Rewired: Tim Wu’s Fantastic Foray

What happens when a leading tech theorist absorbs the rays of electoral politics?

by Paul Hond Published Fall 2014
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He also felt he enjoyed a psychological edge. “If I lose this election, I go back to the best job in the world,” said Wu, a tenured, popular, well-paid professor. “So I feel like I run with a certain degree of fearlessness.” But Wu, aloft on the chair, was only pointing out that there was a net beneath him. He had no intention of falling. “I have this incredible confidence,” he said, “that we’re going to pull this off.”

The air conditioning on the wood-paneled tour bus had petered out somewhere past Goshen, but you’d never have known it from looking at Zephyr Teachout. The candidate running ninety degrees uphill to become the state’s first female governor was the only passenger who didn’t seem to be sweating. Wearing a black dress, electric-blue blazer, and a pearl necklace, she chatted and laughed with staffers and reporters. She had good reason to be upbeat. That morning, the Times had surprised readers by declining to endorse Cuomo, for “his failure on ethics reform”; and even though it had declined to endorse Teachout, either, for her want of “the breadth of interests and experience needed” to govern New York, Teachout counted this as a victory. The paper had yet to weigh in on the lieutenant governor race, but the rebuke of Cuomo was clear.

Teachout—Wu press conference, Brooklyn. / © Bebeto Matthews / AP / CorbisThe bus was equipped with a leather wraparound couch, two leather chairs, a table with a printer, a telephone, a temperature gauge that was by now an object of derision, and a kitchen sink. Aides communed with their smartphones while a two-person film crew that had been documenting the campaign kept the camera rolling. In one of the chairs, Conor Skelding ’14CC, a thorn-sharp reporter who’d been covering the campaign for the political news website Capital New York, tapped at his laptop.

The bus stopped near the Pennsylvania border and picked up some passengers, including Ray Kemble, a bandanna-wearing, gray-bearded mechanic from Dimock, Pennsylvania, who had worked hauling wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and then quit after a gas company drilled near his house and polluted his drinking water with methane (Kemble carried a plastic jug of liquid the color of flat Budweiser that he said came from his tap). He was joined by “Brother Lee” McCaslin of Bath, New York, a soft-spoken but talkative member of the Ottawa Nation who called himself the best gas driller in America. These men claimed to have seen the toxic effects of fracking on workers, residents, farm animals, and drinking water. They sat with Teachout in the back of the bus, where the candidate, who had made a ban on fracking central to her platform, spent an hour asking questions and patiently listening, impervious to the wilting heat.

Wu, at the front of the bus, had barely loosened his tie. He, too, opposed fracking (the bus, whose first stop had been an Orange County nursing home that the county executive wanted to privatize, was heading to a fracking site in Montrose, Pennsylvania), calling it a “step back for civilization” (clean drinking water being the great advance). Nor did he see fracking as a real solution for depressed upstate communities: resource-extraction economies, he said, were “ultimately a dead end.”

This bus trip was billed as the “Whistleblower Tour,” aimed at calling attention to Albany corruption. But the candidates were focused less on illegal corruption than on the legal variety — “when public officials aren’t serving the interests of all New Yorkers, but doing the bidding of private interests,” as Teachout had put it at the tour’s kickoff that morning on West 57th Street. There, across from Carnegie Hall, the candidates had stood in front of the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere — best known for the dangling crane that had caused evacuations during Hurricane Sandy, for the giant finger of a shadow it now extended over Central Park, and for its $90 million penthouse — and spoke of how the developer had donated $100,000 to Cuomo’s campaign in 2013 and received a $35 million tax break that was buried in a bill signed by the governor.

The bus pulled over on a country road. Not many people get to see a fracking site close up. This one, downslope from the roadside and carved out of the rolling green farmland that surrounded it, was five or six football fields big, a flat concrete-colored slab spiked with a drilling rig and populated with trucks, storage tanks, trailers. Wu stood on the ravine and watched for a few minutes, remarking to Kemble that the workers didn’t seem to be wearing any protection from possible contaminants.

Back on the bus, Wu did another phone interview. “Concentrated wealth is dangerous to the moral fabric of our society ... politics are too important to leave to career politicians ...” It was only later that afternoon, when the bus reached Binghamton, that Wu got a chance to really connect with voters.

Inside the Cyber Café West on Main Street, a homey college dive with sofas, beer signs, and, despite the name, a pre-Internet aesthetic, Wu sat in a cushioned chair at a low coffee table with six or seven middle-aged locals and told his story.

His parents were immigrants. Immigrant immunologists. His father was from Taiwan. His mother was from England. Dad studied T cells, Mom studied B cells. They met in Toronto. Nomads, Wu called them. They moved to Berkeley, California, then to Washington, DC, where Wu was born. His father became ill, and the family moved back to Canada. Wu was eight when his father passed away. His mother took him and his younger brother to Switzerland, then back to Toronto, where Wu was editor of his high-school paper. He was supposed to be a scientist — all his uncles were PhDs in science or MDs, a tradition that Wu was expected to follow. But Wu felt he had more talent for writing.

Writing and computers. He and his brother were “complete geeks,” Wu liked to say, obsessed with the Apple II that their mother had brought home, fatefully, in 1982. The brothers would take it apart, plug stuff into it. They also wrote computer games. Still, when Wu got to college at McGill, he majored in biochemistry. “I found the laboratory scary,” he said. “There was radiation around, and if you made one mistake you might contaminate everybody. One time I contaminated part of the lab — it was like Spider-Man or something. Geiger counters beeping. It was a little nerve-racking.” After college, Wu decided to go to law school — “I was rebelling, I guess.”

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