You maniacs sold out our second-ever Interface live event, with Uncanny Valley author Anna Wiener, in record time. Thanks to everyone who bought a ticket, and we’ll look into finding a bigger venue for the next one. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing a good number of you on February 4th!
The basic idea behind journalism is that there are things people don’t know that they should know, and that someone ought to go find the people who do know about the things and ask them. Most of the time when a journalist interviews someone, they learn something useful, and then report it all back to us so we can have a shared understanding of reality and make better decisions about how to live.
Historically, a person that lots of journalists have wanted to talk to is the big tech CEO. As companies like Amazon and Apple grew in power, getting the chance to sit down with a Jeff Bezos or a Tim Cook became wildly appealing. Here were people who knew about many, many things — things that affected almost all of us — and could tell us about them with a candor that their employees typically will not permit themselves.
And yet when you think of what you have learned from reading the thoughts of tech CEOs over the past few years — well, what have you learned? If you hang around the darker, more thought-leader-y corners of Medium, it’s possible you’ll have gleaned a few insights into customer acquisition or recruiting. But if what you’re after is a CEO’s worldview — or even just a moderately unvarnished look into their decision-making process — you typically come up empty.
Lashinsky asks why Alphabet exists, and whether Pichai will crack down on the spending of its non-Google companies. He asks what companies Pichai considers to be his competition, and whether he has a plan to deal with the possibility that the US government will attempt to break up Alphabet on antitrust grounds. And what Lashinsky gets back from Google is … almost nothing at all. Here’s a characteristically empty exchange:
Who do you see as your biggest competitors?
I’ve always worried as a company at scale your biggest competition is from within, that you stop executing well, you focus on the wrong things, you get distracted. I think when you focus on competitors you start chasing and playing by the rules of what other people are good at rather than what makes you good as a company.
Do you have a scenario you plan for in which regulators break up Alphabet on antitrust grounds?
At our scale we realize there will be scrutiny. We always engage constructively, and we take feedback to the extent there are areas where sometimes we may not agree with it. But obviously we understand the role of regulators.
So there you have it: Alphabet’s biggest competitor is itself (?), and its plan for an attempted breakup of the company is understanding the role that regulators play in society.
To be clear, I’m not not criticizing Fortune here. These are questions that almost anyone would have asked. And I doubt there are many reporters who would have gotten different answers.
But it’s clear that as prevailing sentiment about big tech companies has darkened, tech CEOs see increasingly little value in having meaningful public conversations. Instead, they grit their teeth through every question, treating every encounter as something in between a legal deposition and a hostage negotiation.
To some extent, CEO’s reticence to engage is understandable. When you are effectively a head of state, and staring down the barrel of potentially company-ending regulation, you have strong incentives to do as little thinking in public as possible. But journalists, I think, have a responsibility to point that out in real time — to call a dodge a dodge.
For a long time I thought the point of journalism was to get into a room with the CEO and ask the big questions. I was embarrassingly late to realize that the bigger story was always elsewhere, in the events unfolding just outside the CEO’s field of vision. Access will always have its appeal, and I still wouldn’t turn down an interview with the CEO of any company I cover. But as I wrote about Dorsey’s podcast tour:
The CEO is traditionally in the best position to enact change. But we have learned that once social networks grow to a certain scale, they begin to operate beyond their creators’ control. You can ask the CEOs what they plan to do about it. But the answers will always tell you less than you hope.
The solution, as ever, is to fall back on that oldest journalistic principle: talk to the people who know the things you want to find out. And that starts with the recognition that the CEO doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge — and that to the extent he knows anything useful, he is probably going to do his best not to talk about it.