The Failures of Facebook

Broken Code: Inside Facebook and the Fight to Expose Its Harmful Secrets by Jeff Horwitz ’03.

To understand exactly what has happened at Meta with its lineup of products such as Facebook and Instagram, ask Jeff Horwitz ’03. The investigative journalist for The Wall Street Journal has been on the Meta beat for more than four years with the goal of revealing the inner workings—and management failures—within Facebook’s Silicon Valley walls.

Horwitz tracked how often Facebook chose growth over quality by ignoring misinformation on the site and by lack of moderation, resulting in the investigative series The Facebook Files for the WSJ in 2021. He added additional reporting for his newly released book, Broken Code: Inside Facebook and the Fight to Expose Its Harmful Secrets. In it, Horwitz also looks at how Instagram managers ignored warning signs that the platform seriously damaged body image perceptions for teen girls around the world.

Journalist David Silverberg spoke to Horwitz for Pomona College Magazine to learn more about his yearslong process in investigating Meta, his view on Mark Zuckerberg’s role in the company’s missteps, and why he warns parents to be extremely careful about how their children use social media.

Headshot of Jeff Horwitz ’03

PCM: Technology reporters have been writing that those who run Facebook haven’t learned from the mistakes they made in 2016 and beyond. What’s your take on that?

Horwitz: One of the really fascinating things that came out of the book is that there was a period of time where Facebook invested really heavily in safety and in understanding its product. Then those people made recommendations on how to change the product in ways that would certainly mitigate a lot of the harms from its product, such as misinformation, the formation of massive groups like QAnon, conspiracy movements. There were approaches to fixing this that these folks developed but the problem was they came at the cost of engagement and usage of a platform. Meta and in particular Mark Zuckerberg were not willing to accept that. So the company has actually laid off a lot of the people who are doing this, partly because they aren’t interested in pursuing the work, and partly because they view these people as a fifth column inside the company that is more loyal to their sense of public good than to their sense of what is good for Meta.

The problems of 2016 and 2020 have by and large not been addressed. The ease with which any motivated entity can trick the algorithm into spewing out spam or political content hasn’t fundamentally changed.

PCM: Your book found that Zuckerberg’s role in how his company chose growth over content moderation was a stark contrast to how some other CEOs and founders run their companies. How so?

Horwitz: Everything flows from Mark, and that’s why he’s kind of an anomaly in the tech space at this point. The other big founders tend to step back or work on side hobbies such as Twitter—look at Elon Musk—and with Google and Microsoft, those founders have moved along in their lives and Mark hasn’t. And I think one of the things that’s really striking is he is often describing the open internet where anyone can write what they want but he neglects to discuss what Facebook became, which is an extremely powerful content recommendation engine that will recommend literally anything that will keep people on the platform more often.

No one understood that introducing a reshare button was going to actually produce higher levels of misinformation on the platform because the more times a thing gets shared, it turns out based on the company’s internal research, the less likely it’s going to be true and more likely it’s going to be sensationalist.

PCM: What I also found compelling about the book, and The Facebook Files, was how you established a relationship with Frances Haugen, the famous whistleblower and ex-manager from Facebook who ended up testifying to the U.S. Senate about how the company knew about the potential harm they were causing to both adults and children. What did you think about what she did for you and the investigation?

Horwitz: Frances is an extremely unusual human being in the sense that most whistleblowers burn out first and then they quit in a huff or they get laid off and then they decide they want to talk. I think it’s very unusual for someone to begin at square one and that she couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t do her best to bring [Facebook’s issues] to the world’s attention.

This is somebody who was breaching the confidence of their employer for a very valid purpose and I think she had a lot on the line.

PCM: Before you delved into writing about Meta, you also wrote about other businesses for The Associated Press when you worked there between 2014 and 2019. How did your stint at AP help you with your career?

Horwitz: I was hired for their Washington investigative team and Donald Trump’s candidacy sort of ate my career there. I think because I had a business focus, I was originally put onto it in 2015 as, oh, hey, here’s another flash-in-the-pan candidate. We’ve seen many of them like that. Every cycle has some sort of Herman Cain-type figure who appears briefly on the horizon and then disappears. And I think that was originally the assumption about Donald Trump’s candidacy as well. Obviously that never happened.

So it was a really interesting time in terms of the work. But at the same time—I get into this a little bit in the book—it was kind of a depressing time because it really became apparent in 2016 that the only way news could get traction was if it appealed to partisans on either side and, in particular, if it appealed to partisans on Twitter.

I think one of the ways I ended up covering Facebook for The Wall Street Journal is I wanted to figure out that if the news and information ecosystem is permanently broken, then what’s going to replace it? And maybe I should be writing about that. So that’s how I ended up covering Meta.

