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The Illusion of Virtue: Beware of the Super-Rich, for Benevolence Isn't Guaranteed

Monday, 06 November 2023 09:37 Opinion

"The Mirage of Tech Titans: Beware the Allure of Super-Rich Visionaries, as Illusions of Wisdom Conceal a Reality of Banality and Deceit

In our contemporary world, great wealth not only symbolizes status but is also imbued with an aura of exclusive futuristic insights, particularly within the realm of tech. Silicon Valley billionaires, often seen as modern-day oracles, are readily embraced by a society eager to receive their seemingly prophetic pronouncements. This dynamic was recently exemplified when the British prime minister lavished admiration on the mundane musings of the world's wealthiest man, treating them as divine revelations from an entrepreneurial deity graciously walking among us.

Simultaneously, on the very same day, a once-revered high-tech entrepreneur, now exposed as a bizarre huckster, faced conviction for a staggering $10 billion fraud, potentially leading to a prison sentence of up to 110 years. In this bewildering landscape, where limelight-seeking political leaders and avaricious investors alike seem to lose their senses, a collective suspension of skepticism prevails. Amidst the cacophony of hype, banality, self-deception, and occasional outright fraud, it becomes challenging to discern truth from illusion.

Yet, hidden within this complex tapestry, there lies an undeniable reality—genuine wealth and technological advancements are, at times, unfolding at an astonishing pace. Elon Musk, whose fortune surpasses $200 billion, owes a substantial portion of his wealth to the triumph of his electric car company, Tesla. With over a million Model 3 vehicles sold, Tesla has played a pivotal role in ushering in the decline of traditional petrol engines and the era of fossil fuels.

During a recent interview, conducted in the aftermath of the world's first AI safety summit at Bletchley Park, Musk, a vocal advocate for addressing climate change and recognizing the existential threat of artificial intelligence, had the opportunity to challenge Rishi Sunak on the latter's newfound enthusiasm for legacy oil and gas. However, the exchange was not designed for dissent; instead, it was meticulously crafted to portray Sunak as a peer in the rarefied realm of tech deities. The divine aura enveloping the interaction left no room for piercing questions or challenges—it was a carefully orchestrated display aimed at showcasing Sunak's alignment with the visionary tech elite."

"Musk's Illusion of Divinity: A Brilliant Engineer in the Right Place at the Right Time, Yet Vulnerable to the Disorienting Effects of Insane Wealth

Elon Musk undoubtedly exudes an aura of accomplishment, having founded SpaceX, the trailblazer behind a cost-effective reusable rocket set to revolutionize space exploration and human colonization. From envisioning gravity-free manufacturing in space to capturing solar energy in the heavens and beaming it back to Earth, Musk's ventures have consistently pushed the boundaries of innovation. His co-founding of PayPal and ambitious foray into city transport with The Boring Company further underscore his entrepreneurial zeal.

However, Musk, despite his engineering brilliance, is not immune to missteps. A substantial financial setback of $25 billion resulted from his involvement with Twitter (now X), and a 2018 incident led to fines and a three-year disqualification from the Tesla chairmanship by the Securities and Exchange Commission, citing alleged stock price manipulation. This underscores a crucial truth – Musk is a very smart engineer who happened to be in the right place at the right time, but he is far from a deity.

The intoxicating effects of immense wealth are well-documented. Research from Dacher Keltner at Berkeley University's Social Interaction Lab reveals that the wealthy, influenced by disorientation, tend to believe that different rules apply to them. Whether on the road—where they are more likely to flout traffic rules—or in controlled lab tests, the super-wealthy exhibit heightened levels of greed and a greater propensity to cheat. Rules, it seems, are for the 'little people.'

Yet, the super-wealthy, like Musk, often attempt to justify their departure from conventional norms by adopting the mantle of 'effective altruists.' This ethical stance, championed by Oxford moral philosopher William MacAskill, is embraced not only by Musk but also by figures like Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF). While Musk has created substantial real wealth through ventures like Tesla and SpaceX, SBF's wealth acquisition takes a different path.

Bankman-Fried, a mathematical nerd and former computer game addict, encountered MacAskill at MIT in 2012. Influenced by MacAskill's philosophy, he pursued high-earning jobs with the intention of later contributing to humanity as an effective altruist. Fast forward seven years, and SBF establishes the crypto-currency trading platform FTX during the surreal crypto boom. Despite its potential to facilitate significant financial transactions, FTX also operates as a quasi-casino, where the flows of money are elusive 'ripples' in the jargon—a testament to the blurred lines between innovation and risk in the realm of the super-wealthy."

