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The Big Disruption Author Jessica Powell Shares a Quote

Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”    

February 23, 2020

Welcome to Notes on Quotes, an interview series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quotation of their choosing.

Jessica Powell is the former vice president of communications for Google and served on the company’s management team. She’s the co-founder and CEO of a music software startup, and her short fiction, humor and op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, TIME, Medium, and other publications. Her novel The Big Disruptionis “a totally fictional but essentially true Silicon Valley story.” Technology journalist Kara Swisher said Powell is “an insider who has come outside, an insightful chronicler of the ridonkulous foibles of the digital overlords and a deft teller of tales.

This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated.

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Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?

Jessica Powell: It’s a Carl Sagan quote. “Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”          

Seems a bit dark.

Ya think? [laughs] This quote comes from a lecture where Sagan is talking about the history of the universe. He speaks to our human tendency to think of the cosmos as if we were the center of it. But the quote itself is not actually a huge moment in the lecture. In fact, when you read it, it’s almost buried on the page. Sagan just observes, almost in passing, that extinction is more common.

You mentioned before the interview that you thought this quote was fundamental to understanding Silicon Valley.

The quote goes to the heart of so much that drives the tech industry, and particularly the companies that have become the industry’s behemoths.

Politicians and journalists tend to talk about big tech companies as if their end game was just to get your private information. But there’s something much more primitive and ego-driven going on. The leaders of these companies do not want to be outdone by others in the industry. Why? Because to be outdone is to be sent on the path toward extinction.

There’s a tremendous fear of irrelevance in today’s boardrooms. The average tenure of a company in the S&P 500 back in the 1960s was about 30 years. But in today’s tech environment, we’re seeing much more disruption. And that’s very much on the minds of today’s tech leaders. Remember that not that long ago Internet Explorer was the dominant browser. They were on top one day, then fell the next. The pace of innovation and replacement is incredible.

So that’s why the tech companies are driven to expand and expand. Because if you have your fingers in everything, then you have a firmer grip.

I can see how Silicon Valley companies view the competitive landscape as an existential threat. But do the companies feel threatened by government regulation?

On the one hand, you don’t want to regulate innovation because competition may be one of the most effective ways to keep companies in check. At the same time, that’s a convenient way for those same companies to say, “Don’t regulate us!” So of course, you need to find a balance between the two.

In terms of whether it’s an existential threat—well, it’s all a matter of degree. If you’re going to be regulated to the ground and ripped into 12 different pieces, that’s fairly categorized as an existential threat. But other types of regulation are different: they might be costly or slow you down, but the larger companies could deal with them.

I actually think it’s somewhat inevitable that there will be some additional regulations put into place regardless of which party is in power over the next four years. My biggest concern with regulation is that the government will regulate a slice of an issue—content moderation, for example—without addressing the broader issue that is making people so anxious, which is the rapid expansion of these companies.

Another challenge is that there isn’t that much discourse within Silicon Valley about regulation because everybody is so concerned about saying the wrong thing. Unfortunately, that means that most of the people who are speaking about regulation of big tech are not familiar with the tech world.

In your novel The Big Disruption, the fictional tech company Anahata is archrivals with Galt. They are trying to destroy each other. Without getting too specific, does that competitive dynamic parallel real life in Silicon Valley?

I appreciate you being diplomatic and not asking directly about Google, but it’s okay to discuss because my answer and book aren’t specifically about Google but is more all-encompassing. It’s true in all companies, and certainly large companies: One firm does something in Virtual Reality, and the other now has to do something in VR. If they do Augmented Reality; now we have to go into AR.

Tech leaders can’t stand the idea that their competitors would be in a space without them. And since they have huge access to capital, there’s really nothing stopping them from that expansion.

Big tech companies are known for having amazing perks, like the cafeteria at Google. At the same time, I’m wondering if this survival-versus-extinction theme from the quote creates an anxious work environment.

It’s probably true, though I would add that a lot of the people that go to work at these companies are Type A and driven to begin with. You could make parallels to banking, for example. If you surround yourself with high-achieving and ambitious people, you’re going to end up with that kind of culture. So, I don’t necessarily blame the companies for that.

Do you think the survival-versus-extinction theme from this quote influences the politics of Silicon Valley?

I’m sure that if you took a private poll on whether there were any Malthusians in the Valley, you’d find some! [laughs]

On a more serious note: If you look at donations to political parties, Silicon Valley leans very much to the left. But this often coexists with a strong strain of libertarianism that wants no government involvement at all, which is something people outside the Valley find difficult to square. There are tech leaders who are very pro-LGBTQ rights, but they do not want the government anywhere near their money or how they run their company. That’s not how the popular media has traditionally bucketed different sets of beliefs. It has taken the popular media a long time to realize how progressive social views in the Valley can be married with a hard-capitalist edge.

Carl Sagan is well-known for writing about life on other planets. Elon Musk and others in Silicon Valley are trying to make this a reality. In your novel, you write about a bunch of computer engineers colonizing the moon. Is it a common belief at these large tech companies that humans need to start colonizing space?

Particularly with the current state of the planet, I’m sure plenty of these Silicon Valley types would love to travel elsewhere! A bit of background: I wrote the first draft of my book in 2012. Back then I wasn’t aware of significant Silicon Valley capital being invested in extra-planetary efforts. I was trying to pick something far-fetched but plausible. But sure enough, by the time my book was bought and published, some parts of the plot had actually come true.

I’m curious about your personal view. Do you agree with the premise of the quote? Especially as it relates to the industry.

I think I agree with the quote the way Carl Sagan intended it. You could, of course, take a very dark view of the quote. If you believe that very few companies will survive 20 years, and you must be exceptional to defy the odds, then you might do whatever it takes… That view of the quote can drive people to do unethical things, and I think we have seen that happen with some companies.

On the other hand, you can take a more positive reading of the quote, which is to say: Relax. Because we’re all going to end up being fossils. Even if you’re the rich guy who owns a professional sports team today, the stadium won’t have your name on it 20 years from now. So why even try?

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Further reading

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