; that politics is broken and cannot change anything for the better; that the only solutions are individualist ones like strong cryptography. But in interviews and written statements, Snowden is only rarely so hyperbolic.

It has been alleged about the tech world that everyone is a libertarian ideologue, an Ayn Rand fanatic. But DaCosta and Oudghiri, with whom I have friends in common, weren’t, and they seemed typical to me, if more thoughtful than most. The truth is much simpler than some libertarian conspiracy, and more banal, if more depressing: that is, everyone at Disrupt was a capitalist whose political horizon started and ended in that frame. They saw no alternative; who could still imagine effective collective action?

And if you accept that we cannot fundamentally change our kludge of a political system, then maybe you settle for battling its regulations and unlocking its data. DaCosta and Oudghiri, and everyone at Disrupt, had chosen to live on the leading edge of the world as they found it.

Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine today and receive instant digital access to Frank’s “Come With Us If You Want to Live”—plus our entire 164-year archive.

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What China Threat?·

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Without a Trace·

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Going to Extremes·

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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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