When the walls come crumbling down. Back in the thick of Trump and early Covid, in those summer months that became those autumn months that became those winter months of isolation and toxic orange sky dystopia and “mostly peaceful” protests, had someone told you that the world was maybe broken you probably would have said “no shit.” 2020 was insane, but “2020 is insane” was also a meme, and that sync between the very broad strokes of our objective reality and the story we all told about our world was at least, if almost nothing else, grounding. But this weekend, nearly a year after the vaccination, with a changing of the American political guard, and trillions of imaginary dollars come to right the world, I found myself staring at rows of empty shelves at Target wondering how this wasn’t the biggest story in the country. Inflation is approaching 5.5%. A crisis-level labor shortage, which the One Party has deemed resultant of a utopian-esque re-imagining of our relationship to work rather than what happens when you pay a workforce to stay home, has dovetailed with a supply-chain crisis. The cost of food, rent, automobiles, gas, and basic household goods — if you can find them — has skyrocketed. Violent crime has spiked. Authoritarianism has been normalized. But somehow, most of us seem to have internalized a sense that things are basically better than they were a year ago, with a belief our world will steadily improve while no coherent plan of improvement seems to exist. If left to course, this is a state of mind that all but guarantees further decay. Thankfully, a little over a week ago Ryan Petersen, the CEO of freight forwarding company Flexport, charted a different course.
On October 13th, the Los Angeles Times released photos of shipping gridlock at the Port of Los Angeles, a pervasive problem throughout the ports of Southern California. A few days later, in a long piece on the emotional well-being of freight workers, the Times again illustrated the gridlock. Over the last month, coverage of the port crisis has often looked like this: the mention of a problem occurring, the suggestion we get used to such problems occurring, and a weak reach, from right and leftwing media outlets alike, for yet another culture war tie-in nobody asked for and nobody needs. In one remarkable piece from the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull, it was even suggested there was no supply-chain crisis at all. The real crisis was consumerism, she argued — a crisis in our hearts, if you will — and this shameful desire of ours to buy and sell goods.
Then Ryan chartered a boat.
In a lengthy thread that starts above, our intrepid Flexport CEO began his story by noting his captain’s confusion. Why was Ryan here? Sure, the world was crumbling, but for months no one else seemed particularly interested in understanding why. On the 22nd, the Wall Street Journal released helicopter footage of the spectacular gridlock, with all the distance between coverage and reality metaphorically here implied. Now, we were in the thick of it: seventy ships carrying 500,000 shipping containers waiting to unload their cargo in Long Beach, with ports up the coast in a similar state of crisis, and Ryan gazing up, not down, at our catatonic infrastructure.
After an illustration of the problem, which is not to say “things aren’t moving” but a detailed explanation of why, including the process by which empty containers are exchanged for containers full of cargo, port policy surrounding the trade-off, and a detailed look at the jam, Ryan finally offered a point-by-point policy proposal for the President, the Governor of California, and the Mayor of Long Beach to end the crisis. Central to the proposal was the goal of boosting space for empty shipping containers, and the first essential suggestion was this: override local zoning laws and allow shipping yards to stack containers 6 high, something currently prohibited for ambiguous environmental reasons roughly translated from the archaic NIMBY doom language as “this is ugly and I don’t want to see it when I look out my window.”
Ryan further suggested container relief from the National Guard, the creation of a new temporary yard connected to the port by rail, and an incredibly ambitious but not at all impossible logistical exercise in moving empties. The image was sensational: a full-time CEO of a multi-billion-dollar freight forwarding company chartering a boat, investigating a disaster, and soberly walking the public through a detailed plan to solve the problem. In what increasingly feels like an age of American stewardship, here was suddenly some leader shit. A CEO not only shaping, but really seizing a major story about his own work would alone have been significant. But then, almost immediately, business bled from media to politics, and we saw some glimmer of our world to come.
Ryan’s thread went viral, and hundreds of people called their local representatives. Politicians in Los Angeles ignored the policy proposals, and the Times eventually ran some light block and tackle for the city. But both Governor Gavin Newsom and Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, contacted Ryan to learn more. Garcia then partly-implemented Ryan’s first proposal. While not enough to fix the problem on its own, it’s a considerable step in the right direction, and it hints at new potential in a world where the walls between business, media, and politics are crumbling even faster than our infrastructure. Sure, we could focus on the failure of government to fix this problem in a timely manner, or to employ the help of someone like Ryan weeks earlier. There continues to be this pesky question of just like… what else were these people doing? But the public was educated, at least one politician in a position to effect change did listen, and an important piece of policy was ultimately (if only temporarily) changed. These are fascinating victories.
Ryan is a CEO in the new mold, operating in a new media landscape. He isn’t only running a freight company, he’s a freight influencer — a CEO as well as a media personality. In a sense, the most successful men and women in their chosen professions are today becoming their own reporters. There are benefits here, as in the case of Ryan’s helpful assistance at the Port of Long Beach, and there are easily imagined drawbacks. I’m not excited at the thought of Nancy Pelosi or Richard Burr reporting on their own finances, for example. But without a trusted independent media, it doesn’t really matter what we want, the Sovereign Influencer is expanding in a vacuum. This is the future.