PCM: How would you characterize the time you spent at Pomona?

Horwitz: One of the best things that happened at Pomona College for me was I got David Foster Wallace when he was teaching creative writing.

I also got into journalism via the student newspaper, and my first ever story for them was covering Professional Bull Riders Association events in Anaheim. It’s not like bull riding is a thing that I am deeply passionate about, but to have my press seat next to ESPN’s was pretty fun.

I began to feel more like an investigative reporter when I wrote on issues at the school, such as when I broke a story about grade inflation at Pomona while I was there. In 2000, The Student Life also reported on a very nasty fight over dining hall unionization and what we saw as some of the labor-busting tactics that the school undertook. I’m grateful to Pomona for a lot of things, but one of them is it kind of turned me on to questioning institutions.

Editor’s note: Pomona’s dining hall workers have been unionized since 2013, and the most recent collective-bargaining agreement provides a minimum wage of $25 an hour for all dining and catering workers by July 1, 2024.

PCM: Lastly, what’s your social media usage like these days? I assume you’re more careful than most considering everything you know about Facebook and Instagram.

Horwitz: I like cat videos as much as the next guy, but I’ve never been a super-heavy user.

So while I don’t have kids, I will say that I have been pretty damn strenuous in telling friends that it’s a good idea to be, shall we say, conservative with how much social media children use for a whole bunch of reasons. [Editor’s note: Since the interview, Horwitz has reported on Meta’s struggle to prevent pedophiles from using Facebook and Instagram in violation of its policies against child exploitation.] An interesting part of the book was revealing how the company really did define what was good for users and whatever made them use the product more. In other words, they must like it if they’re using it more, right? Not so fast.

Books and More Books

Books and More Books

Several readers wrote to note that the tradition of a common book for first-year students to read together began before 2003 (“The Full Stack: 2003-2023,” Fall 2023). Among earlier selections were Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Julia Alvarez’s Yo, Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Naguib Mahfouz’s The Palace Walk.

Ann Quinley, Pomona’s dean of students from 1992 to 2007 and an emerita professor of politics, led the first-year book selection for some time with a committee of students and faculty, often reading 20-plus books a year and planning accompanying talks.

“It was my favorite project that I looked forward to every year,” Quinley says, noting that the effort was once the victim of a prank.

“One year, a student—I don’t remember who it was and I don’t think I’d tell you if I did—managed to get hold of the list and add another book. It was one of those bodice-rippers, and then I began to get calls. Students, they are just so creative.”

As for future nominations, Elizabeth Pyle ’84 writes to suggest H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal and a classic, Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

Incoming first-year Sophie Park ’28 is excited to find out what her class might read. “I’d like to suggest A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace as my class’s orientation book,” she writes, calling the title essay “one of the most profound yet accessible pieces I know.” She adds: “Even if the essay collection isn’t chosen as the orientation book, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ is short and an incredible standalone and I would cry if I came to school with all my classmates having read it.”

Bookmarks Spring 2024

Studio of the Voice: Essays by Marcia Aldrich

Studio of the Voice: Essays

In Studio of the Voice: Essays by Marcia Aldrich, Marcia Aldrich ’75 serves up intense personal essays, often reflecting on her relationships with her mother and daughter.

One Day This Tree Will Fall by Leslie BarnardOne Day This Tree Will Fall

One Day This Tree Will Fall, a nonfiction picture book by Leslie Barnard Booth ’04, invites readers to celebrate the life cycle and afterlife of trees.

Quiet Voice by Amanda Edwards ’96Quiet Voice, Awesome Power

Amanda Edwards ’96, in Quiet Voice, Awesome Power, guides readers in communicating with spirit, defining their spiritual path and living with power and purpose.

How Much Are These Free Books? True Tales from the Book Nook by Judy Schelling Hoff ’62How Much Are These Free Books? True Tales from the Book Nook

How Much Are These Free Books? True Tales from the Book Nook by Judy Schelling Hoff ’62 reflects on Hoff’s bookstore in Schenectady, New York, through 19 years of its existence.

Learning and Teaching Creativity by Dan Hunter ’75Learning and Teaching Creativity

In Learning and Teaching Creativity, Dan Hunter ’75 details steps to improve student and teacher creativity through imagination.

The Saplings Think of Us as Young by Kim Kralowec ’89The Saplings Think of Us as Young

The poems in The Saplings Think of Us as Young by Kim Kralowec ’89 explore the intimacy of living in close relationship with extremes of beauty and distress.

