A meditation on agency, historiography, and inevitability
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- A meditation on agency, historiography, and inevitability
- Prelogue: The Great Man Theory
- Part I: Amazon Unbound
- Part II: Elon Musk
- Part III: No filter
- From The Great Man Theory to the Great Founder Theory
- Conclusion: Strong men create good times
Prelogue: The Great Man Theory
In 1840, the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle gave a series of six lectures titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History about prominent historical figures. Carlyle dedicated his lectures to analyse the decisions and ideas of six archetypes of heroes: divine Odin, prophet Mohamed, poet Shakespeare, priest Martin Luther, man of letters Rousseau, and king Napoleon.
In these lectures, Carlyle gave an early formulation of what was later called the Great Man Theory in the theory of history:
Thus if the man Odin himself has vanished utterly, there is this vast Shadow of him which still projects itself over the whole History of his People. For this Odin once admitted to being God, we can understand well that the entire Scandinavian Scheme of Nature, or dim No-scheme, whatever it might before have been, would now begin to develop itself altogether differently, and grow thenceforth in a new manner. What this Odin saw into, and taught with his runes and his rhymes, the whole Teutonic People laid to heart and carried forward. His way of thought became their way of thinking:--such, under the new conditions, is the History of every great thinker still. In gigantic confused lineaments, like some enormous camera-obscura shadow thrown upwards from the dead deeps of the Past, and covering the whole Northern Heaven, is not that Scandinavian Mythology in some sort the Portraiture of this man Odin? The large image of his natural face, legible or not legible there, expanded and confused in that manner! Ah, Thought, I say, is always Thought. No great man lives in vain. The History of the world is but the Biography of great men. (Lecture I)
The History of the world is but the Biography of great men, Carlyle wrote. As a theory of history, this is an extremely strong claim that reduces the direction and current state of history into the actions of Great Men.
The motivation for Carlyle's humanism is largely historically contextual. At the time of his writing, Europe was in a period of crisis and upheaval from the Napoleonic wars to the Industrialisation. For intellectuals like Carlyle, the source of strength, direction, wisdom, and uplift (or in a looser use of the word Zeitgeist) was no longer the Church. History was at an inflection point where the secular triumphed the sacred.
However, secularism does not entail atheism. Great Men were sent by God as 'Able-man' who has a 'divine right over us'. Indeed Carlyle was disillusioned with the Church's deficiency in legitimacy. Yet, he was not disillusioned with theism. He invoked the authority of God to demonstrate how ‘'the great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand' provided the 'lightening' that shaped the world.
But what really is the Great Men? For Carlyle, the properties of the Great Men is similar to Plato's philosopher king:
The Ablest Man; he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn; – the thing which it will in all ways behoove us, with right loyal thankfulness, and nothing doubting, to do!
When societies are devoid of The Able-Man, the core responsibility is to find him and place him under an absolute monarchy — or despotism:
Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him; you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot box, Parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is the perfect state; an ideal country.
In the final lecture, 'The Hero as King', Carlyle declared the transformation from heroes to leaders as commanders over men. 'The last form of Heroism,' he wrote, 'that which we call Kingship':
The Commander over Men he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of the Great Men. He is practically the summary for us of all the various figures of Heroism; Priest, Teacher, whatsoever of earthly or of spiritual dignity we can fancy to reside in a man, embodies itself here, to command over us, furnish us with constraint practical teaching, tell us for the day and hour what we are to do
It is fairly evident that the goal of these lectures is explicitly pedantic. Carlyle attempted to convince listeners to 'bow down submissive before great men,' an act which would allow the worshiper to ‘feel himself to be more noble and blessed’. History is the product of the agency of the Great Men:
Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realisation and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world's history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these. (Lecture I)
However, Carlyle suffers from circular argumentation here. Does the Great Man become the leader by his own merit, or is he placed to leadership by the process of hero worship?
That we knew in some tolerable measure how to find him, and that all men were ready to acknowledge his divine right when found: that is precisely the healing which a sick world is everywhere, in the ages, seeking after!
The Chinese Great Man Theory
It is tempting to assume that the Great Man Theory is exceptionally Judeo-Christian. After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition, distinct from the Greco-Roman tradition, centres around the myths of prophets. Moses, Jesus and the coming Messiah are sent by God as The Great Man that charts the trajectory of history. The belief in human agency, albeit limited by the theology of God's power, diffuses into the secular realm and gives rise to the prevalence of individualism in the West.
I tried searching if there is an equivalent of the Great Man Theory in the Chinese philosophy of history. While no scholars have made a direct comparison/equivalence anywhere, I do have a minor observation that I deem as relevant to the Great Man Theory. From Mencius:
Mencius said, 'Shun rose from among the channelled fields. Fu Yue was called to office from the midst of his building frames; Jiao Ge from his fish and salt; Guan Yi Wu from the hands of his gaoler; Sun Shu Ao from his hiding by the sea-shore; and Bai Li Xi from the market-place. Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies. Men for the most part err, and are afterwards able to reform. They are distressed in mind and perplexed in their thoughts, and then they arise to vigorous reformation. When things have been evidenced in men's looks, and set forth in their words, then they understand them. If a prince have not about his court families attached to the laws and worthy counsellors, and if abroad there are not hostile States or other external calamities, his kingdom will generally come to ruin. From these things we see how life springs from sorrow and calamity, and death from ease and pleasure.' (translation from James Legge on ctext)
While Mencius did not mention any concepts that resemble Carlyle's Great Man, what he described above is a process of which one becomes functionally equivalent to Great Man, as Mencius wrote, 'when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man'. A key distinction here is that Carlyle believes that one becomes a Great Man by birth. Mencius is open to the possibility that one is not born Great, but becomes Great at a particular point in life bestowed by the Heaven. Another distinction here is that the concept of the Heaven is not necessarily theistic. It is invoked throughout ancient Chinese humanist literature, broadly meaning a supernatural force that dictates human state of affairs.
