The tech CEOs' year of reckoning

The head of a technology company won’t save the world.

It wasn't so long ago that tech CEOs and their wares were changing the world. In fact, we heard that quite often: This or that "innovation" will make the planet a better place. Silicon Valley was clearly getting high on its own supply as it ramped up the hype that the earth was a wasteland until the titans of tech had graced us with an easier way to post a filtered photo or share our thoughts on the finale of Lost.

We were blind, and our eyes were opened by zeros and ones. The tech utopia was at hand, and we should just sit back and not ask too many hard questions.

Then things went sideways. Social networks that were the catalyst of the Arab Spring were suddenly being used by nation-states, shit posters and bot armies to destroy democracy and fuel racial violence. Using public roads to beta test software resulted in deaths and of course billions of dollars were essentially wasted. The messiahs thought-leaders innovators disrupters run-of-the-mill ultra-capitalists who promised a better tomorrow crumbled under the slightest scrutiny.

People started asking questions, and the answers weren't what tech promised.

As the year came to a close, The Verge revealed that Away (which makes suitcases with batteries in them. I guess that means they're a tech company) CEO Steph Korey was abusing employees via Slack. After the usual mealy-mouthed apology, Korey was fired.

There have been the usual back-and-forth articles and think pieces about whether Korey was targeted and/or if the dismissal was warranted. The reason some people might feel like treating employees badly shouldn't be a fireable offense is that a long time ago most of us excused the behavior of Steve Jobs. There are far too many stories of Jobs' cruelty to employees. We allowed it because "OMG, look at that shiny new iPhone" and "Wow, the MacBooks are so great." Oh also, he saved Apple from complete collapse.

A generation of tech CEOs believed that this is how you manage a company. It's not, and now their bad behavior is being called out by employees that work long hours in high-stress situations all hoping they'll make it big via an eventual IPO. Dear CEOs, You're not Steve Jobs. Stop trying to be Steve Jobs.

By the end of 2019, on the other side of the spectrum was the tech CEO who thought everything was a party. WeWork CEO Adam Neumann burned through billions of Softbank's (and other investors') money. The "visionary" offered up shared office space for thousands of startups and a few publications. Subletting space to those in need seems like a good idea. Hotboxing private jets and buying the real estate that your company is leasing, not so much. Ahead of its IPO, investors took a good look at Neumann's company and realized that it was incinerating cash: $1.9 billion last year to be precise. In the first half of 2019, it lost $904 million. The real estate wunderkind was let go and for all his failures he got a sweet golden parachute of $1.7 billion in shares and loans. Meanwhile WeWork employees have been let go in the wake of his management decisions.

Tossing other people's money into a pit of snake oil-fueled flames was the basis for the HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, about the rise and fall of Theranos and, more importantly, its CEO Elizabeth Holmes. We all knew the story thanks to the Wall Street Journal's John Carreyrou's investigation of the company way back in 2015. But seeing this unfold on our TVs in 2019 was a reminder that even though things didn't seem right at the company, Silicon Valley's sway as the answer to all the world's ills blinded established companies, reporters and members of the US government.

The blinders that allowed companies like Theranos continuing to bilk people and companies out of money are not just turned outward. Sometimes, the person in charge seems to have no sense of what's going on. Jack Dorsey wants to be the cuddly "woke" CEO of tech. At the end of 2018 Dorsey tweeted about his silent retreat in Myanmar. The country that has committed genocide and spread hateful propaganda via social media. He issued the usual non-apology apology. Then his account was hacked via an SMS SIM hijack.

This type of hack has been around for a while but it wasn't until the CEO was compromised that the company put the brakes on the ability of Tweet via SMS. It felt like things were only worth fixing or updating if it affected the boss.

Twitter's been a headache for another CEO. After some rather weird, unlawful and downright dangerous tweets about his company, reporters and individuals, Musk seems to have tamed his tweets as of late. His company is making a profit, and Tesla is building test vehicles at the new China factory. But, his past Twitter behavior came back to haunt him in the form of a lawsuit brought by the diver he called a "pedo guy."

The jury found that Musk was not guilty of libel. But being hauled into court for calling someone a child molester via a tweet is never a good look. It's ridiculous. Also, because of the trial, we found out that Musk hired a private investigator that was a convicted felon to dig up dirt on the diver. Musk's fans truly believe he will save the world. If that's his plan, awesome. But maybe concentrate more on climate change and less on hurt feelings and Twitter fights.

Lost money, angry tweets, unsafe medical practices and being blind to the woes of the world should not be something that shows up on the resume of a CEO. But the actual coup d'etat is the destruction of democracy.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress again in 2019 (the litany of misleading statements he gave in his 2018 appearance concerning election tampering and Cambridge Analytica kept fact-checkers busy) to answer for his company's Cryptocurrency scheme Libra and paid political ads on his platform. It didn't go well. But he still insisted that his company would continue to allow politicians to lie in ads on his platform.

Zuckerberg always mumbles something about Facebook not policing free speech, which is a hilarious shield for a company that's kicked abuse survivors off its platform for using pseudonyms or, worse, changed their names without their consent making them targets. The company has also policed and banned accounts and ads which it deemed has violated its nudity guidelines for ridiculous reasons. Like an ad for a breast cancer nonprofit.

Oh also this year he rewrote the history of Facebook during a college commencement speech laughably citing the first Iraq war as a reason he built his social network. In reality, he built a "Hot or Not" clone for Harvard classmates then decided to expand it for dating.

After years of essentially lying to the press, investors and the government, Mark Zuckerberg and his company continue to make a staggering amount of money on the backs of those lies.

Most of these CEOs are still rich. Golden parachutes, expensive lawyers and great quarterly numbers mean we'll see these folks again. Some will fail upward. Some might get better. Others won't.

What's important is that, maybe once and for all, we'll see that tech CEOs are not going to save the world. Like CEOs in other industries, they care more about making themselves and their investors rich. 2019 showed us that we're not better off because of these folks. If anything, things have gotten worse. Technology and billionaires won't make the world better. It's up to us.


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