Bloomberg’s tech startup wasn’t typical. It was always based in New York City, for one thing. The time was the early 1980s, and Bloomberg was 39, a general partner at the prominent Wall Street firm Salomon Brothers. He had been a successful trader who was then assigned to supervise the firm’s computer services.
One day, out of the blue, Salomon’s executive committee agreed to a lucrative merger offer. Bloomberg and the other partners immediately received enormous checks—his was for $10 million. Unlike most of the other partners, Bloomberg was told not to come back to the merged company.
With a fat wallet but no job, Bloomberg decided to start a tech company that would give traders the ability to use computers for the analysis that separates smart trades from foolish ones. He had a financial windfall to build a team and a business plan; the idea was customized terminals with access to financial data and tools to compare investments and track changes in price over time, among other things.
Fair to say, success hinged on landing an important first client, Merrill Lynch, and keeping expenses low by having the small team do much of the work themselves. “Never before or since did I have as much fun and as challenging a time,” he recalled in his 1997 book.
In particular, Bloomberg relates how he and his team would install the terminals themselves for early corporate clients. “Amid old McDonald’s hamburger wrappers and mouse droppings, we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffing the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture—all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books,” he writes. “It’s amazing we didn’t burn down some office or electrocute ourselves. At the end of the day, ten or eleven o’clock at night, we’d turn it on and watch what we’d created come alive. It was so satisfying.”
In this joyful, who-gives-a-damn description of growing a startup, Bloomberg appears downright Zuckerbergian. What he was doing was important; the fire code and union regulations were tedious, inefficient, and an obstacle to progress. Rules are for the ordinary, not the extraordinary. Still, it is jarring to read this cavalier approach to the law from a politician who has championed “stop and frisk” policing, with its presumption of guilt that fell so heavily on young black men.
A few others have pointed out this inconsistent attitude toward rule-breaking, and the message must have gotten through to Bloomberg. For the 2019 reissue of Bloomberg by Bloomberg, that passage has been changed. He has deleted the phrase, “violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books” and replaced it with the more innocuous, “all without permission, without giving any thought to any fire law or building code.” In the process, he has deleted his offense against organized labor, while changing something willful—violating fire laws and the like—into something offhand. “Your honor, I didn’t really give the question any thought.”
Not to overanalyze an editing choice, but this question of intent is really central to how we approach Silicon Valley and our leaders more generally. There was something elusive, too, about that much-discussed phrase emanating from Facebook, “Move fast and break things.” Was Facebook breaking things on purpose, choosing that thing over there to disassemble—say, offline friendships or democracy—in order to grow its business? Or was it just saying, don’t pay any mind to what you might be breaking? Things are going to get damaged, and that’s OK.
Perhaps it is a sign of how dire the political system seems that so many are open to putting their hopes in a billionaire savior to go up against the (perhaps) billionaire president. You might think that, given his background, Bloomberg would be uniquely able to uncurl Silicon Valley’s grip on our lives—our shopping, our conversations, our elections. He, if anyone, should be beyond their reach. Of course, he only appears to have that freedom because he made billions of dollars in the very same way.
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