Profit from the Great Man
Why do I dedicate a blog to examine and study the Great Man Theory? Simply put, it is a 'profitable' pursuit.
First, 'profitable' as informative: Carlyle himself argued that the study of Great Men reveals one's own heroic side. He did not just study Great Men; he also studied the greatness of Men:
One comfort is, that Great Men, taken up in any way, are profitable company. We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness;—in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.
Second, 'profitable' as actionable: examining the Great Man Theory yields insights on how powerful an individual is over the system. These insights help us decide when to exercise our agencies and when not. Further, does it matter if we are the divine Great Man? Simon Sarris' powerful essay lamenting the loss of agency in youth would argue not. Carlyle's idea of divine rights is a powerful contrast that reminds us, for better or worse, of the egalitarianism that underpins our current social structure. Carlyle forces us to re-examine the legitimacy and nature of egalitarianism, from the point of view of the theory of history, rather than political philosophy (e.g. G.A. Cohen's).
Third, 'profitable' as critical: are we susceptible to the bias to resort to the Great Man Theory to explain events? On the one hand, The Great Man Theory places weight on the agencies of a highly selected group of individuals as explanatory variables. On the other hand, structualist sociologists would argue that the 'Great Men' were merely products of their social environment:
You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. ... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him. Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology
Note: I am aware that Thomas Carlyle is quoted (or mis-quoted) by Neo-reactionaries to justify slavery and monarchy. The validity of their justifications is beyond the scope of this blog. However, I do plan to write about the genealogy of Dark Enlightenment and Nick Land. If you are familiar with these topics, please do let me know.
Motivation & Teleos τέλος
Thus far, we have discussed Carlyle's Great Man theory from the perspective of historiography: the study of how historians develop their methods to study history.
This particular blog is motivated by my observation of the tech journalism-sphere. I cannot help but notice the deficiency of analytical rigour in explaining the 'cult of founder' in Silicon Valley.
As some readers might be aware, my personal interest has shifted from diplomacy/social sciences to entrepreneurship/technology. And this background might have given me an edge in spotting underpriced ideas. A particular one is a philosophical meditation on the significance (or lack thereof) of founders who lead technological breakthroughs in history.
So the τέλος (teleos, 'purpose' in Greek) of this blog is to meditate on two questions:
- What kind of theories/narratives (or at all) have we used to interpret influential technology founders?
- What should we use instead?
- Does it matter at all? Do we have agency in shaping historical events? Or are events inevitable?
Now, I would like to outline the structure of the remaining of this blog. In the following section, I will review the following three books in order:
While these books purport to be about the companies — or more abstractly — the institutions that Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Kevin Systrom respectively founded, they are really about the founders themselves. In my reviews, I provide a short account of the content of the book, raise hopefully interesting questions for further thoughts, and point out shortcomings in the narrative that the authors provided. These books are examples of how we did interpret Great Man/Great Founders. However, the question of how we should interpret remains unresolved.
Part I: Amazon Unbound
Amazon Unbound is Brad Stone's, a Bloomberg journalist, second attempt to chart the trajectory of the Amazonian Empire from 2012 (invention of Alexa) to 2020. He first covered the rise of Bezos in his Everything Store.
Amazon Unbound is about the Empire as much as about the Emperor himself: the metamorphosis of Jeff Bezos from a nerd to a ruthless Emperor.
Within the span of 8 years since Brad Stone's last book, Amazon has grown from a lone tree in a plain field into a rainforest that touches everything in the world. In late 2012, the company was worth almost $120bn and had fewer than 150,000 employees. Now it is worth at least $1.6tn and employed 1.3m by the end of 2019. It has added or expanded Amazon Web Services (AWS), its Alexa voice-activated speakers, and Prime Video, and bought Whole Foods Market, among others. What started out as an online book store has accumulated into the Everything Store: cloud computing, home-use smart speakers and streaming services etc.
Brad Stone spent tremendous effort into chronicling how Amazon built its killer weapons — the crown jewels of Amazon's offerings.
The first killer weapon is Alexa. It was a product that was definitely way ahead of its time. Alexa came about because of Bezos' wild imagination. He is obsessed over details and expects that his employees should and can deliver his vision within an unusually tight timeline. Outside of tech, this would have been called Narcissism. In Amazon, this is celebrated as 'working backward'.
In 2012, Bezos sketched what Alexas would look like. And for the next nearly four years, he obsessively micromanaged the project, pushing teams in Atlanta and Gdansk to make speech recognition seamless. He took home an early Echo prototype and when, in a moment of frustration, he told it to go “shoot yourself in the head,” it sent a wave of panic through the engineers who were listening in.
In order to meet the tight deadline of launching the product within 12 months, Bezos had to brute-force the problem: acqui-hire and do things manually. Originally, Amazon was trying to build a service capable of understanding the language spoken from across a noisy room, using a relatively immature technology called far-field speech recognition. Greg Hart, Bezos' Technical Advisor (TA), searched for startups to acquire. It led to several rapid-fire acquisitions over the next two years, including the Polish startup Ivona.
Ivona was founded in 2001 by Lukasz Osowski, a computer science student at the Gdańsk University of Technology. Osowski had the notion that so-called text-to-speech, or TTS, could read digital texts aloud in a natural voice and help the visually impaired in Poland. With a younger classmate, Michal Kaszczuk, he took recordings of an actor’s voice and selected fragments of words, called diphones, and then blended or “concatenated” them together in different combinations to approximate natural-sounding words and sentences that the actor might never have uttered.
To make things even harder, Bezos demanded that he wanted dozens of distinct voices to emanate from the device, each associated with a different goal or task, such as listening to music or booking a flight. In other words, he wants Alexa to sound like a human.
