Tech & its mad men – Technology News

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Their stories generally begin in a garage or a Harvard dorm. A wunderkind, a tech genius, displays exceptional innovation streaks early in life, gets into an Ivy league but drops out, and starts his (it’s always a ‘his’) tech company, which eventually makes him a billionaire and gets him on the flashy ‘40-under-40’ kind of lists, drawing both awe and envy. Booted out, or faced with similar challenges, he rises from the ashes, further consolidating his position as both the Tesla and Edison of today. His technology has already put him on the world map, and he is hosted by the world’s leaders. But that spotlight also brings increased scrutiny. A loose tweet brings down the company’s stocks, the tool he created is now seen as a threat to democracy, the company’s anti-competitive practices bring intense government scrutiny, and a leak about his personal life becomes delicious fodder for the rumour mills, further keeping him and his firm in the global spotlight.

“To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocketship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” quipped Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk in 2021 on Saturday Night Live, encapsulating, in a few words, the techpreneurs of today, all global celebrities in their own right. Their products, from Bill Gates’ Microsoft and Steve Jobs’ Apple to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, and, the most recent, Sam Altman’s ChatGPT, are not only revolutionary but democratic in the essence that they are used by everyone, everywhere, hence, ubiquitous, in a way. But beyond the products, the creators’ lives have repeatedly stoked similar intrigue—from Altman being the boomerang CEO to Musk’s Twitter (now X) sh*tposting—the drama keeps unfolding, keeping both the creators and their creations in the spotlight.

Reading things that are not yet on the page

A famous quote by Jobs goes, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” The quote might appear non-striking at first, but a careful glance exposes how the individual quirks can go on to shape people’s lives and not only the tech landscape. Just think, who would have thought that mankind needed a search engine, digital social networking, artificial intelligence, and even cryptocurrency and space travel?

While creating something unfathomable and what “people don’t know they want,” stirs intrigue, it is accentuated further by their makers’ quirks.

Mystery still shrouds Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator behind Bitcoin, the world’s first and the most popular cryptocurrency. Nakamoto could be a he, a she, or a they; as nobody knows the creator’s true identity. Despite the topsy-turvy ride that Bitcoin’s prices have had, the crypto faithful celebrate Nakamoto’s birthday on April 5.

Similarly, despite a number of his rockets exploding mid-air and the company almost going under in its early years, Musk’s SpaceX has revolutionised the commercial space field in more ways than one.

Along with that, what has often caught the attention are Musk’s thoughts on mankind’s future, which, according to him, is to land humans on Mars and make humanity “multi-planetary”. Such is his resolve that he would “maniacally” repeat to his staff at SpaceX that “a fully reusable rocket is the difference between being a single-planet civilisation and being a multiplanet one,” writes journalist-author Walter Isaacson in his biography of the same moniker as the book’s subject.

Interestingly, Musk isn’t the only billionaire with such big space ambitions. While Bezos’ cameo in the 2016 Star Trek film largely went unnoticed, the same can never be said about Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s space company, which he started way back in 2000. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans. And if we had a trillion humans, we’d have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts… and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power,” Bezos said in a 2018 interview. While the comment gives an insight into his thoughts and motivations, his 2021 flight to space on a Blue Origin spacecraft further reaffirmed the billionaire’s increased focus on his space company.

The intensity of the billionaires blasting into space is such that it silences the question of whether humans really need to look at planets other than the Earth.

However, a good thing has been that the billionaires’ race to space has also increased the spotlight on the environmental cost of the missions.

When speaking of billionaires’ quirks, that of Musk especially regarding his Twitter takeover cannot go unmentioned. His decisions, such as that of rolling out blue tick subscriptions, have shown to make the Twitter experience jarring, and the company has witnessed a drop in the user numbers, putting a dent in its ad revenue.

The Game of Thrones drama

It was in 1976 that Jobs co-founded Apple in his parent’s garage. Almost a decade later, he was booted out, only to be called back.

A similar drama unfolded last month as Altman found himself in the same situation after he, too, was ousted from his company, OpenAI, as its CEO, which left both the tech and the non-tech worlds equally stunned. “It took me a few minutes to snap out of it and get over the ego and emotions… Obviously, I really loved the company and had poured my life force into this for the last four and a half years full time…,” Altman told a media house then. However, after Microsoft, the financial powerhouse behind the AI company, swiftly swooned in to hire Altman, and most of OpenAI’s staff said they would quit, Altman, too, was reinstated.

