Back in April I paid $12 to attend a virtual event with 30-year-old crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. About 45 other people signed up for the Zoom, which was hosted by Manny Yekutiel, a San Francisco-based Democratic organizer and owner of the eponymous Manny’s public venue.
Yekutiel is an affable yet astute questioner, sitting against a bright pink sequin backdrop, pressing SBF (as he’s known) on crypto applications and regulation, concepts of freedom and liberty, and the potentially destructive means that can serve the endgame of effective altruism. . SBF, calling from a darkened hotel room in Washington, D.C., seemed pleased with his own answers. He also seemed distracted during the 50-minute zoom, his gaze wandering and his face occasionally lighting up, the telltale sign that another application was opening. League of Legends? Could be. Either way, I didn’t walk away — or shut my laptop — more understanding of the hype.
It was another SBF sitting this week for a livestream interview with razor-sharp financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. The crypto entrepreneur’s right arm kept shaking and he looked grumpy. “Look, I’ve had a bad month,” SBF said at one point, in what may be the understatement of 2022.
In recent weeks, SBF’s $32 billion crypto exchange, FTX, has completely unravelled. Investors lost millions. SBF’s own largely theoretical wealth has dwindled. Prominent investors have tried to cut their ties with him. And the one-time prodigy seems unable to directly answer questions about his own guilt in what is increasingly seen as a fraudulent crypto scheme. “I was as truthful as I know how,” he told Sorkin. “I don’t know of the times I lied.” (It depends on the meaning of the word isis.)
Were there any signs that FTX was a house of cards and that the whiz kid founder might not know which way is up? The answer depends in part on one’s inherent skepticism and understanding of the machinations of the crypto market. Short answer: Yes. Federal prosecutors reportedly investigated FTX months before it crashed. But there were other reasons to be skeptical of an unproven entrepreneur who seemed all too willing to embody the Silicon Valley mad genius archetype. So why did we – investors, crypto fiends, the media – get back into it? Or, as writer and well-known billionaire skeptic Anand Giridharadas put it, “My only take on the SBF interview is that I don’t know why we continue to trust very limited, half-grown men with the keys to our prosperity and society… He has very little to teach. Lots to learn. Somehow so many have it backwards.”
I posed this question to Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington and author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remake of America. Everyone loves the hero’s journey, O’Mara said immediately. We’re still fixated on the idea of the eccentric genius accomplishing extraordinary things.
People still cite Bill Gates, the ultimate nerd who went on to run an extremely transformative company, as a prime example, O’Mara points out. A generation later, it was two computer scientists named Larry and Sergey who presented to the world not only a clean, uncluttered search portal – an antidote to the pop-up chaos of the late dotcom era – and bean-baged offices for their employees , but who also retained control of a special class of voting shares of their company. Their greatest innovation may not have been search, but “founder control.”