To develop this voice and ensure it had no trace of a regional accent, the team in Poland worked with an Atlanta-area-based voice-over studio, GM Voices, the same outfit that had helped turn recordings from a voice actress named Susan Bennett into Apple’s agent, Siri. To create synthetic personalities for its customers, GM Voices gives voice actors hundreds of hours of text to read, from entire books to random articles, a mind-numbing process that could stretch on for months.
Fundamentally, however, Amazon was late to the voice recognition game. Hart and his team created graphs that projected how Alexa would improve as data collection progressed. The math suggested they would need to roughly double the scale of their data collection efforts to achieve each successive 3 percent increase in Alexa’s accuracy.
The team brought a six-page narrative to Bezos that laid out these facts, and they proposed to double the size of the speech science team and postpone a planned launch from the summer into the fall. The meeting did not go well. “You are going about this the wrong way,” Bezos said after reading about the delay, according to someone who was present. “First tell me what would be a magical product, then tell me how to get there.”
To work around data collection, the team simply brute-forced a solution: hire contractors to manually generate voice data.
To execute its plan, internally called AMPED, Amazon contracted with an Australian data collection firm called Appen and went on the road with Alexa, in disguise. Starting in Boston, Appen rented homes and apartments, and then Amazon littered several rooms with all kinds of “decoy” devices: pedestal microphones, Xbox gaming consoles, televisions, and tablets. There were also some 20 Alexa devices planted around the rooms at different heights, each shrouded in an acoustic fabric that hid them from view but allowed sound to pass through. Appen then contracted with a temp agency, and a stream of contract workers filtered through the properties, eight hours a day, six days a week, reading scripts from an iPad with canned lines and open-ended prompts like “Ask to play your favorite tune” and “Ask anything you’d like an assistant to do.”
The result of this is an unmatchable success:
Amazon was anything but embarrassed. By 2014 it had increased its store of speech data by a factor of 10,000 and largely closed the data gap with rivals like Apple and Google. Bezos was giddy. Alexa was being fed the equivalent of a brain-boosting superfood. By the fall, it was ready for launch.
Another killer weapon is what I call the Holy Trinity of 621: 6-page memo, 2 pizza team, and Day 1 spirit. 6-page memos replace PowerPoint presentations in executives meetings. Every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas. And the start-up spirit of “Day 1” trumps 'Day two', which is 'stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death' .
There are several Kryptonites to the Empire that have either already stopped the Empire's expansion, or will slowly eat the Empire.
First, the culture that neglects compensation and perks in talent attraction. Goldman Sachs does not want mercenaries. Jeff Bezos does not want mercenaries either. He despised the perks offered by the likes of Facebook, Apple and Google, making Amazon stand out in the group of FAANG that are conventionally seen to throw lavish perks and cash at talents.
There is a layer of nuance though, as Jason Calacanis discussed in his podcast with Brad Stone. For its operational employees in blue-collar jobs, Amazon pays above the minimum wage with perks such as an educational fund. What I am not sure though is that what happened first. Since when did Bezos become more generous to its workers?
Second, Amazon has lost the Indian and Chinese markets. And these markets are important, as Bezos himself knows: “The future of the world is the United States, China, and India. We need to succeed in two out of three.” And Amazon also missed the Flipkart deal, only to be scooped by Walmart.
It also sounds like the Emperor wanted to fight a war to look cool. On Acquired's podcast, Brad Stone talked about Bezos' motivation in India:
Bezos came to India in 2014, and Flipkart’s got billboards lining the road from the airport. He's there studying their methods. They launched Big Billion Day, and then he insists on launching a sort of celebration of India's Space Program the next day. He wants to make a splash with the elephants. It's all very explicit.
In addition, China has proved to be another graveyard of empires as Amazon officially pulled out of its Chinese business after spending billions and years in the market losing to Alibaba, JD.com and other homegrown players.
Third, the Emperor has no clothes. No one saw it coming when Bezos' dick pic was held by the National Inquirer, as I talked about in my newsletter. Bezos' ego grows larger and larger. He has made a few public enemies criticising his fellow billionaires who venture in space. Funny enough, he even thanked Amazon's employees and customers for paying for his Blue Origin venture. Not to mention the fact that he is trying to build a SpaceX replica with merely his own wealth while consistently being beat by a more committed and disciplined Elon Musk. How are these not faux pas that should have given Amazon's PRs serious headache?
Brad Stone lost his former direct access to Jeff Bezos that he gained when interviewing for The Everything Store. In fact, MacKenzie Scott, Bezos’ wife at the time, gave the book a one-star review on Amazon. This explains why there are several unresolved questions in Amazon Unbound.
First, why did Jeff Bezos decide to open up Amazon to third-party sellers? This was a non-trivial decision that ultimately turned Amazon into a marketplace. It also saved Amazon post-dot com crisis.
Second, what really is the motivation behind Bezos' putting money behind Blue Origin, despite it consistently lagging behind SpaceX? To what extent is Scott Galloway's 'Theory of Bezos in a mid-life crisis' true?
Third, how did Bezos cope with the aftermath of the dot-com bubble? While Amazon Unbound briefly mentioned the predicament Amazon was stuck at in 2003, Brad Stone never laid out nor explained Bezos' psychology at the time. Perhaps this question would be answered in the Everything Store, which I have not read yet.
Nonetheless, my secondary review of the book does not do Brad Stone's admirable work justice. While Amazon Unbound is a chronicle of the rise of the Empire, it inevitably misses out on documenting the crises to the Kingdom in its infancy. It could be a fault on my part as I have not read the Everything Store.
Part II: Elon Musk
Ashlee Vance's biography of Elon Musk was published in 2015. It is slightly outdated given Walter Isaacson's recent announcement on his upcoming work on Musk. However, Vance's work remains enticing and engaging. Vance has a special prowess in tying stone cold biographical facts together with a narrative thread that really shows Musk's humane side: to err is human, the billionaire entrepreneur Musk is as flawed as many of us. The following is a collection of my reflections and meditations after reading the biography. I assume that readers of this blog are sufficiently familiar with Elon Musk's work and his standing in the industries.
