The Silicon Valley Victimization Complex

The ongoing misery of tech's rich and successful.

Brian Armstrong, a man with a net worth of 10 billion dollars, has again taken to social media to cry about how deeply unfair CEOs have it. His painfully whiny tweetstorm complains about America’s apparent loss of talent to “attacks from press, politicians, trolls and congressional testimonies” that “make the job not fun,” which causes them - in this case, multi-billionaires - to leave from burnout. Specifically, he claims to have found a way to be “resistant to demoralizing attacks from trolls”:

  • “Hire employees and build a board of independent thinkers who are insulated from biased third parties scripting their minds,” which I assume refers to having a culture of boot lickers and a board of people who don’t care about anything? I don’t know.

  • The “trolls” that Armstrong refers to are likely the people who criticize cryptocurrency or Coinbase itself, which is why he created a little blog to complain about things on, a blog that has been updated, from what I can tell, twice between May 26 and September 12.

  • “Give customers (not just employees) a sense of ownership,” which he claims crypto has pioneered and, hilariously, suggests would have helped Facebook avoid a lot of the hate they’ve received. This point is amusing because it absolutely wouldn’t have - a sense of ownership in Facebook would not have stopped them doing awful things if “all of their users owned a piece of the network.”

  • Also, “giving customers (not just employees a sense of ownership” is not something Coinbase does, and as Twitter user Palley added, they don’t even give customers a phone number to call.

  • “If people felt like everyone was growing together, there would likely be a greater sense of unity” is just total word salad. Growing what, Brian?

Mr. Armstrong, like many crypto (and startup) zealots, is furious with the idea of regulation and criticism, considering these things a form of harassment versus “how countries run” and “how free society communicates.” Armstrong’s battle with the SEC, which involved them refusing to meet with him and threatening to sue Coinbase over the launch of their lending product (which they then canceled), seems like a startup that a government agency has unfairly maligned until you think for precisely one second what that means.

Take this quote from Armstrong:

“We’re committed to following the law. Sometimes the law is unclear. So if the SEC wants to publish guidance, we are also happy to follow that,” Armstrong said in the tweets.

So, the thing that is not discussed - and I cannot find any information to suggest if they have - is how often Coinbase has engaged with the SEC in the past. Crypto’s entire attitude to governments - much like many startups - is to move fast and break things, and thus likely hasn’t sought to build much of a relationship with the SEC beyond “we know it exists and we’ll mostly abide by the laws we can interpret.” Suddenly Coinbase is proposing a regulatory framework for crypto, presumably based on the fact that the SEC has woken up to the risks of cryptocurrency, and they can’t skate by hoping that things will work out.

The problem is that Coinbase, like many silicon valley companies, has chosen to bite its thumb at a very powerful government agency and then suddenly try and develop a relationship years after they should have. I refuse to believe a company with the size and reach of Coinbase couldn’t have many many many years ago sought to engage with the SEC at length - to talk through what regulation may look like, to seek guidance, and more importantly, to keep an open channel between the government and the most significant player in an industry that the government could quite easily regulate into dust. Coinbase was founded in 2012 - and is acting as if the SEC is a jilted lover, versus an understandably pissed-off element of the government that Coinbase’s entire industry has treated with equal parts disgust and anger.

Brian and his ilk act like victims because they deliberately chose to flaunt regulation, following a similar path to Uber by assuming that the world would mold itself around them. Except Uber is also finding that global governments are beginning to close in on them for flaunting labor regulations to sustain their growth…and people need to take cabs places sometimes. Cryptocurrency is, to its core, built on hiding money under the guise of “freedom” and enabled $80 million in scams in 6 months of 2021 alone due to its lack of regulation and the ease through which someone gets their ass handed to them.

Also…the SEC doesn’t work for you! Oversight doesn’t exist to make your company better, or help you, or make things easy for you, and it exists to make sure that things are safer and to stop the things that are not.

While there may be times at which it approaches usefulness, and theoretical examples of potential use cases, the overwhelming majority of crypto is focused on either expediting transactions or handling money, which makes Armstrong and his ilk’s hesitance to engage with the SEC in crypto’s early days has likely led to their disgust. Think about it - your industry is well known for being full of scams, and the SEC has previously made it clear that they don’t like what’s going on, and they’ve shown that they’re willing to take legal action going back as far as 2013 (a year after Coinbase’s launch). At some point, surely Coinbase, with all its money, power, and influence, would have thought, “Hey, why don’t we get ahead of this?” and repeatedly try and engage with the SEC?

Probably because they tried the same old bullshit of the valley - whining about being regulated years after they could’ve engaged with the government in good faith and then trying to claim that they’re the good guys now that they’ve farted out the possibility of writing regulations. Guess what? The SEC is probably not going to be open to these regulations because you took nearly a decade to build a relationship with them, and now, when it’s clear that you’re about to get regulated, you’re demanding they form one overnight. Calling this behavior sketchy is hilarious - what’s more sketchy is not actively seeking guidance early and often and trying to build a relationship with the agency that exists explicitly to stop regular people from getting screwed. The lack of explanation from the SEC is likely because the SEC doesn’t feel the need to declare its intentions or ideas to a party it may very well consider a bad actor.

