Full transcript: Veteran tech reporter John Markoff on Recode Decode
The recently retired New York Times journalist talks about covering Silicon Valley at the start of the personal computer revolution.
On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, John Markoff, the longtime New York Times tech reporter, talks about the culture and personalities of Silicon Valley’s early days and the fields that interest him most now, like robotics, biotech and material science.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is John Markoff, a journalist who for more than 29 years has covered technology for the New York Times. He’s also one of my heroes, and I only have like three, I think, in my life. In December, he announced he retired from the Times. He’s also the author of several books, including “Cyber Punk,” “Take Down,” and “Machines of Loving Grace.” John is an old friend of mine also, and I’m so excited to talk to him. John, how are you doing?
John Markoff: Good, and I think we’re even neighbors as well.
I believe we are.
But the Times is here where we —
No, in the Castro.
Oh my god. Why don’t we hang out? I don’t know why.
I don’t know. I don’t see you.
Honestly, I don’t know. Well, now you have all this free time and I don’t. I think that’ll be great.
I don’t know where to start. When did we meet? I don’t even remember where we met. Maybe at CES?
When you came to the Valley and it was probably around some sort of press event of some kind.
Press event, but you’ve been, sort of, the king of that forever, correct? I mean, you were like …
I was more in that sort of mainstream years and years ago. So let’s see, my first Comdex was 1981.
Do you remember that?
Wow. Oh yeah.
Do you remember the National Computer Conference?
No. I got here — the ’90s is when I started showing up for the internet stuff. So let’s go back. Think about your career. How did you start in tech? You were kind of thought of as the dean of tech. You were one of the early people and there weren’t that many.
You can look at that in two different ways. You could say that I started as Steve Jobs’s and Larry Page’s paperboy. The homes they moved into in Palo Alto, I delivered papers to before they had lived there.
I like to say, “There goes the neighborhood.” Really, I dropped out of a graduate program in sociology. I grew up in Palo Alto, but then I came back here in ’77 after I dropped out of school.
Which wasn’t the center of tech at the time, correct?
It was named Silicon Valley in ’73. It was an aerospace center. I showed up just when the personal computer industry began.
Right. You were going to be a sociology major? You were going to be a sociologist? What?
I was in graduate school in sociology. It’s a long story.
What were you going to study? Narcissists? Because you did a good job at that.
No, no. Anti-war organizing. There was this branch point where I had to apply to Columbia Journalism School and I applied to graduate school in sociology. I decided that graduate school in sociology would be more relevant. Then I got there, and I had a fellowship. On my first day, I realized it was a vocational training program. I had a fellowship so I hung around for four years, and then decided that I really did want to be a reporter.
I see. Had you been a reporter in high school?
I ran my college paper.
Whitman College Pioneer.
Oh my goodness. You wanted to stay in that, but did you know you were going to get into tech? How did you move into tech?
I came down here. We were at the tail end of the Vietnam War and we had this aerospace defense industry in Silicon Valley, and I was very interested because of sort of my background in understanding technology in the military. I started writing about military technology. Matter of fact, the story I wrote for Pacific News Service …
Oh my god. Pacific News Service.
The headline of that story was when the term “Star Wars” was coined for the SDI program.
I was writing about stuff going on in Silicon Valley and the defense industry and then Reagan was elected in 1980. There was the dark side of the force and the light side of the force. The light side of the force were these little personal computers, and that was much more fun.
Where was the first time you saw this? You just had dabbled in it because you were writing about defense?
You mean the personal computer stuff?
I had been starting to go to the West Coast Computer Faires in the late 1970s.
Which is with Jobs and Wozniak.
I missed the first one, so where they rolled it out, but I was around, going to those kind of things, and I was going to Homebrew. I was going to Homebrew meetings, the Homebrew Computer Club is what the PC industry grew out of.
Probably, ’78-’79, I started going to those meetings because as a reporter, all the engineers were there and they were all telling stories. You could just show up.
They’d tell you things.
Yeah, you’d hear them talking about it.
It was sourcing. It was early sourcing, but they had this part of the meeting that was called the Random Access Period. Guys from different companies would stand up and talk about rumors and it was like just a freefire zone.
Right, which is perfect. Oh, that’s fantastic. How would you characterize that era? You were writing for who? Pacific News Service?
Well, I started writing for Pacific News Service and freelancing for lots of leftist publications. In ’81, I was hired by InfoWorld. That was when InfoWorld became a weekly … It had been the Intelligent Machine Journal. It was started by the guy who started the West Coast Computer Faire, a guy named Jim Warren. He sold it to Pat McGovern.
International Data Corporation.
Who made it into a giant.
Made it into InfoWorld and tried to make it. When I went there, they were still trying to figure out whether they were Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stone. It’s not a typical industry. It was like hobbyists and guys who were in it because they wanted to play with computers
[kits], not because they wanted to be really rich guys.
Right. Which is where they ended up. You started covering it, and how did you get to the Times? Were you just writing about these things and they said, “This computer thing sounds interesting”?
No, I owe my job at the New York Times to my ex-wife, Katie Hafner. I was at the San Francisco Examiner. I had been there for three-and-a-half years.
Writing about tech still?
Writing about Silicon Valley.