Musk has always been a gambler who puts all his eggs into one basket. He was born in South Africa, but left for Canada in 17 by himself in pursuit of bigger opportunities, living in his cousins farm and working in odd jobs. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in physics and economics, Musk co‑founded an early internet-mapping company called Zip2. When Compaq bought it in 1999, he made $22m. He ploughed most of it into his next venture, an internet-banking startup that would become PayPal. Vance recounted one Musk admirer's description of this decision as “an insane amount of personal risk. When you do a deal like that, it either pays off or you end up in a bus shelter somewhere.”Indeed, Musk had reserved himself with $4m for personal use had he ended up in a bus shelter. When PayPal in turn was eventually bought by eBay in 2002, Musk found himself with more than $100m at his disposal. Second time's the charm: he took immense risk again by putting $100M of his $180M proceeds from Paypal into SpaceX, $70M into Tesla, and $10M into Solar City.
Musk is truly visionary — but he is also lucky that he was born in an age where visionary founders are rewarded rather than punished for being illusionary in the Candide, ou l'Optimisme fashion.
'I would like to die thinking that humanity has a bright future’, he said. ‘If we can solve sustainable energy and be well on our way to becoming a multi-planetary species with a self-sustaining civilization on another planet-to cope with a worst-case scenario happening and extinguishing human consciousness—then,’ and here he paused for a moment, ‘I think that would be really good.'
Musk also sets incredibly high expectations of himself and those around him. He pushes his engineers way beyond limits under intense (and dare I say, inhumane) working conditions. While I was reading book, I kept wondering: how can anyone who is reasonably intelligent in a good state of mind work for him? Musk rage fired on the spot, cursing and yelling at them, and even creating an abusive work environment. Vance also alleged in the book that Musk fired his secretary of 12 years, Mary Beth Brown, when she asked for a raise.
Global minimum of Musk's delta-v
Ashley Vance went into considerable length with admirable research, documenting the peaks and troughs of Elon Musk from childhood to his work at Tesla and SpaceX.
For some weird reasons, I feel connected to Musk's childhood stories:
“Bullied” is a word we hear often. Still, the descriptions of the violence Musk endured as a child, however, are disturbing. In eighth or ninth grade, for example, he was attacked by a group of boys, kicked in the head, thrown down a flight of concrete stairs, then set upon on the landing, kicked and beaten bloody until he blacked out. He required hospital care — and a week at home to recover.
I was lucky enough to escape from physical abuse — one of the benefits of Asian culture in the schooling system — but I was isolated by my teacher and classmates in primary school. At the time, I discovered the power of Google and Wikipedia. I became a nerd in particle physics, rambling on about Greek letters and principles of physics that I had no clue about. That was also the time when I made my own toys by wrapping together trash paper with tape, twisting and forcing them into shapes of fighter jets, rockets and Power Ranger's robots.
I also speculated about solar-powered satellites. I drew diagrams showing how we can transmit limitless solar energy from satellites to ground-based dish plants. I was living in my own science-fiction metaverse.
He apparently shared some of his undergraduate papers with Vance, on topics like space-based solar power plants and the use of ultra-capacitors for energy storage, keen to demonstrate that his interests were longstanding and consistent, that his goal had always been to make a difference, independent of the question of making a fortune.
Lucky enough, I have not yet experienced Musk's trough in life — the global minimum in his delta-v in career trajectory — and I hope that I will not experience it in the future either. Both Tesla and SpaceX were on the verge of in the Christmas eve of 2008. Ashley Vance accounted the events:
And Musk's reply:
And a video of him in 2008 resurfaced recently, where he said that 'it takes time to optimize a new technology…The critical point is that you can’t get to low-cost cars unless you start with expensive cars'. In the midst of a potential bankruptcy, Musk retained his commitment to his original cause. Truly admirable.
And for SpaceX, he recounted in an interview with CBS:
There was one chance left for SpaceX, says Musk, after its first three experimental launches failed. "It's bad enough to have three strikes. Having four strikes is really kaput," he tells Pelley.
About three months earlier, on Sept. 28, 2008, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket lifted off for the fourth time, successfully delivering a dummy payload to orbit.
"We were running on fumes at that point," Musk says. "We had virtually no money... a fourth failure would have been absolutely game over. Done."
Even with a successful launch finally under his belt, Musk apparently found himself contemplating financial ruin on that Sunday before Christmas six years ago.
On Dec. 23, 2008, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to haul at least 20 metric tons of cargo to the international space station over 12 planned flights.
"NASA called and told us we won a $1.5 billion contract," Musk says in the interview. "I couldn't even hold the phone. I just blurted out, 'I love you guys!'"
Two days later, on Christmas eve, Tesla's investors decided to pour in more money. So in a period of three days, both SpaceX and Tesla were saved by two completely unexpected events.
There's a glitch in the Matrix. Deus ex machina.
The Unified Field Theory of Elon Musk
Vance attempted to bring Musk's work all together under the umbrella of a Unified Field Theory. Similarly, Musk himself had entertained the idea of grouping all of his holdings under 'X'. Evidently, what ties all of SpaceX, Solarcity and Tesla together is his affinity for physics. Vance thought that Solar City provides the energy storage technology and know-how for Tesla; SpaceX's manufacturing knowledge is extremely useful in scaling EV production for Tesla. Musk has now expanded his work into Neuralink, a company that develops Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), the Boring Company and Hyperloop. Do these new additions fit into Vance's Unified Field Theory? This remains to be seen.
In the first line of the book, Vance quoted Musk: 'Do you think I’m insane?'. In the last paragraph, Vance quoted Musk: 'I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact'. An absolutely insane response otherwise, had Vance not already spent several hundreds of pages rationalizing Musk's goals and modus operandi.
