Tuesday, May 28, 2024

It Happens Too Rarely.

In any form, whether it's husband and wife, children and parents, art directors and copywriters, company to their workers, politicians to their public, it's very rare for anyone to say they fucked up.

They were wrong.
They over-indexed.
They exaggerated.
They were seduced.
They bought something spurious hook, line and sinker.
They fell for it.

I've worked for 45 years in the advertising business. I can hardly remember five times where someone said to me, "I was wrong about killing that." Or, "I should have listened to you." Or "we made the wrong bet." Or "I backed the wrong horse." Or "that thing we all said would change everything was nothing but a fleeting turd of bullshit."

Usually you hear hedges. Excuses like, "we got out over our skis." Whatever that means. Or you hear like nothing. Because most people are serial wrongers.

You never hear, simply, "we fucked up."

That in itself is a fuck up.

For all the bushwa about transparency most people are as opaque as trump's taxes, his grades in school, his defaults, non-payments, and sundry schtuppings. Oh, and his skin color, his hair, and his weight.

In Saturday's Wall Street Journal, a tech writer apologizes.  

Since the WSJ has a paywall as sturdy as Constantinople's Theodosian Walls, I'll paste the entire thing at the end of this post. If your attention span hasn't been eviscerated by all the pings that surround you and the 450-calories from your "coffee" high-fructose, low-concentration drink this morning, it might make sense to read it. There are universal lessons we can learn from having deceived ourselves.

In fact, as the ad industry once again approaches its Sybaritic Cannes PatYourOwnBack-athon, as it once again pays itself billions in self-aggrandizement while it shrinks another 12-percent, it might make sense to wear some of these deceptions as a frontlet. You know, to remind ourselves that the road to hell is paved with exorbitant executive compensation and financial manipulation. Oh, and lies.

When you see the glossy digital pictures and hear the Vanity from Cannes, you might want to think about this--facts. The data below should scare the crap out of everyone who gives a shit about the future of the ad industry. Marketing budgets as a share of corporate revenue have fallen 40-percent over the last three years. If you owned a deli and PBR dropped 40-percent (pastrami-based revenue) you'd probably wonder if you were in the right business and had a viable path forward. 

All of this will be ignored at Cannes and by the Small Five Holding Companies. Instead they will be awarding their demise, while wearing loafers with no socks and sunglasses at night.

But now, back to the five common mistakes we make and rarely own up to.

While "Disruption" is a good advertising strategy--this widget will change everything so you have to rush out to get it or be left behind, we've forgotten the steadier, more evidence-based words of Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Barbara Tuchman. 

"The persistence of the normal is strong." In Faulkner's words, "the past isn't dead; it is not even past."

I've been saying for a couple of decades now, let's make our next shiny object simple, timeless human truths. Before there are no humans left. Or truths.

Humans are rational.
When something better comes along we'll grab it like trump grabs pussy. No, we're still humans. We have inculcated over our 4.5-million years since Lucy, certain comfortable behaviors. We're not likely to just walk away, Renee. 

Mims writes "what’s most often holding back mass adoption of a technology is our humanity. A new technology has to fit with the quirky, unpredictable, and far-from-rational set of predilections, needs and biases resident in all of us." For instance, we don't have mechanical cameras anymore, we still like to hear a click. It reassures us. 

Lying to the public is a given. But what we should question (when we get the grinning glow from Cannes) is how are we lying to ourselves. Magical thinking is inspiring. But dangerous. And not a great business or investment strategy. It's worse when the shillocrats believe the lies they're telling. That's when the walls collapse.

Most shit is silly.
Most things "that will change everything," won't last as long as a change of underwear.

Question everything. Refuse. Say no.
That doesn't make you a Luddite. It makes you a non-Lemming. AI customer-service bots and their like aren't good. They're not good for you. They're only good for the people no longer paying to actually help people. Don't be fooled by asinine advents like "self-checkout," "resort fees," "convenience fees," and the like. They're Newspeak for human evisceration. And if you accept it blindly, you're being made a monkey of.


Say what you will about this blog, I fuck up a lot, and suck a lot. At least I ain't deceiving anyone.


What I Got Wrong in a Decade of Predicting the Future of Tech

Over nearly 500 articles, I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Here are five big lessons those blown calls and boneheaded pronouncements have taught me along the way.

