How the tech titans crashed head-first into reality

How the tech titans crashed head-first into reality

You’ve heard the joke about the US Navy vessel and its unidentified opponent that won’t get out of the way. Its Captain, outraged at its refusal, barks into the radio that he’ll sink them if they don’t reconsider, to which the opponent responds “Sir, this is a lighthouse.” I suspect that the truth it speaks to – some people want to steam ahead with what they want, regardless of the material facts – is something everyone can recognize. And it’s also true that the ones who are most convinced of their rightness are the ones who don’t notice the proverbial lighthouses looming on the horizon.

I think it’s a mindset that Silicon Valley types train themselves into because it’s part of the myth-making that takes place there. Star innovators who defied common opinion, and logic, to forge their own path and make a fortune from something everyone else had missed. It’s rarely true, but it’s a useful narrative to cling to, and it’s easier to portray yourself as swimming alone against a tide of hostility (or indifference), especially if you interpret valid criticism as obstinate censure. It’s an attitude that’ll get you far, for sure, but can often leave you open to calamities that others might have avoided.

Take Meta, which bragged back in October that it had invested blown $10 billion on its mediocre VR environments Metaverse ambitions. When the company said that its cutesy avatars were getting legs (the must-have accessory for any digital avatar in 2022) there was scoffing. The scoffing got louder when it turns out that the leg animations used in the demo were, in fact, faked. $10 billion for that, in this economy? Either VR feature development really is more expensive than curing world hunger, or Mark Zuckerberg’s being had.

The narrative, intentionally or otherwise, is that Zuckerberg is leading a spirited, one-man quest to own whatever the internet will evolve into. I’ll admit, it’s not the dumbest move, given that while Facebook remains massively profitable, its long-term future remains uncertain. It’s just a shame that his bet seems to be a perpetually-sunny, cel-shaded version of the world from Neuromancer rather than anything better. And, to be honest, all of the non-tech people I know have looked at VR demos and politely decided that they’d much rather stick with anything else.

Part of this is because so many tech leaders are in their post-imperial phase, beheading anyone who dares suggest the kingdom is in ruins. It means the information handed to dear leaders is scrubbed-free of anything that could anger them, thinning their already thin skin. (Elon Musk has a knack for firing anyone who disagrees with him, even if he’s been proven wrong.) Worse, is that as they surround themselves with sycophants, they become increasingly unaware of their own blind spots.

For instance, we’re expected to hit a deep recession as energy and food prices continue to leap up. People are looking for ways to save money, but still want to hook onto whatever exciting fad is coming around the corner. Instead of spending $10 billion on… legs, why didn’t Meta use half of that money to reduce the barriers of entry to would-be VR users? $5 billion could have easily been used to discount the price of a Quest 2 to between $99 and $199 for several million people. Yes, you’d be forcing things a little, but imagine how many people would buy Beat Saber in the run-up to the holidays. Sadly, it’s hard to care about the material concerns of normal people when the closest thing you’ve got to a nearby normal person is (Facebook’s President of Global Affairs) Nick Clegg leashed to your gatepost, attacking any would-be visitors and biting the mailman.

Then there’s Sam Bankman-Fried (and his cohort), who at the time of writing has just been arrested for all of the things he’s done. Now, I have to admit, events are moving so fast that it’s hard to come up with anything pithy about SBF, FTX, Alameda and everything else. But it already looks like we’re going to have to endure at least two competing prestige miniseries about All Of This. It’s just a shame that after the freewheeling cons of Theranos, WeWork and Uber, we’re not learning any of our lessons and are, instead, enabling these crooks.

Now, I could repeat much of what’s already been written about crypto this year, but I don’t think there would be much point. Between you and me, I think that the crypto world is going to fall into terminal decline in the not-too distant future. There are only so many major exchanges that can collapse, wiping out people’s cash, before would-be converts start deciding that less risky ventures are for them. And without the constant supply of new fools, the bloodbath of people trying to turn their digital fortunes into real ones will crater Bitcoin’s value.

What I’d rather talk about is the culture that enabled Bankman-Fried to garner so much public attention as he did. And that means talking about the media, which gave him so much space and praise as to prematurely sanctify an unreliable, or untrustworthy, figure. Was he enabled and feted by an industry that’s desperate to find and groom future superstars? It makes sense, given you need celebrities to sell print editions, and be keynote speakers at those live events which apparently generate the bulk of the cash those publications rake in.

Since there’s nobody else who fits into the mold of that fictional US Navy captain, I’d like to talk about my plans for 2023. I’ve decided to become a Tesla mechanic, since so many of those cars seem to need mechanical repair after they’ve left the factory. Now, I don’t know anything about electronics, engineering, automotive technology, wiring repair, aerodynamics, software design, LIDAR, autonomous systems, safety legislation, wheel dynamics or power efficiency, but I reckon it’s both really easy, and bound to be super profitable.

And, let’s be clear, I can just open the hood of your Tesla and start ripping out the wiring looms, because anyone who disagrees with me is suffering from the woke mind virus. I’ll hire a couple of kids who scrawled penises on the walls of their middle school, because that’s really funny. Maybe I should use my wealth to buy an independent EV repair store, although I might need to let some of the qualified EV mechanics go in order to recoup the enormous purchase price. I’ll also let the payroll, tax, accounts and safety crew go too, because who needs ‘em, right?

Now, get out of my way, I’ve got a lighthouse to move.

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