Still, I think Musk is absolutely insane. When he was dating the Hollywood actress Talulah Riley, they had lunch one day and Musk wanted to show her his rocket. And Musk did show her his flying rocket 🚀:
'I was skeptical, but he did actually show me rocket videos,' Talulah stated.
Elon Musk, you are insane.
Not every one of Elon Musk's ventures went up in space. For one, X.com fell short of its expectations. He had a radical vision of consumer finance back in 1999 that was proven to be way ahead of its time. In an interview done pre-dot-com, titled 'Elon Musk + Your Mobile Phone = Your New Wallet':
X.com will announce that its popular email payment service, "PayPal," is accessible via Web-enabled phones. The service will allow anyone with a PayPal account to instantly and securely send money to anyone with a U.S. email address, for free, using their mobile phones. It will be the first person-to-person payment mechanism on the mobile Internet.
The wireless option adds another payment platform for the service's 2 million users, who can already send and receive money from their PC's and PDAs. X.com's PayPal is the leading payment service for online auctions, utilized by 37% of all auctions on eBay. Why write and mail a check for that vintage treasure when you can email the seller the payment instantly and for free?
FierceWireless.com: On Monday you are announcing your payment offerings via Web-enabled phones. Tell me more about it.
Elon Musk: The new service gives our users the ability to easily make payments using just WAP- or HDML-enabled phones. When users go to X.com on their phones, the site brings up everything -- the name, the account information, and others. So if you go to dinner with a friend and don't have cash, you can just split the bill and pay back your friend using your phone.
FW: And this is the first payment system available on wireless devices?
We believe it is in terms of person-to person payment accessible on Net-enabled phones.
Peter Thiel said that 'we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters'.
Elon Musk promised a full-stack digital bank, instead, we got a P2P payment platform.
Finally, his vision is now being realized by the likes of neo-banks in Europe e.g. Monzo and Revolut and second-generation payment networks like Stripe. In fact, in a write-up by Bloomberg about Stripe:
Although startups appreciated what Stripe was doing, most potential investors did not. How was a small group of young engineers going to alter the internet’s financial structure? Hadn’t they heard of PayPal? Ironically, it was Moritz and PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Elon Musk who wanted in. They got that its technology hadn’t kept pace. “The propeller of the good ship PayPal was pretty encrusted, and a lot of barnacles had formed on the hull since we invested in the company more than a decade earlier,” Moritz says. “The observation that accepting payments was still too difficult rang very true.”
I had never known that payment is rocket science. Or is it even harder than rocket science? Perhaps it explains the exodus of Paypal employees post-eBay acquisition.
Part III: No filter
Unlike Brad Stone's Amazon Unbound or Ashley Vance's Elon Musk, No Filter does not dedicate itself to building any founder's character arc. The name of the book does not even include the names of Instagram's founders: Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. Instagram, ultimately, is community-driven, rather than founder-led. This theme runs through No Filter and stands as a stark contrast between the other two books reviewed here.
On paper, Systrom, the founder of Instagram, fits into the mold of tech bros in Silicon Valley. He graduated from Stanford with a computer science degree. He did consider dropping out of school to accept Zuckerberg’s offer, in 2005, to join his start-up called TheFacebook.com. Instead, he studied abroad in Florence. Systrom had always liked nice things: espresso, fine clothes, and old bourbon. But his photography professor made him give up his fancy camera for a simpler device, one that only shot blurry images in square frames. The experience taught him to embrace imperfection. That “just because something is more technically complex doesn’t mean it’s better.”
What motivated the founding of Instagram is a series of events and work that Systrom deems unsatisfactory. Interning at the podcasting company Odeo, a 22-year-old Systrom sat next to a 29-year-old engineer, Jack Dorsey. Improbably, this N.Y.U. dropout “with an anarchist tattoo and a nose ring” befriended him. Odeo eventually gave rise to Twitter, an idea he’d dismissed ('They’re crazy, Systrom thought. Nobody is going to use this thing') just as he had Facebook. After graduation, Systrom worked at Google as a corporate development associate, making PowerPoints ('pls fix thx') and making latte with espresso machines.
Systrom eventually built a prototype of a web app called Burbn, which was inspired by his taste for fine whiskeys and bourbons. In March 2010, Systrom met two venture capitalists from Baseline Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. After their first meeting, Systrom quit his job and focus on Burbn. Joined with a 25-year-old Stanford graduate Mike Krieger, they reassessed Burbn and decided to focus primarily on one thing: photographs specifically taken on mobile devices. They also renamed Burbn into Instagram, launching it on Oct. 6, 2010, and racked up 25,000 users in one day.
Growth hack? No #keepitchic
Instagram was the precursor of running communities before 'community' even became a buzzword. Systrom visited cafes in New York and San Francisco, meeting with photographers and artists who are Instagram's power users. He also made sure that the first batch of users on the app are influencers and photographers who truly appreciate the power of filters and rapid feedback via comments. Essentially, it is Clubhouse's waitlist without the part of Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).
Zuck it up
No Filter is about Instagram; it is also a story of how Mark Zuckerberg is a visionary and ruthless Caesar that charmed and devoured Instagram into his Facebook Empire.
As part of the $1B acquisition deal of Instagram by Facebook, Zuckerberg promised the founders their independence. They could run the Instagram product within Facebook with minimum interference. However, Zuckerberg began to find ways to undermine the founders. For example, Instagram has no reshare button by design (“all your posts were yours. That was what the founders wanted”). This is contrary to Zuckerberg's belief in viral growth at all costs.
But this growth comes at the cost of Instagram. After all, Instagram is now part of Facebook. The more time users spend on Instagram, the more Instagram cannibalizes Facebook's user engagement. Furthermore, when Systrom tried to build protections against abusive comments, the ex-Facebook engineers on his team, reluctant to weed out opportunities for higher engagement, proposed controls that would be prohibitively hard to find and use. “Thanks but no thanks” was Systrom’s response.
