Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still on his listening tour/presidential campaign test run and he's been very busy the last few days. Just moments ago he showed up in Omaha to visit the Pride Festival. But Friday's late-day stop to speak with truckers in Iowa has to be one of the most illuminating moments from this odd circus.
Facebook founder and domestic travel enthusiast Mark Zuckerberg pretended to be a politician at his Harvard commencement address on Thursday afternoon. Not many people showed up, probably because it was cold and rainy and generally miserable outside. Not even Facebook can control the weather.
Zuckerberg is about as far from a man of the people as a person can get. Born in the New York City metropolitan area, he's the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist, he attended boarding school in high school, and dropped out of Harvard when he realised his privilege had taken him as far as it needed to go. Now that the multi-billionaire runs a service that effects over a billion people's lives, it makes sense for him to want to learn how humans live.
Getting more experience on the ground is probably a good thing, but there's always been something weird about the trip. The choice of destinations and the topics of conversation tend to lean closer to a political campaign than an attempt to understand customers. Maybe, that's just because Facebook is all about taking over people's lives.
In his eyes, maybe the more he knows about those lives, the better. In the last few days, he's visited a Chicago school, had dinner with Somali refugees in Minneapolis, hit up a hockey practice in Minnetonka, and stopped for ice cream in Wilton, Iowa.
Every place he visits he tends to write up some reflections on the people he met and glibly relate some information about a subject of interest in the region. So of course, when Zuck rolled up to "The World's Largest Truckstop," in Iowa, automated driving was on his mind. First, he had to tell us what a truck stop actually is:
It's like a small city where truckers on long trips can take a break, get something to eat, get a haircut, do laundry, get their truck washed — or their dog washed! — and even go to the dentist.
Of course, the trucker will need to have healthcare to visit that dentist, but that's not why we're here. Zuck isn't campaigning, he's listening.
While he listened to the truck drivers he picked up a few notable things. First of all: "Trucking is a unique lifestyle — that often involves your family." Long haul trucking is hard and requires 12-hour shifts and being away from loved ones. Some families actually work together because the demands would mean they have to spend too much time apart and it's easier to work as a team.
One of the truckers that he met had put eight kids through college and "had some strong views on the second amendment." But we're not talking about college funding or the second amendment. Zuck isn't campaigning, he's listening.
Another man was in the military for 17 years and now his wife just rides with him so that they can be together. But we're not talking about veteran's affairs. Zuck isn't campaigning, he's listening.
Finally, Zuckerberg gets to something that's in his wheelhouse:
I asked the truckers what's changed over the last few decades. When the truckers I met started driving, you logged your driving hours on pieces of paper. Now it's electronic and automatic, which makes it harder to drive more hours than you're supposed to. Some people said they want to work longer, but they feel like regulations are getting in the way of their freedom and doing what they want to do.
Zuck will talk about regulations. "It's tough because those regulations try to keep people on the road safe." Hmm. Can't tell if that's campaign-ish. It probably wouldn't go over very well. I wonder if he said something similar about gun control to the second amendment guy.
Then he pivoted to talk about what really interests him, self-driving trucks:
Everyone I met was sceptical self-driving trucks would replace jobs for different reasons. Some thought it would be impossible to pack all the sensors you need to deal with things like weather into trucks. Others thought computers could handle the interstate but not the last mile to the store. And some truckers think we'll end up with something like autopilot on planes — with trucks driving themselves with people in the cab.
Zuckerberg's response to all of those obstacles that are preventing 3.5 million people from losing their jobs doesn't exactly inspire hope. He basically just says these truck drivers don't know what they're talking about:
From all the research I've seen, I'm confident we'll solve these problems. But it's interesting that people in the industry don't believe this will happen soon.
Spoken like a man who wants to connect.
Yeah, it's hard to tell if he's feeling out politics or not. If he is, I'm not sure he's doing a very good job. But it didn't seem like a billionaire was doing so great in last year's campaign, and look what happened. People in photos tend to look pretty happy to see him and commenters seem to be in awe of him.
If Zuckerberg took a deeper look into the trucking industry he'd find a world that shamelessly abuses its employees. But right now, Zuck is just listening.