PLAYBOY: So the solution to global warming will be a technological fix?
DENTON: It might be a technological fix for capturing carbon or getting off the planet or coming up with nonpolluting fuels.
PLAYBOY: But it’s not going to be a political fix?
PLAYBOY: It’s not going to be everybody growing up and saying, “We need to do this”?
DENTON: Oh, no. I think a good strategy in life is to wait until you have a good solution. Wind power, hybrid fuel trains—these are partial solutions. No one thinks they’re viable. No one thinks they’re going to solve the problem. They’re basically token approaches. Now, sometimes a token approach can get people thinking, and maybe it starts to develop a technology that will ultimately be economically viable, but usually not. Usually it’s better to say, “Okay, this is a problem and it needs to be monitored. But we don’t have an answer for it right now, so let’s come back to it in five, 10 or 15 years, when we might have a better answer.” I don’t think that’s necessarily irresponsible.
PLAYBOY: So you’re an optimist about technological change but a cynic about political change.
DENTON: I think technological change is going to be great for the rejuvenation of decrepit economic systems like that of the United States. This country is encrusted with privilege, mediocrity. It has early signs of sclerosis. This society needs a big jolt. It needs a big cleansing.
PLAYBOY: “Cleansing” sounds ominous.
DENTON: I mean in business and politics. I don’t think you’ll find many people who disagree with that now. This country, even in the tech sector, is full of people who are on this merry-go-round, who know the right headhunters and basically pass each other jobs as if they were a trade union with the sole rights to these positions in which they demand $500,000 a year. They move around from start-up flip to start-up flip. They’re not incompetent; they’re just not that good. These are the midlevel scandals. If you can industrialize gossip, if you can make it truly scale, you can expose all the mediocrity and incompetence. Now you’ve actually done something.
PLAYBOY: That’s Pandora’s box. It would be terrifying to open.
DENTON: It would be fantastic. People would actually have to work, and they’d have to be good. It would be great. Do you know how many lies there are? Every single time people are given the latitude to cheat and there’s no one watching, no regulator and no mechanism for whistle-blowers, you get lies. Don’t you ever get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of bullshit?
PLAYBOY: Is that because of our broken institutions, or is that just human nature?
DENTON: There’s an accretion of bullshit, like an accretion of junk DNA in DNA, or fatty deposits in arteries. If you want to move things on without having a completely destructive revolution, you need some mechanism to put a big fucking shock in the system. I came to this country because I thought it was something, you know? And yet I’m more in love with the idea of the United States than I am with the reality.
PLAYBOY: The idea being?
DENTON: Permanent revolution. Nothing is sacred. The United States is distributed; it’s resilient. There’s lots of redundancy built in, and it’s big enough that no establishment can control everything.
PLAYBOY: So the idea you came here for is true, but it’s not as true as you believe it will be in the future.
DENTON: The web is a deeply American idea. The web is saving the United States from sclerosis.
PLAYBOY: You’re somebody whose intelligence straddles two worlds, the liberal-arts world and the engineering-systems-based world. Did that shape your career?
DENTON: There is definitely a type, like a Mark Zuckerberg, who applies a logical way of thinking to the social grid. I think that’s pretty consistent among people who have done well in social media. They’re basically geeks who made their accommodation, who actually survived high school. Not instinctively but just through sheer force of will and intellect, they made themselves understand the system—who had the power in high school and who you needed to align yourself with and how to do it.
PLAYBOY: And that’s you?
DENTON: I went to this weird school as a kid, a Montessori school run by a couple of American hippies who didn’t believe in age-defined streaming. It was a very small school, so basically I had no contemporaries. I had no early socialization. I was with kids quite a few years older than I was. When I first went to a regular school, at the age of 11, I was completely unqualified to handle the environment.
PLAYBOY: What did you do?
DENTON: I was quiet for two years, and I barely had a friend by about year three.
PLAYBOY: You have one sibling?
DENTON: I have a younger sister.
PLAYBOY: What were you like as a kid?
DENTON: Smart, bratty, arrogant. Compensating arrogance, compensating for a bit of insecurity. I liked hanging out with adults.
PLAYBOY: Are you more like one of your parents than the other?
DENTON: I was closer to my mom. She was social and very determined. She was a refugee from Hungary, both she and her mother, who’d been brought up in Vienna in a Jewish orphanage. Both of them were tough characters. My mom was in the Budapest ghetto during the war, and I think she was one of those kids who had to be stronger than the adults. The adults were falling apart, and she basically couldn’t afford to be a kid, you know? My grandmother’s husband died in a labor camp, and she survived by having lovers. I was always more drawn to that side of the family. I had mixed feelings about my dad. My mother was a social organizer; I definitely got that from her. She was always fixing things, like arranging for people to go and interview for jobs. She was a matchmaker.
PLAYBOY: When did you decide that London didn’t fit your plans?
DENTON: I’ve been away from the U.K., away from London, since I was 18. I went to Eastern Europe when I was 23. Since then I’ve lived in the U.K. for maybe two years.
PLAYBOY: And you came out when you were in college?
DENTON: After college. I mean, I wasn’t fully out until I was out to my parents. If you’re not out to your parents, then you have to maintain this protective zone around them. Gay guys spend a lot of time and effort coming out. There’s a lot of calculation. You have to be aware about social networks and who’s how many degrees away from somebody else, and you have to be aware of the speed with which gossip will be transmitted. You have to maintain a proper buffer around the people you’re trying to protect.