Alice Kahrmann interviews Tariq Krim, wunderkid of the Zuckerberg generation.

Gosh it’s hard to describe a day spent with Tariq Krim. Five thousand words it would take at least and I only have 1.5k. The easy part: we’re in Paris, it’s springtime… It’s an auspicious start, sunlight batting its lashes at the Canal St Martin, a slight chill in the air… I’ve travelled to meet the man whose reputation precedes him: Chevalier des Ordres des Lettres, the first French national named by MIT as one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35. Co-founder of Netvibes, the company that pioneered the use of widgets, the personal dashboard platform that first made his name, ten million users taking up the services comprising of brand monitoring, e-reputation management as well as personalised workspaces. That was then, this is now: for the past few years he’s been immersed in Jolicloud, a personal cloud content computing platform with a million plus users, though this barely skims the surface of the traffic passing through Krim’s mind.

He’s been hailed as a tribe of wunderkinds, the Zuckerberg generation. The entrepreneurial elite as parodied by Buzzfeed, profiled by Techcrunch, known, seen and analysed from afar. Now he’s looking for a quieter life, cue one of his favourite Japanese restaurants: Kunitoraya on Rue Villedo in Paris’s 1st arrondisement, where we dig into tempura, twiddle with ramen. ‘There is a study that came out that’s absolutely fantastic,’ he says, ‘it says that creativity comes from your inability to filter information. Artists actually prefer to stay home because they are sensitive to noise. I have attention deficit disorder, the thing is our brain has been wired to pay attention to so many different signals.’

It’s no surprise that his parents were economics and physical education teachers. Further his early career in tech journalism (writing for Novamag) provided a stable immersion in the tech field, a precursor to his later entrepreneurialism. It’s quite something to sit with him; his mind seeming to bend, race, and transgress a hundred miles faster than the average techpreneur. Momentarily he’ll open his sketchbook, illustrate a point [everything doodled by hand]. Take this, his personal evaluation of my online presence.

‘Technology is connecting us as human beings,’ he says, ‘but also disconnecting us.’ In his mind, we are now living in ‘A world where you are constantly evaluated and exposed to constant notifications’ (cue one of our phones beeping). ‘You’re like a baseball player on the field, how many pitches did you get right? How many places have you been, what have you done, what do you like?’ We are the Tinder generation… the first five seconds, the derivative impression that determines well, everything.

‘I loved it and but it became too much,’ Krim looks saddened by the status quo, ‘Look at Google; we loved it for the benefits it offered, and then it went one step further. Today they went from organizing the world to organizing "our world": how we think, how we like, what we like, our emails, our calendar. We become passenger of our own lives.’

Yes, he’s all about online integrity: the purity of our interaction with the web, how quickly we renounce autonomy allowing companies the autocracy to determine our digital landscape.

Right now the top four internet companies are generating the equivalent of the GDP of South Korea;’ he continues, ‘they want to have an impact on our world but at the same time they barely pay any taxes. For companies that are obssessed by changing the world, comes the question of giving back.’ In Krim’s opinion, everything today has been reduced to the lowest common: ‘The fastest, easiest way to monetise. I am really concerned about the fact that the humanistic values of the internet don't translate anymore in what people are building today. The future is not as exciting as it used to be.’

These are the problems Krim will try to address in the future. ‘It’s not about being anti Google or anti Facebook; the lack of choice made that become the only choice. Just like with TV; if there is only one channel, at some point you say, I hate it, I want to see something else and I can’t.’ He references the Apple Watch, ‘Another master on your wrist. It’s going to monitor everything, including my level of stress or happiness. This will have an impact on when sending me the right advertising.’

As you can see the ownership of personal data is his bête noire. ‘The internet, the cloud, all these connected devices are creating the largest network in the history of time. But there's a lack of trust. Why should you give your most personal data to someone if that someone says I’m going to take this data and sell it back to whoever wants it?’ he says. Which brings me to my own question: why will users trust Krim more than the other incumbents? I’ve experienced his gentle giant demeanour, his calm languid energy, his spirited passion for culture, arts, the world, his wish to revolutionise the way we engage with tech, but I’m one of the lucky few. There’s a huge loss of faith (I for one have completely disengaged with the cloud after the Jennifer Lawrence nude photo fiasco – not that I’ve got a vault of nude photos but still). ‘I want to build a platform based on trust, where we never sell data,’ he says categorically. ‘There's an opportunity to build a counter model to the one currently in place.’ So there you have it, a statement that Krim can be held to.

At present Krim finds himself mulling over the next highly disruptive idea..., the game changer, the secret weapon at the heart of a guerrilla army, that will offer an alternative [just as Jolicloud already does] for those jaded by the impending future in which companies control everything. ‘I love the idea of empowering people to stay human in a super connected world, to be able to curate your culture in a world where [at present] everything is suggested to you.’

Cue a series of new products based on data storage, but in a highly disruptive form. ‘Every person in the planet is going to be in contact with so many things thanks to the internet. But social networks and mobiles are designed to keep you away from what you love. I just want to do the opposite.'

But back to lunch at Kunitoraya... (we haven’t even got to Telescope, the hipster’s favourite café, complete with the most perfect financiers known to man, a decidedly French almond based cake). We cover a wide range of topics; his career in journalism, the first time he experienced the vitriol of Buzfeed; ‘Write about what I do but not about who I am,’ the paradigm of the ‘inbox zero,’ ‘that’s the ultimate goal,’ he says, ‘reducing the overflow, ‘You wake up and you have nothing, you are not guilty of anything and suddenly you have zillions of emails to deal with, social networks, if you don’t engage your friends don’t think you love them,’ ditto tweeting, ditto Instagram. ‘Suddenly we have created this thing you can’t get out of.’ A paradigm that is begging to shift.

‘It took us years to understand why the industry of food processing is bad and we are just starting to understand why technology is actually disconnecting us too,’ Krim says. ‘There is a great quote from Sherry Turkle, an eary artificial intelligence scientist at MIT – from her book Alone Together - ‘the modern day social media desocialisation’.

Turning everything inside out and upside down, that’s’ what he would like to do (he’s even considering launching a print project, an ode to his love of the handwritten word). ‘Search created a content bubble - the next two pages of results. If you are not on these two pages then you don’t exist. You know and we know what interesting stuff you can find on the internet. I would love to have an option on Google to reverse the order - someone should do that actually.’ Overall everything he does ‘If I was not doing it, I wish someone was doing it.’ That’s his motto; classic Krim.

Which brings us to the sushi anecdote: perhaps my favourite part of the interview. ‘What’s impressive is not only to do good stuff but to do good stuff constantly on a daily basis. I heard the first Michelin star is given for the fact that at any time you go to a place and you experience the best quality. The food sourcing and the production and the service, the idea of 365 days a year. I think it’s the most remarkable achievement.’ He references the film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. ‘It’s a documentary about this guy who has the best sushi restaurant in the world, a small bar in a station in Tokyo. He started when he was fifteen. He says it takes a whole life to master your art. And the best story about this: the day Michelin came to give him his third star, he was not even there, his son was. It’s a simple story: how every day these people are going to create the best sushi in the world. It starts with sourcing the product. You see them figuring out how to find the best tuna. You have tears in your eyes because first it’s an unbelievable story but also it's a story about dedicating your life to something, about how good you are at what you do, it takes a lifetime to figure that out.’

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

April 2015