Exquisite Dreams: The Art and Life of Dorothea Tanning by Amy Lyford ’86Exquisite Dreams: The Art and Life of Dorothea Tanning

Exquisite Dreams: The Art and Life of Dorothea Tanning by Amy Lyford ’86 is a study of the artist’s life and creative output as well as the history of Surrealism.

Social Anarchism and the Rejection of Moral Tyranny by Jesse Spafford ’12Social Anarchism and the Rejection of Moral Tyranny

In Social Anarchism and the Rejection of Moral Tyranny, Jesse Spafford ’12 articulates and defends social anarchism, staking out a number of bold and original positions.

The Improbable Tales of Baskerville Hall by Ali Standish ’10The Improbable Tales of Baskerville Hall

Ali Standish ’10 reimagines Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in her boarding school mystery novel, The Improbable Tales of Baskerville Hall.

The Full Stack: 2003-2023

Each year since 2003, entering students have read a book—or books—together.

Each year since 2003, entering students have read a book—or books—together.

With the 20th anniversary of Pomona College’s annual orientation book in the rearview mirror, the full list makes for quite a stack.

Each year since 2003, entering students have read a book—or books—together. One thing has changed: Instead of receiving the book in the mail, most students now opt for electronic access.

How many have you read? Have a pick for the entering Class of 2028 next year? Books of poetry, short stories, essays or a volume that pairs well with a work of art such as a painting or film are being considered. Send your ideas to

Each year since 2003, entering students have read a book—or books—together.

Bookmarks Fall 2023

Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle by Lea Aschkenas ’95Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle

Set in rural Cuba, Arletis, Abuelo, and the Message in a Bottle by Lea Aschkenas ’95 tells the story of a little girl and an old man who forge a lasting friendship that expands both their worlds.

A Stone Is a Story by Leslie Barnard Booth ’04A Stone Is a Story

A Stone Is a Story by
Leslie Barnard Booth ’04 follows a stone’s journey through time as it forms and transforms, providing a window into Earth’s past along the way.

Don’t Look Away: Art, Nonviolence, and Preventive Publics in Contemporary Europe, Brianne Cohen ’04Don’t Look Away: Art, Nonviolence, and Preventive Publics in Contemporary Europe

In Don’t Look Away: Art, Nonviolence, and Preventive Publics in Contemporary Europe, Brianne Cohen ’04 advocates for the role of art to foster a public commitment to end structural violence in Europe.

Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother, Peggy O’Donnell Heffington ’09Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother

In Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother, Peggy O’Donnell Heffington ’09 draws on diligent research to show that history is full of women without children.

American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail Sarah Keyes ’04American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail

Sarah Keyes ’04 offers a reinterpretation of the Overland Trail in American Burial Ground: A New History of the Overland Trail, focusing on how the graves of migrants who died along the way were leveraged to claim the land of Indigenous peoples.

The Seeing Garden by Ginny Kubitz Moyer ’95The Seeing Garden

Set in 1910 on an estate in Northern California, The Seeing Garden by Ginny Kubitz Moyer ’95 is a coming-of-age story inspired in part by the great San Francisco Peninsula estates of the past.

Capacity beyond Coercion: Regulatory Pragmatism and Compliance along the India-Nepal Border by Susan L. Ostermann ’02Capacity beyond Coercion: Regulatory Pragmatism and Compliance along the India-Nepal Border

Susan L. Ostermann ’02 demonstrates how coercively weak states can increase compliance by behaving pragmatically in Capacity beyond Coercion: Regulatory Pragmatism and Compliance along the India-Nepal Border.

Becoming a Social Science Researcher: Quest and Context by Bruce Parrott ’66Becoming a Social Science Researcher: Quest and Context

Becoming a Social Science Researcher: Quest and Context by Bruce Parrott ’66 aims to help aspiring social scientists understand the research process, focusing on the philosophical, sociological and psychological dimensions.

Warnings: The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy by John K. Roth ’62Warnings: The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy

Warnings: The Holocaust, Ukraine, and Endangered American Democracy features exchanges between professors John K. Roth ’62 and Leonard Grob that underscore the most urgent threats to democracy in the U.S. and suggest how to resist them.

Just in Time: Temporality, Aesthetic Experience, and Cognitive Neuroscience, by Pomona College President G. Gabrielle StarrJust in Time: Temporality, Aesthetic Experience, and Cognitive Neuroscience

In Just in Time: Temporality, Aesthetic Experience, and Cognitive Neuroscience, Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr, also a professor of English and neuroscience, explores how beauty exists in time, integrating neuroscientific findings with humanistic interpretation.