Will Hearst had taken over the Examiner. He wanted to improve the coverage of Silicon Valley and he asked John Dvorak who he should hire. Dvorak said to hire Markoff. Even though I didn’t have a traditional journalism background, I got in through the back door. The Mercury had been offering me a job as an editor of their personal computer section, but they wouldn’t hire me as a reporter. I didn’t want to be an editor.
This was my way in through the back door. Those were the days, in journalism, where you had to go to the Modesto Bee for five years before you could —
Right. Yes, I remember those. I tried to skip that as much as I could.
What was the tone of tech here though? It was wonkish, right? It was still also a sideline or … what launched it into something very interesting for people?
Silicon Valley has always been multiple cultures. There were lots of little cultures, even back then. The tone was there were these aerospace guys, and then there were the hobbyists, and then over at Stanford there was an AI community back then. There were little subcultures that were distinct and to themselves and you could fall into them. And the semiconductor industry, which was consumer-oriented and very technical, was just starting.
Right. What did you think of them? I remember when the internet … I came for the internet more than what you did, which was a more technical, chips and things like that, which you wrote about for a long time. What was it that struck you why this would be an interesting industry to cover? I remember thinking when I came to the Journal, when I was hired in ’94 or ’95, something like that, one of the reporters who was in the media section said I was there to cover CB radio. I said, “No, no, I’m here to cover the industry that’s going to decimate media.” I had a very strong sense that this was going to be a big deal. The internet part of it, and I had no technical background at all. What was the flashpoint for you?
A generation before … remember, my background was a social scientist. I was really interested in the way technology affects society, just generally. I read this book and I’m forgetting the author’s name now, but the book was called “The Micro Millennium.” It was written by a British guy —
Wow, I wouldn’t pick that up.
— in the 1970’s, and he just walked through, in a really prophetic way, how the emergence of the microprocessor was going to transform society. I looked at that and it really intrigued me because he was making really strong claims. I wrote this six-part series for Pacific News Service on the impact of the microprocessor, and that was my way in. Essentially, same assumption you made but one generation earlier.
About microprocessors. What was the tone of people then? You were up close. I was up close and personal with Jeff Bezos when he had five employees. What was that like with Jobs and Gates?
Bob Noyce. A whole series of guys who are right out of the semiconductor industry and the tone was, there were still archetypes. For example, right at the beginning that whole model of one guy who just wants to explore the technology and one guy who sees the business there, the Jobs and Wozniak duality, that was true even back then. There was a moment that I got Silicon Valley, it was probably ’82 or ’83, IBM PC had just come out. They got their own computer club, it was called Big Blue Computer Club. They were meeting in Duysan auditorium in Sunnyvale. I show up at this meeting and it’s —
No, no. Duysan, the disk drive, the disk company. D-U-Y-S-A-N. Which was a big company back then. I showed up and it was all IBM PC guys and they had peripherals and add-in cards and that whole world was going on. A Mercury reporter whose name was Evelyn Richards came. Evelyn, she was a tough cookie. She went to the Post, remember? She went to the Post. She was at the Mercury then, and she actually stood up onstage and she interviewed like 300 guys in white shirts with pocket protectors. Literally, that was still the culture back then. At one point, she asked, “How many of you are planning on starting your own company?” Two-thirds of the hands went up. For me, that was the moment when I got Silicon Valley. Everybody thought if they had an idea as good as Steve Jobs, that they could start their own company. The culture was already there even though it was this buttoned down, traditional, engineering culture.
Talk about the first time you met Jobs. You wrote quite a bit about him and about Apple and the ups and downs of it.
Actually, it wasn’t meeting him. It’s the first time I heard Steve Jobs. I’d come to InfoWorld in ’81 or ’82 and Paul Freiberger was another reporter who had been hired about three months before me and he actually had the Apple beat. He was about to break the story of the code names of the Macintosh and Lisa — and remember, this was before either of them had been introduced — but he had stumbled across their code names and we were going to run the story. I walked into his office, and he had this windowless office, and he held the phone away from his ear and somebody was screaming at him. It was Steve Jobs, and Jobs was arguing that if we broke these code names, that the Japanese industry was going to be all over Apple and they were going to destroy them. We ran the story anyway.
Of course you did and he screamed again. He liked to scream at reporters. You were there when they were small and they were startups. What happened over those years, over the ’80s, especially? Did the ups and downs of Apple, it was pre-internet, what was the thought of what was going to happen then?
Let me go back, because ’85 to ’88, that was a period when I left and went to the New York Times.
How did you get there?
I didn’t tell you the story. The way I got there is —
It has to do with the Wall Street Journal, actually. David Sanger was going to Japan, and the Times, because we were going to replace our national computer writer, which meant covering IBM back then, with somebody from the Journal. I’m forgetting Paul’s name, but anyway at the last moment, they offered him an editing job and he turned them down. Sanger was out the door.
The New York Times only has two speeds. One is forever and the other is yesterday. They were in yesterday mode and they called Andy Pollack and said “Who’s good? Who’s a good reporter in Silicon Valley?” Andy said, “Ask Katie Hafner, she’s at Businessweek.” She was the Silicon Valley reporter for Businessweek. They called Katie and to her everlasting credit, and she hated covering technology. She was so willing. She said, “Call John.” Fred Anders, who was the business editor of the New York Times, called me and I literally dropped the phone because I thought you had to have gone to Princeton or Harvard or something to get to the New York Times.
