Mini-Episode: Grow Up, America, with Kara Swisher

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Andy connects with journalist and Recode co-founder Kara Swisher for one reason but it goes in a very different direction. She schools the spoiled brats in the country in a way you may just want to keep replaying.

Show Notes 

Keep up with Andy on Twitter @ASlavitt and Instagram @andyslavitt, and find Kara Swisher on Twitter and Instagram @KaraSwisher.

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[00:44] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble. This is Andy Slavitt. We have a great mini-episode for you today. Kara Swisher, if you don’t know her, she was the founder of Recode, which is a premier digital, tech, business and political observation publication, it’s now part of Vox. She is the co-host of an award winning podcast herself called Pivot. She’s an editor-at-large at New York magazine. The reason we’re having her on is because technology has such an interesting interplay with so much of what is happening in response to the coronavirus. How do the tech companies fit in? What’s going to happen in the next period of time if we are not able to get back to our normal lives quite as much as we hope? Can technology play a role? She is incredibly thoughtful. And I want you to stay for the end because her last five minutes are some of the best five minutes on our society and our behavior that I think I’ve heard in a long, long time. And I think it’s great. So let’s bring up Kara. 


[02:07] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for coming on. So you’ve become a quite a respected voice, if not one of the most important voices, in helping us understand the interplay of technology and politics. So it’s great to have you join us. And I can’t think of anybody less trusted than the federal government, except maybe the big tech companies. So now we have a pandemic where trust becomes the essential ingredient to public health. Help us understand your big overview shot of how the tech companies, trust, government are playing a role here. 


[02:46] Kara Swisher: Well, government should always be trusted when it comes to a pandemic. This is an unusual situation where the government has been incompetent to the task and almost willingly not leading this. It’s not been led on a federal level. They’re now, of course, starting to scramble the jets because they realize their polls are off, and everything is done with a political calculation in mind or a stock market calculation versus public health, which is I think most governments, whatever side, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, tend to rise to occasions when there’s wars, when there’s pandemics. This one has not. And so trust in the government is something that, you know, you would normally have, and you’d normally assume the government would be on it on testing, on accurate information. And they’ve done things like leave it to states, some states of which have done a good job and other states have not. I’m thinking about Florida right now where the person who was in charge of the data was fired for wanting to do correct data. So she started her own service. So it’s a really unusual situation when it comes to government and pandemics. I think most people tend to believe the government when it comes to issues like this, maybe not a lot of other things, but, you know, it’s been many years of the sort of wearing down the role of the federal government under the Trump administration. So, you know, we can’t turn to them. 


[04:04] Kara Swisher: And so then you have tech companies who aren’t really responsible for public health. The same way they’re not responsible for public dialog because they don’t because they have a profit motive. And so they’re private companies and they’re owned by very wealthy people. And so there’s a lot that tech can do to help. But it always also has to be in cooperation with government and government entities to do so. You can’t really have tech take over here. And then you have, at the same time, a time when tech is under much more scrutiny than ever before because of things it’s done before the pandemic. And so in an area where they can help us, like the pandemic, they should be able to rise to the occasion. And they certainly can. In certain ways they have and other ways they haven’t. They’ve been better on the bad information for sure. But they haven’t been as — it’s not their role to be the leaders here, so it’s unfair to make them that way.


[04:59] Andy Slavitt: Yes. We have this void that you speak of. And whether we like it or not, or for better or worse, we’ve got a large part of the market cap of the stock market in these sort of handful of very powerful companies. And, you know, part and parcel with that — of course, you can have an argument about what responsibility they have — but they have a lot of cash, access, resources and means. Like, for example, when I couldn’t get something early on in this pandemic happening from the government, I called Google because I felt like they could be helpful. Do you see that happening? Do you see them playing these kinds of roles? What kind of responsibility do they have here? 


[05:44] Kara Swisher: They don’t have any. They don’t have any responsibility in this case. This is a role for government. You can’t give responsibility to billionaire-owned companies that have a profit incentive to do things. Now, they might do it because they want to. And these companies, as powerful as nation-states, some worth as much as nations. I think Amazon’s worth as much as Norway. But, you know, they have a responsibility as corporate citizens, as most corporate citizens do, as all companies do. But they certainly shouldn’t be relied on to be anything but what they are, which is in their own interests and their shareholders’ interests. And so I think it’s a mistake to rely on them to do anything except what’s going to be good for them. And maybe we’ll get a nice thing out of them, like a bunch of money. And individually, I think it’s great if they contribute, like Reed Hastings giving $120 million dollars to historically black colleges and universities. That’s great. I think some of these donations are great. But again, that should be aside from what these companies can do to help. 