No Filter ultimately is a story of how Zuckerberg charms the founders of Instagram, lures them in, and clamps down on their independence. If anything, it is a reminder that while Zuckerberg's strategy of acquisition-first-control-second might work in the long run —who knows, maybe he does know the future far better than everyone. Zuckerberg's acquisition of Instagram, hailed as the best acquisition of all time, seals his reputation as a visionary Emperor that charms his acquirer targets, integrating them into the Facebook Empire. The other two high-profile acquisitions include the $19B purchase of WhatsApp, which has yet to turn profitable til this day in 2021, and $2B purchase of Oculus. But was Zuckerberg destined to be the great deal-maker that exceptionally spots competitors, buys them out, and 'together, we are stronger? Any reasonable founders now will run away from Zuckerberg's acquisition offer. The founder of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel, rejected several acquisition offers from Mark Zuckerberg. Snapchat went so far ahead in its product innovation that it forced Instagram to copy its story and disappearing timer features. On the other front, Tiktok has got the headstart in short-form videos and content discovery by reviving Vine — which was simply too early in its time — in the 2020s. The Emperor might not be naked, but he is wearing a very thin layer of clothes: recent reviews by the US government on anti-trust behaviour of big tech would also limit how aggressive Zuckerberg's acquisition strategy can be.
No filter on No Filter
I am quite ambivalent about No Filter. Frier, the author, had a lot of access to the insider Valley gossip, like who got invited to Zuckerberg’s parties (and that he served Systrom the boney mystery meat of an animal he had personally killed). The tension between Jack Dorsey and Systrom reminds me of HBO's comedy Silicon Valley. While Dorsey and Systrom knew each other back then at their intern times, Systrom rejected Twitter's acquisition offer and eventually accepted Twitter's arch-rival — Facebook's — this is one of the book's many fascinating subplots. While these rivalries between the bigwigs might be entertaining to watch from a distance, ordinary readers like myself are simply impassioned. Instagram can have as many internal power struggles as it wants. As a user, Instagram is still shipping one great copycat feature after another: reels (thanks, TikTok), stories (thanks, Snapchat), e-commerce (thanks, Douyin), and IGTV (thanks, YouTube). As we can tell from Instagram's engagement metrics, users love these features.
No Filter can be an even better read if Frier could gain access to the rationale behind Instagram's pace and sequence of launching new features. These are incredible insights for founders and product managers alike in consumer socials. Now the old King is dead (Systrom departed from Instagram), long live the King! (Adam Mosseri).
Get us into Mosseri's head!
From The Great Man Theory to the Great Founder Theory
Carlyle said that studying the Great Man is a 'profitable' pursuit.
So is it profitable studying Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Kevin Systrom from the three books that I have respectively reviewed? This question can be broken down into two sub-questions:
- Are they the Great Man at all?
- What are the takeaways from studying their stories?
Bezos, Musk and Systrom as Great Man
First, the authors situate Bezos, Musk and Systrom (BMS) as main characters in their books that make decisions, build companies and drive the narratives around them. The only exception is No Filter, which is a book that is also about Mark Zuckerberg and the petty messy network among the Valley elites, diluting the aura of Kevin Systrom as a cost. Hence, intuitively we can conclude that the narrative angles that Brad Stone, Ashley Vance and Sarah Frier adopted are largely consistent with the Great Man Theory. Nonetheless, whether or not it was a deliberate decision perhaps will never be known.
Second, BMS are portrayed to possess extraordinary intelligence and grit. Before they started their companies, Elon Musk did not know anything about electrical vehicles; nor did Jeff Bezos know anything about e-commerce. But they spot the trend, strategised the best angle of attack, and acted. As a contrast, Systrom got into photography before Instagram. Instagram was a natural extension of his perfectionist tendency. What is undeniable, however, is that all three of them, BMS, are terrific pattern seekers and excellent executers.
For Musk and Bezos, they both shared a tough upbringing, perhaps similar to how Mencius talked about how the Heaven prepared the Great Man, as discussed in the 'Chinese Great Man Theory' section above:
Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings
Musk's mother divorced in Musk's childhood. She is the prime example of grit for Musk as she worked hard to become financially independent. Bezos' biological father was divorced early, and Bezos was raised by a Cuban immigrant.
The Narrative Fallacy
I argue that the authors embody a kind of contradiction at face value: they implicitly refer to the Great Man Theory framework; while explicitly recognising the fallacies in the books.
When Brad Stone met with Jeff Bezos to solicit his cooperation for the book, Stone wasn’t prepared for one of Bezos’s questions: “How do you plan to handle the narrative fallacy?”
The narrative fallacy, Bezos explained, was a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories. Taleb argues that the limitations of the human brain resulted in our species’ tendency to squeeze unrelated facts and events into cause-and-effect equations and then convert them into easily understandable narratives. These stories, Taleb wrote, shield humanity from the true randomness of the world, the chaos, of human experience, and, to some extent, the unnerving element of luck that plays into all successes and failures.[…]In Taleb’s book — which, incidentally, all Amazon senior executives had to read — the author stated that the way to avoid the narrative fallacy was to favour experimentation and clinical knowledge over storytelling and memory.
Vance’s book on Elon Musk also shows healthy skepticism. Within Silicon Valley, he writes in the first few pages, Musk was 'a deity.' But outside this 'warped version of reality,' he continues:
Musk often comes off as a more polarizing figure. He’s the guy with the electric cars, solar panels and rockets peddling false hope. Forget Steve Jobs. Musk is a sci-fi version of P.T. Barnum … I’d long been a subscriber to this latter camp. Musk had struck me as a well-intentioned dreamer — a card-carrying member of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian club
At close analysis, it is not contradictory to hold the Great Man Theory while recognising The Narrative Fallacy. After all, the Narrative Fallacy reminds us not to 'overfit' data with trend-lines i.e. narratives. On the other hand, the Great Man Theory simply emphasises individual agency in shaping the course of history.