This isn’t the first time that the backstage happenings of the tech behemoths have kept both the makers and their companies in the limelight.

The plot of the 2010 film The Social Network is centred on how Zuckerberg diluted the stakes of Eduardo Saverin in Facebook before kicking him out. Saverin was one of the co-founders of the social media company, along with Zuckerberg, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. According to reports, Zuckerberg privately commented at that time, “Eduardo is refusing to cooperate at all…We basically now need to sign over our intellectual property to a new company and just take the lawsuit… I’m just going to cut him out and then settle with him. And he’ll get something I’m sure, but he deserves something…He has to sign stuff for investments and he’s lagging and I can’t take the lag.”

In his memoir Idea Man, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wrote about something similar, as he recalled overhearing Gates trying to reduce Allen’s stake in the company. The plan failed. However, he ended up leaving the company in the 1980s.

Interestingly, it is hardly ever the case that the interactions of the tech tycoons don’t generate a buzz.

“In the rarefied fraternity of people who have held the title of richest person on Earth, Musk and Gates have some similarities. Both have analytic minds, an ability to laser-focus, and an intellectual surety that edges into arrogance. Neither suffers fools. All of these traits made it likely they would eventually clash, which is what happened when Musk began giving Gates a tour of the factory,” Isaacson wrote in the book. After an argument over batteries that “would never be able to power large semitrucks”, as per Gates, and how solar energy “would not be a major part of solving the climate problem,” the conversation shifted to Mars. “I’m not a Mars person,” Gates later told the writer. “He’s overboard on Mars. I let him explain his Mars thinking to me, which is kind of bizarre thinking. It’s this crazy thing where maybe there’s a nuclear war on Earth, and so the people on Mars are there and they’ll come back down and, you know, be alive after we all kill each other.”

However, it turned murkier over Gates having shorted Tesla’s stocks. “How can someone say they are passionate about fighting climate change and then do something that reduced the overall investment in the company doing the most?” Musk reportedly said. “It’s pure hypocrisy. Why make money on the failure of a sustainable energy car company?”

Reportedly, Gates isn’t the only one that Musk has had a beef with. While his will-there-be, will-there-not-be anticipated MMA cage fight with the Meta chief has been the classic social media fodder, the X chief, who also helped launch OpenAI, argued with Google co-founder Larry Page over AI, during which the latter dismissively termed Musk a “specist” for siding with humans in the humans versus AI debate. While Page, as Google’s CEO, acquired AI lab Deepmind for $500 million back in 2014, Musk has also launched his AI startup called xAI.

Falling in & out with law and politics

Since buying Twitter, now X, for a whopping $44 billion, Musk has had a fraught relationship with advertisers, who have been pulling away, most recently over his remarks that were seen as antisemitic.

Amid the heightened Israel-Palestine conflict, Musk, last month, agreed with a post that claimed that the Jews have a “dialectical hatred” of white people. This not only garnered a rebuke from the White House, but a slew of companies such as Apple and Disney pulled advertising from X.

Disney CEO Bob Iger reportedly said, “We know that Elon is larger than life in many respects and that his name is very much connected to the companies he founded or owns. By him taking the position he took in a public manner, we felt that the association was not necessarily a positive one for us.” Meanwhile, Musk reacted by telling the advertisers to “go f**k themselves”.

While the relationship with advertisers is one aspect, this also reflected on how Musk, along with other tech tycoons, are too big to remain aloof from politics, and often, their decisions have geopolitical repercussions, further keeping them under scrutiny.

Hence, following his remarks, Musk visited Israel last month and also met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who, reportedly, urged the X chief to address online antisemitism.

“Unfortunately, we are inundated with antisemitism,” the president reportedly told Musk. “I think we need to fight this together because the platforms you lead, unfortunately, have a large reservoir of hatred, hatred of Jews, anti-Semitism.”

This isn’t the only war that Musk found himself involved in.

In September, the SpaceX head admitted having thwarted an attack by Ukraine on Russian ships by withholding the use of his satellite network—Starlink—along the Crimean coast. Reportedly, he had said that the attack would have made SpaceX “explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation”.