[06:46] Kara Swisher: But again, they have to work in concert with publicly elected officials because none of these companies were publicly elected. And whether you like your elected officials or not, that’s something you have to deal with at the ballot box, nobody at these tech companies is accountable for anything, nor should they be, they’re private companies. I think in the past there have been public-private partnerships created that have been very effective. In this particular administration, they’ve been mostly window dressing. Do you remember that testing PR thing? It didn’t happen. They dragged the poor CEO of Walmart up there without a mask, shaking hands all over the place, which is just like all the messages you don’t want to send. So real public-private partnerships can be very effective. And once they’re brought into place — and even the Google one, the one about Google creating website, that didn’t even exist. I mean, this is all just smoke mirrors. So we need to begin with a federal government that really does understand its responsibility to the people that elected us, which is why we pay taxes, presumably.


[07:47] Andy Slavitt: Right. And the states can become better partners. But, you know, you’re talking about should, and I think we have a void. And so the question is, I think to some extent, how do people fill those voids? You know, I agree with you. I don’t think the public looks to the tech companies, but I do think we unknowingly rely on them and use them every day for a lot of these things. 


[08:09] Kara Swisher: Well, I rely on my grocery store, but I don’t expect it to solve a pandemic. Like, I’m sorry. I don’t expect American Express to solve a pandemic. I like my American Express card. Think of it that way. It’s not their job. 


[08:21] Andy Slavitt: Yeah, I don’t. I don’t think anybody has that expectation of the tech companies. But I think the tech companies, at least the ones that I’ve talked to, sit around and say, OK, we don’t have great reputations with American public for a variety of reasons. We have a lot of assets. And I think they’re problem solvers, too. I mean, probably more than anything, these people see problems and say, you know, we’re good at solving problems. We’ve got reach. We’ve got access. What can we do here? And some of them have the luxury of saying we can do some things and figure out the profit later. If they’re, you know, hitting us in the right direction. 


[08:55] Kara Swisher: Well, are they good at solving problems? I don’t think they’re that good at solving problems. Some of them are. They’re good at solving their problems. You know, you can look at what’s happened with social media. The minute they have a problem, they say it’s really hard. Otherwise, they’re very, very smart. When it gets to the hard part, which is figuring out things like how to conduct social media or, you know, this Robin Hood app where a kid committed suicide, you know, they’re real good at raising money and the real good about doing other things. But when there’s an actual problem, it’s really hard. And of course it is because these are massive societal problems. And I think the issue we have with a lot of these companies is they don’t understand the consequences of their actions. And this has been going on, you know — like the videos that that were used in the murders in New Zealand. They should have anticipated that. And they didn’t. They just put out the product. That’s what Silicon Valley does. It’s good at releasing products without thinking about the repercussions of those products, or the possible consequences, because that’s a bummer, to think about negative consequences. 


[12:45] Andy Slavitt: We’re seeing a lot of start-ups also in this space, kind of healthcare tech startups that are looking at how they build a business in meeting some of the needs that aren’t met, whether it’s, you know, surveillance intelligence around, you know, digital fever apps or whether it’s contact tracing. Do you think there’s promising areas where some of the newer ideas can be filled that way? 


[13:10] Kara Swisher: Some of it. You know, there’s some interesting stuff around say these the things you wear, the watches or the rings you wear with, you know, collecting information, as long as it’s done with great privacy in terms of anonymizing the information. Contact tracing, by the way, has gone on for decades, like for decades and decades and decades. And, you know, paperworks just flying in contact tracing. I think there are ways to do it faster. There’s no, like, silver bullet that technology brings to the situation. I think it’s just that it could be done faster and people could run it. Although contact tracing is tough. You can see some recent stories that people don’t want to be contacted. A lot of it about contact tracing is really good people who are doing it, who are actually getting there, and getting the information properly. So it could help with technology, sure. But it doesn’t it doesn’t mean that technology is the only solution here. Some of the other things, there’s some self-reporting apps. How do you feel? There’s some ways to look at what questions people are asking on Twitter. There’s a really interesting project going on around climate change where they were studying when people were asking, hey, the weather’s too hot today. There’s all kinds of ways to do it. It’s just not a silver bullet for actual on-the-ground data collection that needs to be done so that we get the right data out. I think one of the problems is relying too much on technology will make us feel that we know what’s going on when we actually don’t necessarily. And we have to combine it with human intervention and human activity that will balance it out for sure. Nothing wrong with it, it probably helps. 