The counterargument here is that the soul of crypto is anarchy - which would make more sense if Coinbase didn’t send records to the IRS or if Coinbase wasn’t a publicly-traded company. But there is no anarchism to crypto - everything eventually flows into real money, as we are way past the point when regular people could easily mine Ethereum or Bitcoin themselves. Those controlling the transactions are not dirty little goblins in their basement but people who can afford to set up vast ASIC rig farms. Armstrong continues to act like this isn’t the case, whispering vague sweet nothings about how crypto is the future while trying to write regulations that likely protect Coinbase and nothing else.

And at the end of all of this - all of this crying and gnashing of teeth from Armstrong - he is still a billionaire at the height of a multi-trillion dollar industry with no real purpose. He has nothing to weep for - his rants about the “shady” SEC or non-specific “trolls” are a laughable mixture of his own mistakes and thin skin.

The Tech Culture War

Paul Graham - a similarly (but not as) rich white guy and former VC once said that you should ignore complaints from people who habitually complain, which is likely why I ignore him and his many complaints. He’s part of the vanguard of “guys who habitually complain about the media that made them wealthy,” claiming that journalists are entirely focused on hit pieces and that the media is out to control people and polarize them. Even Michael Arrington, who founded popular tech news website TechCrunch, has glugged down a big bottle marked “ironic culture war poison,” claiming that he “doesn’t need to have his words filtered through someone with an agenda” after making a great deal of money filtering other people’s words (startup news) for his own agenda (making a website that gets traffic).

Sidebar: It’s also extremely funny that Michael Arrington is mad that the media is treating startups “unfairly” after writing a blog back in 2011 called “Why We Often Blindside Companies” because he went to a source about a potential story to confirm, and they - oh, the irony! - went and wrote the story on their own platform. I also cannot escape the powerful irony of this man saying “treat us [the media] with respect and you’ll get it back times ten in return. That’s all we ask.”

It’s a bizarre new condition where guys who were quite happy with the media 5-ish years ago are suddenly mad at them, claiming that there is some new malicious intent in the press that causes them to look critically at certain things and raise news to the public eye. It’s part of the whole “the tech press becoming an industry press after being an enthusiast press” problem, but it also is very much what all of these people wanted.

They have, from the beginning, fought for legitimacy in the world - not just for their own companies, but for the (previously) humble startup founder that theoretically set out to change the world (make money). Perhaps they were naive (maybe?) or are simply acting like right-wing demagogues that shift their stances and ignore their past to suit whatever they feel at any given time, constantly acting in bad faith while crying that they’re victims of a media culture that existed when they were born and will still exist when they die. When something becomes significant enough to have something approaching mass adoption or appears to be on the path to doing so, it is naturally going to have scrutiny - and that scrutiny often comes from the media.

While Armstrong and his ilk cry that this is in the form of unfair attacks and that scrutiny should only be exacted through the users’ buying power, that suggests that scrutiny only exists to stop people from spending money. The reality is that scrutiny is to bring the whole truth about a person or company - to let the public make their own decisions in the most fully-formed way, and to shed light on, say, a company that claims to be all about freedom and equality that has significant problems with racism. That scrutiny exists to inform the public if a company with power and influence has issues that may corrupt the use of said power and influence, which is a necessary part of an open society.

Nobody enjoys being at the business end of scrutiny, but it is part of the cost of success - as you become more visible, more people can see you, and thus more people will want to know more about you and whether they can trust you with money or time. David Sacks wrote in 2014 in an email to Times writer Jodi Kantor that “If meritocracy exists anywhere on earth, it is in Silicon Valley,” but cries like a baby about Apple employees using their merits - their labor - to call for change in their organization - despite this being, one might thing, the kind of disruption that makes real change.

It’s the flagrant hypocrisy and nihilism of the bored, rich and miserable - people who believe in nothing other than the growth and protection of their ability to make money. They don’t seem to enjoy a single thing other than getting on Twitter and being furious about whatever their friends are furious about that day - as Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch puts it, they don’t seem to be having fun - entering increasingly more circular and specious rants about how everything is deeply unfair, saying shit like “the Biden administration is holding the sword of Damocles over “Big Tech” that doesn’t really mean anything but is definitely scary.

Whenever I read these rants, I think what you could do with even $100 million - the obvious good, and the even more obviously fun. They could have their favourite chef make their favourite meal in a huge house that they own outright, drinking amazing things and hanging with those they love in perpetuity. Instead, they sit on Twitter and, instead of DMing their friends’ typos back to them or posting their lunch, choose to get progressively more pissed off at their local DA, or complain that a government agency isn’t being fair to them, or screech that the media is not letting them talk about what they want to talk about to an audience that ranges from 200,000 to a million people.

I’m not sure what they want, or whether they even know. They’ve managed to reach this point of success where they should be incredibly fulfilled, but seem to feel so utterly empty, lashing out in all directions in the hope that they can feel something. Perhaps all that work to get to the top of their industry never actually made them happy, or gave them the perspective that breeds gratitude for success. Or maybe they simply thought that this is what they deserve, and that any force that would dare stymie their (and others’) god-given right to wealth is a force of evil.