In times of great strife and uncertainty, it’s natural to look for heroes, leaders whom we can point to and say, “that right there, that’s what we believe in.” In a more armorial age, these heroes were warriors and generals. Throughout the political turmoil of the 20th century, champions of conscience earned our admiration. These days, it seems, being a rich doofus with a single benevolent bone in your body is enough.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a doofus. This author might be accurately described as one. But take a look at social media, and you’ll get the sense that many of us are banking on the divine intervention of Silicon Valley’s gawkiest gods. We would be better off praying to an iPod.
To see this desperation in action, simply read the replies to any post by Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook. Amid the endless stream of spam and self-promotion, you’ll see dozens of letter-to-Santa-like pleas to Mr. Facebook himself. Messages from readers who confused a Gizmodo writer’s email address with Jeff Bezo’s demonstrate a similar kind of faith.
“It would be funny,” wrote our own Adam Clark Estes, “if the messages weren’t so heart-breaking.”
Sadly, this magical thinking isn’t limited to the minds of the otherwise hopeless. The tech and business press is happy to play along with the Silicon Valley superhero narrative—often explicitly. Yes, when it comes time to discuss unpleasantries like worker conditions, news outlets will dutifully report the allegations. But if there’s a feel-good story about Daddy Tech flipping a dime into an upturned hat, you can bet your ass there will be wall-to-wall coverage about how some rich guy is “an IRL Iron Man.”
To be clear, I’m not begrudging acts of charity themselves. If you have a lot and want to give away some, sure, go nuts. But these public displays of generosity won’t solve our problems any more than Batman creaming some guy in a leotard is going to end crime and poverty—and if you believe they will, there’s a bridge in Gotham I’d like to sell you.
The world's most pressing challenges—like stagnant wages, homelessness, and the price of healthcare—won’t be overcome by market disruption or one-off giveaways. That’s because they’re fundamentally political problems, specifically, the kind of politics that makes tech titans really, really nervous.
The day after the 2016 US election, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook that he was “feeling hopeful,” writing that the work to create a better world “is bigger than any presidency and progress does not move in a straight line.”
“The most important opportunities of [his daughter] Max’s generation—like curing all disease, improving education, connecting everyone and promoting equal opportunity—will take long-term focus and finding new ways for all of us to work together, sometimes over decades,” he wrote.
These macro problems, which Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have pledged 99 per cent of their Facebook shares toward addressing, are conveniently apolitical, transcending petty, more immediate concerns like, “Is the presidency of Donald Trump a fundamental threat to the health and happiness of millions?” I mean, hey, who doesn’t want to cure all disease? Sadly, there’s no guarantee that such generosity will do us good.
Recently, an auditor released a 526-page report on the results of the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching, a data-driven education program designed and partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After spending $575 million (£432m) over six years on US education, the initiative—which evaluated teachers using pupils’ test scores—resulted in no dramatically better outcomes for students, the auditors found. From The Washington Post:
The findings revive questions about whether the country is well-served when America’s wealthiest citizens choose pet projects and fund them so generously that public institutions, policy and money follow—even if those projects are not grounded in sound research.
Some school reformers are reluctant to say the project was a waste of time and money. They say the project taught us what doesn’t work. That ignores the fact that some education experts warned from the start that some of the premises on which it rested were not sound.
Of course, the failure of one educational initiative doesn’t invalidate the benefit of all charity, but it does serve as cautionary tale about how the ultra-rich can throw big money at a convenient idea—and get bad policy to tag along.
Naturally, not all captains of industry are so giving. When they think of the troubled world and our future, many seem more interested in possibilities like space colonisation and seasteading, ideas that scream, “Oh my god, please make Elysium into a documentary and also let me onboard.”
In a Medium post published yesterday, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff described a meeting with five men “from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world” where he believed he would deliver a speech about “the future of technology.” Ultimately, it was the hedgies that did the talking. From Medium:
Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.
Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”
Perhaps the best illustration of the tech gods’ conditional interest in us puny mortals can be found in Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the world’s (sometimes) richest man. In January, Bezos made his first major public gift, $33 million (£24m) to fund college scholarships for 1,000 Dreamers. Just months later, Amazon succeeded in pressuring Seattle’s city council to repeal the so-called “head tax” on large businesses, money that would’ve funded an estimated $47 million (£35m) in homelessness and affordable housing services each year.
As CEO of Amazon, of course, Bezos’ primary responsibility in running his company is to shareholders, not to the needy of Seattle or any other city. For the same reason, the people of the world (and the media outlets that serve them) should find better heroes than the CEOs with the biggest chequebooks. The alternative is blindly hoping they save you a seat when they try to abandon ship.
“We will have to leave this planet,” Bezos, who previously said he’s converting his “Amazon lottery winnings” into cheaper space travel, told Geekwire in May. “We’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better. We’ll come and go, and the people who want to stay, will stay.”
The tech gods may have options, but we’re probably stuck here—so we might as well act like it.