A note from our editor, Elizabeth MacBride:
Welcome to a delayed Times of E newsletter. I’ve been recovering from surgery that slowed me down early this month. More on that in a later newsletter!
Here are a few things I worked on during the vacation:
An interview with a Midwestern entrepreneur who had a change of heart and became a a part of the conscious capitalism movement.
A story about a woman leading organizations that served nearly 150 million meals in the first six months of the pandemic. It made me wonder why we know José Andrés’ name, and not hers.
Meanwhile, the summer has seen more of what seems like the implosion of the culture of Silicon Valley. There’s new momentum against Amazon and Facebook in Washington, D.C. I’m sure I share the widespread disgust at Andreessen Horowtiz’s decision to back WeWork’s Adam Neuman again, after his mismanagement cost thousands of people their jobs right before the pandemic, and triggered investigations by the SEC and the New York Attorney General.
But let’s not get distracted from the biggest story these days, which is the drumbeat of conflict with China.
Is TikTok A Threat From China?
Sometimes its libertarian-economic mindset of most of the business media blinds its editorial writers to the real questions. This fault was radically on display in an Economist editorial over the summer about TikTok.
Here’s a paragraph from the piece.
Even as TikTok delights consumers and advertisers, others believe the sunny app has a dark side. ByteDance, its owner, has its headquarters in China, whose government is addicted to surveillance and propaganda, making it a worrying place for a media app to be based. As TikTok’s clout grows and as elections loom in America, there is a brewing bipartisan storm in Congress over its supposed role as a “Trojan horse”.
The editorial writer goes on to frame the problem in terms of government control.
TikTok is working with American regulators on a framework in which American users’ data are held by Oracle, an American firm, with limited access for TikTok’s China-based staff. To tackle the manipulation question, TikTok has offered to let third parties inspect its algorithm. It is hard to understand the black box of an AI program—does a glut of pro-Trump videos indicate that someone in Beijing is pulling a lever, or simply that audiences enjoy polarising content? But showing the source code and allowing ongoing inspection of how the algorithm is updated would provide some reassurance.
Is it a problem if the government of China manipulates the American public via a viral app? Of course it is. But it’s a more intractable and serious problem if the people running and financing profit-motivated companies design viral apps that burn through the truth like a Western wildfire through the giant Sequoias.
It’s not only Chinese companies that are doing that.
There are two narrative frames here that do some damage. One is the idea that the Chinese government is out to get the United States. I don’t have the expertise to accurately weigh that threat, but I can see that it is increasingly taking hold among elites. It troubles me because conflict benefits big companies that get government contracts.
The other troubling narrative is that the free market ought to be in charge. In this world view, adopted by much of the business media, there is no right, and no wrong, only the free hand of the market versus government control. It’s a convenient canard, because it absolves business leaders and editorial writers of responsibility for exercising judgement.
The market, established by people and requiring a reasonable amount of governance by people, exists for the common good. Not the other way around.