A year-end review of 2022 (II)

December 30, 2022 09:30

A quick recap – there are four propositions that best encapsulate 2022:

First, that geopolitics matters – and we are transitioning into an era of global geopolitical flux;

Second, that governance matters – and that democracies and authoritarian regimes alike must find a way of accounting for their governance deficits, or face the music;

Third, that the egos of individual entrepreneurs may dazzle, and yet all that glitters is not gold;

Fourth, that humanity tends to be unduly naïve and myopic when it comes to existential risks.

We’d gone through propositions 1 and 2 in the last piece. This piece shall explore 3 and 4.

We must always remember the story of Icarus – the Golden Boy who flew too close to the Sun, and whose wings melted under the heat. Indeed, from VC culture to the Silicon Valley, from the fetishisation of unicorns to the broader trends of atomisation and individualisation in social fabric and discourse, we live in an age where individual ‘genius’ is worshipped and valourised – at the expense of both basic moral decency, and an accurate understanding of how and why companies flourish.

Publicity – branding, spin-doctors, and financially backed orchestrations of the images of public figures – has become the panacea to all crises, including ones concocted by, ironically, the publicists themselves. Products are precipitously assessed not in accordance with their actual utilities, but the perceived credibility and competence of their producers or inventors. And thus we have culminated at a culture where expected returns have ballooned into castles in the sky, and where the actual efficacy of a product does not matter – at least not for the first five years of its conception and design. Cue Theranos. Cue Madoffs and Neo-Madoffs.

2022 has been a year of revelation – exposing frauds and jesters for whom they truly are. Sam Bankman-Fried had been amongst the most assiduous and vocal advocates of Effective Altruism – a pious, uncanny priest of sorts that stood out sharply amidst the wave of crypto and blockchain intellectuals and entrepreneurs that accrued prominence in recent years. A wildcard known for Alameda Research and trading platform FTX, he epitomised the ultimate exemplar of a successful Millennial – someone who straddled technology, politics, public advocacy, media, and everything in between. Yet he was also swept up and enveloped by unsatiated hubris and avarice. Whilst there is nothing quite wrong with his desire to enlarge his pie – in accruing more and more wealth – he turned to means that transgressed both legal and moral obligations he held towards his shareholders and investors, and sought to build his house of cards into something greater.

His overreach, arrogance, and quixotic mendacity eventually cost him not just his firms, ventures, and reputation – but also the ability to walk free. SBF now finds himself on the receiving end of a trial that would most certainly look less than kindly upon his frivolous antics and unscrupulous shenanigans.

On the other hand, there’s the ultimate darling to the techno-savvy right – prodigy or gadfly, maverick or nuisance, or a bit of everything alongside being the wealthiest (or second wealthiest) man on Earth, Elon Musk most certainly is a force to be reckoned with. Presiding over ventures ranging from SpaceX to Boring Company to, of course, Tesla, Musk is the ultimate entrepreneurial free-spirit that bathes in praise for his contrarian edginess.

Yet since his acquisition of Twitter, Tesla’s stocks have taken a steep nosedive. Part of it could be attributed to the rather grim market circumstances and outlook at large (a recession is coming, Jon Snow!). But there’s also more to it – whether it be Musk’s controversial attempts to silence critics (whilst promising ostensibly unlimited free speech prior to his acquisition), his callous and ineffectual handling of layoffs and restructuring of Twitter, or his failure to differentiate between being the CEO, Chief Twit to Twitter, and the ultimate KOL on the platform, there are plenty a reason for individuals to be concerned about the stability and competence of this erstwhile star entrepreneur. Whilst Musk had once pushed the boundaries of science, these days he’s perhaps better known for his pushing the boundaries of the public’s patience. One does suppose it all comes in a package.

This ties me onto the final point – on existential risks. The pandemic isn’t truly over, for countries with populations that are poorly vaccinated, or are vaccinated with poor inoculations (when it comes to quality, that is). Nor is it over for those who have been devastated by its after-effects, and who must grapple with the mass exodus of talents and decimation of structurally obsolete industries (now floundering under the rise of digital and virtual substitutes). COP27 was an abject failure in the grand scheme of things – there’s no way we’d be able to beat the 1.5 Celsius stipulation. And as geopolitical intrigue and bickering rage on for the rest of the decade, we’re only due to drift further and further away from containing the surge in temperatures on Earth.

And so what gives? 2022 has been a miserable year – now what? The standard answer would be to conclude that 2023 must be better, and that we can keep our chins up as we stride into a new year.

But I’m not a fan of cliches – instead, here’s a reality check. Unless we collectively, as a species, did something about the many problems outlined above – specifically reining in the excess hubris of extremely powerful entrepreneurs, and setting up multilateral coordinative mechanisms that in fact held countries to account for failure to resolve global challenges, there would be no way out for us all… we’d be doomed. We’re doomed.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review