Silicon Valley Is Obsessed With Its Evil Twin, TikTok 

Hello everybody. summer it’s gone but not the heat. People may return to the office not because of employer mandates, but to save on their air conditioning bills.

The Flat View

To learn about an industry’s obsession, attend an event where its leaders speak for three days.

This old saying, which I just made up, was borne out this week at the Code Conference, an annual event (pandemic permitting) hosted by ubiquitous tech journalist and podcast host Kara Swisher. He co-founded the conference with Walt Mossberg, the famous product reviewer. At the event’s premiere in 2003, when the gathering was called D: All Things Digital, the first guest was Steve Jobs, whose presence lent instant credibility. The Apple CEO was a frequent speaker at the conference afterward, including a historic joint interview with rival Bill Gates. Swisher had previously made it clear that this was his last code conference (Mossberg retired several years ago), and to mark the milestone, he organized a panel of those who knew Jobs best: his designer Jony Ive, his successor Tim Cook and his wife Laurene Powell Jobs. After bittersweet memories, Powell Jobs announced that she had started an archive to preserve her husband’s legacy.

Ten years ago, in the first code since Jobs’ death, I wrote that his ghost haunted the conference, as session after session he made posthumous references to the recently departed CEO. In 2022, however, an entirely different topic continued to emerge from the Los Angeles confabulation: TikTok, the blockbuster app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The platform, which offers short user-generated videos magically tailored to their liking, has attracted more than a billion addicted fans, dominated culture and established a giant business. TikTok’s invocations were not of haunting terror, but of impending terror. Each mention should be accompanied by the film’s soundtrack jaws, as its presence at the conference had not been seen, but it was menacing, like the shark in the first half of Spielberg’s classic. (A TikTok executive was originally scheduled to appear, but became ill and was unable to attend.)

The drumbeat started when tech whiz Scott Galloway, in a presentation promoting his upcoming book, called out the Chinese-made app for its addictive qualities and alleged Chinese government funding, calling for the its ban in the US. Minutes later, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Dopfner, almost shaking with rage, amplified Galloway’s call. “TikTok should be banned in all democracies,” he said of the company he described as his main competitor. “Of course it’s a spy tool.” He was referring to the Chinese government’s penchant for collecting data on apps that host servers in its own country. While TikTok claims this doesn’t happen to US users, leaked audio from internal meetings suggests otherwise.

Shortly after Dopfner’s session, Senator Amy Klobuchar made an appearance and indicated she was on the case. “There could be legislation on TikTok,” he said during an interview with Swisher.

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