In WIRED, Lauren Goode discusses the case of Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX. She wonders why these things keep happening and comes to rest on the answer provided by Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, that people are too optimistic when it comes to technology. Goode writes:
In the case of Sam Bankman-Fried or the recently sentenced fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, the collective and generally positive fascination with them may have stemmed from old-fashioned solutionism. “They were both fixing a failure, right?” O’Mara says. “Holmes enters the scene at a time when people are asking, ‘Where are the women in tech? Also, all you guys are doing in the Valley is making apps. She’s making medical devices that are going to change health care.’”
More recently, the world of crypto has also been seen as imperfect and even downright sketchy. Then along came SBF, and the familiar cycle began again. “He’s the stereotype, the nerdy guy in the cargo shorts with a pedigreed background,” O’Mara says. “He’s a quant. And then he’s talking about politics and altruism. He’s not just talking about the tech he’s heads-down in, he’s talking about the world and how he can deploy what he’s doing more broadly.”
Basically, O’Mara’s diagnosis of the underlying problem is a persistent case of techno-optimism. Despite the fact that technology hasn’t lived up to all its promises to turn us into a smarter, more efficient, more productive society over the past 20 years—a point that was made in another lengthy conversation I had this week—we still wonder if tech itself can solve the complexities tech hath wrought. “There’s this hopefulness that technology will save us, even though we have abundant evidence that it can be problematic,” O’Mara says.
It’s an arguably simplistic explanation for why so many people hastily put SBF on a pedestal, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We’re human, after all. (I am reminded of another Giridharadas gem on tech founder hero worship: “They are as limited at humanity as I am at coding. But therefore I stay away from coding, and they refuse to stay away from lording over humanity.”)
Maybe that’s what I was looking for when I tuned into that Zoom event with SBF back in April: some evidence of humanity, in addition to a better understanding of exactly how an unregulated exchange for digital coins could be worth the equivalent of billions of US dollars. Now, after a spectacular downfall, at least one of those is crystal clear.
If you’re willing to fight for Main Street America, click here to sign up for the Richardcyoung.com free weekly email.