Competing Theories of History
The Great Man Theory is a theory of history that belongs to one extreme end of the spectrum: it overweighs on individual agency. On the other end of the spectrum, structuralism underweighs on individual agency. This section entertains multiple competing theories of history on the spectrum.
First, consider the argument that individual actions are mere products of the social environment. Herbert Spencer, a Carlyle's contemporary, offered the first criticism of the Great Man Theory:
You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the secular state into which that race has slowly grown... Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.
Rather than great men influencing society, a process of evolution shapes the "aggregate of social conditions." For when the external environment changes, it causes changes in human behavior, which in turn changes human institutions (social systems) for them to become consistent with new human behavior – over time, all of this has become the "aggregate of social conditions.
In On Heroes, Carlyle rejected Spencer's position totally, with a rather axiomatic and weak argument:
He [the Great Man] was the ‘‘creature of the Time,’’ they say; the Time called him forth, the Time did everything, he did nothing – but what we the little critic could have done too! This seems to me but melancholy work. The Times call forth? Alas, we have known Times call loudly enough for their great man; but not find him when they called! He was not there; Providence had not sent him; the Time, calling its loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he would not come when called. . . The great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand, is the lightening. His word is the wise healing word which we all can believe in. All blazes round him now, when he has once struck on it, into fire like his own
Second, on the other hand of the spectrum, Marxist theory of history is one of technological determinism. As I explained on my website, I studied Marx and Marxism in my degree (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) at Oxford. Hence, the discussion on Marxism that follows would be implicitly biased from the lens of analytical Marxism.
The Marxist theory of history was first coined as 'historical materialism' in Marx's own writings. However, Marx himself did not set out his theory of history in great detail. Much of the theoretical framework comes from late Marxists' (especially G.A. Cohen's Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence) re-construction from a variety of original texts. The following is a reduction that is unfortunately superficial due to the limited scope of the blog.
Underlying everything as the real basis of society is the economic structure. This structure includes (a) the 'material forces of production,' that is, the labour and means of production, and (b) the overall 'relations of production,' or the social and political arrangements that regulate production and distribution. Above the economic structure rises the superstructure, consisting of legal and political 'forms of social consciousness' that correspond to the economic structure. Marx says nothing about the nature of this correspondence between ideological forms and economic structure, except that through the ideological forms individuals become conscious of the conflict within the economic structure between the material forces of production and the existing relations of production expressed in the legal property relations. In other words, 'The sum total of the forces of production accessible to men determines the condition of society' and is at the base of society. 'The social structure and the state issue continually from the life processes of definite individuals . . . as they are in reality, that is acting and materially producing.' The political relations that individuals establish among themselves are dependent on material production, as are the legal relations.
Chosen for their relevance for comparison purposes with the Great Man Theory and with the Great Founder Theory, which will be discussed next, historical materialism makes three predictions:
- Technological determinism
The base (forces of production) determines the relations of production (class and social relations). The base fundamentally drives historical events
2. Historical changes come from conflicts.
Marx addresses this question of historical change in his 1859 Preface:
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
So, Marx’s explanation in the 1859 Preface is that at a certain point the development of the forces of production brings them into conflict with the relations of production. Relations that had previously encouraged the development of the forces now hold them back. This results in a social crisis that weakens the power of the ruling class and eventually results in either its overthrow or its transformation. Marx says little about how this will come about in the Preface, mainly because it was to be published in Prussia and he wanted to be sure that what he wrote would get past the censors.
3. Technological progression is not a historical tendency
As the Marxist archeologist and historian Neil Faulkner points out:
'Entire generations of peasants in, say, Shang China, Mycenaean Greece, or Norman England might live out their entire lives without ever experiencing a significant innovation in either agricultural or domestic equipment.' In China there was sustained development of the productive forces during the Tang and Song dynasties, but then centuries of stagnation during the Ming and Qing dynasties. In Western Europe, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, there were several centuries of technological regression. The productive forces regressed in Eastern Europe between 1500 and 1800. French agriculture stagnated during this period.
The forces of production do not develop independently of the relations of production, and it is only with the advent of capitalism that we see a system in which the development of the productive forces is built into the mode of production. Marx even goes so far as to say, 'Conservation of old modes of production in unaltered form was . . . the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes.' That may be an exaggeration, but it emphasizes the fact that capitalism is unique in the ways that it promotes the rapid development of productive forces.
Note: to the strawmen out there, communism does not necessarily come after capitalism. There are several objective and subjection conditions that lead to capitalism ripe for socialist revolutions, as discussed in Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme.
Putting all together
Daesol explained it in a very satisfying manner, in the context of playing strategy games (think Civilization V):
A ‘macro‘ strategy, as they call it, focuses on gathering resources and overwhelming the opponent with a superior army. A larger and more technologically advanced army that’s quickly replenishable, thanks to the backing of solid economy. A sociological paradigm.
A ‘micro‘ strategy, focuses on the movements and positions of the units themselves. More of the player’s time and attention are given to clicking and controlling individual units to gain an advantage. This is much like having the best generals with the best battlefield tactics, executed to perfection. A psychological paradigm.
The Great Founder Theory
Now we have arrived at the Great Founder Theory, purposed by Samo Burja, as an alternative theory of history. Burja is planning to publish a book on the matter; a 2020 version of the transcript is available via his website.
In an excerpt, Burja explained the Great Founder Theory — Great Founders build functional institutions that shape historical events:
I argue in “Competition for Power” that people’s impact on the world follows a Pareto-like distribution, with the most impactful people having a far greater impact than the rest. The creation of functional institutions is the means by which people are hugely impactful. People who build institutions are far more impactful than people who don’t, and among those, people who build functional institutions are by far the most impactful.
