David Heinemeier Hansson on Big Tech, Monolopy, and Ethical Advertising
My conversation with DHH
David Heinemeier Hansson (@DHH) is a fascinating guy – he created Ruby on Rails, the web framework for apps like Shopify, Airbnb, Square, and Kickstarter, he's co-founder and CTO at Basecamp, he's the New York Times best-selling co-author of books like Rework and It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work, and he's a Le Mans class-winning racing driver. He’s also quite the polarizing figure. He frequently rants against venture capital, “hustle” culture, big tech, and just about everything that makes Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley.
For obvious reasons, I was eager to talk to him, and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to connect. I think the work he is doing in speaking out about unethical business practices – and paving a new way – is critical.
Cole Ryan: You recently shared an article in the Guardian about how “advertising breaks your spirit.” It certainly can't be healthy to be marketed to everywhere we go – walking down the street, riding the bus, surfing the internet, etc. How can an organization grow its brand without participating in advertising as we know it?
DHH: We've barely done any traditional brand marketing for twenty years, yet we have a pretty good brand in Basecamp, wouldn't you say? We built that brand by creating a great product, treating customers fairly, sticking to our word, sharing our learnings from along the way, taking a critical stance on our industry, giving away much of our software for free, open-sourcing our policies and handbooks and whatever else we can find. There are endless ways to build a brand that does not go through advertisement.
“We built that brand by creating a great product, treating customers fairly, sticking to our word, sharing our learnings from along the way, taking a critical stance on our industry, giving away much of our software for free, open-sourcing our policies and handbooks and whatever else we can find.”
Cole: In your opinion, what are some brands that have taken a responsible, sustainable approach to marketing?
DHH: I'm not sure? It's so hard to actually vet a brand strategy these days, particularly since the nature of targeted advertisement is such that we all see something different. Besides, I try to shield myself from as much advertisement as possible, as I really do find most of it deeply corrosive to the soul. That said, I still can appreciate a wonderful ad. The last one that tugged at my heart was one from Volvo, promoting their safety features, involving a kid going to school for the first time. It was beautiful, dramatic, and utterly authentic because Volvo has spent their entire existence focused on safety. I think it was called Moments. (Here's the commercial).
Cole: You’ve said that “every targeted ad is a privacy violation and constitutes the sale of personal data.” Given the personal data theft that Facebook and Google conduct in order to sell ads, it seems contradictory for brands selling ethical products or services to advertise using inherently unethical means. Do you agree? If so, what's the alternative?
DHH: I absolutely agree. Which is why even though we've actually been looking at ways to do more traditional advertisement, we've sworn off using targeted ads. It's such a nasty regime, and we want nothing to do with it. You can opt-out (of running targeted ads), but it's hard. But hey, maybe doing so is exactly one of those steps you should be taking to cement your brand as one that gives a shit about the state of the world 😄.
“Maybe (opting-out of running targeted ads) is exactly one of those steps you should be taking to cement your brand as one that gives a shit about the state of the world.”
Cole: You're very critical of Silicon Valley and the culture of endless “hustle,” aimless scaling, and unethical business practices that Silicon Valley is now known for. Do you think SV can change and become a positive force, or is it beyond redemption? It is too far gone?
DHH: I mean, everything is possible, but it seems extremely unlikely. The cultural groves, the value systems – they're just so ingrained. The money reinforces them. I think it's far more likely that a better SV is going to happen from somewhere far away from SV.
Cole: As you’ve pointed out, the big tech giants are monopolies, and the average consumer is no match for them. You ended your opening statement in your recent testimony before the House Antitrust Subcommittee by saying, “help us congress, you're our only hope.” It does feel like that's true. Short of advocacy and political organizing, what can leaders do to hold companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook accountable? Do we boycott them? Create and support alternatives?
DHH: Individual action, like boycotts, is a great way to start a conversation about power. But it's like a protest, or even a riot. We are stomping, screaming, yelling. Trying to get attention to just how screwed up the situation is. That's all good, but it's generally inconsequential until the attention is turned into collective action. So please, do all the individual work. But don't for a second think it's sufficient. You're creating a path, but until we drive regulations and laws through it, it'll just be a niche.
Cole: It seems like most people, particularly in the tech industry, are well aware of the corrupt and unethical behavior of many of the big tech companies. Why don’t they take action? Is it greed? Fear?
DHH: Many people in tech are compromised because the status quo rewards them very well. So even if their morals are squeaking, their lives run on a default that assumes no change. They'd ideally like to see change, but practically not really. This is why the hope is with the proletariat, as Winston would say. Change is not going to come from within.
“This is why the hope is with the proletariat, as Winston would say. Change is not going to come from within (the tech world).”
Cole: Speaking out against these powerful institutions surely has consequences. Have you lost any relationships or clients due to being outspoken?
DHH: Part of the reason why I speak out with such force is because my situation is so unique. I work in tech, I know all the dark corners, yet I'm not dependent on the broader ecosystem in a direct, personal way. I'm not part of some tech clique. My friends are not startup founders or investors. Through Basecamp, I've become independently wealthy. So what exactly are you going to do to harm me? (Maybe I shouldn't temp faith here, but that's how it feels.) So I speak for all those who might not have such vast privilege to piss off powerful people without fear or regret.
Cole: Agreed. Being independently wealthy gives you the freedom to condemn certain practices that you might not be as quick to condemn if your paycheck was dependent on upholding them (or at least staying silent about them). Like you said earlier, the “money reinforces” the value systems in SV. So a lot of this seems like a greed problem. If so, what do you think is a better measurement of success? “Successful” is often used synonymously with “wealthy” in terms of career, and I think that’s misguided and a big part of the problem. How would a healthier society and culture quantify “success” when it comes to their work?
DHH: Yes, equating wealth with success is one of the key fallacies of modern society, particularly in the United States. But it's obviously also incredibly narrow. There are plenty of miserable rich people. Or rich people who've gotten their gains by exploiting others. There's a myriad of ways in which you can be wealthy and yet, in my eyes, still a total fucking loser.
So what's the alternative? Well, that's one of those grand, eternal questions that philosophers have been trying to answer since the first human started pondering the meaning of life. So I won't pretend to be able to give a quick, glib answer here. Instead, let me give some pointers. The first pointer would be stoicism, which is a philosophy that's specifically aimed at answering questions about how to live the good life. How to be a successful human. One free from the misery made in our own minds, and one aspiring to the eternal virtues (truth, justice, etc).
The second pointer would be the writings of Erich Fromm. Particularly his dichotomy of To Have Or To Be, of which he wrote a whole book by the same title, but is also a theme that has featured richly in all of his works. Basically defining success as in who you are rather than what you have. Are you a person of honor, integrity, congruence? All these high-minded ideals sound almost out of sync with our world today, because the ideology of the market has conquered all. Everyone sees themselves as a commodity to be marketed. The whole Me Brand. Influencers. Ugh.
In fact, I think we largely do have to reach back into the ages for writing on what constitutes success, because that market ideology today is so pervasive that it's almost impossible to catch a glimpse of the world outside its bubble. But what a treat of humanity when we do!
“The ideology of the market has conquered all. Everyone sees themselves as a commodity to be marketed.”
This is a republished interview from February 2020.