OpenAI, X and the perils of absolute power

The secretive cults of personality that run Silicon Valley's biggest stars.

OpenAI, X and the perils of absolute power
An AI-generated image. Prompt: “AI’s absolute power.”

Full story: OpenAI and X: Promises of populist technology, shaped by a single man

Silicon Valley and the American tech press are obsessed with their “visionaries,” the monolithic slate of founders and frontmen — and they are almost always men — who wield an unchecked influence on corporate power. (See: Musk, Elon; Altman, Sam.)

But we don’t talk enough about how their cults of personality have ended up consolidating control over the technology they say will end up changing the world.

From my latest story:

The corporate storytelling that pushes technology as a force for public harmony has proved to be one of Silicon Valley’s great marketing tools, said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the history of technology. But it’s also obscured the dangers of centralizing power and subjecting it to leaders’ personal whims.

“Silicon Valley has for years adopted this messaging and mood that it’s all about radical transparency and openness — remember Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ motto? — and this idea of a kinder, gentle capitalism that’s going to change the world for the better,” she said.

“Then you have these moments of reckoning and remember: It’s capitalism. Some tech billionaires lost, and some other ones are winning,” she added. “These are private-sector people making money off something that serves a public function. And when they take a turn because of very personal, very individual decisions, where a handful of people are shaping the trajectory of these companies, maybe even the existence of these companies, that’s something new we all have to deal with.”

More to read

  • The great Elizabeth Dwoskin and Nitasha Tiku on Altman’s polarizing past.
  • Emily Bender with a useful corrective for the latest AI panic: “The idea that synthetic text-extruding machines are harbingers of AGI that is on the verge of combusting into consciousness and then turning on humanity is unscientific nonsense.”
  • These behind-the-scenes stories are so hard to pull off in the moment! Fantastic work from Keach Hagey, Deepa Seetharaman and Berber Jin.
  • My favorite take, from Susan Orlean: "Being completely ignorant of all details of the situation I will soon be releasing my statement about OpenAI."

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