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Playboy Interview: Nick Denton
  • February 21, 2014 : 07:02
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PLAYBOY: Broken into?

DENTON: By police. It was Apple’s pet police force, some computer task force in Silicon Valley that is notoriously close to the tech industry. It was a great story.

PLAYBOY: Did it bother you, knowing that one of your heroes pretty much hated your guts?

DENTON: He does his job; we do our job. His perfect thing requires both excellence in engineering and user interface and absolute control of the marketing process so that when he goes onstage, his product is a surprise. And our purpose is at odds with his purpose. Our purpose is to get information out quickly according to our schedule, not according to his schedule. So there’s a conflict. It doesn’t mean we don’t respect him. We did respect him.

PLAYBOY: What do you think of his successor, Tim Cook?

DENTON: He has a hard act to follow.

PLAYBOY: Your websites have repeatedly harped on him for being gay but not publicly out. Why?

DENTON: I mean, it’s not as if there’s anything at all in his public persona or in his pronouncements that is necessarily at odds with his private homosexuality, but I think it would be useful. It would be socially useful for the most powerful man in American business to be seen and widely known as being gay. People would see that if you’re gay, you don’t have to be a fashion designer or a closeted actor. There are other courses available for you. Just like it’s important for women to see successful business tycoons who are women or just to see a range of options open to them. What about me, somebody for whom traditional gay careers have no appeal whatsoever?

PLAYBOY: You managed to make it without any gay technology role models.

DENTON: Yeah, but maybe at a cost of feeling I had to make accommodations or choices between professional success and personal happiness—forced choices.

PLAYBOY: So by making it harder for leaders to stay in the closet, websites like yours are doing good by our gay sons and daughters. Once again, you side with the camp that says the internet is making our lives better and technology is propelling us toward a better future.

DENTON: It’s not quite as simple as that. I think it will be generally good for the cause of social liberalism and recognizing each other’s flawed but wonderful humanity. You can make a strong argument that Tim Berners-Lee and the dozen people who were involved at various critical stages of the development of the web did more good than all the foreign aid workers and all the liberal military interventions over the past 50 years. Think of a peasant who has historically been hoodwinked by middlemen on the price of his harvests, and now you’re giving him the information he needs for a stronger negotiating position. Here you have somebody playing around with the operating system of the information economy. Actually, it’s sort of accidental; some of the early pioneers didn’t realize what they were doing, yet it’s far more meaningful than any deliberate effort to help the poor. You could argue that Uber may do more for the planet than foreign aid workers in Mozambique because at some point some version of Uber will allow for more efficient use of resources and a better standard of living.

PLAYBOY: How does a taxi-hailing app help humanity?

DENTON: It’s a great example of surge pricing. Any economist would tell you surge pricing is eminently sensible; if you cap prices, you stop a market from working in a way it could work. But it offends people’s sense of fairness because surge pricing basically means we are rationing supply of this commodity, transport, at peak times to rich people, people who can afford it. It takes notional inequality and turns it into something concrete—the poor person is waiting in the rain for a taxi that will never come, and the rich person has a black Mercedes come scoop them up. But it’s inevitable. It will happen everywhere, in every market.

PLAYBOY: How can you be so sure?

DENTON: Markets are more efficient mechanisms for the distribution of services. The only thing that happens if you don’t have surge pricing in a city like New York is that the limos and the cars dry up at certain times. Then nobody gets anything. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the point is that human beings are not so much concerned with their well-being as with their relative position. If they can’t have access to this thing that’s in short supply, then they don’t want anybody else to either.

PLAYBOY: What about Airbnb? That’s a similar model—another so-called two-sided marketplace, except for lodging instead of transportation.

DENTON: It’s the same thing, a clear economic benefit from underused resources such as empty apartments or drivers who don’t have passengers. I like the idea of completely distributed marketplaces. Ultimately we’ll see this idea applied to anything that can be quantified, authenticated, verified—whether it’s limo service, media, information, retail. There’s only gain to be had from making use of wasted resources. You do have the question of how to allocate the gain, but generally I believe in getting the gain and then arguing about the allocation.

PLAYBOY: What does that world look like, where everything is a perfectly efficient market and we’re all both buyers and sellers?

DENTON: It will become more atomized. The Silicon Valley elite will control all the marketplaces. Uber, Amazon, Google—all these things are natural monopolies. There are massive network effects, as economists call them. The more drivers you have, the more passengers you’ll get; the more passengers you get, the more drivers you’ll have. And there will be room for only one player in every major category.

PLAYBOY: So we’re moving back to an age of monopolies?

DENTON: Absolutely, there’s no question about that. The political question is what you do about those monopolies.

PLAYBOY: Aren’t monopolies inherently inefficient?

DENTON: Well, they result in income inequality, above all, and abuse of power. There’s a concentration of power and wealth among the managers, owners and employees of monopolies, and usually the political system steps in to limit the power of those monopolies. But I’m pretty sure we’ll end up with monopoly taxation or nationalization. That is ultimately the only answer to the concurrent concentration of power and money in this country—a Google tax.

PLAYBOY: Google will basically bribe the government not to break up its monopoly?

DENTON: Yeah. Or you can say the government will bully Google to the point that it either pays fines for its abuse of monopolistic behavior—the current random application of justice that seems to be landing on American banks—or you could have a better system. You could have a more systematic approach, which would be to have some kind of monopoly tax.

PLAYBOY: Google would effectively become a sort of government-sanctioned contractor or privatized agency.

DENTON: This is looking at Google as a utility. Look at electric utilities, gas, originally telecommunications, where there were network effects, where there were substantial investment costs or capital-intensive barriers to entry. These are classic criteria of a natural monopoly. It’s going to be a monopoly, and to break up those companies would be absurd. If you break up Google, you’ll need a whole other search-engine infrastructure. You’re going to have to build all those server farms, and you’re going to have a whole other team of information scientists working on the algorithms to improve searches. Yeah, you could try to create some kind of competition, but it would be absurd. So if they are natural monopolies, then the only question is, Who gets the monopoly profits, and who gets the monopoly power? Is it going to be the shareholders, or is it going to be society at large?

PLAYBOY: What will be the life-changing or society-changing technologies that we’re just starting to see now?

DENTON: The internet is it for this century, maybe the next one too. People ask what comes next too quickly. To the extent there is some kind of message in the valuation that the market has given Twitter, it is that communication, information and media are at the heart of this phase, this cycle, and it’s a long, long cycle that could last 50 or 100 years. When you have an innovation as profound as the networking of sentient beings.… Those delusional futurists who talked about Gaia, the planetwide intelligence? They were spot-on. It’s totally happening, and everything else comes out of that.

PLAYBOY: By “everything else,” do you mean wearable computing, self-driving cars and that stuff?

DENTON: Who gives a fuck about wearable computing? That’s just a detail. I mean improvement in biotech, curing cancer, efficient travel into orbit, better device storage, solving carbon emissions. All these other problems will be solved by the internet by harnessing the collective intelligence. Everything else will fall out with that.

PLAYBOY: That definitely sounds utopian. To be clear, you just said the internet is going to solve global warming, correct?

DENTON: Yeah. Intelligence connected to human beings will achieve rates of technological progress that would have been impossible in previous eras. Of course we’ll solve problems more quickly.

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read more: entertainment, Celebrities, magazine, playboy interview, issue march 2014


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