Book Talk: Space for Sale

lon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance ’00Ashlee Vance ’00, author of the bestseller Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, turns his attention to the business of space in his latest book, When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Misfits and Geniuses Racing to Put Space Within Reach. Vance follows four startup companies—Astra, Firefly, Planet Labs and Rocket Lab—as they race to launch rockets and satellites into orbit. PCM’s Lorraine Wu Harry ’97 spoke to Vance about the book, the corresponding HBO show he is producing and, of course, Elon Musk. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PCM: What made you want to write this book?

Vance: I was not a space junkie (although I seem to be becoming one). Out of the Elon book, my favorite thing to report on was the early days of SpaceX. Those were some of the best stories and the most interesting characters. Right as I finished that book, I could see that there was this new world bubbling up around commercial space. And there were these entrepreneurs appearing all over the planet who were trying to make rockets and satellites. I could see that this was my chance to witness what may be like the early days of SpaceX firsthand. Then, as time went on, it became clear to me that there was this revolution taking place and that space was changing forever. And I had this unique “in” with all kinds of access that you don’t normally get, and I just started chasing it.

PCM: What was it like for you to do research for this book?

Vance: Normally, almost all this stuff is usually top secret. It’s almost impossible to get into, but because I had this track record, people were very willing to let me in, and then reporting it was just a proper adventure. I probably went to about 12 countries across four continents and followed this for five years. That’s one of the things I love about the book: It is about rockets and space, but it’s also this travelogue where you’re going with me on this journey and meeting all these interesting characters. Some of them are in the U.S., but it’s very much a global story and full of drama in all these places.

PCM: You say in the “Dear Reader” section, “I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed living it.” What did you enjoy about living it?

Vance: A lot of these launches take place in pretty exotic locations, and they’re both beautiful but also off the beaten path. The characters were very diverse in their personalities; there are a lot of different archetypes. You got to meet this quite eccentric group of people and spend a lot of time with them. It was this feeling of having a front-row seat to the birth of an industry and really getting to see how it operates. I do lots of very long magazine stories where you might interview dozens of people over a decent period of time. But this was the first time I felt like I was right there getting to witness everything firsthand, and you got a sense of the joy but also the difficulties and travails these people go through. It was the first time in my reporting where I really felt like I knew for sure what ground truth was, through my own eyes, as opposed to trying to stitch it together from other people’s opinions after the fact. I was living it in real time.

PCM: So this was pretty different from all your previous work.

Vance: With Elon, there was a lot of historical stuff where you had to go back all the way to his childhood and recreate things, and the same with some of his earlier companies. But I spent literally thousands of hours with these subjects and so, in that sense, very different in terms of the depth of the reporting. I’d wanted to be a fly on the wall of a journey for a long time.

PCM: Tell me about the show you’re producing and how it overlaps with the book.

Vance: I filmed with all the characters in my book for these five years and I’ve partnered with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Adam McKay’s Hyperobject Industries on this project. It’s a more concentrated version of the book that is going to focus on a couple of characters from the book and tell the story about the rise of commercial space. As long as the stars align, it will be on HBO next year.

PCM: Your book about Elon Musk came out eight years ago, and a lot has happened since then. What is your assessment of Musk’s ownership of Twitter?

Vance: Since I’ve done the book, Elon’s only gotten bigger, bolder and crazier over time. I’m still a huge fan of Tesla and SpaceX and find them fascinating. Twitter is not really my cup of tea, and I think it’s a huge waste of time for Elon to be dealing with that. He’s not doing probably the best job of taking it over so far. It’s kind of sad, if I’m honest, because so much of my interest in him was this figure who was not doing consumer technology, was doing stuff that felt a bit more meaningful to me in the world of manufacturing and human ambition and climate change. Even though I use Twitter a lot, I find it to be sort of a large distraction and it falls more in the entertainment category to me. It’s a little depressing that this guy who symbolizes so many other things is getting down in the muck.

PCM: How do you think the recent FTX bankruptcy and Twitter meltdown have changed the idea that tech entrepreneurs can supplant traditional government?

Vance: We’re at a very interesting time where there’s a handful of technology companies that have resources on par with governments and are taking on projects that governments traditionally would have done. If you look at Tesla’s self-driving car network, if you look at all the rockets that I’m writing about, if you look at these giant computers fueling AI—outside of China, you don’t really see countries tackling these issues; it’s being driven by the companies. We’re at this precarious position where I think a lot of the innovation and control has shifted so far from governments and academia toward companies. I’m not sure that most people fully realize the extent of this shift to where if you are a college like Pomona or a university like Stanford, and you want to do breakthrough research on the human brain or something like that, you probably do not have the requisite resources to do that yourself. You’re knocking on the door of somebody like Google to borrow their computers. Overall, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

PCM: Why don’t you think it’s good?

