The ouster and rapid return of Sam Altman from OpenAI took the world by surprise, but many of the characters in the Silicon Valley soap opera were oddly familiar, showing how even the most consequential companies in tech are guided by an insular crew of tech stars.
As the company rapidly cycled through CEOs and potential board members, household names—like former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear and ex-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers surfaced—began to surface, despite their spotty resumes.
The dramatic ordeal also featured the return of a niche movement, “Effective altruism.” Its community took a blow this fall, when the movement’s greatest proponent, FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, was convicted.
Here’s five ways the OpenAI saga proved that at its core, Silicon Valley is just one big hamster wheel.
Late Sunday night, Shear was appointed OpenAI’s interim CEO, shocking those who expected Altman to be quickly reinstated. Just two days later, he was out, leading some Twitter commentators to dub the length of his term as roughly “one quarter of a Scaramucci.” Shear and Altman have known each other for more than a decade. They were both in the inaugural cohort of startup accelerator Y Combinator; Shear co-founded the live-streaming service Justin.TV and later served as CEO of its spinoff, Twitch. He resigned in the spring, saying he wanted to spend more time with his son. The company had been dogged by accusations that it failed to sufficiently rein in harassment on the platform.
Taylor is no stranger to corporate infighting. Just over a year ago, he was chairman of the Twitter board and had the thankless task of negotiating the company’s sale to Elon Musk. Musk had spent months needling the former Salesforce co-CEO. In the spring of 2022, the billionaire revealed that he had quietly taken a stake in Twitter. The board declared that Musk would join the board himself, in what amounted to a truce. At the last moment, however, Musk pulled out and announced that he would buy the company outright, prompting the board to enact a “poison pill” in an attempt to contain his influence. Musk then tried to back out of that deal, too, setting up a trial in Delaware court, until he conceded the issue and completed the acquisition. Taylor and the rest of the board were dismissed.
The former treasury secretary is almost a meme in Silicon Valley circles, serving on the board of Jack Dorsey’s Block, advising the powerful venture firm Andreeseen Horowitz, and even being portrayed in The Social Network. His appointment to the OpenAI board proves his enduring power, despite his many controversies. While president of Harvard, for example, Summers suggested there were innate differences between the sexes that made men better-suited to careers in STEM. (He resigned shortly after following a vote of no confidence from faculty.) He also maintained close ties with Jeffrey Epstein, requesting donations for his wife’s charity from the financier even after he was convicted of soliciting underage women for sex. Reacting to the news of his appointment on Twitter, Tow Center for Digital Journalism Director Emily Bell posted: “Well I guess we know that the revolutionary new future of humanity will be in the most ethical of man hands….”
The Airbnb CEO is one of Y Combinator’s most successful alums and a close ally of Altman. In October, before the boardroom madness, Altman publicly praised Chesky as a reliable source of “help and advice,” adding: “He will take a midnight call any time, put in hours of work on any topic, answer difficult questions correctly/with clarity, make any intro, etc.” Chesky reportedly served as one of Altman’s advisors and advocates this week, as he negotiated his reinstatement with the OpenAI board. “So happy you’re back,” Chesky posted on X, when the saga finally concluded.
The niche philosophical movement with a cult-like following seemed to have reached its zenith with the story of Sam Bankman-Fried, the former FTX CEO who was its richest and most prominent proponent. But after FTX went bankrupt and Bankman-Fried was indicted on eight federal charges, the movement seemed to go underground—until now.
Effective altruists believe in extreme utilitarianism, calculating the impact of every decision and doing only that which would create the most good for the most living beings—a quantitative approach to philanthropy that appeals to many in Silicon Valley. Four members of the original Open AI board—researcher Helen Toner, Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo, scientist Tasha McCauley, and OpenAI co-founder Ilya Sutskever—are effective altruists, concerned with a facet of the philosophy that worries AI, if allowed to developed unchecked, will ultimately take over humanity. That belief stands in stark contrast to Altman’s desire to rapidly push forward new technology, and was reportedly a central reason for his firing.
Altman’s ouster could have been a major win for the struggling philosophy and a check on the rapid advancement of AI technology. Instead, it had the opposite effect, turning some of the movement’s biggest proponent’s against the philosophy and proving it is no match for market interests. Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype major donor to EA causes, told Semafor this week he no longer thinks company’s should be run based on the philosophy. “The OpenAI governance crisis highlights the fragility of voluntary EA-motivated governance schemes,” he said. “So the world should not rely on such governance working as intended.”