Author and serial startup founder Arianna Huffington is on a mission to make tech healthy again, whether it’s helping put Uber’s house in order or re-teaching us all (including Elon Musk) healthy sleep habits.
Huffington’s latest project, a National Geographic miniseries called Valley of the Boom that premieres Sunday, traces the remarkable rises and fated falls of three Silicon Valley startups of the boom-era 1990s. Huffington, one of the show’s executive producers, was drawn to the project because of her current work on what she calls ‘the unintended consequences of that era.’
‘It wasn’t really until very recently that we’ve gotten away from the triumphalism that assumed that anything in tech is good for humanity automatically,’ she says.
The six-part series premiered at the Tribeca TV Festival in New York in September, and will air on the National Geographic channel.
Huffington, warm and engaging in conversation, reminisces briefly about the late 1990s, when it seemed a techno-utopia was under construction. When I lament about being blindsided by a modern digital culture filled with trolls, scammers and fake news factories, she’s quick to reassure me.
‘I don’t think many people saw it,’ she says, reiterating that we’ve only recently begun to take tech’s side effects seriously. ‘Whether it’s in terms of privacy or hijacking our attention or making it harder for our children to grow up without being depressed and anxious about their social standing in social media.’
Valley of the Boom, she says, is something of a cautionary tale about three overnight success stories from the beginning of the tech renaissance: Web browser pioneer Netscape, early social network TheGlobe.com and video-streaming startup Pixelon. All three were undone nearly as rapidly as they rose: Netscape, by a lost battle with Microsoft; TheGlobe.com, by failing to plan for the long term; and Pixelon, by producing little more than hype.
Huffington says she’s tried to put lessons from that era into practice at Uber, where she’s served on the board since 2016. The ride-sharing company is undergoing an internal overhaul after a string of scandals and lawsuits, involving everything from sexual harassment to fatal self-driving-car accidents. Over the past few years the company has seen the exit of founder Travis Kalanick as CEO, the resignation of board member David Bonderman, and the firing of at least 20 employees following an internal investigation into company culture.
‘The lesson there is that a company’s culture is also like its immune system,’ Huffington says. ‘Uber is a spectacular hyper-growth story — unprecedented — but also what we see is the importance of culture. The importance of not just worshipping on the altar of hyper-growth, but making sure that the culture is rich (and) sustainable.’
For those who just live in this world tech swallowed, Huffington seems to be making it her mission to keep tech from consuming us. Her book The Sleep Revolution sings the praises of sufficient, quality slumber as part of her recipe for success. In the early days of the Huffington Post, she collapsed from extreme sleep deprivation and broke her cheekbone. It was a rude awakening that helped inspire her current work on sleep and wellness, she says. Now she says our focus on technology is keeping us from more than just dreamland.
‘Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.’
This is part of the mission at her wellness startup, Thrive Global. Huffington founded it in 2016 after leaving the Huffington Post to build courses, apps, media and other products that encourage tiny behavioral changes to help create those boundaries. She also tried to drive the point home last month in an open letter to Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, basically encouraging him to sleep more and work less.
‘The science is clear,’ she writes. ‘And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty.’
The overall goal at Thrive is to ‘change the way we show up in our life much more present, creative, recharged and empathetic.’
Huffington believes we are now in a third tech boom. If the first came in the 1990s, the second arrived in the mid-aughts with the rise of Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the social web.
The boom she sees today is more of a postmodern anti-boom ‘where we are kind of recognizing that we need to protect our humanity from the addictive qualities of technology,’ Huffington says.
How exactly this new movement will take shape isn’t clear, but Huffington hopes others will hear her call for more sustainable, healthy relationships with tech.
To understand how we got here, you can check out Valley of the Boom when it premieres Sunday. The series is a mix of dramatic storytelling starring Steve Zahn as disgraced Pixelon founder David Kim Stanley and Bradley Whitford as Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale. It’s interspersed with interviews and documentary-style elements featuring the people who lived it.
But you might want to consider carefully scheduling the series into your busy life rather than staying up late and binge watching it.