Vance: There are pieces of this that are not good. There are pieces of this that are very liberating. I think it’s bad that five countries controlled space for 60 years. I think it’s a much more equitable future where almost any country that wants to be a spacefaring nation can be that. All the satellite imagery, all these pictures taken of Earth are not just in the hands of spy agencies and militaries. That the public can access all this stuff to see the sum total of human activity, what’s happening with the environment, it’s a much more open scenario with information. So I don’t know. There are a lot of pros and cons.

PCM: Would you say the pros outweigh the cons of commercial space?

Vance: I think it’s to be determined. I don’t think the average person on the street realizes what’s coming, which is that 100 percent, the capitalists have taken over space and the governments will very shortly be also-ran participants in this. People get fixated on space tourism or going to the moon, but in actual fact most of the money and action is taking place in low-Earth orbit where there’s this giant economic expansion taking place. This is very much a capitalist exercise that, on the pro side, is going to bring high-speed internet connectivity to half the world’s population so they can fully participate in the modern economy. We’re going to have all this data that was unimaginable about the health of our planet, monitoring trees, methane. You will be able to calculate and tax every piece of this, but it is companies that are doing this. This is new territory that’s being seized.

PCM: So, to be determined.

Vance: Hopefully, given that this is the last place we can expand, with a bit of luck we will be better stewards of it than we have been of the land and the oceans and the air.

Bookmarks Summer 2023

Asian American Histories of the United States, Catherine Ceniza Choy ’91Asian American Histories of the United States

In Asian American Histories of the United States, Catherine Ceniza Choy ’91 presents 200 years of Asian migration, labor and community formation, all the while reckoning with the recent surge in anti-Asian hate and violence.

Chloe and the Kaishao Boys, Mae Coyiuto ’17Chloe and the Kaishao Boys

Chloe and the Kaishao Boys, a young adult rom-com by Mae Coyiuto ’17, follows a Chinese-Filipina girl in Manila as she gets off the waitlist for USC and decides if following her dreams is worth leaving everything behind.

The Last Cold Place, Naira de Gracia ’14The Last Cold Place

Naira de Gracia ’14 writes a memoir about her experience studying penguins in Antarctica, weaving in the history of Antarctic exploration, climate science and personal reflection in The Last Cold Place.

Tales of Whimsy, Verses of Woe, Tim DeRoche ’92Tales of Whimsy, Verses of Woe

Tales of Whimsy, Verses of Woe by Tim DeRoche ’92 is a collection of lighthearted poetry filled with wordplay reminiscent of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss.

I Have Her Memories Now ,Carrie Grinstead ’06I Have Her Memories Now

The short stories in I Have Her Memories Now by Carrie Grinstead ’06 touch on health, medicine and death and explore themes of vulnerability and fallibility.

Nocturne, Jodie Hollander ’99Nocturne

The poetry of Jodie Hollander ’99 in Nocturne charts the emotional journey of the daughter of a professional classical pianist, exploring family dysfunction and musical obsession.

Tasting Coffee: An Inquiry into Objectivity, Kenneth Liberman ’70Tasting Coffee: An Inquiry into Objectivity

In Tasting Coffee: An Inquiry into Objectivity, Kenneth Liberman ’70 sheds light on the methods used to convert subjective experience into objective knowledge with coffee as its focal point.

Representation Theory and Geometry of the Flag Variety, William “Monty” McGovern ’82Representation Theory and Geometry of the Flag Variety

Representation Theory and Geometry of the Flag Variety by William “Monty” McGovern ’82 is a reference for researchers and graduate students in representation theory, combinatorics and algebraic geometry.

Blue Jeans, Carolyn Purnell ’06 Blue Jeans

In Blue Jeans, Carolyn Purnell ’06 presents extensive research on the history of jeans as well as the global and economic forces that shape the industry. The book is part of a series called Object Lessons about “the hidden lives of ordinary things.”

Quinoa: Food Politics and Agrarian Life in the Andean Highlands, Linda Seligmann ’75Quinoa: Food Politics and Agrarian Life in the Andean Highlands

Linda Seligmann ’75 tells the story of Indigenous farmers and the global demand for a superfood in Quinoa: Food Politics and Agrarian Life in the Andean Highlands.

The Way to Be: A Memoir, Barbara T. Smith ’53The Way to Be: A Memoir

The Way to Be: A Memoir, a firsthand account of the life and work of artist Barbara T. Smith ’53, accompanies an exhibition on view at the Getty Research Institute through July 16, 2023.

Beyond That, the Sea, Laura Spence-Ash ’81Beyond That, the Sea

The novel Beyond That, the Sea by Laura Spence-Ash ’81 follows Beatrix, an 11-year-old British girl sent to live with a New England family during World War II, as she navigates two worlds.

