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 FWD.us, 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 Occupy.here.

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 http://occupy.here. There you could chat or trade files, so long as you stayed nearby. Occupy.here 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 Occupy.here 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 Occupy.here.”

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 Occupy.here, 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 BaDoink.com. . . . 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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