Nov 14, 2022 - Technology

Tech's moonshots fizzle and crash

Illustration of a cursor moving across a screen with the bottom part of the cursor broken open and pixels spilling out.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech's tumultuous past week has brought the grand visions and moonshot dreams of many of its celebrity leaders back down to earth.

Driving the news: The implosion of Sam Bankman-Fried's crypto exchange FTX brought an overnight end to its young founder's "maximize wealth, give it all away" life plan based on "effective altruism" thinking.

Between the lines: Each of these projects has faced unique setbacks, but they have one obstacle in common — resistance from users.

  • Although FTX's financial and accounting irregularities are just beginning to come to light, the crypto trading exchange was initially brought down last week by a classic run — as hordes of its customers tried to withdraw their assets at once.
  • Musk's impulsive effort to revamp Twitter's verification system encountered a wave of challenge from users who demonstrated all the different kinds of mischief and fraud his changes could enable.
  • Zuckerberg's metaverse project remains in an uphill fight just to get users in the door of its flagship environment, Horizon Worlds.

"Moonshot" projects are big, long-term bets with inspiringly audacious goals.

  • They're understood to be risky, and they're most at peril at moments — like right now — when the financial tide goes out.
  • Tech leader use them to capture the public imagination while inspiring employees' effort and creativity.

How it works: Every moonshot comes garlanded with grandiose rhetoric.

Bankman-Fried has told legions of interviewers that the $26 billion fortune he'd amassed at its peak would all be plowed into long-term projects for the betterment of humanity.

  • "Maximizing the total happiness of the future—that’s SBF’s ultimate goal. FTX is just a means to that end," one journalist explained (in a now-deleted profile on the website for Sequoia Capital, one of FTX's investors).

Musk has repeatedly said that making Twitter "maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization."

  • Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, endorsing Musk's plan, tweeted that he trusts Musk's "mission to extend the light of consciousness."

Zuckerberg pitches the metaverse as the next level of human connection, "a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together" that is "the holy grail of social interactions."

Yes, but: A cynical eye on these claims would view them as efforts to paper over troubled businesses with bold handwaves.

  • Even with a more generous view — that these leaders believe in their wide-eyed visions — the CEOs just look like they've drunk their own Kool-aid.
  • That should always be a red flag for users, partners and investors.

What's next: In the past, tech companies often ran moonshots as side projects. But today these bold projects have become all-in, bet-the-company moves — making losses catastrophic.

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