Silicon Valley Is Obsessed With Its Evil Twin, TikTok

Hello everyone. Summer is gone, but not the heat. People may not return to the office because of employer mandates, but to save on their air conditioning bills.

The clear view

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

That old saying, which I just made up, was confirmed this week at the Code Conference, an annual event (pandemic permitting) hosted by ubiquitous tech journalist and podcast host Kara Swisher. She co-founded the conference with Walt Mossberg, the celebrated 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 imbued with instant credibility. Apple’s CEO was a frequent speaker at the conference afterwards, including a historic joint interview with his rival Bill Gates. Swisher had previously made it clear that this was her last code conference (Mossberg retired several years ago), and to mark the milestone, 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 was posthumously referenced to the recently deceased CEO. In 2022, however, a completely different topic kept popping up during the conference in Los Angeles: TikTok, the hugely successful app from the Chinese company ByteDance. Delivering short user-generated videos magically tailored to what the user likes, the platform has attracted more than a billion addicted fans, dominated the culture and created a giant company. TikTok’s invocations were not those of a terrifying, but of an impending terror. Every entry should have been accompanied by the soundtrack of the movie jaws, because his presence at the conference was unseen but heartbreakingly menacing, like the shark in the first half of the Spielberg classic. (A TikTok executive was originally scheduled to appear, but fell ill and was unable to attend.)

The drumbeat kicked off when tech gadfly Scott Galloway, in a presentation boosting his forthcoming book, called out the made-in-China app for its addictive properties and its alleged funding from the Chinese government — and called for a ban in the US Minutes later, Mathias Dopfner, CEO of Axel Springer, almost trembling with rage, reinforced Galloway’s call. “TikTok should be banned in every democracy,” he said of the company he defined as his biggest competitor. “It is, of course, an espionage tool.” He was referring to the Chinese government’s predilection for collecting data about apps that host servers in its own country. While TikTok claims this isn’t happening to US users, leaked audio from internal meetings shows otherwise.

Not long after Dopfner’s hearing, Senator Amy Klobuchar appeared and indicated that she was on the case. “There could be legislation on TikTok,” she said during an interview with Swisher.