The new gods are running into a bit of trouble. From the soap opera playing out at Twitter HQ, the too-big-to-fail bankruptcies in the cryptocurrency space, to mass tech layoffs, the past month has seen successive headlines declaring a litany of woes facing the bullish tech boyos in Silicon Valley and beyond.
The minute-by-minute coverage of Elon Musk’s escapades and the global levels of interest in the FTX collapse both go well beyond what you’d expect from a business story. I’m willing to gamble a few Bitcoins that the popular fixation has little to do with any particular interest in successful software engineering; rather it is the personalities who inhabit these spaces, and the philosophies that propel them in their godlike ambition. What is their end goal, we wonder. What drives them, beyond the pursuit of growth? It is easy to assume that money is all that motivates the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Musk and Jeff Bezos. Except, when you start to examine the mindsets of these men, it’s clear that cash is far from the whole story.
The concept of “effective altruism” has had its day in court after FTX, the world’s second largest cryptocurrency exchange announced that, oops, it was mysteriously short of $8bn and would be filing for bankruptcy, post haste. As the dust – and fraud allegations – settle, the personal guiding principles of FTX’s millennial chief executive, Sam Bankman-Fried, have come to the fore. Bankman-Fried ostensibly was driven into crypto by an adherence to the “effective altruism” movement. Originally espousing giving as much targeted time and money to philanthropy as possible, EA has been morphed by its most prominent practitioners into getting very, very rich and then spending that money on projects that better the human race. This “earn-to-give” philosophy is dependent on data-driven analysis of what causes offer the best returns of “betterment”. It’s utilitarianism with a god complex.
Since Bankman-Fried’s spectacular fall from grace, it seems as if this doctrine may be doomed to the same downward spiral as its most famous disciple. It’s hard to argue that you possess the best instincts to improve the prospects of the human race when you can’t even keep your own affairs – or billions in customer funds – in order.
Then there was the allegation last week by the Insider journalist Julia Black that Musk, along with other billionaires, appear to be engaged in their own personal eugenics programme via a movement called “pronatalism”. Black writes that pronatalism – an ideology centred on having children to reverse falling birthrates in European countries, and prevent a predicted population collapse – is “taking hold in wealthy tech and venture-capitalist circles”, with the aid of hi-tech genetic screening.
Musk has championed pronatalist ideas publicly. Privately the Tesla founder is, in his own words, “doing my part”; he has 10 children known to the public, two of whom are twins he fathered with an AI expert who serves as an executive for his Neuralink company. But the ideas go beyond Musk and into the canyons of Silicon Valley; the world’s richest and most powerful people see it as their duty, Black claims, to “replicate themselves as many times as possible”.
Black’s subjects also namecheck effective altruism, longtermism (which prioritises the distant future over the concerns of today), and transhumanism (the evolution of humanity beyond current limitations via tech), as complementary philosophies. The concept of legacy is key to understanding our tech pioneers. As one interviewee tells Black, “The person of this subculture really sees the pathway to immortality as being through having children.” Given that Musk’s “genius” business record is one of multiple near-bankruptcies before he even arrived at Twitter, this rather undermines the theory that the future will be safe only if populated by mini-Musks.
These companies believe that in order to make visions ideas a reality, they require total control of the landscape around them. In his 2017 book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer wrote that Facebook – now Meta – was founded on the concept of “radical transparency” – a belief that sharing every facet of our lives will somehow result in social good. The metaverse, in which we don’t just share our lives on social media but conduct them within it, is this idea’s logical conclusion. It has already lost the company $9.4bn.
Silicon Valley and its missionary outposts are dominated not only by the pursuit of growth, which is a means to an end. The underlying raison d’etre tying these various tech titans together is their fervour for enacting their own personal theological outlooks in supposed service of the wider world. To do this, they must dominate and monopolise – remake society in their image, platform by integrated platform.
When we view these monoliths as businesses like any other, or allow them to claim global monopolies, we fail to realise that they are competing for more than our attention or our cash: they are competing for the right to dictate what our societies look like. So it matters a great deal when that vision falters, or fails altogether. It’s the stuff of myth and folktale played out via forums and Wall Street Journal tip lines; the emperors slowly shedding their clothes. We are watching would-be gods shrink back to being men once more.