Published On: Fri, Oct 6th, 2017

Farhad and Mike’s Week in Tech: More Uber Drama, and Few Answers From Facebook

But it did paint a pretty ugly picture of Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer who sold his company to Uber after leaving Google and taking thousands of files with him. Not exactly a good look, if you’re trying to work again in the tech industry.

Farhad: Does he need to work again, though? One thing we didn’t mention last week was the great Wired profile of Mr. Levandowski, which contained this nugget: He seems to be creating his own religious organization, a church meant to “develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence.” See, when your god is A.I., maybe you don’t need to be in the good graces of tech companies.

Mike: Yeah. In more upbeat news for Uber, the company’s dramatic boardroom struggles seem to be coming closer to peace. The board this week voted for a significant set of governance changes to the company, including imposing some significant restrictions on Travis Kalanick, the former chief executive, who was pushed out of the company by his investors but remains on Uber’s board.

There were compromises. For one, the board confirmed the addition of two new members — Ursula Burns, the former head of Xerox, and John Thain, former chief executive of Merrill Lynch — who were stealthily added by Mr. Kalanick last week. But the board also agreed to add six more seats for new directors to bring more “independent” voices to the company.

Six new board members! That brings Uber’s board seats to a whopping 17 once they decide who will join.

Can you imagine what those meetings will be like? I have a hard time wrangling more than two friends to meet somewhere for dinner on a text messaging thread.

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Farhad: I think it’s pretty cool. Most other tech giants are totally controlled by a single person — usually one white guy. Uber’s board looks totally dysfunctional, but it’s interesting how it has been muddling along to the right decision every now and then. First it picked a good C.E.O., and now it succeeded in reducing the power of its toxic founder. That’s not a bad record.

Tech and Artistry

Mike: In other news, tech companies seem to be getting more artistic lately! Dropbox did an entire wacky redesign, which look as if Andy Warhol were alive and became chief design officer for a tech company. Snapchat, meanwhile, announced a collaboration with the pop artist Jeff Koons, which allows Snapchat users to transpose graphical depictions of Mr. Koons’s signature balloon-animal-inspired artwork over photos they take on their smartphones.

I’m not exactly a huge Koons fan, but I do like that Snapchat is running with this theme of manipulating the real world through the lens of the phone. It’s “augmented reality,” and it’s what companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Magic Leap think will be the next big wave of computing in the not-too-distant future.

Farhad: Wait, why aren’t you a Koons fan? Those balloon animals are rad. It’s my dream to one day own one, and I’m bummed that everyone’s gonna get access through Snapchat. But I guess great art is meant to be shared.

Seriously, though, this is one of the better applications of A.R. I’ve seen. It’s surely more interesting than setting down a couch in your living room — that is, the Ikea app everyone has been playing with for the last two weeks. Look, I know what an Ikea couch looks like in my living room in real life! Why would I want to fantasize about a new Ikea couch?

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Mike: I didn’t really take you as an art fan. Or a Pokemon fan. Maybe I’ll start calling you Squirtle.

Facebook’s Russia Issues

Mike: We should probably talk about Facebook. Max Read over at New York Magazine did a nice piece meditating on what Facebook actually is these days, which still doesn’t seem clear to anyone, including perhaps Mark Zuckerberg himself.

But what everyone is enamored of is this Russia advertising story. To sum up: Facebook is under fire for thousands of paid advertisements that spread across the platform, most of which were created by a shadowy, Russia-linked troll farm called the Internet Research Agency. Investigators are pursuing what effect those ads might have had on the election, and how far their reach went.

Facebook has agreed to testify in front of Congress in November, and we anticipate Twitter and Google — which are also in the cross hairs for similar accusations — will do the same.

Do you think we’ve gotten to the root of the problem here, Farhad? Or are we just scratching the surface? I have my thoughts, but for once I want to hear yours.

Farhad: I really don’t think we’ve gotten to the root. In fact, I don’t think we even know what we’re looking for at this point. There are so many different ways Facebook and the other platforms were involved in the election — other than Russian ads, there was the threat of “fake news” (some of which may have been produced by Russians, some by pranksters), and then there was the echo-chamber effect (where everything you see reinforces your beliefs), and on top of that, there are the many ways that Facebook worked with campaigns themselves to target voters.

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Maybe Facebook has enough data to disentangle the effects of all this stuff, but it seems unlikely. The 2016 election was “overdetermined,” as social scientists like to say — with a result that close, a lot of possible different decisions and scandals might have been enough to give us the result we had. I’m in favor of more digging, and I’m looking forward to Facebook’s testimony, but I bet we’ll never figure out what role the company played.

Anyway, I’m glad you’re not moving to L.A. Wait, what am I saying — I wish you were.

Mike: You can’t get rid of me that easily. Ciao!

Farhad Manjoo joined The Times in 2013, and he writes a weekly column called State of the Art. Mike Isaac has been writing about technology since 2010, and joined The Times in 2014, covering Facebook, Uber and Twitter. You can follow them on Twitter here: @fmanjoo and @MikeIsaac.

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