Christopher Mims


In 10 years of writing this column, I’ve interviewed thousands of people, tried hundreds of gadgets and services, and, let’s be real, made more than my share of boneheaded pronouncements and predictions.

A decade ago, the S&P 500 was less than half what it is today. Of the 10 most valuable publicly traded companies in the world, only three of them—AppleMicrosoft and Google—were in tech. Today, the situation is inverted—only three of the 10 most valuable companies in the world aren’t tech companies. One of them, Berkshire Hathaway, is so valuable in part because until quite recently, nearly half its stock portfolio consisted of Apple shares.



A weekly digest of tech columns, big stories and personal tech advice, plus a news ticker and a touch of dark humor.

The past decade included the longest bull run in the history of the stock market, due in part to the fastest and most transformative rollout of new technologies ever. In 2014, one in four people on earth had a smartphone; today, it’s nearly three in four. Think about that for a second, and all it represents: roughly four billion people gaining access to a computer and the internet.

And now, here we are: It’s the 10-year anniversary of this column. Anniversaries are typically a time for people to get misty-eyed and recount their successes. But after almost 500 articles in The Wall Street Journal, one thing I’ve learned from covering the tech industry is that failures are far more instructive. Especially when they’re the kind of errors made by many people.

Here’s what I’ve learned from a decade of embarrassing myself in public—and having the privilege of getting an earful about it from readers.

1. Disruption is overrated

Why are three of the most valuable companies of 2014—Microsoft, Apple, and Google—bigger than ever? How is Meta doing so well even as people have for years been abandoning Facebook, its core product? Why is Twitter still chugging along, no matter what its new owner gets up to?

The short answer is that disruption is overrated. The most-worshiped idol in all of tech—the notion that any sufficiently nimble upstart can defeat bigger, slower, sclerotic competitors—has proved to be a false one.

It’s not that disruption never happens. It just doesn’t happen nearly as often as we’ve been led to believe. There are many reasons for this. One is that many tech leaders have internalized a hypercompetitive paranoia—what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos called “Day 1” thinking—that inspires them to either acquire or copy and kill every possible upstart.

A Toyota i-Road three-wheeled electric vehicle from 2015. It didn’t catch on. PHOTO: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

Economic historians have been picking apart the notion of business-model disruption for a long time, and yet hardly a day goes by when a startup, investor, or journalist—including yours truly—doesn’t trumpet the power of a new technology to completely upend even the biggest and most hidebound of industries.

Don’t believe it. In a world in which companies learn from one another faster than ever, incumbents have an ability to reinvent themselves at a pace that simply wasn’t possible in the past.

2. Human factors are everything

Pop quiz: What’s the number one factor governing the pace of technological change?

If you said R&D spending, a country’s net brain power, or any of the other factors experts typically cite, you’ve made the all-too-common error of technological determinism—the fallacy that all it takes for the next big thing to transform our lives is for it to be invented.

I’ve made this error again and again, predicting that we were all about to abandon our laptops, that car ownership was not long for this world, and that, I kid you not, the end of food was imminent. And it’s by far the most common one I see others making, whether they’re C-suite executives, the world’s most powerful investors, or early adopters of gadgets. When something shiny and new debuts, otherwise sober thinkers leap to the conclusion that this almost-there technology is on the cusp of ubiquity. (Elon Musk is possibly the all-time world champion of this particular cognitive bias.)

Soylent promises to ‘take a few things off your plate.’ PHOTO: JOSH EDELSON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

But what’s most often holding back mass adoption of a technology is our humanity. A new technology has to fit with the quirky, unpredictable, and far-from-rational set of predilections, needs and biases resident in all of us. People who study how humans interact with technology call their field “human factors,” and one of their primary insights is that we are all hot messes.

The challenge of getting people to change their ways is the reason that adoption of new tech is always much slower than it would be if we were all coldly rational utilitarians bent solely on maximizing our productivity or pleasure. 

Our tendency to be creatures of habit is why electric-vehicle adoption has slowed, and in a broader sense why we’re still so hooked on cars in general. It’s why the Mac is still here—despite my declaration that Apple should kill it off. And it’s why we’re still eating food.

3. We’re all susceptible to this one kind of tech B.S.

Kara Swisher, whose Boomtown column at the Journal was in many ways the precursor of this one, once said on a podcast that when she interviews a person in tech who is hyping their company or product, rather than asking herself how they’re lying to her, she asks “how are they lying to themselves?”