They were desperate. I went back …
What did you think of that, working for the New York Times? This is right when mainstream media really started paying attention to this. They had a national computer reporter, but it was sort of a sideline, if I remember.
Technology, they had one person here, but Andy covered banking too. They had one person covering computing at that point, and they had … they had a personal computer columnist, Erik Sandberg-Diment, quirky guy who’s a good friend. They had a telecommunications writer who at that point was Calvin Sims. Technology coverage was broken down between like seven or eight industries, not about IT.
How did you look about wanting to cover it? You have had a huge impact.
I came back with a charter of IBM and whatever else I could get into. I showed up in April. My very first story for the New York Times was about computer viruses, which were a novel thing at that point.
Which became one of your specialties.
It did, actually. Actually there was this moment, which was the Morris worm. The Morris worm was significant, because it was the first time the American public realized for both good and ill that there was this thing called a network and that it could have an impact on the world. The first-day story, which was a Thursday, the Washington Post had six bylines on their Morris worm story, because remember they still thought it was the ARPANET and so they thought that it might be an attack, a military attack, on the U.S. It was a big deal.
What did you think of the Morris worm? Long forgotten?
Morris worm made my career.
I was the one who determined who did it. The wonderful thing about Robert Morris, now Tappan Morris, who is one of the Y Combinator founders, is that his dad was the chief scientist for the National Security Agency, which made it a much better story.
Absolutely. Is that why you started writing about viruses?
No. I had been fascinated. There was this period where everything I saw was life imitating art, because I was reading cyberpunk fiction. There was Stephenson and there was Gibson and there was Vinge. I’d be reporting on stuff that the science fiction guys had already run down.
They’d already run down, exactly. Neal Stephenson. What’s the book?
There’s “Snow Crash.”
“Snow Crash,” right.
The premise is America only does two things well; one is write software and the other is deliver pizzas.
Here we are now.
Nothing. Your premise to write at the Times was to do what? This is a general information newspaper versus —
My premise was, I was basically still in that sort of sociologist-turned-journalist, sort of “Look at this technology that’s going to change the world.” The Times actually turned out to be very receptive to that. I would walk in and tell them about something and their eyes would get wide. There was this wonderful moment, it was probably ’91. I was just recently thinking about this, and Bill Gates came to the editorial meeting.
We had one of those meetings at the Post.
This one, they said, “How do you run your company?” He told them about something called email. What? You run your company by email? That led to me writing an A1 story about how email was being used. Totally predictable.
We’re going to get back into some of the personalities when we get back. We’re here with John Markoff, who is probably the most important tech writer over the last 20 years, or was, now that he’s retired from the New York Times. We’ll talk more when we get back.
We are here with John Markoff, one of my favorite tech writers, and he taught us all a thing or two about tech. We’re talking about his long career. He is just recently retired from the New York Times, after 30 years? Is that right, 30 years?
Twenty-eight and change.
Right, but you were covering stuff before that.
Right. Talk a little bit about the personalities of the people, because now we all know the personalities and they’re sort of treated like celebrities. At the time, same thing with the internet people, you knew them when they weren’t billionaires or when they weren’t kings of industry.
I grew up with Gates and Jobs et al. In that case, they were either going or just having gone public.
Still small potatoes, though, comparatively.
Gates and Jobs, who became icons, as a reporter you must have had this. I’d be curious. I loved talking to Gates, even though there were these intellectually banging arguments that you’d have, but it was totally not personal. It was very intellectual. Jobs was my absolute hardest interview because it was always manipulative and personal and I just felt … I super-respected what he did. I liked Steve, I hated interviewing him.
He wanted it his way.
He was gaming you all the time. There really was a reality distortion field. Mostly he won. I had a difficult situation because I felt like I couldn’t blow up the relationship. He could jerk me around by that.
A lot of people did real, lick-him-up-and-down kind of stories. He was on some cover and looking fantastic and giving you this great grin or whatever.
He would try to stay on message. I won a couple times, I got him to say that nobody reads books anymore. Do you remember that? That was fun. He was not happy with that. I got him to say that taking LSD was one of the two or three most significant things he had done in his life, something that even his wife couldn’t share with him and the people in industry. Mostly, he won.
Can you assess those two? We did, obviously, the famous joint interview with them that was fantastic. There was a lot said there. My favorite moment was when I asked, “What was the thing about their relationship nobody knew about?” Jobs, who was always trying to pants Gates, went, “Well, we’ve been married for several years now.” Of course, Gates was horrified. It was so great. He would do stuff like that all the time, it literally was like a high school back and forth. Those were the two main figures of the ’80s, really, of that era, and into the ’90s. Who else was important?
There was the semi conductor guys, Grove was very important.
Andy Grove, who had taken over. Bob Noyce had died. Grove was fun because he had such a wonderful, direct personality. I don’t know if you remember this, but there was this period known as the RISC wars, where there was new architectures that were potentially a threat to Intel and I was one of the RISC advocates. He would just go after me on that, so it was great fun. In the short term, he was right. Basically, the RISC guys lost because they needed to be 10X faster to actually get in and they were only 2X faster. The irony is, now here we are how many years later, and ARM is everywhere, which is RISC, which was started by Apple.
Right. Talk about, he’s a figure, Andy Grove, who else?
Who else is interesting?
From the early days.
From the early days, personal computer. Adam Osborne, is that going too far back?
No, go ahead.