After Anne: A Novel of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Life, Logan Steiner ’06After Anne: A Novel of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Life

After Anne: A Novel of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Life by Logan Steiner ’06 tells the story behind the story of the author of Anne of Green Gables, offering a nuanced portrayal of her life.

Democracy in Latin America: A History Since Independence, Thomas Wright ’63Democracy in Latin America: A History Since Independence

In Democracy in Latin America: A History Since Independence, Thomas Wright ’63 chronicles Latin America’s struggle for democracy as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

Book Talk: Uncommon Purpose

Saving Ryan

In Saving Ryan, physician-scientist Emil Kakkis ’82 chronicles the 30-year journey to develop a first-ever treatment for the ultra-rare genetic disease mucopolysaccharidosis, known as MPS. At the center of the story are Ryan Dant, who was diagnosed with potentially fatal MPS type I at age 3, and his parents, who started a foundation to support the development of the treatment. Dant is now in his 30s, a college graduate and recently married.

PCM’s Lorraine Wu Harry ’97 talked to Kakkis—also founder, president and CEO of the biopharmaceutical company Ultragenyx—about the book, his time at Pomona and advice for young people today. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

PCM: What was your impetus for writing the book? Who do you hope will read it?

Kakkis: One impetus was to capture the challenge of getting a treatment for rare disease developed from a policy perspective, to highlight the requirements the Food and Drug Administration has put that are quite difficult, near impossible. While we succeeded, it was so close to being missing. It shouldn’t have been because it’s straightforward science. I intended the book to help with the FDA and Capitol Hill on the policy issues regarding the regulation of these rare disease drugs. At the same time, I wanted to capture for families out there that the impossible can be achieved, that you don’t have to be a scientist—Mark Dant was a police officer, and his wife was a programmer—that you can come together and figure out how to treat your kid. It was a story for inspiration for those families.

PCM: Did you keep journals along the way? There are so many details you remember from the last 30 years.

Kakkis: Some of them were seared into my brain. I remember them very specifically. I had memos and letters that helped me place things in time. What the book does is jump from moment to moment in time. I was really writing about the things that were memorable. Things like an FDA meeting. That meeting I remember very, very vividly.

PCM: Tell me about your time at Pomona: what you studied, how it shaped you, how it prepared you for your work.

Kakkis: I spent my time at Pomona as a biology major. I took a lot of chemistry, biochemistry and a fair amount of philosophy too. I took a course with [Professor Fred] Sontag when I was a freshman. I thought I was a good writer, and then I discovered that I was not a good writer. Sontag had a great policy. You wrote your first paper; he graded it and he graded it thoroughly. If you rewrote the paper based on the comments, then he would grade the new one too and average it with your first draft. I ended up rewriting every single paper. What he was doing was encouraging you. It started me thinking about how to express yourself and how to edit yourself. How to think ahead, how things sound, how they read. It was a really important piece of learning.

The science training was, of course, excellent. As an undergrad I was running the research; there wasn’t a grad student. Therefore, you had to learn and organize the research yourself and conduct experiments and plan what you were going to do. It’s a good test for your ability to organize and execute, which serves you well later. You’ve done it before, as opposed to being a helper on someone else’s project where you’re just following along. Having to do it yourself as an undergraduate researcher challenges you to think harder, deeper and to be able to plan and execute an actual research program.

PCM: Would you have any advice for Pomona students who are either aspiring physicians or scientists, or both?

Kakkis: The important thing that I put in the book is the discovery of your true purpose for your career. It shouldn’t be about money, or fame or prizes. It should be, what do you want to do that’s going to be meaningful, that will last and be important?

In college, you have a lot of reasons why you might become an M.D.-Ph.D. Finding your true purpose will help you make better decisions as you go forward that are not about your fame or about money but about doing the right thing that helps achieve something lasting. You could talk about prizes or tenure, but there’s nothing quite like talking with Ryan or meeting him, finding out how he’s doing and realizing that you’ve changed the course of his life and the lives of many other kids with MPS I. There’s a real purpose to what you can get done in research if you find that purpose. And if you adhere to it, then you can have a career that’s without regret and achieve great things.

PCM: What has been the reception to your book?

Kakkis: The reception has been really good. I’m happy I got it done because at least the story is down on paper. The truth is, like any movie or writer, there are always imperfections you wish could be better, but I do feel it captures the story enough that others can relive it and maybe draw from it what it takes to do the impossible and how gratifying and exhilarating it can be.

PCM: I could see it becoming a movie.

Kakkis: That’s right. I’m going to be lobbying for George Clooney to play me. He was a great pediatrician on ER; he needs to be a pediatrician in the movie. He’s done everything else. He’s been a lawyer and other things. It’s time for him to be a doctor again.

