2020年8月6日 星期四

On Tech: The cult of the tech genius

It's time to rethink how we treat and enable these brilliant -- but damaging -- tech personalities.

The cult of the tech genius

Dalbert B. Vilarino

There’s a certain type of technology personality that automatically leaps into our imagination. You know him. (It’s almost always a him.)

It’s the audacious, maybe slightly off kilter, sharp-elbowed technology genius who makes all the magic happen. People like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

Many of us — including journalists like me — are fascinated by these tech geniuses, and we can be quick to turn against them if they make catastrophic mistakes. The fall of singular geniuses is often blamed on their personal flaws. How could he, we ask?

The problem, though, isn’t only personal failure. It’s the mythmaking that creates the singular genius in the first place. When a person is imbued with the power and confidence that he can do no wrong, should we be really surprised when he does wrong?

This is a year of reckoning with big structural problems. It’s also worth thinking about how the cult of singular individuals helps create a structurally rotten tech industry.

Let me point you to Anthony Levandowski. The technologist who led Google’s self-driving car project was sentenced this week to 18 months in prison for stealing company secrets on his way to another job. Levandowski’s lawyers said that he made a life-changing mistake. But it didn’t come out of the blue.


Levandowski openly flouted Google’s rules for years and exercised bad judgment. I’ll never forget a 2011 incident reported in The New Yorker when Levandowski took a Google driverless car on a freeway before it was ready and swerved to avoid a collision in a way that seriously injured his colleague. Instead of reflecting on whether his forbidden test drive was irresponsible, Levandowski seemed to regard it as a useful data-collection exercise.

That type of behavior was lavishly rewarded — until Levandowski left Google and the company turned against him. And he’s not the only rule-breaking genius that Google loved.

Determined, confident and rule-bending people have birthed successful companies and world-changing inventions. That makes it easier, perhaps, to shrug off the occasional company implosion or federal prison sentence.

But we should all pause and look deeper at the fallout created by the singular genius myth.

Tejal Rao, the California restaurant critic for The New York Times, wrote this week about the phenomenon of the genius chef. It sounded familiar to me.


She wrote that the reimagining of chefs as auteurs gave them license for creativity that improved food and dining, but it also justified systemic deficiencies and abusive work cultures and ignored the contributions of almost everyone else.

In technology, we can see the good done by singular individuals like Bezos, who created Amazon, and Jobs, who co-founded Apple. But we can’t tally the full cost of the genius myth.

How many Levandowskis are there rotting companies from the inside? What new ideas never got off the ground because a lone genius obscured everyone else’s contributions? Who got pushed out of the industry because they didn’t fit the mold?

Some iconic tech companies — Google, Apple, Microsoft, Uber and Oracle — are now run by hired hands, not the singular geniuses that they’re associated with. This may be natural turnover as companies mature. But I hope it’s also a sign that the industry is rethinking whether singular geniuses are the best path to success.

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Can you copy your way to success?

Yes. Yes, you can.

The history of the technology industry is littered with evidence that having a great idea is no guarantee of success. Someone can take the same idea and improve it, or outright steal it.

Microsoft was not the first company to make a visual interface for a desktop computer. Facebook was not the first social network. The iPhone was not the first personal pocket computer. Those were the right products at the right time backed by the right company, with the benefit of a little luck and ruthlessness.

It’s easy to mock Facebook for making a copycat of TikTok, the hottest app of the moment. And before that, for making … uh … a different TikTok copycat. And before that, for copying Snapchat’s photo-and-video diaries called Stories.

But as I said, copying happens. A lot.

The danger is, the company doing the copying can sometimes miss what made the original so good.

Some of the early feedback I’ve seen from people trying Facebook’s TikTok copy, Instagram Reels, have pointed out that it isn’t centered around something like TikTok’s “For You Page,” which is a constant scroll of one video after another tailored to your tastes by TikTok’s computer systems.

You don’t have to follow people or hashtags to find entertaining videos. The app does all the work. (Yes, a computer system steering you to one video after another can also be dangerous.)

The question for Facebook, then, is not whether it copied TikTok — it did — but has it copied TikTok effectively.

Before we go …

  • The tricky line of health misinformation from the White House: On Wednesday Facebook deleted a video clip posted by President Trump’s campaign in which Mr. Trump said that children were “virtually immune” to the coronavirus. (That view is not supported by most medical experts.) Twitter also temporarily put limits on the campaign’s account until it deleted the same video clip.Both companies’ efforts to crack down on false or misleading information about the pandemic have been tested by the president’s sometimes questionable claims about potential coronavirus treatments and cures.
  • Drilling into a specific example of Google’s power: The dominance of tech superpowers is a big-picture issue that is best explained by going deep at one slice of it. Bloomberg Businessweek looks at how therapists’ reliance on finding clients from Google ads has hurt some of their businesses, because they’re getting outbid by therapy consolidators that are savvier at marketing. And Google’s push toward computer-generated advertising copy and real-time answers to searches often doesn’t work well for mental health information.
  • The potentially high cost of a tiny convenience: OneZero writes that the technology to wirelessly charge smartphones and other gadgets uses substantially more electricity than merely plugging devices into a wall socket. The extra power consumption is negligible on the individual household level, according to the publication’s calculations, but the collective environmental cost might not be if wireless charging becomes widespread.

