Who Will Pay the Price for Big Tech’s Hubris?
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The Wages of Hubris Are … ?
Tech news hasn’t had a week like last week since—maybe?—the 2000 dotcom crash. FTX, the world’s second-biggest crypto exchange, went from $32 billion to bankrupt in about three days, and hackers took advantage of the chaos to steal hundreds of millions of dollars. Meta laid off 11,000 people, 13 percent of its workforce, and that was just a tenth of all the other tech industry layoffs this year. And, Twitter, well, I don’t need to tell you about Twitter.
This is history repeating itself as tragedy and farce all at once. We already know which scenes will be in the movies and TV series: Elon Musk carrying that sink into Twitter HQ, a Twitter manager vomiting into a trash can after being told to fire hundreds of people, polyamorous FTX founders cavorting in their penthouse in the Bahamas. There will be books: Michael Lewis has been shadowing FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried for months, and Walter Isaacson is writing a biography of Musk.
OK, but once everyone has put away the 🍿, what will we have learned? A few things have stood out to me in the torrent of incredulity:
- Isaacson in a TV interview in September talking about one secret of Musk’s success: his ability to set aside empathy for his employees when it would interfere with his vision.
- Investor and longtime acquaintance of Musk’s, Chris Sacca, in a revealing thread on how Musk’s inner circle has “become increasingly sycophantic and opportunistic,” as a result of which “the hard truth is that he is straight-up alone right now and winging this.”
- Plus, those text messages released a few weeks ago between Musk and various powerful friends revealing exactly that level of sycophancy.
- William MacAskill, the philosopher (or, if you prefer, cult leader) of the Effective Altruism movement, into which he recruited Bankman-Fried, implicitly acknowledging in a mournful thread that if you tell people that the best way to do outsized good is to first amass outsized wealth, they might, idk, abuse that wealth?
- A fawning (and extremely long) profile of Bankman-Fried posted in September by Sequoia Capital and then hastily taken down—but luckily preserved for ignominious posterity by the Internet Archive—that shows off his enormous charisma: “After my interview with SBF, I was convinced: I was talking to a future trillionaire. Whatever mojo he worked on the partners at Sequoia—who fell for him after one Zoom—had worked on me, too.”
- See also the mea culpa by the writer who published an equally fawning profile in Fortune.
- Finally, Mark Zuckerberg’s iron grip on Meta, in which he controls the majority of voting shares, is well-documented and is why nobody challenged his decisions, over years, to keep growing the ranks of the company in pursuit of a succession of failed projects.
Ah, the price of power and hubris! It’s one of the oldest stories in the book. But coming at the end of a year in which tech stocks have taken a beating, at least one op-ed writer hopes this moment will “mark the end of the era of visionary, autocratic tech founders who ‘grow too quickly.’”