Towards an Industry That Isn't Led By Billionaires
Because society and AI, indeed, depends on it (7 min read)
Criticism of the tech industry and its billionaires is reaching a fever pitch, and rightfully so. From its monopolistic power to the dehumanizing labor practices to the disregard for diversity and transparency to the hubris of it all, the collective discontent has grown louder and more organized in recent years. And now, after a year of global economic turbulence, hostile takeovers, devastating layoffs, and a tipping point for AI, the industry is grappling with what their companies will look like in the coming months and the leaders and values that will shape it. Will we, the non-billionaires, have a voice in the matter?
As of this writing, and according to layoffs.fyi, a database that tracks tech company layoffs, 979 tech companies have laid off employees in the last two years, directly impacting over 150,000 workers globally. Meta alone laid off 13% of its workforce this year. Amid ongoing layoffs, an expected barrage of public apologies have emerged, from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “I got this wrong,” to Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, “We were much too optimistic,” to former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, “I grew the company size too quickly. I apologize for that.” An offering of milquetoast apologies written by PR teams became the antidote for the consequences of their grueling overconfidence.
One after another, Silicon Valley’s billionaires asked for forgiveness for chasing a longstanding, widespread, and dominant value: growth. But now, amid an economic slowdown and an expanding billionaire and centi-millionaire class, workers and new graduates are left to bear the cost based on the faulty plans of the few.
Among the barrage of billionaire apologies was, of course, Sam Bankman-Fried, disgraced crypto magician of FTX, who caused $32 billion to disappear like a hat trick, impacting hundreds of thousands of people. Shortly after FTX’s downfall became public, Mr. Bankman-Fried tweeted, “In any scenario in which FTX continues operating, its first priority will be radical transparency — transparency it probably always should have been giving.”
As he now faces a courtroom hearing in the Bahamas (it’s giving Fyre Fest vibes) and potentially 115 years in prison if convicted, he is also, more or less, showing us what happens when we abandon the values of transparency and accountability. But I fear, some days, that “radical transparency” will forever remain a platitude, not a policy, a mere etch on the PR tombstones of fraudulent companies.
Then, there’s Elon Musk. Throughout Mr. Musk’s Twitter takeover, he has celebrated “torturing himself” through sleep deprivation and overworking, while empty cans of sugar water and loaded guns lay by his bedside. He has called for a commitment to being “hardcore,” unhealthy values that Twitter’s remaining staff must submit to or they will lose their jobs, leaving many immigrants working on employment-based visas without a choice. He has banned journalists who have been critical of him while praising himself as the hero of free speech. Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former Head of Trust and Safety who resigned shortly after Mr. Musk’s takeover, remarked in an on-stage interview with Kara Swisher that Twitter was a less safe place since the take over, and with terrifying inertia, two weeks later, Mr. Roth was forced to flee his home after Musk falsely accused him of sexualizing children, ultimately launching a digital mob against him.
While some argue that Musk is shedding the myth of the billionaire genius, just two days ago, a tech worker in San Francisco shared with me that the leaders at their company are explicitly looking at Musk for guidance for how to cut costs. Late last month, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, called Musk “the bravest, most creative person on the planet.” Kevin Roose, a tech columnist for the NY Times, recently spoke with Roy Bahat, a venture capitalist with Bloomberg Beta, who said, “He says the things that many CEOs wish they could say, and then he actually does them.”
Over the last year, I have seen and heard Musk’s name and opinions everywhere, capturing the attention of nearly every screen, joke, chat, and tweet (it’s giving 2016 Trump vibes.) It makes one wonder whether Musk has to uphold the myth of the billionaire genius at all when we’ve constructed a world–one we can change if we decided to–where one person can amass that much wealth, influence, and attention.
In a trillion-dollar industry that is mostly unregulated, it is easy to deviate from ourselves, making us more susceptible to greed, fraud, hubris, violence, and overwork, catalyzing a fracturing of our humanity. This is, of course, a tale as old as time, but what’s different now, isn’t merely the economic pressures that are cutting into the tech industry’s record profits, but the rise of generative AI. With the advent of Dall-E, Lensa, ChatGPT, and other AI tools this year, the question of what makes us uniquely human, and how we protect that humanity as AI advances, has grown more prescient than provocative. How will AI be shaped if what’s left of our humanity is the worst parts of ourselves? How will an expanding billionaire class and “hardcore” values affect humanity and AI in the coming years? Who are we if we can't enact proactive measures to protect us from ourselves? What values and policies will we choose to retire and enact, and how will we work together to make this happen?
Last month, during the sentencing hearing of Elizabeth Holmes, another billionaire of another fraud, the blood testing company Theranos, US District Judge of Northern California, Edward Davila, delivered a remarkable speech that, if we wanted to, could serve as a north star for the way we create and engage with technology, a call to move forward by learning from our past:
“I'm a native. I was born up the street, and I remember this valley, and the innovation of this valley. The richness of the earth that is below us here in this valley at one time was agriculture…[Farmers] made their agreements, they exchanged business dealings…sealed with a handshake, they were sealed with an eye-to-eye promise to perform.”
“But as all things do, times change,” Mr. Davila continued.
“The industry that we know of here,” he concluded, “regrettably finds vectors with the financial and personal gain that clouds sometimes the good judgment of individuals, and we see that. This is a fraud case where an exciting venture went forward with great expectations and hope only to be dashed by untruth, misrepresentations, hubris, and plain lies…Now, perhaps that is the cautionary tale that will go forward from this case.”
Mr. Davila’s speech provokes in me both sorrow and hope: he has mapped our progress and our destruction, that cautionary tales serve as potent reminders not to repeat but to urgently change course.
And in recent years, it has been encouraging to witness an emerging generation of tech workers act with solidarity, accountability, and collective abundance, values that the valley once knew. From the resuscitation of labor unions, to the formation of community-rooted organizations, to workers building the transparency and community they need by sharing their resources, networks, and expertise amid ongoing layoffs; these actions are illuminating a return to a long forgotten ethic of care, and perhaps, the forging of a new era in tech.
But as tech faces more shakiness ahead, there is still much to process within ourselves and our communities. How will we choose to engage or not engage with Twitter, and other platforms that are likely to follow Musk, now that they’re run by “hardcore” billionaire bosses? How will we organize ourselves to make this moment of instability for tech, a moment of labor progress and policy change? How will we work together, whether we’re tech workers, investors, or consumers, to advocate for and build regulations that support everyone, not just the few?
The farmers honored the earth by valuing and acting with honesty and humility, collective abundance and community, cause and consequence. These are the values that leaders should be looking for, that tech workers should be looking for from their leaders, and that consumers should look for in how their platforms are run. After all, it is not merely the values of solidarity, accountability, and collective abundance but how we organize, act, and build policies based on these values that makes the difference. This is how we exercise our voices. This is what makes us human.
Special thanks to Sarah Potts for editing this piece. <3