Adam Osborne was a wonderful character.
Explain for the people.
He was British, he’d grown up in India. He started as a writer. He wrote for InfoWorld and then in the late 1970s, he was the first guy who came up with the notion of bundling software with computing. He came out with this portable computer, called the Osborne 1, that was wonderful for writers and everything. It was this crazy little machine with a five-inch screen and two floppy disks, had all the software you needed, which included a database, a word processor, a spreadsheet, telecommunications program. Paul Freiberger ruined his back carrying one around, because they weighed 40 pounds.
It was an Osborne clone before Compaq, right? Rod Canion was another figure, but Adam, Adam was just, it was an era. He was fun, he was boisterous, he was slightly pompous. He had these great little … there was a beginning of this period of the wars that you entered in the midst of, which was PC Forum. The executive wars between different personalities.
Right, absolutely, which continues to this day.
Of course. At that point, it was a clubby little family thing. Mitch Kapor was one of the people in that world.
Lotus 1-2-3. The Sun guys —
Scott, and Bill Joy and Vinod Khosla.
He was at Cisco, right?
No, Vinod was at Sun and then he left to go to Kleiner.
Talk about the tone then. Did anyone realize what was about to happen when the internet hit, or not? It was just, everyone had computers and IBM or whatever in their home and Microsoft dominated.
The world, including most of those corporations, were blindsided by the internet, right? Everybody had an island and they thought they would bring you into their island.
Microsoft was the most dominant company at the time. Why was that? Why did that happen?
Microsoft discovered a choke point. The choke point was the A: prompt, your disk drive prompt, which was the access to your information, and they controlled that and they monetized it.
I’ve always thought it’s ironic that really the only difference between the Google text box and the command is you can make spelling errors with the Google one. Basically, they both found choke points that they learned to monetize and so there were these parallels.
Was there something about Gates’s personality that moved him to then get into trouble? That’s where I entered the picture at the Washington Post.
Those guys were tremendously … “buy, bundle or bury” was the strategy of Microsoft. They would either acquire you, they would take you over, or they would destroy you. They did a variety of anti-competitive things over a long period of time, and the industry took it up to the point where they went to Washington and things got reset.
Absolutely, except that something else was coming down the pike: The internet.
Which nobody got, but Microsoft initially —
Did you? Did you understand?
That’s how I made my career. I was a deep believer, from reading Vernor Vinge and “Shockwave Rider” — it was the first book … that was a book, “The Shockwave Rider,” which was John Brunner, argued for that kind of impact on society, that networks transformed everything.
How did it manifest itself in your coverage of the Times? Did the people at the Times understand it?
They let me go off and cover these new industries. I was responsible for the old world, DEC and IBM, the East Coast computing world.
They wanted DEC, they wanted Microsoft stories, and then of course there was the trial itself, the Microsoft trial.
Right, and by that time we’d already expanded. I started all by myself, but then this dates me. I came to Silicon Valley after being at the Times for four years, to replace Andy Pollack, and Peter Louis got this new beat called the internet beat in 1992. I stopped covering the internet in 1992, which is kind of —
Sad. That gave an opening for Kara Swisher. Why didn’t they see it? You were interested in networks, I remember talking to you about it when I came here.
For the same reason, it’s the open versus closed debate. These guys all believed in proprietary control. That’s how they built their industries.
That’s Microsoft, IBM, Intel.
Apple to this day, right? Which is ironic that Apple was able to. Apple was never as closed as they seemed. If you look at the Mac OS, half the lines of code in there are Berkeley Unix. It’s more open than you would think. The open world basically overwhelmed them.
Why was that? I remember, Gates finally wrote “The Road Ahead.” It was sort of too little, too late.
Why was it that they resisted it? I think this always happens, when you’re sitting on a monopoly or you’re sitting on an old architecture, you have to eat your children. Nobody, even though they say that. The wonderful thing about Microsoft, I grew up with those guys and I remember them saying, “We’re never going to be as stupid as IBM.” When you look at what happened …
They did exactly the same stuff, they made the same mistakes in the end.
I’ll never forget, this is 10 years of the iPhone I guess, I guess when the iPod before that was introduced, we were in a meeting with Gates before one of our events, probably one of the first All Things D conferences, he said, “What is an iPod but a hard drive and a white box? It’s trivial.” I don’t know why I did this, I said, “If it’s so easy, why didn’t you do it?”
What did he say?
“Who is this girl?” He never quite got my name.
The Ballmer reaction.
The same thing, iPhone. $500.
It’s going to be a Harvard Business School study forever.
I know, he’s a character.
I like our chances.
I like our chances. “$500? Who wants that thing?”
We’ll get to the iPhone in a second in the next part, but who do you think really did get it among those companies and what do you think the most significant moments of that internet shift were? Was it Netscape? Was it Yahoo? There’s so many companies, AOL?
Clearly, Andreessen and Clark and a whole group of people.
Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark.
Created Netscape, and they took this idea out of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and turned it into a world-changing event. There was this wave that came immediately afterwards where people realized that any-to-any was the most important new thing and that was the model. They exploited it, but Tim O’Reilly, he set up the first commercial internet website.
How did that change your coverage? If you liked this stuff, a lot of people felt that a lot of people didn’t get the internet. Like I said, the people at the Journal were like, “Why did they hire this girl to cover this?”