[14:42] Andy Slavitt: I completely agree with you. If you think about a kind of a prolonged period of time where we’re just not able to do certain things, for example, attend large events in stadiums, travel, to a certain extent, or maybe some of us will be able to travel and some of us it’ll be too much of a risk to travel. Going to church is a big part of a lot of people’s lives, but they’re being told it’s risky if they’re older or what have you. And I know that like in an average day, I will get calls from like a Broadway theater trying to figure out whether they can come back, and spent some time talking to sports leagues about what they need to do. Are these kinds of problems the kinds of things that tech can be good at solving? 


[15:27] Kara Swisher: Well, yeah, maybe, they could be good. A lot of stuff we’ve already sort of gone down that highway. It’s just accelerating trends that were already happening. Like think about the trends. You were already sort of using Amazon. Now you’re really using Amazon. You were already sort of using Zoom meetings and Slack and things like that. Now you’re really using them. You can’t replace some analog things, like a concert, but you could have a version of it. It’s just not the same thing. Same thing  with — well, you really can’t do a bar. People have been doing Zoom cocktails, but it’s not the same thing. And so the question is, if you look at every business, what does it accelerate where the businesses were going to be 10 years from now? I think that’s what we’re doing. We’re like I always thought that retail was in real trouble. And I think many people were seeing the writing on the wall. It’s just now really, really in trouble. And that was happening anyway. And so what’s really interesting to me is the education stuff, which is really bad. I mean, if anyone who has a kid knows, them going to school online has been a terrible experience. And is it because the technology is bad? Yes. Is it because they don’t know how to quite engage kids? Yes. And so there’s an opportunity there to create a good experience. Although I think it’s really hard to get in the way of real teaching in person to make it as good as that. But, you know, so I think just what you’re seeing is an acceleration of trends that were already occurring, becoming more accelerated with COVID. 


[16:51] Kara Swisher: I don’t think people are not not going to travel someday. They will. When this is over, there will be a vaccine and people will travel again. People will go to bars again. People will go to restaurants. But the businesses are going to be affected in really important ways. How does that evolve, what happens to airlines? What happens to restaurants? What happens in the period and the timeframe? And so you have to either decide, is a company going to be affected overall in a real structural way, or are they going to be affected in a cyclical way? It’s a very long and ugly cycle, but it’s still a cycle. And that’s what you have to sort out. 


[17:24] Andy Slavitt: One value proposition that I think most companies are going to have to add to their existing value propositions is making people feel safe. So you come work in my call center, I make sure that you feel safe. You come to my clinic, you fly on my airplane. And some of it is going to be important perceptions and a lot of it is going to be real reality. So if I go to a restaurant am I more likely to go to one where, as I walk in it reads my temperature and asks me three simple questions, or am I more likely to go to the restaurant that doesn’t. But those are the kinds of things that companies that have, I would say, a workflow mentality, kind of jobs problem solving mentality, which Silicon Valley probably can play a role.


[18:15] Kara Swisher: Many, many people need to be physically at a job. And so that’s the people we have to protect. A lot of stuff cannot be replicated anywhere but in a physical space. And so there’s been really creative stuff around. I’ve seen a lot of stuff just in supermarkets and offices and restaurants. D.C. is now opening up and they have some very good ideas of what to do. And it’s certainly, you know, I don’t think you have to be a big company to understand. I’ve seen so much creativity from all kinds of companies in this idea. And I think it’s just people being very clear that they have to get people — like look at what happened with AMC Theaters. That idiot CEO initially said, I don’t wanna get political. And then he’s like, oh, we talked to doctors.. I mean, that was an insane remark that he made. There’s nothing political about public health. There isn’t. It has become that, but there isn’t. 


[19:08] Andy Slavitt: Seems like he didn’t quite succeed, did he?