Compared to Great Man Theory:
In here, there is perhaps the nuance that distinguishes this from Great Man Theory as such. Great Man Theory proposes that you shape society by participating in grand events, right? It might focus on a general’s victory on the battlefield. I wouldn’t focus on the general’s victory on the battlefield at all unless, in the aftermath of the battle, the great founder was killed. No, I’d focus on the military reforms.
For example, if we look at Napoleon, I perhaps would acknowledge that his skill at winning battles is extremely important. But his enduring contribution to society and civilization would be something like the organization of the national conscription system, the precise way the Central Command functioned – the battlefield command where he often delegated decisions to his underlings – influencing later things like the Prussian system [of military staff command]. The Napoleonic Code of Law was extended and spread across all of Europe, often kept even after Napoleonic forces were kicked out. Finally, he engaged in a massive amount of myth-making. He revived this cult of Alexander the Great and Caesar.
Conclusion: Strong men create good times
Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.
- G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain
Going back to the teleos of this blog:
So the τέλος (teleos, 'purpose' in Greek) of this blog is to meditate on two questions:
1. What kind of theories/narratives (or at all) have we used to interpret influential technology founders?
2. What should we use instead?
3. Does it matter at all? Do we have agency in shaping historical events? Or are events inevitable?
And my motivation:
This particular blog is motivated by my observation of the tech journalism-sphere. I cannot help but notice the deficiency of analytical rigour in explaining the 'cult of founder' in Silicon Valley.
Here's my answer: the 'cult of founder' in Silicon Valley, and more generally, the admiration of great founders i.e. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Kevin Systrom, can be attributed to the narrative fallacy. We are susceptible to narratives that help us dumb down phenonemon. Bringing e-commerce to wide-adoption is a complex phenonemon. Attributing this phenonemon to the Great Man, or the Great Founder, is the laziest explanation.
For 2), I would abandon the thought of answering this question at all. It does not matter what theories of history or narratives we use. It depends on the implications that come after we have adopted a particular theory of history.
These are the takeaways I have from the three theories:
- If the dominant social discourse adopts the Great Man Theory, we default to 'over-assign' certain individuals, i.e. the Great Man, power, undermining the agency of ordinary individuals, not to mention the theory's anti-egalitarianism
- Marxist Technological Determinism: will we widely adopt electric vehicles and e-commerce anyways, regardless of what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have done? I find this view the most compelling and consistent theory on offer, while simultaneously recognising the agencies of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Our society is meant to have a leader who advocates EV anyways. In a counterfactual world, that person would not be Elon Musk, perhaps Tim Cook.
- The Great Founder Theory: currently Burja applies his theories to rule-builders, nation-builders, and innovators. Would tech founders fit within the parameters? Is there anything exceptional about being a founder of a technology company that is a reasonably early adopter of a socially significant technology?
Here's a conclusion: historical narratives do not compile a sequence of events; rather, we imagine and construct an ‘order of meaning,’ that ultimately reveal purposes and themes that we project onto on our own.
As far-fetched as the narratives might be, there is still strong utility from understanding, or even merely the attempt to, the role of individuals in history. On Pallandium, Burja purposed how the Great Founder Theory legitimizes value judgments on actions:
Samo Burja: So, I think that in societies where we don’t understand the role of founders, we have a confused relation to our heroes, where the confusion can go either way. It can be deeds-focused, which is perhaps useful – it’s useful to commemorate those who participate in grand events – but I think it’s much more important to look at the origin of social order, to look at the Moses’s and Lycurgus’s of the world, that set up particular social systems, and to understand what they look like.
Wolf Tivy: So the idea there is that you almost need these archetypes kind of floating around in society that can legitimize certain types of constructive action.
Samo Burja: Yes, I think the constructive action will often seem illegitimate, because if you are bypassing dead institutions, institutions that are dead players, that are dysfunctional, they obviously won’t like this very much, right? They won’t like the sort of circumvention that’s necessary to construct something new. You might be trying to bypass something like a political monopoly, or you might be trying to bypass something like an economic monopoly. Just to say one or two things more about why theories of history matter, I think everyone is always acting on an implicit theory of history.
If you talk to anyone in Silicon Valley right now and you ask: why do you think what you do matters at all? They’ll say, well, technology drives history, right? Or they’ll say, well, I want to contribute to human progress, or, I want to advance technology. And this is the most important thing in the world. Embedded in those statements is an assumption of technological determinism, right? And that technological progress necessarily improves human lives and that technological progress is kind of unstoppable and desirable. It’s important for us to participate in it so that an individual can accelerate or decelerate it, but if you start talking to them about questions such as, how would you evaluate the speed of technological progress? Is this the right way to accelerate it? They usually run out of material, but that basic, believed theory is there. And arguably we all have these, right?
After all, no theory of history can claim to be 1) comprehensive 2) predictive and 3) falsifiable. But it is still worthwhile to examine and to adopt a theory of history because it informs us of values. With values, agency emerges. With an agency, we find meanings and motivations in our actions.
Epilogue: Chinese exceptionalist historiography?
There are a few unresolved questions that I would love to dig deeper. I would also appreciate any helpful pointers.
From my personal experience under the Chinese K12 education, we learned Chinese history each Great Man after Great Man e.g. in the Han dynasty, emphasis on the founding emperor, then the successive emperor with important policy changes (or more often than not, a flamboyant lifestyle that led to the breakdown of the country). On the other hand, we learned World History each event after event e.g. the Age of Revolution from the French Revolution to the American Revolution, etc.
I have several questions:
- Is my anecdotal evidence indicative of the difference between Chinese and European historiography?
- What is the genealogy of the word 'Age of Revolution'? Such phrasing suggests that perhaps historians in the West emphasize studying social forces, as opposed to individuals, that shape history
- How has Chinese historiography changed from ancient to modern? One possible answer is the shift from using the Great Emperor as an explanatory variable to using events and forces, especially for events after the Qing dynasty. Is this shift visible and attributable to the current Chinese state ideology of historical materialism?