It’s classic. December 7th, 1993, I wrote the very first —
The date that will live in infamy.
I wrote the very first article on the World Wide Web.
You called it the World Wide Web, right?
It was already called the World Wide Web.
I know, but you didn’t do www. I remember typing World Wide Web so many times.
If you go back to that lead, it was the case of getting it all right and all wrong.
What was it?
The lead was, think of it as a map to the buried treasures of the internet age. When I wrote “buried treasures” I was thinking information. I had no idea that it really was buried treasure. That was ’93. In the next four years, I was run over like a Mack truck. I had this little world basically to myself and then it became mainstream, it literally became mainstream in the space of four years.
When I left the Times, Steve Lohr, who was my pal and colleague there, he said that my habit was any time that money showed up, it was time for me to leave. It’s much more fun being out on the edge. That period that you rose in, it was just tough, tenacious, pack journalism, and I would much rather look out on the edge.
You moved into cyber stuff, which now of course is the thing.
I did cyber, and then I left cyber just as it became a huge story.
Where are you going next, John?
If I had one more time — I actually left rather than doing this — but I would go into material science. If I was a biologist, I would go into biological science, but the material science stuff is so much fun and there’s so much happening.
Meaning? Explain for the normal people.
Let me take one example. There is this interesting new area, which Nathan Myhrvold, who is an ex-Microsoft guy, he’s been one of the first people to invest in significant ways, called meta materials. These are synthetic materials that are based on the principle … 15 years ago, this physicist discovered that you could bend light in the wrong direction. It bends in one direction.
Out of that, across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, they’re doing interesting things; new antennas, new radars which of course will play into self-driving cars. The coolest thing that I’ve seen is people are taking this idea, and they’re building structures under buildings that absorb earthquake waves. They’re doing this already, for example, one of the early commercial ideas is people are coating the windshields, the cockpit windows of jet planes, with this material that lasers bounce off the wrong ways, so they don’t go into the eyes of the pilot.
All kinds of things, manipulating the world we know. We’re going to get into the future and stuff like that but I want to finish up this section. When this happened, when the internet thing happened, everyone became a celebrity, essentially. How do you look at that?
Absolutely. I felt like Hollywood had moved north. It started, I think, it actually started with the video game stuff. Trip Hawkins, who was an ex-Apple guy who set up Electronic Arts.
He was very sexy, comparatively.
He had this idea that he was going to turn programmers into celebrities. That was the heart of his company but it actually infected everyone. I watched that, it became part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. That was a foreign world to me. I saw it, but I was already …
You didn’t like it.
I was just with someone the other day and I think I insulted them and they kind of looked at me. I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I knew you before you were a billionaire.” I forget. “I knew you when you didn’t have any money.” It was weird because some of them get affected. Some of them don’t. Not very many, but some of them became … if you’re told you’re a genius every single day of your life, you start to believe that.
I was in the garage — this is the stories that get away — I was in the garage in Willow Road with Larry and Sergey.
There were eight different, there were 16 different search engines at that point. I didn’t even write about them, that was one that really pissed me off.
I did write about them. I did, I liked them a lot. It was interesting. I came back and I thought, “This is different.” It was Susan Wojcicki’s garage.
Don’t you think, “Why did they win?” I think they won largely because they had the cleanest UI.
I think it was better, yeah, I think it was easier.
Did you know that they were better search? They were a better search.
No, it was a better experience.
It was experience.
I guess I felt like I did maybe, you think you got better results or something like that. What I do recall is when they were on Yahoo. I had written about AOL supplanting Netscape, putting themselves on Netscape — or no, CompuServe. They put ads, CompuServe did.
Right, all cluttered. AOL did advertisements on their services and I was like, “Why are there other services?” They wanted advertising and wanted business and of course, AOL made its business through that. When I saw Google on Yahoo, I was like, “Oh, that’s the same thing.” I visited their headquarters and there was butcher paper all around about growth of Google. Google and Yahoo, which was growing enormously because it was the search engine on Yahoo which was the thing of the day, Yahoo, if you can believe it was the thing of the day.
I do remember.
You remember. You saw the growth of Google, and then you saw the growth of Google.com, which was bigger than the growth of Google and Yahoo. You could see it happening as it went. I think I turned to Larry or Sergey and I said, “Do they know?” They were like, “No, they do not know. Do not tell them.”
That was a really important thing. I think the most important lesson that Eric gave Larry and Sergey, is he’d had them winning the giant experience from Netscape, where they had basically turned Microsoft toward them because they realized that that was where the money is. They hid the fact that they were doing so well until Zachary and I wrote a piece in the Sunday New York Times when they crossed a billion dollars. They were furious at us for writing that story.
I did call Jerry immediately as I left and I said, “You better watch out for those two. Get them off of Yahoo immediately.” Of course Jerry was like, “You’re so negative.” They didn’t do it, but anyway, it was an interesting time to watch that.
When we get back we’re going to talk about what’s going to happen in the future with tech and where it’s going. I’m going to get some predictions from you, John Markoff. Materials, apparently, are it, and also media; where is the New York Times going, where is Recode and everything else going? We’re here with John Markoff, retiree from the New York Times.
We’re here with John Markoff, one of my favorite tech writers. Probably the best there has been for many decades. Talk to me about where things are going. You have had a long view of this and have focused on cyberspace. Let’s talk about cyber attacks now. This has been very significant this election. Can you give us a dose of reality, please?
