Beloved pseudonymous philosopher Weird Twitter once drilled he wrote“, “I am not owned! I’m not owned!!”, I still insist as I slowly shrink and turn into a corncob” [sic]
This 2011 tweet spawned the phrase “corn cobbing,” which in Internet parlance means claiming victory in the face of obvious, humiliating defeat.
It now seems almost narratively heavy-handed that the social network that allowed drill to become an absurd folk hero among the extreme online scene is led by Elon Musk, the world’s richest man (for now) — a man once hailed as a genius but currently he definitely doesn’t act like that.
Musk lost more than half of his workforce due to ill-conceived layoffs and inhumane demands. Advertisers are fleeing. Selling verified checkmarks to any idiot with $8 and a willingness to give his credit card information to a site that had lost a significant portion of its security team led to chaos and occasional hilarity. (In a twist that must be heartbreaking for a desperate Musk to be funny, he’s not the one responsible for the laughs, the anonymous hero pretends to be Eli Lilly.)
November 21 New York Times piece claims this is just Elon Doing Elon, running Twitter the same way he ran Tesla and SpaceX in the early days. While reporters express healthy skepticism that this approach will work at a company as different as Twitter, they also leave open the possibility that this is all part of a playbook that has worked before and may work again.
Meanwhile, while Musk isn’t saying much to the media, he’s definitely tweeting it, busting shit, and making claims I wanted to do it-reversed his L’s and joined them together, telling us they were W’s all along. (Elon, those are clearly L’s. We see the Scotch tape.)
Let me offer a simpler explanation: maybe Elon Musk isn’t the boy genius he’s been made out to be, and he never was. And his Silicon Valley peers might not either.
Tens of thousands of tech workers have lost their jobs in the past month — from Meta to Twitter to Amazon and beyond — and in the coming weeks, industry leaders have predicted more.
Of course, expansions and contractions are inevitable regardless of industry. But with what we’re seeing now across technology, there’s something more going on. It feels bigger than the gentle wave of the Invisible Hand. It looks like a bunch of guys who were heralded as geniuses, then made a bunch of bad calls, and now reality is finally catching up with them.
As a result, the people who worked for them, who trusted them, are hurt.
“The tech industry is a Chinese business full of bulls…in the sense that many of its leaders have no idea what they are doing.“
Just a month ago, the bullish story about Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto-billionaire from the Bahamas, was prevalent. At the age of 30, he was the face and brain of the FTX crypto exchange. It had celebrity endorsements, Super Bowl commercials, and a cover Forbes magazine. However, between November 8 and 11 of this year, SBF’s net worth went from an estimated $10.6 billion to $0 when it was revealed that the company was doing a lot of things that companies handling other people’s money shouldn’t be doing. the value of its underlying cryptocurrency has completely collapsed. Bankman-Fried mishandled customer funds in a manner similar to what American banks did before the stock market crash of 1929. Not very brilliant behavior!
Amazon will also cut 10,000 jobs after its “worldwide digital” unit lost a reported $3 billion in the first quarter of this year. According to Business Insider, that’s because its Alexa virtual assistant, which everyone thought was the future of computing 10 years ago, wasn’t actually the future of computing. Alexa and its associated products have been “sinkholes” for years, facing controversies that have eroded consumer trust in them, from secretly recording conversations when they should have been turned off to failing to get users to keep making purchases. Oops. Maybe Jeff Bezos should have stayed in space.
The supposedly brilliant mind of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been making some expensive stink lately. The recently renamed Meta (no one calls it Meta unless it’s being covered by reporters or traders shorting its stock) has sunk a goddamn amount of money into developing the so-called Metaverse, an immersive virtual reality world that requires a $400 headset. it delivers a consistently buggy and bizarrely legless user experience.
(Disclosure: I was paid to create content on the Meta platform under contract between June 2021 and October 2022. I was not an employee of the company or privy to any internal discussions or business.)
But just as Elon took off on Twitter and someone impersonating Sam Bankman-Fried created a believable fake listing for a $40 million Bahamian shelter scammer, Zuck announced that 11,000 of his employees were going to lose their jobs. That’s 13 percent of its workforce out of work, heading into the holidays and possibly a recession.
It reads a bit like an own goal.
Maybe if it spent less on setting up camp in the Uncanny Valley, Facebook would be less of a last resort for the uncle no one wants to talk to on Thanksgiving and more of a square ready to step in and fill the role that Twitter did before it started circling around toilet bowls. Hindsight is 20-20 unless you’re strapped into a virtual reality headset and can’t see anything that’s actually going on around you.
How many of these tech crashes do we have to survive before we stop lending such avid credulity to the genius CEO myth? How old are Elizabeth Holmeses? How much WeWorks? How many prestigious streaming miniseries based on the collapse of a company founded by a charismatic charlatan do we have to see nominated for the minimum number of Emmys in a supporting role before we learn?
Silicon Valley’s strange worship of Silicon Valley leaders has always been tiresome to those of us whose brains aren’t pickled in brine. But now we’re seeing the tech industry—with its pathological reluctance to recognize the limits of its leaders—explode in a spectacular way, in a way that could harm even those who didn’t know Elon if they happened to be run over by his “self-driving” Tesla.
The tech industry is a china shop full of bulls—both in the sense that without the delusional optimism in the positive potential of every endeavor, the entire field would collapse in on itself, and in the sense that many of its leaders have no damn idea what they want. I do.
We watch what happens when a culture is built on a belief in the automythology of its leaders.
Silicon Valley is not an incubator for superheroes. Its leaders are not gods. Many of them are not even geniuses. The longer we remember, the better we can prevent history from repeating itself. And again. And again.