Hi, folks. I’m back from Texas and asking myself who took a bigger risk—Bezos going to space or me having a 2-hour layover in the Dallas airport. Hint: In space you don’t need a mask.
The Plain View
The engineer’s report was troubling. No, make that alarming. It was 2018, and the expert commissioned by the board of the Champlain Towers South, a lovely 40-year-old, 13-story Florida condominium with views of the ocean and the bay, had identified “major structural damage” that would require expensive repairs. The concrete was crumbling. The rebar was rusting. Maybe it wasn’t a great idea to put the pool over the parking garage.
What to do? Residents of the building, who were not generally multimillionaires, had already paid hefty assessments for previous maintenance. They wanted a safe home, but, as one resident said, paying the necessary assessments would be like paying a second mortgage. Also, a building official reassured owners at a meeting that the structure was “in very good shape.” Board meetings became contentious. As proof of damage accumulated, the repair estimates grew. It was going to cost not $9 million but $15 million. The board couldn’t pull the trigger, and some members quit. “The building is falling apart,” warned one of the departing members in October 2019. In 2020, a new board began politicking to make the repairs, and in April 2021—three years after the engineer’s initial report—the president informed residents that the board would finally commit to making repairs. "The observable damage such as in the garage has gotten significantly worse since the initial inspection,” she wrote. Still, some tenants began a petition to fight the costly assessments, which would start on July 1, 2021.
On June 24 Champlain Towers South collapsed, and 98 people died.
What happened in Surfside, Florida, was not exactly denial. The dispute about whether to direct uncomfortably large resources, and the delay in actually doing so, involved a refusal to recognize the urgency of an existential problem. It’s easier to do this when everyday reality seems to be going well. Everybody knows that sooner or later you have to pay the piper. But what does sooner mean?
This behavior is far from limited to condo residents in South Florida. Even the alleged geniuses running big tech companies—at least they’re rewarded like geniuses—seem to suffer from an intentional or self-delusional refusal to face inconvenient truths. For years, as I documented in my book and others reported as well, Facebook had warnings that its inability to police destructive posts in foreign nations would come back to bite it. It was years before it took significant action. More recently, as The Wall Street Journal reported, a team at Facebook (nicknamed “Eat Your Veggies”) tested a less toxic version of the News Feed. The new algorithm appeared to work, but Mark Zuckerberg decided, presumably because he preferred the status quo, to water it down considerably, and asked the team to “not bring him something like that again.” I’d argue that bringing comity to the News Feed is vital to Facebook in the long run, even if engagement were to temporarily drop, and that it should be prioritized.
Or look at Google. The company has succeeded by catering to the whims of its largely male engineering workforce. Changing that philosophy might be painful, and possibly even risky. But incident after incident of unacceptable responses to sexual harassment will only erode the company’s reputation, possibly leading those wonderful engineers to go elsewhere. It’s only one of a number of festering problems at Google, which seemingly—but not really—has the luxury of huge profits to keep its immediate outlook sunny.
Google and Facebook are joined by its cousins in dominance—Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft—which have all stuck to anticompetitive behaviors that pay off handsomely in the short term but have alienated the media and government. Now they are targets of regulation and lawsuits.
Those same leaders who are pounding on Big Tech are even worse practitioners of Champlain South syndrome themselves. Our recovery from the worst public health catastrophe of our lifetimes is now stalled because millions of people are refusing vaccination, and officials who know better aren’t willing to take steps that would decrease infections. But even if every person in the United States was vaccinated, we would still be at risk. Epidemiologists all agree that huge unvaccinated populations abroad are breeding grounds for potentially more dangerous variants of the virus, like the more virulent Delta variant, which has triggered a terrifying rise in cases across the globe. Vaccines do mitigate Delta, and it seems no more deadly than the earlier versions of the virus. But that may not be the case with a future variant.
I’m all for the new infrastructure bill, but if we’re talking trillions for public works, how about doing whatever it takes to get the rest of the world vaccinated, so we might all live to travel on those new roads? Joe Biden has taken some timid steps towards this, but far less than is required to get the job done. Maybe he’s figured that it’s a hard sell to ask Congress and the American people to spend hundreds of billions to vaccinate other countries—and to spend valuable political capital to get fellow nations on board. But to me, it seems like the only sell.
When it comes to our response to climate change, Champlain Towers looks like a model of responsibility. For decades, we’ve had evidence that a rise in temperatures will have horrific effects, including billions of climate refugees, deadly weather, and elimination of many species, maybe not excluding ours. The problem is that mitigating this will cost a lot and take a lot of time—even though we know it’s necessary, it’s just too much for us. (At least most of us know it’s necessary—we have an entire political party that’s been acting like the building manager who told tenants their building was doing great.) But now, with continental wildfires, apocalyptic heat waves, and once-in-a-century floods twice a year, any idiot can see the concrete is clearly crumbling and the pool is about to collapse on the parking lot. At the Champlain Towers, seeing the damage led to actually making the painful assessment, however belatedly. But somehow, with climate change, we still aren’t close. Nobody is prepared for what is going to happen in the next few decades. Even our enlightened billionaires throw only a fraction of their riches at the problem—and then build huge yachts.