Tech is, to put it bluntly, full of people lying to themselves. As countless cult leaders, multilevel marketing recruits, and CrossFit coaches know, one powerful way to convince people that following you will change their life is to first convince yourself.

It’s usually not malicious. Given the rate at which startups fail, to be a founder of one is to engage in a level of magical thinking that in another age would qualify a person for the sanatorium. Today’s venture-capital backed founders need to have a vision, articulate it clearly, and convince everyone around them that joining up is the equivalent of finding a winning lottery ticket, even if they would have better luck buying an actual lottery ticket.

It’s not just startups, though—tech CEOs have to go through this same ritual every time they launch some big new venture or pivot their company, even though most of those efforts will come to naught.

An unfinished Katerra construction site in Livermore, Calif., after the company declared bankruptcy. PHOTO: SHELBY KNOWLES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Early in my tenure at the Journal, I also made the error of buying into someone else’s belief system about how their company is going to change the world. When inventor James Dyson explained why he had faith in a new battery company, I duly wrote it up, and years later realized just how unlikely that company had been to succeed. Ditto when Elon Musk and his cousin Lyndon Rive expounded on the synergy between Tesla and SolarCity, a vision that hasn’t panned out. Equally cringeworthy: my foray into writing about prefab construction unicorn Katerra, which later collapsed under the weight of its attempts to reinvent every part of a complicated industry.

4. Tech bubbles are useful even when they’re wasteful

The amounts of money thrown at startups at the height of the tech investment bubble of the past decade can seem like the kind of folly that only a people who have given up on solving their real problems—war, childhood poverty, climate change—could countenance.

On the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2016, I’m wearing Snap’s then brand-new Spectacles glasses, which sported a camera. At the time, the company behind Snapchat was attempting to sell itself as a camera company. PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER MIMS

It’s easy, and fun, to mock the most absurd of these investments. In one of my earliest columns, I asked, bluntly, if Silicon Valley was investing in the wrong things. (At the time, this included a startup that delivers quarters to you, and the infamous app Yo, which did nothing but ping your friends with an alert that said “yo.”)

But pointing out that most new ideas aren’t going anywhere should not be confused with moralizing about innovation in general. Something Bill Gates told Rolling Stone in 2014 has stuck with me. He said that most startups were “silly” and would go bankrupt, but that the handful of ideas—he specifically said ideas, and not companies—that persist would later prove to be “really important.”

A decade on, it appears he was correct. The last tech bubble gave us some deeply unserious “innovations” like Web3 and the metaverse. But it also gave us a fourth industrial revolution, powered by the mobile internet, automation and artificial intelligence, the impacts of which will be playing out for decades to come.

5. We’ve got more power than we think

Having all the wealth and technology in the world doesn’t matter if we don’t have the wisdom to use it in the right manner. Early in my career, I bought into the notion, espoused by science-fiction author William Gibson, that all cultural change is driven by technology

I’ve now witnessed enough of both technological and social change to understand that the reverse is also—and perhaps more often—true. Collectively, we have agency over how new tech is developed, released, and used, and we’d be foolish not to use it. Creating and rolling out new tech without guardrails is a recipe for a world in which tech is as likely to supercharge our worst impulses, as it is to enhance our lives.


Which errant predictions about the future have stuck with you? Join the conversation below.

When the self-appointed superheroes of tech try to sell us their vision, it’s often in millenarian terms, and they speak as if innovation were a force independent of the people making it happen. If we believed them, we would conclude that superhuman AI is inevitabledeepfakes and misinformation are unavoidable, and that the erosion of the American middle class is the predetermined endpoint of all automation.

But this simply isn’t the case. For example, China-style mass surveillance and behavior modification may be uniquely enabled by technology, but it isn’t inevitable—it’s a decision by the Chinese Communist Party. And while America still has no far-reaching federal privacy law, years of violations of our trust by tech companies have led to a growing patchwork of laws, regulations, and voluntary changes that have curbed many of the worst offenders.

By paying attention to what’s just over the horizon, my hope is that in our collective, imperfect, democratic way, we can figure out how to use new technologies, rather than being used by them.

At least until the AI takes over.

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Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

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Appeared in the May 18, 2024, print edition as '5Lessons from a Decade of Being Wrong About Tech'.