How to dunk on the United Nations like a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. With the Facebook Files back in the news, a total nothing story resultant of a press so absolutely ravenous for ‘tech is evil’ content that it propelled a Democratic operative to beyond-reproach “whistleblower” stardom in exchange for what essentially amount to opinions (with which the press agrees), the disconnect between legacy media institutions and their purported subjects has never been so apparent. There is almost no one working in tech who believes Mark Zuckerberg is killing teenagers, for example, a story widely clocked by industry insiders as in the first place unfair, but more importantly irrelevant. There are nuanced questions about the relationship between social media and mental health worth exploring, which was of course the entire purpose of Facebook’s now-distorted research on this topic. But as the tech press largely fails to entertain nuance or thoughtfulness, and as tech industry leaders find themselves increasingly capable of connecting with the public directly, executives have naturally begun to circumvent the old machine. As Balaji Srinivasan aptly noted, when Facebook changed its name last week — a massive tech story — Zuckerberg went direct with his announcement, then gave a (great) interview to Stratechery’s Ben Thompson, a widely-respected independent writer. And why would Zuckerberg have done anything else?
Let’s take a look at a few recent hits from the press.
A week ago, Bloomberg reported on sexual assault data released by Lyft. The shocking headline: “4,000” claims. In fact, Lyft saw a 19% reduction in assaults this year, and essential context like sexual assault data from analog taxi services, which the tech press has systematically failed to care about for the last ten years, didn’t even make it into the piece. Another figure that didn’t make it into the piece: Lyft facilitates something like 400 million rides a year. As Live Boeree notes:
Do we have a name yet for this kind of headline clickbait that gives a scary sounding numerator without giving the denominator for context? (In this case, 4000 is out of billions of rides, a rate under 0.0001% 🙄) Lyft recorded over 4,000 sexual assaults between 2017-2019, according to the company's first safety study https://t.co/EtbpKNWvlr https://t.co/25wb37en68
Two weeks ago, while parsing a characteristically dishonest piece of reporting from the Verge’s Zoë Schiffer about a firing that never happened and a Netflix employee walkout that never mattered, I included a laundry list of prior Verge distortions, most egregiously a story on Doordash executives framed to imply the company illegally put down a union. It’s hard to read this as anything other than simply a lie. At the tiny Netflix walkout Zoë helped propel to global attention for a full weekend, the Associated Press characterized a pro-Chappelle counter-protester (my God I hate it here) as screaming profanities while peaceful activists begged him not to disturb their peaceful protest. In fact, the almost eerily-polite counter-protestor was attacked by a small mob. His sign, which simply read “Jokes Are Funny,” was destroyed. Then an activist began to scream “repent, mother fucker” in his face. Video of the encounter had already gone viral at the time of the AP’s characterization.
1/ This AP photo caption reads "Comedian and videographer Vito Gesualdi screams profanities as he engages with peaceful protesters begging him to leave." A damaging claim about @VitoGesualdi, circulated globally. It never happened. Join me on some basic photo-trutherism.
These kinds of purposeful distortions have happened for years, and they will happen for years to come. What’s new is the ability of a sufficiently-online CEO to kill a press distortion in the womb, as Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong did last year when he pre-empted a New York Times hit piece from his company’s blog. Last week, when the press failed to conclude a tidal wave of reporting on a small Hawaii-based virtual reality company’s claim that Oculus effectively stole the Rift, Anduril’s Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, took to Twitter and covered the story himself.
But then there’s Elon Musk, the patron saint of Man is Media.
Over the weekend, CNN interviewed David Beasley, director of the UN World Food Programme (and my God does that British spelling for a program mostly funded by Americans kill me). CNN’s headline read as follows: “2% of Elon Musk's wealth could solve world hunger.” It can’t, of course, and begs uncomfortable questions like 1) “if all it takes to solve world hunger is six billion dollars what the hell has our government been doing for the last century,” and 2) “if all it takes to solve world hunger is six billion dollars what the hell has the United Nations been doing with the billions it’s been given specifically to solve this problem?” Criticism of the statement was swift.
But then Elon responded, and Twitter quaked.
From here, a war of words between Musk and the United Nations concluded in Musk’s reminding Beasley that his program has systematically failed to meet its goals, touching on a point I’ve often made myself. It doesn’t matter how many billions we throw at a problem if there’s no plan in place to actually solve the problem. Without the plan, we’re really just talking, and usually about things that piss people off. This is a dynamic that benefits writers and politicians and probably, truly, nobody else.
Our government spent seven trillion dollars last year. Today, we're twenty-nine trillion dollars in debt. Every year spending increases, and none of our problems are solved. Congress has dragged our entire country into a psychotic class war narrative, in which the public is made to believe we’re one or two billionaire liquidations away from a world of abundance. But where have the trillions gone? I’m sure it’s frustrating for the One Party that favored targets like Musk can now directly ask this question to billions of people. But Musk’s influence, contextualized by Ryan Petersen’s recent trip to the port, hints at a solution to the problem raised at the top of this wire. How do we reverse what seems to be a significant decline, and jumpstart the engine of progress?
Our shitposting Gods of Silicon Valley have only recently begun to sense they can tell their own stories, and it doesn’t really matter what a professionally-mad Brooklyn-based vegan thinks about rockets or bitcoin or virtual reality. That’s amazing — really, I love this evolution for us. But on the other side of the incredible, growing influence of sovereign influencers is duty. A concentration of influence and resources is likewise a concentration of power. Ryan Petersen tapped into this power when he addressed the port crisis. Someone with the influence of Elon Musk is likely capable of much more.
If you look closely, you’ll notice the pressure placed on billionaires to fix the world isn’t applied broadly. No one’s really giving Warren Buffet any shit. Musk, Zuckerberg, Bezos — we tend to obsess over billionaire founders. This is probably because our billionaire founders, with a fraction of the resources our politicians wield, are the only examples we have of leaders meaningfully effecting change. It’s somewhat counterintuitive, but my sense is a lot of the pressure isn’t coming from a place of anger. I think it’s coming from a place of hope.
It sucks but suck it up, I guess is what I’m saying, you’re needed, and now you have our attention. In between these truly excellent dunks, we could really use a plan.