Among his sit-downs with several world leaders, one that warrants a mention is that with Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year. It is because of the startling revelations that Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey made that the Modi government had threatened the social media company with a ban and raid on employees if certain tweets on the farmers’ protests weren’t suppressed. Meanwhile, following his meeting with the PM, Musk said, “If we don’t obey local government laws, we will get shut down so the best we can do is to be close to the law in any given country, but it is impossible for us to do more than that or we’ll be blocked and our people will be arrested.”

Facebook, too, found itself to be a part of what was seen as a democracy-crippling scandal that was Cambridge Analytica in 2018. In this, Facebook data was collected to build voters’ profiles and thereby influence political outcomes. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” Zuckerberg told a congressional hearing in 2018 and apologised for the scandal. “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook,” he said.

Earlier in 2014, it was also reported that Facebook’s algorithm amplified the calls for ethnic violence in Myanmar.

Businesses falling in and out with the government has been happening forever, but nowhere is it as implicit, as well as explicit, as in the case of China. Riding on his company Alibaba’s success, co-founder Jack Ma had long been the poster boy of the quintessential rags-to-riches story. And there was no stopping for the company, which in 2014 completed the world’s largest IPO at that time, raising $25 billion. However, a remark on the country’s financial regulators was all it took for China’s most high-profile billionaire to recluse. At a financial conference in 2020, Ma said that the traditional banks had a “pawn-shop mentality”. He kept a low profile since then so much so that he was not seen in public for almost three years, only to reappear earlier this year at a school in Hangzhou. Also, earlier this year, he stepped down from Ant Group, the financial services company of the conglomerate Alibaba Group. More than anything, it gives a deeper glimpse into the inner workings of China’s communist government, which has shown to wield control over businesses and businesspeople, despite opening its economy decades ago.

The tainted lot

After starting the outsourcing firm Satyam Computer Services in 1987, B Ramalinga Raju soon became the poster boy of India’s IT revolution. He mingled with the top CEOs and world leaders, including former US President Bill Clinton. Such was the roaring success that Satyam Infoway, a subsidiary of Satyam Computer, became the first IT company from India to be listed on Nasdaq. The company crossed the $1-billion revenue mark in 2006, and $2 billion two years later.

However, soon, it all came crumbling down, and in 2009, as the Satyam success-turned-scam came to light, the company was found guilty in an accounting scam worth `7,000 crore ($1.1 billion). Raju admitted to the fraud, and the government later disbanded the Satyam board.

The world recently witnessed a similar drama unfolding with the collapse of FTX, the cryptocurrency exchange platform, in November last year.

Riding on the crypto boom, Sam Bankman-Fried launched FTX in 2019. The space further boomed during the Covid pandemic and, by January 2022, the company was worth $32 billion. However, it all came crashing down as the scam of billions of dollars came to light. As much as the scam, the company’s founder hit major headlines as he was arrested and indicted on as many as eight criminal charges, including money laundering, wire fraud, campaign finance violations, and securities fraud. Last month, he was found guilty on seven federal counts.

While Bankman-Fried was arrested and convicted, mystery shrouds ‘crypto queen’ Ruja Ignatova, who disappeared into thin air after defrauding customers and investors of billions of dollars. Without any technical know-how, this Bulgarian-German woman launched OneCoin, the ‘Bitcoin Killer’. Ignatova’s cryptocurrency was everything that Bitcoin was not, so much so that it didn’t even have a blockchain, which ultimately powers the existence of cryptocurrencies. Hence, what Ignatova was essentially selling was, well, nothing. Despite that, she went on to make billions of dollars from people—rich and poor—across geographies. What was even more striking was that she had contemplated the end and devised an “exit strategy” at the start to “take the money and run and blame someone else,” as journalist-author Jamie Bartlett wrote in The Missing Crypto Queen. Strikingly, the person who ended up taking the blame was none other than Ignatova’s brother, Konstantin, who was arrested and pleaded guilty to several charges before a court in the US.

Tainted or not, it is stunning how the technocrats of today, their personalities, thoughts, actions and comments go on to have a major impact not only on their companies but on investors, consumers and common people as well. It is fascinating how much the world today is shaped by the techpreneurs—from something as trivial as how we shop and interact with others to the future of mankind as such.

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