There’s something wrong with us. In the field of SETI—the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—there’s a thing called the Fermi paradox. It goes like this: Evidence shows that there are millions of planets that can potentially host life. There are so many that other civilizations seem inevitable. But, as physicist Enrico Fermi once said during a famous lunchtime discussion, “Where are they?” One dismal postulation is that as civilizations become more sophisticated, they eventually destroy themselves, way too soon before figuring out how to make house calls to galactic neighbors. Carl Sagan, addressing this issue in 1979, urged against adopting this thesis of despair. For one thing, he suggested, maybe some super-advanced civilization light-years away learned survival skills, and might pass us some tips on sustaining our species. I wonder if Sagan would still have this opinion in 2021. My guess is that even if we got a SETI bulletin with the most explicit blueprint imaginable for avoiding destruction, we’d simply ignore it. Or maybe the powers that be would consider the prescription too disruptive to implement.
OK, I know all this sounds like I got out of the wrong side of bed. I need a vacation, and next month I promise to take one. (It’s looking more and more like a staycation.) But seriously, half the world is on fire, and a perfectly predictable variant of a virus that’s already killed millions could possibly wipe us out. What will happen to your cryptocurrency holdings then? Also, Facebook still can’t weed out the bad stuff. Yet we are chugging along. Earnings are strong! Maybe we’ll vaccinate the rest of the world by … 2024? 2025? Never? As for climate change, order more air-conditioners! But wait, won’t that shove even more CO2 into the atmosphere?
We are all living in Champlain Towers South.
Fourteen years ago this month I wrote a Newsweek cover story about a hot young company called Facebook. So for this week, I thought I’d pull some stuff from the raw transcript of that Mark Zuckerberg interview I conducted from my desk at that weekly warhorse. It seems like a much more innocent time.
Steven Levy: You cracked Brazil yet?
Mark Zuckerberg: Well, so the thing is, we’re really big internationally, but it’s mostly English-speaking countries because we haven’t translated the site yet. We’re going to very soon, but we haven’t done it yet … You know, this thing is evolving pretty quickly, and there are a lot of changes that have been made over the last period of time, and this is by no means the end of where it’s going. Right now we have just under 35 million active users, it’s growing really quickly, it doubles in size just about once every six months, and we see no reason why everyone in the world shouldn’t be using a service like this that helps people communicate more efficiently.
Clearly the service becomes more valuable as the more people you know are on particular service, right?
The way that we think about that is that we’re trying to map out the whole social graph, and if we don’t have a sense of who the people are that you care about and who the people are that you’re connected to, then it’s going to be harder for us to show you relevant information and help you connect with them. Over the past year, as more of your friends have gotten on there, we’ve had a more accurate picture of what the social graph looks like right around where you are in it. And that helps us service more relevant information to you, helps you connect and communicate with these different people, and helps you get more utility from it. But the thing is that even before those people were on Facebook, you had all those connections in the real world, so what was important for us was just to be able to map those out inside of our service to help you communicate with those people more efficiently, and now that they’re there, there are all these different ways that you can share information with these people all at the same time, which is way more efficient than anything that you could’ve done anywhere else.
Ask Me One Thing
Sergio writes, “Facebook and Amazon have complained about the appointment of Lina Khan as the Federal Trade Commission chair on grounds of her previous work and criticism of both companies. Do you think there is merit to their claims?”
Thanks for writing, Sergio. And also thanks to all of those who responded to my call for space-related questions last week! Please keep the momentum up, folks, by sending me questions on … anything. Now for Lina Khan. I can understand why Facebook and Amazon would object to her appointment as FTC chair. Especially Amazon, which was the subject of her devastating analysis of why the company was an antitrust offender. She quoted Ida Tarbell in the introduction! There’s no question that she believes the government would do well to rein in the powers of those giants. But those views, backed by legal reasoning, are presumably why President Biden appointed her to the role. He obviously wants a sterner hand in charge of the commission, and that’s his prerogative. I distinguish this from political appointments of officials who have worked in a given industry or even lobbied for some of the players that they will be regulating—that’s a conflict, and people with conflicts should not hold such roles. Khan’s dim view of Big Tech is no more improper than an official who stands up for consumer rights heading the Consumer Protection Agency. (Wouldn’t that be cool?) If Amazon and Facebook disagree with FTC decisions during Khan’s tenure, they can challenge them in court. And I bet they will.
You can submit questions to email@example.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
Two words: wildfire thunderclouds. “You can think of them as like giant chimneys, funneling smoke that's being released by the fire up into a thunderstorm.” I’m going back to sleep.
Last but Not Least
An ode to gravity. Don’t let it bring you down.
One more reason to hate Covid: It’s shutting down Japanese arcades.
A look inside Mars. I bet this is already on Elon Musk’s Zillow.
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