Since the late 2000s Silicon Valley has been synonymous with a strange kind of success. Eschewing traditionally ostentatious glamour, the new tech CEOs opted for austere opulence. These billionaires lived restrained lives – abstaining from booze and sugar, keeping the sleep schedule of a toddler, injecting themselves with cocktails of supplements – in the name of optimisation. They were seen as nerds with lots of cash in minimalist outfits, either socially awkward or brimming with inflated arrogance. Though they were widely mocked, their success was undeniable and unstoppable. The “genius” tech bro – peculiar and prosperous – became an infamous persona.
In the last 18 months this mythology has been under unprecedented scrutiny. After more than a decade spent cultivating this image, some of the world’s most famous tech CEOs – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook; Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter; Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon – have seen their facades not just crack, but completely fall apart. This year has brought about a sudden end to the myth of their genius.
Thanks to disastrous, ego-driven choices, erratic decision-making and an obsessive focus on pet projects that seem doomed to fail, some of the world’s biggest companies experienced unprecedented stagnation (not to mention losses of profit) in 2022. Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, announced the first mass layoffs in the company’s history after its revenue nosedived. Amazon, one of the most consistently profitable tech companies, also announced redundancies (of up to 20,000 of its workers). Tesla’s stock price has plummeted; Twitter has seen a “massive drop in revenue”, Musk has said.
The pet projects of Musk, Bezos and Zuckerberg are as laughably boyish as they are irrelevant to the average person. One of the major expenses for Meta in 2022 was Zuckberg’s “metaverse” – a dull virtual reality world which has been the subject of mockery since it was announced last year. The metaverse is so clunky and basic that engineers have failed to give avatars functioning legs, and Zuckerberg’s obsession with it that has reportedly cost the company $15bn so far. Bezos has made headlines for flying himself and a number of random celebrities into space via his self-indulgent company Blue Origin. Bezos insists that commercial space travel will be a part of our near-distant future; meanwhile experts question whether the heights his rockets have flown actually qualify as being “in space”.
None, however, have fallen as far as Musk, who was obliged to spend $44bn on Twitter in October, after attempting to pull out of the offer that he first made in April. While many predicted this would be a disaster, few guessed quite how badly it would go. Advertisers (and millions of users) fled the platform and Musk has made near-daily changes to Twitter policy. He fired half of the company’s staff in his first week (before then asking some to come back), then banned and un-banned prominent journalists critical of his leadership. The effect has been significant: not only has Musk lost his title as the world’s richest person but his other, more successful businesses appear to be suffering as a result.
Many of us suspected the intelligence and business acumen of the tech bro was greatly exaggerated before now. But 2022 was the year even their devotees began to suspect the same. In the weeks following Musk’s purchase of Twitter, the sub-Reddit r/ElonMusk – a space typically dedicated to fawning posts from his disciples, men clearly hoping Musk is watching and will bestow his godly attention upon them – began to turn on him, admitting that he may not be the business whizz they made him out to be. Musk was described as “floundering”, “annoying” and ultimately someone who “doesn’t know what he’s doing”.
In 2023 we may see some attempt at reputation recovery. Musk has live-tweeted his way through his time as Twitter’s chief executive in an attempt to save face, and may be stepping down shortly, allowing someone else to withstand the criticism while he controls the business from behind the scenes. Zuckerberg has said that Meta’s current losses are a necessary sacrifice in building the metaverse of his imagination. In the months to come he may insist that he is one step ahead of the rest of us, and that he will be proved right in the end. This type of extreme doubling-down may prove a popular strategy for these CEOs – at least in the short-term.
Regardless of how they try to regain what is left of their dignity, this year has been a turning point for this generation of tech CEOs. The tragedy of these figures is that years of being praised for their “genius” have inflated their egos to an absurd size, large enough to obscure their view of reality – and their own errors. It seems likely that their failures will continue to evade their detection, and they will commit even more strongly to bad ideas until they are the only ones left who believe in them.