A dose of depression. For me personally, I began, I think I wrote the very first story on the cyber war for Mother Jones in 1979. After covering it up until 2011 or 2012, I literally decided that if I had to write another story about a testosterone-poisoned teenager with an attitude I was going to have an aneurysm. I walked away from what has become, it was already an even bigger beat. I feel like I’m three years out of touch with the state of cyber security, but I don’t see any reason for optimism.
Why is that? Explain why. Put in the context of this election.
I think a lot of it has to do with on the internet, no one still knows you’re a dog. I think that anonymity …
Which is the old famous …
Very famous and early New Yorker cartoon. I think identity and the fact that you disconnect identity from your internet identity has proved incredibly vexing for society. It played out in this election, it played out in Brexit. It was a factor in both, I don’t know if it was the deciding factor. I actually do blame the internet. There was a certain point, I grew up with John Perry Barlow and his manifesto in Wired in which he argued that cyberspace would be this sort of Socratean abode that was above the grimy politics of the world and then I realized that was wrong.
No, the grabby politics has reached right up, and in fact our Tweeter in Chief has taken advantage of it beautifully.
At a certain point, I saw that the internet is simply a reflection of all the good and the evil in the world.
What happened, say, with this hacking? How do you reflect on … the Times has done some amazing coverage of the hacking.
What’s striking to me is that what the science fiction world saw in the ’80s and ’90s has actually come to pass.
The cyberpunk sensibility. There was a book written by Vernor Vinge in early 1980s called “True Names.” The basic premise of that was you had to basically hide your true name at all cost. It was an insight into the world we’re living in today.
What is one to do? You either get hit by bullying on Twitter or every day there’s some other fresh horror.
I’m watching this like a huge train wreck, like the rest of society. Let me just point back to The Well.
Which was an early online community.
Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly and some others created this early online community, which in some ways was one of the first intentional virtual communities. There were other things like CompuServe and Source and Prodigy. They were around, but The Well … they, from the outset, banned anonymity.
I’ve had a debate with Marc Rotenberg, who runs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, about anonymity. He defends anonymity on this traditional basis of it’s essential for democracy and yet, we have to figure it out some way. I actually think that maybe we need to go to pseudonymity or something. That you’re going to participate in this network existence, maybe you have to be connected to meatspace in some way. That might be a good step, but how do you do it?
Facebook, there’s not anonymity there and it’s starting to become a cesspool. It’s like the suburb suddenly has trash. I keep saying that; I’m like, “The suburb’s now trash.”
It’s a good point that Facebook is grappling with this.
Right, and they have promised … I had an interesting meeting with someone from a different company that said their problem is they promised their readers they could put up this trash. You know what I mean? Others like Google can take it down and nobody knows what Google does, in the back. They could manipulate all kinds of levers and they don’t have a contract with their users, they’re not doing that.
Facebook said you can put up anything you want. If you can put up anything you want, you can put up a lot of crap. How do you then decide? Can you imagine putting up something and saying, “Did you read my thing?” and Facebook has taken it down? It starts to become problematic on every level. Going back, trainwreck. It’s a trainwreck, John.
I’m not very optimistic.
Which will happen, it will just become this horrible society like the movie “Network”?
Or more like “The Matrix.” I don’t think we’re going to go backwards to television. The one thing that’s interesting to me is none of these realities we’re in, we’re in a particular reality, last for very long. This thing is still morphing. For example, you talk about the future. One of the things that strikes me, we both commute. You walk downstairs, fully half the people on the street are walking. That can’t be the end of interface. There has to be something after that.
It will be in front of you.
Will it be? I used to think that, when I went and saw Magic Leap, you’ve probably seen it, I was so blown away. I actually now think that maybe it’s going to be something whispering in your ear.
Just like “She.”
Her, She, It.
“Her,” which I think of all the science fiction movies, is absolutely the best one.
Interesting, it’s so funny, I met him. Spike Jonze, on some yacht at Cannes and he was like, “I really am eager to know what you think of my movie.” I was like, “Meh.” He goes, “What?” I go, “It could have been more creative of where that goes.” He literally was like, “What?”
Was this before it came out?
I was like Larry David. No, I had just seen it. It had just come out. He was expecting me to go, “That was amazing!” I was like, “You know, I thought you went with a love story, all right. It’s much more interesting than that.”
I would take “Her” over “Ex Machina” any day, even though “Ex Machina” got all this —
Robots. Talk about that, robots. All these shows, “Humans,” these all kinds of sentient beings.
I just wrote a book about this. I came down on basically … I was part of that group and I actually helped create the alarm about the impact on jobs and I’ve come to a very different point of view.
This is AI and robots taking over everything.
Drones over here and self-driving cars.
Singularity, and first of all, let’s dismiss the singularity. There aren’t going to be thinking machines in your or my lifetime. I’ll say that.
We’ll be dead, thank God.
Not to say ever.
Unless we’re replaced by replicants, but go ahead.
The replicant question, well, the replicants, no. Not in our lifetime. However, what’s the impact near term? For example, Elon Musk makes the statement that he’s going to be able to summon his car from the opposite side of the country in 2018. That’s not going to happen. I don’t believe.