[19:11] Kara Swisher: No. He pulled back because most people said you’re an idiot. You saw a different response from someone like Alamo Drafthouse, which, of course, is a very creative new movie-going experience. They had a very good response to it, like, they had a really smart, creative, innovative response to it. They were going to do separation. They were going to do all these different things, wearing masks. Do you know what I mean? And they weren’t arguing whether their customers were gonna wear them, rather like, you’re wearing them or you’re not watching the movie. You can take them off when you eat, but as long as you’re six feet away from people, then you put them right back on, it’s fine. Or don’t come to our movies, this is the rules of the road. And I think what’s hard is that people are giving into incredibly selfish people. It’s ridiculous. I mean, they look so stupid, like Patrick Henry must be like spinning in his grave. You know, 20 times over or over, dumb people who won’t wear masks. But we’ve got to get back to this idea that we can be innovative in dealing with this, and we can cope with it, and we can also cope with it for a very short amount of time. Even though it feels like a long time, it’s not that long, and it will save lives. And so we have to get that idea of civic duty and civic pride. And I think we’ve lost quite a bit of that. If we had it in the first place. But I think we did. Look at Germany, their smartphone app that helps trace coronavirus infections, it was downloaded 6.5 million times in the first 24 hours. It’s not as much of the population as you need, but it’s a good start. It’s like 10 percent of the population. So you want to have a population that understands that it’s in their economic interests to do this, too. It’s your and your civic interest, your economic interest, your social interest. 


[20:56] Andy Slavitt: In our country, unfortunately, you have to help people understand why it’s in their economic interests. In many other countries, helping people understand what’s good for society is enough. And now I think we have a culture that, as you said, is not just I’m here for my freedom and I distrust government and I distrust think big. But it’s also I want it now, and I want every brand of it I can have now, and that’s what I’m used to having. And so helping someone understand an adjustment, even if it’s a short-term adjustment, requires someone to walk people through it, to empathize, to understand that these are changes that we’ve got to take people through. 


[21:31] Kara Swisher: Yes, absolutely, 100 percent. I mean, I do think that, again, I don’t want to just bang on about tech, but they could do a lot of good things. 


[21:40] Andy Slavitt: What would you like to see them do? 


[21:41] Kara Swisher: I think right now it’s hard because the federal government has not got its act together. So it’s really hard to know. I suppose pick out really good states and work with them and give proof of concept kind of stuff is what I would do if I were them. There’s certain states, Ohio, that are run, you know, bipartisan. Pick like states like Massachusetts, run by a Republican, Ohio, run by a Republican, pick Illinois and California and, you know, some other state, New York, that you can really work with, and make it make a case study of those things. I think they were doing that. But that’s what I would do. If you can’t get good cooperation from the federal government, the federal government politicizes every little thing. And you have a president saying it’s going to go away. You don’t deal with them. You deal with, you know, where it will work. And then the other states will look upon that and eventually, hopefully not commit suicide, not allow their citizens to commit suicide, which is really what those governors are doing.


[24:54] Andy Slavitt: You know, I think one of the questions I just want to close with is a little bit more on a personal reflection front, which is there’s this sort of notion now of coronavirus fatigue. And people feeling like, OK, I’ve been able to do this for so long and I can make some adjustments, but I didn’t really prepare to do this forever. Plus, you know, the things I’ve observed aren’t exactly the way things told me they would be. Paint a little bit of a picture of how you have reacted initially and made adjustments to the pandemic, and then how you feel that changing what you feel ready to take risks on this, I’m ready to let up on that, that sort of thing. 


[25:39] Kara Swisher: I’m not, but I’m not a giant big baby. Look, I want to go out. I want to go to restaurants. I literally want to see Top Gun 2. I really do. Not at AMC Theaters, by the way. But I really do want to do these things. The virus doesn’t care. Doesn’t care that you want to see a movie. The virus just keeps on going. And it doesn’t care how you feel about this thing. It doesn’t care that you’re impatient. It doesn’t care about you. It just wants to keep going. And it will keep going. And so you can make whatever ridiculous justifications you want. It will get you if it wants to. If you put yourself in harm’s way. And you may have a different reaction to the virus than other people, you may do OK. You may not, but you certainly will put other people at risk if you’re not careful. And I think if that doesn’t stop you cold then I don’t know who you are as a person. If you’re not worried about your parents, if you’re not worried about people who have immune deficiencies, if you’re not worried about those who have cancer, there’s something wrong with you. And so I don’t know what to tell you about that. You should seek, you know, religious or psychological help. Go right ahead. 