"The Rise and Fall of Crypto Illusions: SBF's Spectacular Fall from Grace and the Urgent Need for Accountability in the Tech Elite

In the heady days of crypto's heyday, FTX emerged as the hi-tech fashion du jour, attracting eager investors who clamored to be part of the lucrative trend. Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), the mastermind behind FTX, rode the crypto wave to become the youngest billionaire in the U.S., amassing a staggering $22 billion in wealth. However, the allure of crypto's anonymity provided the perfect cover for financial misdeeds.

As the tide receded on the crypto craze, it revealed the darker side of FTX and Bankman-Fried's actions. Traders' funds, initially difficult to trace, were redirected into Bankman-Fried's affiliates, financing extravagant parties, luxurious living in the Bahamas, political contributions, and the veneer of 'effective altruism.' The revelation of SBF's misdeeds followed a period of unabashed admiration from Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington, and even political heavyweights like ex-president Bill Clinton and ex-prime minister Tony Blair. Amidst the fawning, Bankman-Fried dispensed banal wisdom that belied the fraudulent underpinnings of his empire.

The Bletchley Park summit sought to address the burgeoning risks associated with AI, establishing a voluntary code for companies to disclose their AI models to governments. While a commendable effort, it represents only a modest stride. The dominance of tech giants in AI research, with models on average 29 times larger than those from government and universities, underscores the urgent need for comprehensive measures. The debate among experts about AI's potential for positive impact or existential risk to humanity necessitates a guarantee from profit-driven companies that their technology unequivocally benefits the public.

Voluntarism, as exemplified by Musk's withdrawal of X from the EU's voluntary code on online disinformation, proves insufficient. Musk's lax content-flagging policies have allowed disinformation to thrive on his platform, underscoring the shortcomings of relying solely on voluntary initiatives. Rishi Sunak missed an opportunity to question Musk about these issues, as compulsion and EU involvement remain contentious topics that risk puncturing the carefully crafted aura surrounding tech elites.

The initiative led by Oxford academic Philip Howard to establish an International Panel on the Information Environment, modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, requires urgent amplification. While AI's future impact on work and surveillance remains uncertain, the immediate concern is the proliferation of junk and fake news, perpetuated, in part, by influential figures like Musk. As Prof Howard aptly notes, accountability and transparency must take precedence in navigating the evolving landscape of AI and information dissemination."

"A Call for Perspective: Acknowledging the Public Contribution to Tech Wealth and Emphasizing Collective Solutions

In contemplating the vast fortunes amassed in the tech industry, it's crucial to recognize that tech wealth is not solely the result of daring entrepreneurship; it is, in part, a product of public agencies. The indispensable roles played by Nasa and Darpa (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the success of ventures like SpaceX and Tesla underscore the collaborative nature of technological advancement. The notion that "effective altruism" alone can secure the common good is challenged by its susceptibility to abuse, making a compelling case for the efficacy of wealth taxation.

Furthermore, historical precedents caution against the blind admiration of figures like Musk and Bank-Friedman. The foundation of their success, often rooted in mathematical and technological feats, should not overshadow the timeless lessons found in literature and history. Instead of uncritically lionizing all things technological, a nuanced understanding of the past serves as an invaluable antidote to the confusion and credulity that pervade the present.

Throughout history, humanity has grappled with charismatic figures, and the response has consistently been one that is tough, collective, and societal. As we navigate the complexities of the tech-driven era, it is imperative to draw upon the wisdom of undervalued literature and historical insights. In doing so, we equip ourselves with the tools needed to confront the challenges of today with resilience and informed discernment. Will Hutton, an Observer columnist, urges us to heed these lessons and approach the future with a thoughtful and collective mindset."

"In conclusion, the exploration of tech wealth's complexities prompts a critical reflection on its origins and societal impact. By acknowledging the collaborative role of public agencies and questioning the efficacy of singular altruistic approaches, we pave the way for a more comprehensive understanding of wealth generation. The cautionary tales of historical figures like Musk and Bank-Friedman underscore the need for a nuanced perspective, one that values the lessons embedded in literature and history.

As we grapple with the challenges of a tech-driven era, the call for a tough, collective, and societal response echoes through time. Will Hutton's insights serve as a timely reminder that, despite the allure of technological marvels, the enduring wisdom found in literature and historical narratives remains a potent guide. Armed with these lessons, we can navigate the present with discernment, cultivating resilience in the face of uncertainty and ensuring that the pursuit of progress aligns with the common good."

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