The Drama Kings of Tech

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Produced by ElevenLabs and News Over Audio (NOA) using AI narration.

One Tuesday last month, Mark Zuckerberg uploaded a video to Instagram, but not to his Stories, where it would quickly disappear. This one was a keeper. He put it right on his permanent grid. It shows Zuckerberg sitting on his living-room couch in comfy pants and a dark T-shirt, while his friend Kenny records him through Meta’s mixed-reality headset. Zuckerberg proceeds to rattle off a three-and-a-half-minute critique of Apple’s new mixed-reality headset, the Vision Pro. His tone is surprisingly combative. At certain points, he sounds like a forum post come to life. “Some fanboys get upset” when people question Apple, he says, but his company’s much cheaper headset is not only a better value; it is a better product, “period.” CEOs of the world’s most valuable companies don’t often star in this kind of video. It reminded me of a commercial that a car-dealership owner might make about a rival.

I don’t mean to moralize. Marketing is a matter of taste, and Zuckerberg is entitled to his. I mention this video only because it’s part of a larger atmosphere of chippiness in the world of Big Tech. Just last year, a slow-burn feud between Zuckerberg and Elon Musk flared into threats of violence—albeit refereed—when Musk suggested that the two face off in a cage match. “Send Me Location,” Zuckerberg replied on Instagram. In the weeks that followed, Musk, who habitually lobs sexual taunts at his rivals, called Zuckerberg a “cuck” and challenged him to “a literal dick measuring contest.” But amid the tough talk, Musk also seemed to be playing for time. He said that he’d contacted Italy’s prime minister and minister of culture, and that they had agreed to host the fight in an “epic location” among the ruins of ancient Rome. Zuckerberg implied that this was all news to him. Within days, Musk said he would ask his Tesla to drive him to Zuckerberg’s house to fight him in his backyard. He even said that he would livestream it. Alas, Zuckerberg was out of town. Eventually, both men got injured—they are, after all, middle-aged—and the whole idea was abandoned.

Captains of industry have been known to mix it up on occasion. Collis Huntington, the American industrialist and railway magnate, once called Leland Stanford a “damned old fool.” Michael Ovitz said that David Geffen was part of a “Gay Mafia,” determined to bring him down. But, to my knowledge, none of them ever proposed a cage match. Even in their histrionics, the drama kings of tech aim to disrupt.

Their schoolyard feuding cuts an odd contrast with the earnestness that so often emanates from Silicon Valley. We have long known, for instance, that very serious conflicting views about AI safety played a role in November’s boardroom drama at OpenAI, but it was also driven by interpersonal resentments. Last week, The New York Times reported that before Sam Altman’s ouster, Mira Murati, the company’s chief technology officer, sent Altman a private memo “outlining some of her concerns with his behavior.” According to the Times, she told OpenAI’s board that when Altman went to sell some new strategic direction, he would put on a charming mask, but when people dissented or even just delayed, he would freeze them out. In a statement posted to X, Murati described these anonymous claims as misleading, and said that the previous board members were scapegoating her to save face. Altman reposted Murati’s post with a heart emoji, the lingua franca of reconciliation at OpenAI. Now that he’s back with a new board in place, the company line is: It’s time to move on.

Musk, who cannot seem to stand the idea that there might be tech drama somewhere that does not involve him, has been trolling OpenAI relentlessly on X. Last week, he posted a doctored image of Altman holding up a visitor’s pass that read “ClosedAI,” and followed up this past Tuesday with a word-cloud image of the company’s logo, in which every word was lie. (Not his best work.) He also filed a lawsuit against the company. It alleges that by pursuing material gain instead of the good of all humanity, OpenAI’s executives have breached their “founding agreement.” The company responded with a blog post that soberly refuted some of Musk’s claims, but Altman also went to X to respond personally. He tracked down an old Musk post from 2019, in which he had thanked Altman for criticizing Tesla’s naysayers. Altman replied with “anytime” and a salute emoji, implying that Musk is now the one bitterly rooting against the high cause of innovation.

Moguls in other sectors rarely put one another on blast like this in public. (They have the decency to call a reporter and do it on background.) It’s hard to know whether this performative strain in tech culture reflects something essential about the industry. Maybe its leaders are just unusually visible, because the legacy media are more interested in them, or because they figure so prominently on the social-media platforms that they operate. Or maybe a few outlier personalities—Musk in particular—are responsible for most of the soap-opera vibes. It could also be the general cultural atmosphere. Over the past 20 years, a fashion for aggrieved and confrontational behavior has migrated out of reality television into the wider entertainment and business worlds, and also into politics, in the person of Donald Trump.

If the tech titans weren’t so self-serious, their bad behavior might simply blend into this broader coarsening. Folk wisdom and life experience tell us that rivalries and infighting will emerge, organically, anywhere that there is money and power. That’s why we direct our scrutiny wherever those things accumulate. But the leaders of the tech world want to wave us off, on the grounds that they are playing for higher stakes than just money and power. They tell us that yesterday’s technologists were the framers of our very civilization and that today’s are ushering in a benevolent future. They assure us that they have thought through that future’s risks and know exactly which ones to worry about, up to and including those that may be existential. They insist that they are the grown-ups. We will believe it when we see it.





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