Biz Stone, Capitalism And Twitter – OpEd


Mediocre but Ambitious – this is the management credo of the MBA. The credo got a boost with the emergence of such social technologies as Twitter. Chatter can always be a substitute for thinking – noise over substance, garrulousness over contemplative reticence. As is so often the case, creators of these technologies did not require an MBA, let alone any degree, drop out rates being high amongst the talented geek corps. It is therefore the richest of ironies that such beings are brought to “teach” MBA students and business recruits about their “experiences”.

Such a person was Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone (the other being Evan Williams), who still looks and channels juvenile enthusiasm on stage at the ball room in the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco. “I want to go to the Tonga Room.” The organization responsible for getting Stone to do this is Hult International Business School, an entity desperate to inform everyone else, most notably the converted, about its global prowess and attractiveness to venture capital wetdreamers. “We produce trilingual graduates,” goes the company’s mantra, though presumably, they all speak one language – that of the MBA.

The “experience” is a tapestry of inane reflections that might have a conscious purpose: reassurance, approachability, but importantly, mortality. It would be far better to simply patch them together as Stone’s 10 steps to worldly success, the guide book on how to survive and thrive in the information economy. Or maybe this might simply be a way of not saying anything at all – the co-founder of Twitter drones in a self-absorbed manner befitting the narcissistic nerd, but one is not any the wiser as to what propelled him.

With, perhaps, a few exceptions. One was Stone’s boyhood interest in Wings of Desire (1987), a Franco-German film directed by Wim Wenders featuring unconventional, invisible angels who watch over the citizens of Berlin. Human beings are the subject of their study, and while they can influence their lives, interaction is impossible. They can neither feel, nor taste. But the mortal subject enchants one angel – Damiel (Bruno Ganz) who falls for a high-wire artist by the name of Marion (Solveig Dommartin). To taste life, to feel pain, to endure it, to divvy it up between subjects, to renounce immortality.

The account by Stone is promising at this point, but it fades into a story about playing Boy Scouts before a large image of American Indians absorbed in La Crosse. In this, Stone is traditional, pursuing those good American traditions of revering the peoples one exterminates. The indigenous dead make fabulous icons. It is not the lack of political correctness as buffoonery that is troubling, but the lack of insight that galls. This should not matter, because – and here is one of the evening’s first mind numbing clichés: “Opportunity can be manufactured.” Others follow at intervals: “Creativity is a renewable resource.”

The business school address is always anecdotal. But more to the point, it is tediously anecdotal. “I pulled a muscle changing a diaper.” This is to be understood – as Stone’s boy is a “bruiser”. This is the perfect segue to discussing an African child (when in need of moral nourishment, always pick a physically under-nourished being from the Dark Continent), who needed anti viral drugs. Biz to the rescue, Twitter’s co-founder as corporate saint. More moral padding is offered: “People are attracted to doing good.”

Twitter is not a divine instrument of salvation, though it might have been thought at a certain point in time that the phone, the telegraph and methods of communication could do something extraordinary. It is, as Stone himself noted from a critic, the Seinfeld of the internet, about nothing. It is useless, but then again, so is eating ice cream.

Even as these observations take place, Twitter’s triumph is being extolled and exerted with an almost sinister prevalence. Two large screens are operating on either side of Stone in the ballroom. The tweet ‘conversation’ is taking place even as the Question and Answer session is in full force, something that actually disrupts, rather than fills, the discussion. Inanity is triumphant – one tweet comments on the tie of Stone’s Hult interlocutor. Other tweets simply repeat Stone’s words of wisdom. Critical analysis is avoided.

There is some room for admiring aspects of the Stone resume. He doesn’t insist that users spend “12 hours a day on the platform”. He is keen on re-introducing humanities programs into schools which have abandoned them. What irresponsible governments won’t do, he will. In terms of a moral corporate index, Stone was probably up with the times. As he puts it to his Fairmont audience, “Change is not a triumph of technology, it’s a triumph of humanity.” He wishes for a green, conscientious company atmosphere. Individuals are not merely automata in the market place keen on netting large pay packages – they should be moral agents as well.

For all of this, Stone’s vision is that of an internet that goes beyond information to become a “successful metric of capitalism.” His vision of life is the American rubric: making money, having an impact (“impactful”) and being joyful. It is not a complicated life and only has one danger: inanity.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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