Broken Things

Ed Zitron 7 min read

Years before OceanGate’s Titan submersible imploded, killing five people in the process, a former employee filed a counterclaim alleging that the company fired him for raising concerns about the vehicle's safety.

In addition to terminating the plaintiff (David Lochridge, the former Director of Marine Operations for the company), OceanGate filed a civil suit claiming he breached the terms of his contract and misappropriated trade secrets. His crime? Allegedly discussing confidential information with America’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the division of the Federal government that exists to ensure safe working conditions.

In 2018, leaders in the submersible industry (specifically the Marine Technology Society) pleaded with OceanGate to address “catastrophic” problems with the Titan submersible, declaring its approach “experimental.”

Five years later, the submersible would echo these sentiments, experiencing a “catastrophic implosion” as a direct result of the poorly-designed craft buckling under the incredible amounts of pressure that the ocean can deliver.

Sunk Costs

OceanGate raised $18 million in January 2020. In statements to the media, it  mentioned that the Titan submersible — the same one that imploded — showed “signs of cyclic fatigue,” and thus had had its depth rating reduced to 3000 meters. The money was meant to be used to build two entirely new submersibles — specifically one that could go as deep as 6000 meters — and the article specifically notes that OceanGate would, and I quote, “take advantage of lessons learned during the construction of its carbon-hulled Titan submersible,” with the specific lessons being related to said cyclic fatigue. As OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush explained, 3000 meters was “not enough to get to the Titanic.” OceanGate also received $447,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans.

According to a vast investigation by Motherboard, which trawled through hours of YouTube content posted by the company, OceanGate massively misled the public about the design credentials of the Titan:

While the company’s website said Titan was “designed and engineered by OceanGate Inc. in collaboration [with] experts from NASA, Boeing and the University of Washington,” for example, the head of UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory told Motherboard in a statement that it “was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the TITAN submersible used in the RMS TITANIC expedition.”

The article also cites an archived version of OceanGate’s website that says the Titan submersible could dive to 4000 meters 2000 less than OceanGate had promised from its two new submersibles that never actually saw the light of day.

Motherboard’s investigation tells a story of a company that continually overstated the depth of its partnerships with major institutions like NASA, and Lochridge’s counterclaim filing specifically notes that there was no ability to scan the hull or bond line to make sure that everything was stuck together correctly, and specifically that there was no equipment that existed to perform said test.

OceanGate is the ultimate result of the Zuckerbergian “Move Fast and Break Things” mantra — the idea that if you’re not breaking things, you’re not moving fast enough, and that speed of delivery and execution is a worthwhile trade for some sort of destruction. It raised so much money, and had the opportunity — and indeed the talent — to create a submersible capable of safely visiting the Titanic.

James Cameron did it 33 times, relying primarily on Soviet-era Mir submersibles that, although conceived during the Gorbachev era, were tried-and-tested. He spent $10 million to build the Deep Sea Challenger submersibles that took him to the deepest parts of the Mariana Trench, where the seabed sits at 35,700 ft below sea level — or nearly three times the depth of the Titanic’s final resting place.

The Deep Sea Challenger was a joint effort with leading industry experts, and involved the discovery of some genuinely revolutionary advances in marine engineering and material science, like a new type of synthetic foam that could withstand the immense pressures of the deepest-known point on earth. Cameron and his collaborators were deadly serious, not merely about their mission, but also about safety.

Pressing Problems

Why did things go so disastrously wrong for OceanGate? I suppose it began when it abandoned industry best practices for deep sea submersible manufacturing. Admittedly, I’m no expert here, but every single expert has said that using a carbon fiber-titanium composite as a primary construction material was a fatal error.

Most deep sea submersibles have solid metal hulls built from steel or titanium. Titanium is often preferable, as it’s both lightweight and strong, and thus able to withstand the incredible pressures of the ocean floor without also compromising maneuverability. By contrast, the use of carbon fiber in deep sea environments is completely experimental, and its longevity (particularly its ability to retain coherence after multiple dives) remains unknown.

Worse, the carbon fiber used in the Titan was obtained at “a big discount” from Boeing as it was no longer suitable for aeronautical applications due to its age. Unsurprisingly, it’s not hard to find other shortcuts in this vessel, which was designed and manufactured over a six-week period, from its unsuitable communications equipment, to the lack of an emergency locator beacon, and its reliance on a decade-old Logitech wireless gamepad for controls.

