Review: Going Infinite

It’s been rough for crypto for the past couple of years. Beyond the crypto winter and the downward swing in token prices, there was the resounding implosion of FTX last year, followed this year by Binance’s tiff with the DOJ and expensive settlement. For an investigative journalistic, almost autobiographical, account of how the industry has fallen, the book Number Go Up provides plenty of fodder for crypto skeptics.

Going Infinite focuses solely on FTX and its central character, Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF). Written by Michael Lewis—of Flash Boys and Liar’s Poker and Moneyball fame—he was granted access to the company and its inner workings. By sheer luck and coincidence, his presence overlapped with a series of unfortunate events, which exposed the duplicity of the exchange, and culminated in its eventual collapse en route to arresting its CEO-founder on fraud and money laundering charges1. Since SBF was found guilty of all criminal charges back in November, the book now reads like a prequel: you know how this ultimately ends, but there’s intrigue in discovering how the main characters got here.

Upon release, Going Infinite was criticized for its naiveté; with negative headlines and revelations on what was happening in FTX every week, the public was out for blood and didn’t get what they wanted out of the supposed tell-all. Lewis addressed the controversy in interviews, and defended his neutrality in the book, even framing his pushback against an angry mob as noble. I’m not sure he deserves full credit; by repeatedly taking information at face value2, he chose to ignore legitimate areas of inquiry, almost to the point of taking a contrarian stand against public perception.

On the book’s content, I appreciated its description of Jane Street Capital and what the secretive trading firm does. JSC is somewhat of a legend in software engineering circles, primarily for their rumored—and now confirmed—ridiculous compensation packages, along with testimonials from new grads on the difficulty of their interview process. But the company was and remains secretive, so jobs there took on an almost mythological quality. I was surprised by how much the book was able to detail some of the inner workings of the firm and its culture.

It also went at length to describe Effective Altruism, this movement that powered SBF’s desire to make as much money as he could. Now, the cynical take is that of course everyone is in it to maximize their wealth, but some of the details—going vegetarian, donating his JSC salary, driving around in a Corolla—lend some credence to his professed motivations. Then again, the personal thriftiness doesn’t square with FTX’s excessive spending, and a smidgen of earnestness doesn’t compensate for billions of dollars of fraud. The most charitable explanation may be that SBF himself harbored these beliefs, but his wealth—and the frivolousness of his spending habits—attracted much less noble hangers-on3.

The explanation of the EA movement comes at an opportune time; beyond SBF and his outsized donations, there are other billionaires drawn to the cause and throwing their dollars around for influence, and it even intersects with the moral debates around AI progression and high-minded philosophies around “the right thing for humanity in the long run.” That the description is conveniently self-serving, though, is not lost on anyone: the simplest explanation is that it’s the latest iteration in the rich and powerful justifying why they need to get richer and more powerful.

The arc of FTX and SBF is also a natural experiment in how money affects people as an independent variable. By all accounts, SBF has a quirky personality, is hardly charming or charismatic by traditional measures, and only superficially modified his behavior when he calculated it’d be helpful to his other goals. His fame, ability to raise money, invitations to parties, and magazine covers were almost all functions of his wealth and how fast he accumulated it. By Lewis’s account, he did not spend extravagantly on personal luxuries, but rarefied doors were opened, solely on the size of his checkbook. We all intuitively understand that wealth plays by another set of rules, but it’s rare to witness this dynamic play out so brazenly.

Going Infinite is about a man and a company and what happens when money comes so easily that millions and billions are literally footnotes in a spreadsheet. It’s not really a story about crypto; that’s the vehicle that powered FTX’s revenues, but pretty much all the important transactions and interactions were conducted in real-world currencies, paid for in cash and equity. The story follows the now-stereotypical rise and fall of a young, genius tech entrepreneur, haunted by the Forbes cover curse of trying to do so much, so quickly.

If nothing else, Going Infinite is perfectly set up for a Netflix documentary.

  1. It also happened to become the largest financial scandal and shakeup since the Great Recession of 2008.

  2. Though I still prefer this style compared to something like Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors, whose author had an obvious agenda.

  3. It reminds me a bit of Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos, and how by the end he was surrounded by people taking advantage of him and his money.

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