Hugs to this

When piggy meets puppy, it is adorable.

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2020年8月5日 星期三

The T List: Five things we recommend this week

Paintings by Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hawaiian pastries — and more.

Welcome to the T List, a newsletter from the editors of T Magazine. Each week, we’re sharing things we’re eating, wearing, listening to or coveting now. Sign up here to find us in your inbox every Wednesday. You can always reach us at tlist@nytimes.com.


Eat This

Fruit-Forward Pastries on Oahu

From left: Mother Bake Shop’s LOG cruffin, with lilikoi curd, orange glaze and guava creme patissiere, and a peanut butter and jelly croissant.Tahiti Huetter

By Whitney Robinson

T Contributor

Kailua, on Oahu’s particularly picturesque windward side, is already a great spot for shave ice and macadamia nut shortbread. At the town’s newly opened Mother Bake Shop, though, you’ll find the sort of trendy pastries you might see in Paris or San Francisco, but with classic Hawaiian fruit flavors. That means cruffins — flaky hybrids of a croissant and a muffin — filled with lilikoi jam, almond-studded black-sesame-and-pineapple Danishes, ulu (breadfruit) cinnamon rolls, haupia (coconut pudding) pie and zesty lime malasadas, which are Portuguese-style doughnuts. There’s also a rotating assortment of what the shop describes as “galactic” brownies, sprinkled with edible stars, and s’mores-flavored cupcakes, as well as charred scallion and caramelized onion flatbreads and the bakery’s signature Mother sourdough loaf, a local favorite (a Mother bread truck is scheduled to start cruising the island this fall). It’s an impressive offering, especially considering that everything is made on the 900-square-foot premises by just a handful of bakers, among them the shop’s married co-owners, Kristina Swenson-Stewart and Josh Stewart. Except for flour (Hawaii is too hot and humid to grow wheat), all of their ingredients are sourced locally: The edible flowers that top the custom cakes (including a toasted coconut, lychee-filled option) come from Ahiki Acres, a farm in Waimanalo, and the cocoa powder comes from nearby Manoa Chocolate. “We wanted it to be part of the community of people who actually live here,” says Stewart, who, along with Swenson-Stewart, spent two years perfecting the bakery’s dairy-free butter, made from a blend of coconut oil, cashew, cocoa butter and responsibly sourced palm oil. And so while the pastries at Mother are technically vegan, Stewart says that’s beside the point — the point being that they are delicious. motherbakeshop.com.

See This

A New Show by the Artist Toyin Ojih Odutola

From left: Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “Introductions: Early Embodiment (Koba)” and “Semblance of Certainty” from the series “A Countervailing Theory” (2019).© Toyin Ojih Odutola, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

By Rachel May

T Contributor


In “A Countervailing Theory,” the Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola’s site-specific exhibition at the Barbican in London, a mythical civilization’s origin story unfolds along the nearly 300-foot-long space of the winding Curve gallery. Across 40 gray-scale drawings in pastel, charcoal and chalk — accompanied by text by Zadie Smith and a soundscape by Peter Adjaye — Ojih Odutola crafts a narrative inspired in part by her research into the Jos Plateau in central Nigeria. “Seeing the diverse landscapes, the famous rock formations found there, the pictographic markings on some of the million-year-old slabs of black shale, I realized there’s a story here,” she says. “And immediately the questions came to me: What if there was an ancient civilization that existed here — what stories would they tell themselves? What mythology can be conjured from this land which might have been forgotten and possibly needs mining?” These are the ideas with which she asks the audience to engage, allowing viewers to make narrative leaps between each of the drawings, which show figures moving confidently through a prehistoric rocky landscape — some resting in contemplation, others embracing, their eyes shimmering as if they hold whole universes within. The artist’s capacious imagination brings to reality a vibrant, peaceful world that centers Black people in the establishment of a civilization. “I’d spent years working within a figurative tradition heavily influenced by an Occidental, Eurocentric view of image-making,” Ojih Odutola says. “The pictures I created — working within a monochromatic palette — formed a countervailing language, and by extension a history, so protean, intimate and contrasting, I knew what I was seeing was mine, not of a colonized mind.” A Countervailing Theory” will be on view from Aug. 11, 2020, through Jan. 21, 2021, at the Barbican, Silk Street, London, barbican.org.uk.