[26:45] Kara Swisher: But the fact of the matter is you’re not going to get out of it. You can do certain things like go to stores. Yes, I’ve gone to stores. I buy things. I get in and out. You know, we try to minimize the things. It’s not the way we want to live our lives. But it’s the way that will get us back to regularities sooner. But nothing’s really going to happen until they get a vaccine. Let’s be honest. This is only mitigation. And and, of course, they’re getting into mitigation techniques around that. Just like you remember with AIDS, there was a really terrible period where a lot of people were just dying and then they figured out how to treat it. It was eventually called “living with AIDS.” Well, this is living with coronavirus. It doesn’t mean it’s cured. It means we’ve figured out mitigation techniques, how to get the treatment down, what we did wrong when we were treating and that’s part of the discovery thing of medicine, medical people. And I really am in admiration of how quickly they’ve sort of begun to understand what works and doesn’t. And I’m just astonished that they keep doing this, given all the pressures on them. But I think you just have to say to yourself, look, many people are in a position of luck that they can shield themselves from this. They can be online. They can work from home. A lot of people aren’t. And you have to start thinking of those people. 


[27:57] Kara Swisher: We call them essential workers. And Nicole Hannah Jones in a podcast with me called them sacrificial workers. They’re not your sacrificial workers. And so anything to do to make the people in the grocery store, or someone in a gas station, or someone that has to be at a hospital, or someone that has to help the homeless. I think you can take a moment and not have to go to a bar and drink. You don’t have to do that. And I know people are sort of like, I’ll do what I want, but that’s not how society works. It’s how, you know, the very worst chat groups on Reddit work. I can say whatever I want. But you really can’t. You really can’t. And it depends on what kind of person you want to be. So I really want to get out. But I can have self-control because I’m an adult. And so you have to really have to think about that. And it’s the same thing with these tech companies. They’ve got to really start to find out where they aid society and where they don’t help society. And that to me is the tradeoff that you have. 


[28:58] Kara Swisher: I’ll finish with this. You can say it sucks and you can grieve about it. Like I was thinking about my son this weekend, who was graduating high school, it’s not a big deal, it’s a little thing. Missed his high school graduation. He had to do a drive through. He was so sunny and happy during it, he just had the attitude, OK, this is what it is. He took it for the best he could. And then this weekend, he did a little prom for him and his girlfriend, put up some lights and crepe paper. They did a prom. This is a small thing in a long life that he doesn’t get to go to his senior prom. Oh, well, he’s a lucky kid otherwise, white kid in America with some money. Things are not going to go badly for my son, most likely. But this was a small thing that he just did. And he didn’t whine about it. And he didn’t stamp his feet and he didn’t feel the need to suck the oxygen out of other people’s lives to do it. He just dealt with it. He made the best of it. He had his adorable prom. And I think a lot of people can do that. What can they do to make it better for someone else? What can they do to make it better for themselves? And I think people can if they try real hard, they can figure out a way to be a better citizen. And I think that’s really the lesson here, is how can we be better citizens to each other, not just offline, but online? How can we be nicer to people online? How can we facilitate actual change and not just hashtag-ivism. That’s what people should be thinking about right now. This is an opportunity to really think about what you can do to impact the world in substantive ways. Thank you. That’s my little TED talk. 


[30:29] Andy Slavitt: I think everybody should listen to those last five minutes. I’m going to go back and listen to them, because I think those are things that have needed to be said, quite frankly. And you said them with the kind of authority that they need to be said with. 


[30:43] Kara Swisher: Well, I learned from my son. My son teaches me a lot of things. 


[30:48] Andy Slavitt: Well, good for you for listening to your son. I do the same with mine. I try to. Well, thanks so much, Kara, for joining us. And it was really, really, really nice to hear you. 


[30:9] Kara Swisher: Thanks a lot. 


[31:02] Andy Slavitt: Oh, my God. That was about the best five minutes of schooling I think I remember hearing for a long time. I want to play that over and over again. Kara is amazing. She’s a hero. So awesome having her on. And I’m so glad we got to that last bit. So we got another episode coming up on Wednesday, as we usually do. This time, it’s Larry Brilliant, the scientist who cured smallpox. who is going to tell us everything we know, everything we need to know and everything we don’t know about coronavirus. He is awesome. And I think you’re going to love that show. We bumped him from last week in order to run Bernie Sanders. But I think you’re gonna be thrilled with this one. Have a great day.


[31:52] Andy Slavitt: Thanks for listening In the Bubble. Hope you rate us highly. We are a production of Lemonada Media. Kryssy Pease is our producer. Ivan Kuraev is our editor. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs executive produce the show and run our lives. My son Zach Slavitt is my cool co-host and onsite producer. Music is by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill. You can find out more about our show on social media @LemonadaMedia. And you can find me at a @ASlavitt on Twitter or @AndySlavitt on Instagram. If you liked what you heard today, please, please, please tell your friends to come listen, but from a distance. And for now, stay safe. Share some joy. And we will get through this together. And #StayHome.


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