PCM: Any last things you’d like
to share?

Kakkis: You always wonder what you can do with your life. I’ve run into students lately, especially post-pandemic, that feel like there’s nothing that they want to do or nothing great, no place to go. The truth is, there are incredible projects that are waiting for them that they’ve never heard of, that they can find, that will give their life great meaning and purpose. They should keep searching for that thing and find that passion and that purpose and do great things. You may not have any idea what it is—I certainly had no idea when I was in college, but it came out, it was found. I hope people get the inspiration to seek that mission and find their purpose. Even though you have no idea what it is now, it will come, and then you have to see it in front of you and know when it’s time that this is the thing I need to do.

Bookmarks: Winter 2023

Seeding the Tradition: Musical Creativity in Southern Vietnam

Seeding the Tradition: Musical Creativity in Southern Vietnam

Alexander Cannon ’05 explores southern Vietnamese traditional music while suggesting revised approaches to studying creativity in contemporary ethnomusicology.

Dreaming of Space

Dreaming of Space

In this children’s book, Grant Collier ’96 combines photos with illustrations to tell the story of a boy who dreams that aliens take him on a journey across the universe.

Tanum: A Story of Bumping Lake and the William O. Douglas Wilderness

Tanum: A Story of Bumping Lake and the William O. Douglas Wilderness

Susan Summit Cyr ’85 P ’13 recounts the history of the little-known pocket of Bumping Lake in Washington state and the conservationists who fought to preserve it.

Bibliophiles, Murderous Bookmen, and Mad Librarians: The Story of Books in Modern Spain

Bibliophiles, Murderous Bookmen, and Mad Librarians: The Story of Books in Modern Spain

Robert Ellis ’77 examines how books are represented in modern Spanish writing and how Spanish bibliophiles reflect on the role of books in their lives.

Preserving Whose City? Memory, Place, and Identity in Rio de Janeiro

Preserving Whose City? Memory, Place, and Identity in Rio de Janeiro

Geographer Brian J. Godfrey ’74 describes preservation projects undertaken in Rio de Janeiro since the 1930s and the role of memory in placemaking.

Boundless: An Abortion Doctor Becomes a Mother

Boundless: An Abortion Doctor Becomes a Mother

Through weaving her personal narrative with stories of her patients, Christine Henneberg ’05 deals with the complexities of motherhood and choice.

Applying Lean Six Sigma in the Healthcare Setting

Applying Lean Six Sigma in the Healthcare Setting

Scott Lisbin ’77 advises healthcare professionals on improving access, quality, safety, service and affordability in the healthcare environment.

A Midnight Train to Everywhere

A Midnight Train to Everywhere

This paranormal fantasy novel by Ryan Mims ’99 takes readers on an adventure through the afterlife and across the multiverse.

Wishbone Behind the Scenes

Wishbone Behind the Scenes

Denise Noe ’81 goes behind the scenes to show how this educational children’s TV program starring a Jack Russell Terrier was created.

Evading the Patronage Trap: Interest Representation in Mexico

Evading the Patronage Trap: Interest Representation in Mexico

Brian Palmer-Rubin ’04 unpacks how reliance on economic interest organizations undermines interest representation in developing democracies.

The Traces

The Traces

In this memoir, Mairead Small Staid ’10 draws on the fields of physics, history, architecture and cartography to explore the nature of happiness and memory.

To Be Enlightened 

To Be Enlightened 

This fantasy novel by Alan J. Steinberg ’79 passes on lessons on meditation and enlightenment by following the life of a fictional philosophy professor at Pomona College.

Disrupting Corporate Culture

Disrupting Corporate Culture

David G. White Jr. ’83 uses cognitive science research to provide a guide on how to sustainably change culture in the business world.

McKenzie Rising: An American Frolic

McKenzie Rising: An American Frolic

Miles Wilson ’66 satirizes contemporary America and its institutions in this novel about MegaMax Corporation’s venture to turn the McKenzie Valley into an upscale development.

Garrett Hongo ’73: An Honored Poet in Search of the Perfect Stereo Sound

This spring, Garrett Hongo ’73 received the 2022 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, an annual prize presented to a writer who has had a substantial and distinguished career. Past winners of the award, presented by the Sewanee Review each year since 1987, include Howard Nemerov, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wendell Berry, Louise Glück and Billy Collins.

Both a poet and a memoirist, Hongo draws heavily upon his memories of growing up on the North Shore of O‘ahu and in Los Angeles. His time at Pomona also figures prominently in his recollections, and his poem “Under the Oaks at Holmes Hall, Overtaken by Rain” is inscribed on a plaque in the Smith Campus Center. Now a Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, Hongo’s collections of poetry include The River of Heaven, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1989.

