When he learned he would gain unprecedented access to Sam Bankman-Fried, then CEO of crypto exchange FTX, author Michael Lewis went in, as he always does, with an open mind.
But there was much Lewis (Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side, et al.) couldn’t have anticipated. Like that the twentysomething’s multibillion-dollar empire would come crashing down right in the midst of their sessions together, leaving Lewis to wander the abandoned marble halls of Bankman-Fried’s new-built Bahamian compound alone. Or that the book that resulted from all the meetings and research would publish on the very same day that Bankman-Fried’s trial for conspiracy and fraud began.
In Going Infinite, Bankman-Fried comes off as a cipher, both to others and, in some respects, to himself. Fitting, perhaps, for the public face of cryptocurrency, a commodity that so many embraced without having the faintest clue what it was.
Books rarely end up being what their authors imagine they’ll be. What was your preconception of this one?
I’ve always had more fun with books that were character driven. I decided I was going to pick characters and situations and let the story figure itself out, which may or may not be shrewd, but that was what was in my mind when Sam Bankman-Fried arrived on my doorstep in October, 2021. A friend who was about to do a business deal with him asked me to meet with [Bankman-Fried] and evaluate him because he didn’t have any idea who he was. He said his business seemed very profitable, but that nobody had a read on the guy.
I thought about his character and situation. It’s a 29-year-old who set out to make money so he could give it away. He’s socially odd, and Forbes says he’s now worth $22.5-billion and he’s doing all kinds of odd things with it. And I thought: I just wanna watch.
I didn’t have a theory. I was thinking he’s moving through the world with a sack of $22.5-billion and affecting it in all sorts of odd ways.
I thought of him as a way to look at systems.
In early November , I’d spent a year marinating in his company, interviewing people around the company. Interviewing venture capitalists and regulators and whatnot, trying to figure out what the story was. But I hadn’t yet signed a book contract.
To me, it read more like anthropology than business.
It probably is more like anthropology than business. It certainly isn’t the world’s definitive crypto book – Sam just happened to be in crypto. It was amazing to see how quickly a fortune could be accumulated in this world. How quickly the world shapes itself around that money.
I never ceased to feel that Sam Bankman-Fried’s peculiar experience was teaching us a lot about the world. It has this trajectory where you end where you begin: back in his parents’ house under house arrest without any money, without any friends.
I realized that he’d given me a structure, and into the bargain a lens on the world around him. That’s when I was off and running.
The world around Sam comes off as strange, hermetic. Also very young. Did you feel comfortable in it?
My private life is more comfortable and materialistic than his. So I always felt it was a downgrade moving into his world. The food was worse. The company was worse. What was hard was getting into the heads of these 25-year-old computer people. I would have had as much trouble with this crowd when I was 25. It took a while before I got comfortable with them, and they got comfortable with me.
I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk, and it was hard not to see certain parallels. Both have this extreme multitasker manner of operating in the world. Boredom is like poison to them. Everything is gamified. But you quote Sam calling Elon a “weird dude,” which felt very pot-kettle.
When I was an art history major, they used to throw up two paintings next to each other to do a compare and contrast. With these two guys, a couple things jump out. First, the contrast: Sam being horribly conflict averse. The way he crawfishes through life telling everybody “yes” so that everybody thinks he’s agreed with them. Elon Musk is a bully. He wants to beat people up and make people feel small. And he loves the conflict. Loves the bad. Loves Twitter. Musk has this libertarian streak. Sam thinks libertarians are dumb, selfish.
Musk is spreading his seed far and wide. Sam made a decision early in life that he doesn’t want children because it’s an inefficient use of his time. Sam doesn’t have much feeling for individual people, but cares about humanity in a positive way. It seems implausible because, if you don’t like people, why do you care about humanity? But Sam got there in his head.
A similarity is the speed of their wealth creation – although Sam was faster. But why on earth do we live in a society where individuals get so much power so quickly? It’s disturbing.
Walter Isaacson and I actually went to the same high school in New Orleans. We’ve been talking about these characters for two years. Walter said, you have an ending and I don’t. I thought Walter did a great job, but I did not envy him his challenge.
A lot of people hate Elon Musk, but Elon Musk has a huge fan boy crowd. Sam Bankman-Fried no longer does. It’s all gone.
At one point, Sam says in a letter to his girlfriend that “I basically don’t have a soul,” but it doesn’t come off as nefarious or even Faustian. It seems observational, as in: He recognizes he lacks a certain animating force, a capacity for happiness that most of possess in some form. He seems, in a sense, ingenuous. Is that how you found him?
I don’t know that he ever lied to me. I feel like he was an extremely reliable recounter of things that had happened. He would always check out.
Where he got himself in trouble in the media before his implosion he was saying all kinds of things he shouldn’t say. Indiscreet things. At the same time, he viewed conversation and interactions with people as a kind of board game. While he’s not lying, he does sometimes – well, very often actually – not tell you the whole story, or not answer exactly the question that you asked.
You know that game Battleship? Where you guess the co-ordinates? If you guess Sam’s co-ordinates, he’ll say, yes, you’re on my battleship, but he won’t let you know that you’re one peg away.
All of which will make the trial very interesting.
Yeah, he thinks about the answer to a question and it looks like he’s calculating. I suspect calculating is how he’ll come across at the trial.
Partly because Bankman-Fried called Shakespeare a hack, I’d love to put his story in Shakespearean terms. What’s his tragic flaw?
Certainty. Excessive certainty in his own judgments. Which is odd because he sees himself as a person who’s moving through the world calculating probabilities all the time. He’s calculating the probabilities of things that are often just unknowable. And in trying to quantify them, they can seem more knowable than they are. And so he deludes himself into thinking he knows more than he does. And at the same time is dismissive of people who do know things. And he’s slow to access that knowledge. He insists upon his own mechanisms for understanding the world rather than accessing other people’s mechanisms. It’s a characteristic that’s both a strength and a weakness.
I do see him in Shakespearean terms. I had the thought over and over: what magic Shakespeare would have made of such a character.
There’s a huge irony that this person who sets out to measure the value of his life by the consequences of his actions ends up having the opposite effect he intends. Hurts everything he seeks to help. Helps everything he seeks to hurt. It’s just diabolical.
This interview has been condensed and edited.