But more fundamentally, OceanGate rushed a product to market in an abundance of greed and mismanagement, believing that things would turn out fine if it told enough people that they would. The now-dead CEO Stockton Rush was a wealthy, arrogant and ignorant man, a “cowboy” that dismissed the outright failures of the submersible as easily-fixable problems and told reassuring half-truths to the media.

In an interview with CBS in 2022, Rush said that: “when you're trying something outside the box, people inside the box think you're nuts. Same thing when Elon Musk was doing SpaceX. Inside the box, everything's scary."

The latest SpaceX rocket launch exploded in April 2023, showering the local environment with debris and inflicting “catastrophic” damage to the launch pad, which was not built to sustain the amount of heat that the rocket created. Tesla’s autopilot system has led to 736 crashes and 17 deaths since 2019, and the Boring Company has applied for a permit to dump 142,500 gallons of treated wastewater in the Colorado River. It has failed to do anything other than piss off local governments and raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

These stories are the natural outcome of a tech industry poisoned by rot economics — where execution and delivery have become subordinate to dreams of scale and growth. OceanGate raised an incredible amount of funding despite Rush’s total lack of qualifications and fundamental lies about the nature of his work. He was not charged by his investors — who remain nameless other than previous passenger Aaron Newman — to make sure that his device was scientifically and legally sound, to heed the warnings of the industry, or seek the counsel of the guy who made the movie about the Titanic and had also done the specific dive OceanGate wanted to 33 times.

Rush has blood on his hands — or would, had he not been crushed by the literal and figurative consequences of his actions — as do his investors, who were the reason that he was able to continue his reckless, expensive and murderous hobby. They dreamed of a huge return based on the promises of a charlatan who had only managed to proven that he couldn’t deliver, despite, to paraphrase an interview with James Cameron, deep submergence being a “mature art” with few accidents thanks in part to the certification protocols everybody else chooses to follow.

OceanGate is a graphic example of tech’s recklessness, where bravado, alacrity, and the right buzzwords are valued above having a functional, sustainable business that people actually use.

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Con Artistry

Social network and messaging (and formerly “event discovery network”) app IRL raised just under $200 million (including money from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund). It shut down last week after it was revealed that 95% of its users were fake — yet the problem is, of course, that it raised all that money off of fabricated data, not that its “events-based social network” had never made a single dollar and did not seem capable of ever operating without venture capital.

It wasn’t a problem to the venture capitalists, or indeed the media, that there was no actual business behind IRL, or that nobody they knew used it (because it was “for Gen Z”). The startup ecosystem has become beholden to what the founder of a successful company says and does rather than how a successful company operates.

Silicon Valley’s rot economy comes from a combination of vibes-based investments and an over-tolerance of “pre-revenue” companies. While one might understand funding a seed stage company as it works out the exact route to making money, many companies are capable of raising significant A, B and C rounds without ever proving that they have a viable business model, because they’ve managed to get a certain amount of users or have ostensibly-feasible growth projections.

Even now, post-SVB, AI companies with no revenue can raise tens of millions or $150 million, in the case of because they resemble what’s “hot” without any consideration as to whether they’re real businesses. These are not real companies (real companies make money and sell things), but symbolic items that venture capitalists hope can be sold to other companies or credulous retail investors because there isn’t a chance in hell they become functional businesses.

The problem is that venture capital continues to fund the cart before the horse is even born. By repeatedly investing in companies without a strong (or any) business model — a real, tangible, and once essential path to independence from further funding — they are creating a fragile, anti-darwinian tech industry.

It’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the best-connected and most resemblant of “success,” even if “success” is defined completely differently to any other industry in the world. If a company can’t live without venture funding past Series A (I’d say the pandemic was an exception), they don’t need more money — they need to find a way to make it on their own, or to die.

Founders and investors lionize — or perhaps even fetishize — the concept of failure because it’s emblematic of risk-taking and quixotic gumption. Rather, we should appreciate failure because it frees up funding and tech talent for other (and, dare I say, more viable) businesses. In saner times, failure is a tool for resource allocation and redistribution.

The tech industry currently lives in a paradoxical universe where they continually tell people to “just build” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” while also nurturing a system that is inherently dependent on large influxes of capital. It’s the equivalent of a trust fund kid, born with every possible advantage in life, telling a working-class person to just work harder and quit spending money on DoorDash.

The result is a brittle industry plagued with continual failures, where bubbles are burst and inflated in parallel, and where “the fittest” is defined not by achievement or fortitude, but by the people you know, how big their checkbook is, and how much you can resemble a company that can be sold rather than a company that can sell something.

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