Here’s what I’ve been saying. I’ve been going around the country because I was on a book tour, and saying, “If the Uber robot comes to my house in the Castro in 2025 and drives me to dinner in Palo Alto, I’m buying.” I don’t think I’m going to lose that bet. There’s not only the technology challenge, there’s the regulatory challenge.
Here’s what changed my mind, one story. I was totally into “robots are going to come to manufacturing.” I was telling Danny Kahneman, the behavioral economist, this, and making the argument they’re going to come to China and they’re going to lead to social disruption. He stopped me and he said, “You don’t get it.” He said, “In China, they’ll be lucky if the robots come just in time.” I said, “Excuse me?”
He walked me through the demographic situation in China.
There’s not enough people.
There are not enough people, particularly working-age people. In the last year in China, the working-age workforce declined by over five million people because of the one-child policy. That’s not just China, that’s Korea, that’s Japan, that’s the United States, that’s Europe.
Not enough babies.
The world is aging and nobody gets it.
Right, except in places like the Mideast.
Except in Africa, actually. That’s it. Everywhere else, there’s been this great demographic shift. Three points, for the first time last year —
We need the robots.
We need the robots. Particularly, for two reasons.
It seems like the beginning of a bad cyber movie, but okay.
On the one side, there are not enough workers because the demographic trends are more important than the technological trends, and they’re happening more quickly. On the other side, there’s this thing called the dependency ratio; the ratio between caregivers and people who need care. For the first time last year, there were more people in the world who are over 65 than under five. First time ever in history. By the middle of the century, the number of people over 80 will double. By the end of the century, it will be up seven-fold globally. Rod Brooks likes to say the self-driving car is going to be the first elder-care robot.
That’s fascinating. What happens then? That’s why we need replicants so we can download Kara’s brain and put it into a hot body. I stopped you dead on that one, didn’t I? It’s in your head.
It may not happen in your lifetime.
It will. Elon’s working on it for me.
It may happen, Elon’s an important guy. I don’t ask people when the self-driving car is coming, what I do is when I talk to roboticists, I say tell me when there will be a robot that can safely give an aging human a shower. That’s what we need in society because there are not going to be enough human caregivers in China, or the U.S., or anywhere else. It really reframed the way I think about this. I’m not saying that these technological changes aren’t significant. I’m saying that the aging of society is the most significant thing that’s happening.
Also, the ones that are here now that voted Trump and everything else, can we retrain them? Probably not, correct?
Retrain them to do what, is the question? In my last book, I saw this dichotomy between machines that replace humans and machines that extend the power of humans. That’s been basically the dichotomy in our industry ever since, this was going back to the very dawn of interactive computing in the early 1960s. McCarthy on one side of the lab at Stanford and Englebart on the other. One wanted to replace the human, one wanted to extend the human. The problem is when you augment human, you need fewer humans. It’s not only a dichotomy but it’s a paradox. I don’t particularly see an easy way [out of it].
This is why I think “Her” nailed it; if we have a singularity and we do have this intelligence explosion, the “Her” outcome is much more likely than that they’re going to want to eat us.
They won’t, they don’t care. I was arguing this at a dinner party the other day.
They’re going to be bored with us. They’re going to go off and do something interesting that we can’t even conceive of.
That’s what I was arguing, I said, “Why would they want to kill us? We’re not a problem. Unless we start to be a problem and start pulling their plugs.” It’s interesting how Hollywood always makes them malevolent. Which I think is not so much, it’s more like, “Who are you people?” They don’t think like humans, I think we always humanize these things. Two more predictions, John. Materials? Robots who shower us.
What’s the most important technological force on the horizon today? It’s techniques like CRISPR.
Explain for the people.
There are these new gene-editing techniques that allow you to alter any kind of genome, any kind of biological material with much more precision and much more effectively and much more perfectly.
Perfect people, no diseases.
Think about that. Even if we’re not doing it, they’re already doing experiments with that in China. There are going to be many countries that are exploring that. The tools, it’s not just CRISPR. CRISPR was the first of a set of gene-editing techniques that are going to allow you to basically do designer things and so they’ll be incredibly neat things. Bump up the virus resistance of a potato, that’s going on right now. Is that GMO? It gets into this very murky area. If I had to reinvent myself and I was going to look for the next microprocessor, I would look into that.
Look in there. What about not dying? Right now, I think a lot of Silicon people are getting older and so they want to talk about not dying.
Let’s forget about, let’s talk about dying later. I think that might be realistically possible. The problem is it’s going in the wrong direction in our country, as an average. We peaked.
Now we’ll have 130-year-olds.
Maybe your billionaire friends will live a couple years longer. You really got to go read Gibson’s book “Neuromancer,” because part of the story …
… they had these 300-year-old billionaires in orbit around the Earth.
Right, well, “Elysium,” there’s all those kinds of things. There’s movies like that. Life extension, maybe. Printing livers, that kind of stuff?
Organ replacement is pretty routine at this point. We’re bionic already. That was one of the arguments. If you augment the human, this notion of a cyborg … Do you remember the Borg in “Star Trek”? “Resistance is futile”? This is what I worry about most.
That’s my hero, that’s my other hero besides you.
Think about it. We have a generation of people who are taking their life instructions from the palm of their hand. The kind of independence that our generation has, they don’t think about …
That is a very salient point, you’re right. Do you know what I do now? You’d think I’d use my, I love my little phone, it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had. I don’t do that when I walk down the street. All I do is go, “Hey, hey” to people, like look up. Like a crazy old lady. I was like, “You’re crossing the street!”