Book This

The Skin-Care Line Monastery’s New Noe Valley Spa

Left: in Monastery’s main room, Athena Hewett displays family treasures and antiques. Right: the passageway to the treatment rooms features a 17th-century Korean metal vase and a vintage lattice-back chair.Christopher Stark

By Molly Creeden

T Contributor

When the San Francisco-based aesthetician Athena Hewett was imagining a new space for her spa, home to her skin-care line, Monastery — she thought of Greece. Hewett grew up visiting her grandmother, an herbalist, on the island of Paros every summer, and their relationship spurred Hewett’s interest in natural perfumery and subsequent study of aromacology. While pursuing both and working as an aesthetician, Hewett began searching for an Ayurvedic approach to fixing her own skin, which was plagued by dermatitis, jawline acne and product overload. The result was Monastery, a botanical line known for its gentle, oil-based formulations, which anchored her first Noe Valley spa — a small cottage from which she worked for 10 years. There, she became known for her small-batch products like Rose Cleansing Oil, Gold Oil Serum and Flora Cream Serum — whose high-quality, anti-inflammatory ingredients are a boon for complexions that are touch-and-go. Her new brick-and-mortar location in Noe Valley — opened just before California’s stay-at-home order and reopening this month — features three treatment rooms and supports a new menu that includes services with microcurrent, CBD and gua sha. The white-painted floors and whitewashed walls, reminiscent of architecture in the Greek Cyclades, were designed by the New York-based architect Jacqueline Sullivan, who created a front retail space with lacquered furniture from Shin Okuda’s line Waka Waka as well. There are also lighting fixtures from Rich Brilliant Willing and In Common With, dried floral sculptures and sentimental belongings from Hewett’s grandmother’s house, including a hand mirror, books, various vessels and an old Greek tile. “When I would say the word ‘monastery,’ I would think of something serene and peaceful,” explains Hewett. “I would think of a ritual; and I would always think of Greece.” 4175 24th Street, San Francisco, Calif., monasterymade.com.


Drink This

Waris Ahluwalia’s Complex Herbal Teas

House of Waris Botanicals tea blends, including Sweet Clarity, Love Conquers All, Night of Nights and Immunity One.Jonny Valiant for House of Waris Botanicals

By Kurt Soller

“We’re not doing tea, we’re doing plants,” says the 45-year-old actor and designer Waris Ahluwalia. About five years ago, living in New York City, he regularly felt tired and stressed out. So he decided to create a line of botanical infusions that he hoped might help him and others, with blends informed as much by the hot beverages he drank during his upbringing in an Indian household as by the traditions of Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and holistic health that he learned about as an adult. Last fall, he opened a tiny storefront, just 150 square feet in Chelsea, where he sold tins of his first three House of Waris Botanicals products: Love Conquers All (with the libido-enhancing adaptogen damiana), Sweet Clarity (with tulsi for focus) and Night of Nights (with jujube seed to encourage sleep). Then the pandemic hit, and the shop had to temporarily shut its doors, but in a spate of serendipitous timing, Ahluwalia had been fine-tuning his latest offering, Immunity One, an earthy, heady mix of elderberry — which he took as a child when he was sick — lemon, ginger, Cordyceps mushroom and several other vegan ingredients that are meant to aid circulation, support the respiratory system and reduce inflammation. Since the quarantine began in March, I’ve been brewing up sachets several days each week, satisfied that Ahluwalia’s products taste bolder, fresher and more complex than other herbal teas. And even if a cup isn’t literally keeping sickness at bay, it still feels healthy in times of crisis to develop one’s own calming, delicious, plant-based rituals. Starting at $28 for three sachets, houseofwaris.com.

Shop This

A New Eclectic West Village Boutique

Telsha Anderson in her new shop, wearing Barragán pants in a green colorway exclusive to t.a.Christopher Tomás Smith

By Angela Koh

Brick-and-mortar retail was on the rocks even pre-pandemic, but that didn’t stop the former social-media consultant Telsha Anderson from opening up her eclectically curated boutique, T.A. The 27-year-old owner is something of a romantic when it comes to buying clothes. Anderson believes a lot of consumers still crave the experience of in-store shopping, where they can have human interaction, try things on and feel the texture of the clothes. Located in the West Village, her space is filled with a compilation of independent fashion designers, from Ellery to Priscavera, that Anderson has found mostly online through Tumblr and Instagram. She also strives to amplify the work of forward-thinking Black designers such as Wesley Harriott, who has dressed artists like Lady Gaga, Solange Knowles and Rosalía and who is known to use deconstruction to enhance the female form. “It was part of my mission that it be a creative space that appreciates the work from these overlooked brands,” she said. Other emerging labels at her shop include Barragán, Mozh Mozh, Ottolinger and William Okpo. With stores slowly reopening in New York City, shoppers can now go in to T.A. five at a time with masks on, or those who feel safer shopping one-on-one can book an individual appointment online. 332 West 13th Street, New York, 10014, shop-ta.com.

From T’s Instagram


The study’s tasseled silk-damask curtain was found at a French brocante.Henry Bourne

In the study of the British designer Harriet Anstruther (@harrietanstrutherstudio) and the photographer Henry Bourne’s 19th-century cart house in England’s West Sussex, deep blue walls offset antique wood furniture and Persian rugs. Visit @tmagazine to see more of #RoomoftheDay — and follow us on Instagram.

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