one more thought on TNR

It happens every week in Silicon Valley: a tiny startup working on some interesting technology is “acquired” by one of the bigger fish in the pond, Google or Apple or Facebook. Maybe the owners are hired; maybe it’s just the proprietary tech the big fish wants. If you happen to be a user of the startup’s product, and you’re lucky, the service or device you were using sticks around, just under a new and fancier brand name. But you probably won’t be lucky. Probably that service gets shuttered, or that device goes un-updated and un-supported, and the cool thing you got in on the ground floor of disappears forever.

As I say, it happens every week in Silicon Valley. It also just happened to a 100-year-old magazine. Why did Chris Hughes buy The New Republic if he were just going to turn it into another Buzzfeed? Why not just start something new, from scratch? Apparently he was just buying a domain name and a (pretty shopworn and moldy) brand, and was happy to throw the rest away, per Valley S.O.P.

In a staff meeting in October, the Daily Beast reports,

Presiding at the head of a long conference table, [new TNR CEO Guy] Vidra didn’t acknowledge Foer, who was seated beside him; he didn’t look at him; he didn’t mention him. Instead, as he started to speak, Vidra confided that he liked to stand up and move around the room as he communicated his thoughts, as though he were Steve Jobs unveiling the latest technological marvel. Oddly, he stood up, but he didn’t move.

Vidra spoke in what one witness described as “Silicon Valley jargon,” and, using a tech cliché, declared: “We’re going to break shit”–a vow hardly calculated to ingratiate himself with TNR’s veteran belle-lettrists, who feared that he was threatening the magazine’s destruction. Only a few interns dared to ask questions, which Vidra repeatedly dodged. “The senior people were too shocked to speak,” said a witness. “Jaws were dropping to the floor.” Through it all, Chris Hughes nodded approvingly, an unnerving grin on his face.

When I read this something clicked in my mind. It took me a few minutes to figure out what that click meant, but then it came to me: the “technical boy” in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. He’s one of the New Gods, not one of the worn-out, dilapidated deities of the Old World. When someone says a “mighty battle” between the Old and New Gods is coming, he sneers, “It’s not going to be a battle…. All we’re facing here is a fucking paradigm shift. It’s a shakedown. Modalities like battle are so fucking Lao Tzu.” Guy Vidra couldn’t have said it nearly so well. But it’s his thought, and Chris Hughes’s, in a nutshell.

There were some real problems with The New Republic, and it’s quite possible that without an infusion of technocratic cash it would have died before long. But at least it would have died something like a natural death, not like this. The old gods may be bitter and senile, but let’s let them die in their own beds rather than in a shiny new organ-harvesting facility.

At one point late in American Gods, Shadow, the protagonist, pauses to reflect on his preference for the old gods over the new. “It occurred to him that the reason he liked Wednesday and Mr. Nancy and the rest of them better than their opposition was pretty straightforward: they might be dirty, and cheap, and their food might taste like shit, but at least they didn’t speak in clichés.”