2022 Was Tech’s Worst Timeline

Trillions of dollars disappeared this year, but at least our avatars look cool.

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There’s no way around it: 2022 was among the darkest of timelines for tech. From Meta losing more than half a trillion to Twitter losing its marbles to Sam Bankman-Fried losing his halo, it was an annus horribilis for people working in the technology business (and those of us tasked with covering it). Like the protagonist of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the critical and box office hit currently racking up award nominations, many of us in Silicon Valley and other tech towns were grasping for alternatives to the dismal world we found ourselves in this year. Anything—even a world in which we had to swipe our iPhone 14 Plus with hot dog fingers—would’ve been better than this year.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Elon Musk’s quest for Twitter, which started with a quiet (and questionably legal) accumulation of shares in January, occupied most of the year. He agreed to join the board, then bowed out. He then struck a deal to buy Twitter outright, vowing to “defeat the bots” cluttering Twitter with spam and noise. Then he claimed there were too many of them for him to battle. Twitter’s board held firm, and facing an almost certain loss in court, Musk folded and had to buy the whole dang thing in late October.

It’s a strange kind of loss where you end up with the thing you said you wanted, but $44 billion later, Musk seemed determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He fired thousands of employees, scared off advertisers, and fumbled product launches. Bankruptcy, he warned the remaining Twitter crew, was a real possibility. It reminded me of the time Musk nearly ran out of cash at Tesla in 2008. He seems to like this kind of peril.

The rest of tech was stumbling, too. Meta’s bad bet on VR and a tiff with Apple over privacy meant laying off tens of thousands of its employees in November. Amazon’s Alexa, once thought of as the future of computing, turned out to be a money-losing dud. Salesforce’s Marc Benioff lost another co-CEO. Weren’t we supposed to be riding around in self-driving cars by now? Argo AI shut down in October after raising billions.

At least NFTs were still hot, right? Wrong. Justin Bieber lost more than $1 million on his Bored Ape Yacht Club and, adding insult to injury, was among the handful of celebrities sued for promoting the digital-simian artworks.

San Francisco, the industry’s unofficial capital, remained in a funk. A $1.7 million toilet in Noe Valley epitomized the city government’s dysfunction. (It wasn’t even clear if that price included Wi-Fi.) Companies tried to lure workers back to Salesforce Tower, Apple Park, and the Googleplex. But for what? A lot of those workers found themselves sitting at desks on endless Zoom calls, which they could’ve done at home in cheaper places than the Bay Area. Downtown businesses continued to struggle. One SoMa restaurant shut down after reporting a 65 percent drop in sales compared with its pre-pandemic numbers.

Then there was the crypto crash. Receding prices soon revealed who was prancing around in the Bahamian surf naked. Sam Bankman-Fried went from hero to zero as his FTX empire collapsed in November. Early in the year, the son of two Stanford Law School professors was splashing around cash rescuing flailing DeFi plays like BlockFi and Voyager Digital. After a rift with onetime backer turned rival Changpeng “CZ” Zhao of Binance, his companies went bankrupt and he claimed to be down to six figures in his bank account, having similarly beggared more than a million customers. As of press time, he’s sitting in a Bahamian jail cell. As crypto journalist Laura Shin put it, “It’s like if the person you thought was Hermione actually turned out to be Voldemort.”

By December, it was clear that the bots were winning. Booed by a crowd of humans at Dave Chappelle’s comedy show at Chase Center, Musk found a more tractable audience among the machines that swarmed the online polls he’d started using to make decisions at Twitter. Meanwhile, ChatGPT debuts, almost sure to replace Google as the robot oracle of choice. And most insidiously, Lensa AI was winning us over with flattery, digesting our selfies and spitting out visions of us as superheroes and porn stars. When this timeline’s version of Skynet arrives, the machines won’t need to nuke us. Our digital oppressor will come bearing GIFs. Happy holidays, humans!•

Owen Thomas is a tech journalist based in San Francisco.
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