Shortly after Hongo visited campus for a reading this spring, PCM’s Lorraine Wu Harry ’97 talked with him about his recently published book, The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo, in which he delivers a personal memoir of his life as a poet vis-à-vis his decade-long quest for the ideal stereo setup. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

PCM: You have such a strong memory for things that happened even long ago.

Garrett Hongo: People have told me that. Things are very vivid in my mind. I remember easily, as it were. The phrase from William Wordsworth that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility”—I need to do it or else I’m unhappy. It’s how I create who I am, in a way. It’s not just to write but to be. I live in remembrance, and it’s something I need to do.

PCM: It seems like nostalgia also plays a strong role in your writing.

Hongo: I think it’s often characterized as nostalgia, but it’s a little different than that for me. Having been uprooted and moved to South Central L.A., it was something about living in a feeling that was no longer present in my life in L.A. that I had as a child in Hawai‘i. The German philosopher Friedrich Schiller talks about naive and sentimental poetry. The naive poet would be the poet who lives in emotions, and the sentimental poet is a poet who longs for the emotion previously lived. In that characterization, I would be a sentimental poet. However, I’m a sentimental poet in the sense that the emotion was not fully lived. It takes the activity of the recollection and that instigation of longing in order to complete the mental experience.

PCM: You talk about writing being for yourself. Do you did you find that this book met that need?

Hongo: People always question my obsession with hi-fi. They thought it was insanity. I didn’t even know it myself, but it was a way for me to meditate.

I really loved writing the book. I loved learning how to write the book because I didn’t know how to do it. I had all this conflict of memoir and I want to know about audio. How do you make it all work together? It was only after almost 10 years of not knowing what the hell I was doing, all of a sudden, I figured it out, and then the book came like that—boom. I’d written pieces of it. I basically wrote the whole book in a couple years, but it took eight years of not figuring it out. That seems to be my pattern for every book I write. What the hell am I doing? What is all this? I’m so awful. And I go through a lot of self-hate and castigation, and all of a sudden it breaks through.

PCM: Did you have experiences of remembering things you had forgotten?

Hongo: That’s what the book is. It’s about revelation and realization. As they say in self-help, it’s self-actualization in writing. My adoration of vacuum tubes is the same. I didn’t understand why I was so attracted to them. When I saw an amp online, I thought, “I gotta have a vacuum tube amp.” I said, “Well, I suppose that will reproduce the human voice better than transistor amps.” But what I was really doing was remembering my father. And I didn’t really realize that until I started fooling around with tube amps myself, and I remembered all those evenings with him, when he would solder together these kits and his vacuum tube amplifiers. It was also a kind of fulfillment because I would hear all the music that he could not in his losing his hearing.

As a poet, you feel confirmed in these kinds of emotions. You seek confirmation, blessing as it were, in the memories, and their pursuit gives you that. This is the way you build, as they say in psychology, personality. This is how you create subjectivity. But this is also the way ultimately you create lineage, ancestry and continuity of goodwill.

Like I say in the end of the book, my friend, Mahealani Pai, who I spent a couple of days with on the Big Island at Kaloko-Honokahau, I asked him why he was chanting or what he was chanting. He said he was chanting the names of his ancestors. I said, “Why you do that?” And he said, “So I will know them and they will know me.” And I said, “Oh, for what?” And he said, “So that when I make a decision and I chant, I will make a decision or choice in harmony with their spirits.”

It stayed in my mind. And it made sense for myself in terms of writing this book when I realized that I’m fulfilling something for my father in my own quest, and it was also a quest to become his heir, his scion, his descendant in this life, to be truly a son. So the book is a kind of Telemacheia in that sense.

PCM: What feedback have you gotten from readers? You write very much about your own experience as a Japanese American, but so many people feel a resonance with your stories.

Hongo: I think people come through the different layers of hegemonic discourse and then they respond to the work because it allows them to come through those layers. Because what they are told about identity, ethnicity, even common humanity obstructs what they feel because it puts them in positions that in fact blind and silence them to their own emotional resonances with their own lives. Poetry, not just mine, but a lot of poetry gives them the opportunity to break through those things in a way that refreshes their own affections or what has been silenced in their own histories or microhistories. I think there is a kind of intuitive connection that they feel that emerges, and I’m grateful for that.

PCM: How do you feel your time at Pomona shaped your writing and who you are now?

Hongo: I write with fondness of my time at Pomona in several episodes of my book. The liberal arts education itself afforded me a different kind of consciousness with which to engage the world. A liberal arts education gives you more freedom, allows you to be more free, allows you to be more self-creative. We’re not looking to fit. We’re looking to create.


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