You’re saving lives.
Someone died on a corner.
Like, “Oh my God, you got the weather but you’re dead,” kind of thing.
An editor of the New York Times.
Did it? I’m sorry, now I feel bad. I feel terrible but I wish I was there to yell at her or anybody else, because it is a fast-hitting thing. The relationship. In speeches I go, “I’ll leave you to your own devices, and I mean that.”
Last thing, who are the most significant figures? I want you to name five people besides John Markoff.
In tech? Oh my God, that’s … Who are the most …
Give me five, I didn’t give you one.
This is hard.
Crappy interviewers would say one.
There’s a generation of young AI people who are doing interesting things; Richard Socher went to Salesforce and I think very highly of him. There’s a reason why. He made rapid progress in some areas, but he has done interesting things in language, understanding. I actually think that’s going to have more impact than a lot of things when we can actually have conversations with these machines. Five people who are …
They can be in the past.
Oh my God. Do you remember John Moussouris?
I do not.
You must. A company called MicroUnity, which some people referred to as MicroLunacy at one point, but it was one of the companies that tried to do big things with set-top boxes — remember when the set-top box wars were happening? John, what people don’t really know is his company cratered, but before it cratered, he took north of three-quarters of a billion dollars away from the semiconductor industry because they borrowed his instruction set. He’s been doing interesting investing in environmental areas. He went off on an entirely different area. Biochar, new kinds of fertilizers. Five … I just ran into this company called Berkeley Lights that is really interesting.
I’ve heard of them, what are they?
They’re over there and basically, people talk about light tweezers. These guys have created this platform that’s both … both Davidow and Moritz invested in this company. It’s like a giant pachinko machine, except it sorts cells. The cancer guys, the anti-cancer guys, love this because now …
Are there pro-cancer guys?
Yeah, it’s the sugar industry.
They love it. The Berkeley scientist who did the early work was a guy by the name of Ming Wu.
It’s all bio.
I’ve gone off into bio and material sciences.
Computing, so if you forced me to say …
Most of us just go, “I love Uber!”
No, anything but that. I was a total believer when I saw Magic Leap for a while because the level of resolution in that and this notion, their notion that they could kill the Asian display manufacturing industry by basically, if you wanted a high resolution screen you could just hang it in the air. I love that.
We’ll see. The thing I found about reporting about Silicon Valley for a long time is that the visionaries are always wrong and that’s the best thing about being a reporter. You don’t have to be a visionary, you just have to take notes on what they’re claiming and then remember that they were wrong.
I’m going to put you on the spot, final question: If you had to pick one person who’s had the most impact over the historical, please don’t go back to the 1700s, not allowed, who would you say was the one person who had the most significant impact?
This is central casting for me but it’s a guy by the name of Douglas Engelbart, who we know as the inventor of the mouse, but actually he was the one who had the original vision that became both personal computing and the internet in the late 1950s.
He did. He just died — well, relatively.
Three or four years ago.
Exactly. Relatively recent. Because he did that, because he had the vision of it before anybody else.
Those ideas went to Apple and Microsoft.
I thought you might say General Magic or something like that. I’m just trying to think.
There was a branch, but I’m really interested in that point. The iPhone, 2007, the ideas that became the iPhone really started 20 years earlier.
There was this point where we went from the Dynabook, which was computing in your lap, to a whole group of people at relatively the same time decided, “Hey, you can put computing in your pocket.”
It took 20 years for Steve to get it right.
If you start to look at the drawings, they’re all similar.
That’s right, Pocket Crystal …
General Magic, Newton, Pen Mac and Swatch at Apple, Palm, there was a whole set of people who set out at the same time. I call that Silicon Valley’s greatest generation.
It’s true, they were the most creative. I forgot to ask this, and this is my last question: What happens to a place like the New York Times? You managed to get out before it died.
I don’t think the Times dies. The question is, I watched it trying to get across the chasm.
The digital chasm, we’re talking about.
Such as it is. I don’t count them out yet. The narrative changes every six months. This late set wave, paper of resistance, right? Which is richly ironic because they tried all of these things, and then guess what happens?
Some old guy who can tweet is the best thing that’s ever happened to the New York Times.
Good old-fashioned reporting, enough people seem to be willing to pay for it. They’re halfway across.
What about media in general? It’s all “Her,” she’ll be telling us things, right? She, “Her”?
I think before the reporting function dies, the editing function will be taken over by AI’s. We already have these systems that are creating, doing what editors do. Reporters, I think, will survive longer. Remember that company called Narrative Science?
Narrative Science was one of the first AI reporters. The problem was the news business is so bad that even the AI’s couldn’t do it.
Good. Let’s put them out of business.
They had to pivot.
Fuck those artificial intelligence people, let them try. Last question, what are you going to do?
My major project is I’m becoming a biographer. I’m working on a biography of Stewart Brand, the guy who did the Whole Earth Catalog.
Fantastic. Good, you’ll still be around being bathed by your robots and stuff like that, right?
More or less.
It’s been a pleasure, John, as usual. John, you are a legend, you are a hero to many, many journalists. We hope you’re not finished writing completely.
No. I’ll even show up in the Times occasionally, believe it or not.
Good. Thank you very much, John Markoff. It was great to have you, thanks for coming by.