America has a curious attachment to the idea of gaudy wealth as the ultimate fount of virtue. Sure, there are a handful of saintly figures in our past who thoughtlessly surrendered their narrow margins of material comfort, their family ties, and, in many cases, their lives for the sake of a higher social good. But your Dorothy Days, Joe Hills or Frederick Douglasses never occupy the ultimate pride of place in the pantheon of American do-gooding. No, those figures are the benevolent moguls (aka robber barons) — the market-conquering souls who endow universities, trusts, museums, think tanks and the like. Theirs are the names that get etched in stone, and the busts that command awed obeisance, while wilder-eyed reformers and dissidents are marshaled to the duller stretches of our history textbooks.
This week, 31-year-old Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg became the latest blessed billionaire seeking to join these august ranks, with the announcement that he intends to give 99 percent of his Facebook stock, currently valued at $45 billion, to charity. In a post to his own site immodestly framed as a letter from him and his wife Priscilla Chan to their infant daughter Max — and by extension, to the precious human future she symbolizes — the info titan, who began his career by aggregating date-rapish estimations of the relative hotness of female Harvard undergrads, briskly takes on the role of enlightened caretaker of posterity.
Here is his mission statement for humanity (bold in original):
Our hopes for your generation focus on two ideas: advancing human potential and promoting equality.
Advancing human potential is about pushing the boundaries on how great a human life can be.
Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?
Can our generation cure disease so you live much longer and healthier lives?
Can we connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity?
Can we harness more clean energy so you can invent things we can’t conceive of today while protecting the environment?
Can we cultivate entrepreneurship so you can build any business and solve any challenge to grow peace and prosperity?
Promoting equality is about making sure everyone has access to these opportunities — regardless of the nation, families or circumstances they are born into.
Our society must do this not only for justice or charity, but for the greatness of human progress. . . . .
Can we build inclusive and welcoming communities?
Can we nurture peaceful and understanding relationships between people of all nations?
Can we truly empower everyone — women, children, underrepresented minorities, immigrants and the unconnected?
If our generation makes the right investments, the answer to each of these questions can be yes — and hopefully within your lifetime.
Of course, enhancing human potential and combating inequality are worthy goals, as is the decision to disburse the cash reserves of our mogul class in their general direction. But we do well to heed the means by which our connectivity barons see all this social improvement coming to pass.
After all, in a genuine assault on inequality, the overall business model of Silicon Valley would have to be abandoned entirely, as tech critics such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov have noted. By setting up outsized winner-take-all data combines like Facebook and Google, Silicon Valley accelerates key economic trends such as cartelization, income inequality and the gradual dissolution of the middle class — all under the grand enabling fiction of online liberation. Information, it turns out, doesn’t so much want to be free as it seeks ever more elaborate ways to conceal its surcharges — while creating, in figures like Zuckerberg, a whole new generation of market monopolists.
Zuckerberg, in the great tradition of mogul charity-bestowers who came before him, is largely conjuring a world of philanthropic activity in his own maximally flattering image.
More specifically, the measures that Zuckerberg goes on to envision aiding the frontline struggle for human betterment don’t actually suit the job at hand all that well. Zuckerberg, in the great tradition of mogul charity-bestowers who came before him, is largely conjuring a world of philanthropic activity in his own maximally flattering image. It’s a world in which the “unconnected” are numbered among the world’s oppressed masses, and in which it’s somehow a self-evident aspiration for a child to “cultivate entrepreneurship” in order to “build any business and solve any challenge to grow peace and prosperity.” Likewise, the mandate to “connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity” may as well have been cribbed from the Facebook VC prospectus, circa 2007.
It gets worse. For of course, the same Internet that has permitted Zuckerberg to amass his billions by monetizing the private data of Facebook users strikes him now as the mainspring of all significant social improvement:
It provides education if you don’t live near a good school. It provides health information on how to avoid diseases or raise healthy children if you don’t live near a doctor. It provides financial services if you don’t live near a bank. It provides access to jobs and opportunities if you don't live in a good economy.
The internet is so important that for every 10 people who gain internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created.
This is a core confusion of correlation and causation that should be worrisome in the case of anyone possessing Zuckerberg’s world-conquering storehouses of wealth and influence. While a job may crop up here and there among 10 percent of the world’s Internet users, there’s zero evidence that their clicking habits have produced it. Indeed, it’s a dead cinch, for example, that the Internet hasn’t lately added to the disastrously shrinking corps of paid musicians and writers, let alone to the ranks of unionized hotel workers or taxi drivers.
This blind tech-adulation has also fueled Zuckerberg’s earlier foray into philanthropy — his ballyhooed $100 million donation in 2010 to the Newark public schools, a gesture that doubled as publicity stunt for the anti-teacher’s union documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” (And yes, part of Zuckerberg’s nine-figure outlay went to buy out senior and tenured Newark teachers, thereby eliminating still more union-protected jobs at the behest of an Internet kingpin.)
Just five years after Zuckerberg launched Newark’s brave new Facebook status as a capital of education reform, the whole boondoggle collapsed; PR consultants had bled the Newark school district’s now-flush budget to the tune of $1,000 per firm per day, for a staggering total of more than $20,000,000 in image-management expenditures. Meanwhile, the city’s actually existing families with kids in the schools grew so disenchanted with their new hi-tech overseers that they elected a new mayor, former Newark Central High principal Ras Baraka, to dismantle the whole endeavor and return the school system to some genuine semblance of community control.
The great irony here is that the colossal hubris displayed by Zuckerberg and his fellow members of the global knowledge elite bespeaks a giant educational failure in its own right. The myopic, magical-thinking faith in technology as a one-size-fits-all panacea for humanity’s ills betrays a willed retreat from engaging with the core material that shape our educational, economic, and personal achievement deficits across the globe. Nicholas Negroponte, the swaggering tech-prophet behind the MIT Media Lab, already made a stab at a version of Zuckerberg’s grand connectivity crusade back in the 1990s, with his lavishly funded, widely praised “One Laptop Per Child” initiative. The result was an unqualified bust: Peru, which followed up on actual school performance after Negroponte’s millennialist tidal wave of laptops washed over the country’s student population, found that educational performance was unchanged.
It’s not hard to see why. If you just add laptops, wireless connections or Facebook accounts to unevenly developed societies with yawning inequalities rooted in grotesquely distorted economic and political histories, those bedrock conditions will remain unchanged — and in more than a few cases, worsened. This is, indeed, the whole trouble with the Silicon moguls’ pet cause of “effective philanthropy” — their measures of effectiveness have everything to do with the moral vanity of the charitable giver, and nothing to do with the far more unpredictable and unmanageable living conditions of the recipient.
The man of wealth serves as the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could themselves.
There’s a second, instructive irony here as well. The digerati know-it-alls prescribing a new curriculum of world-saving knowledge for humanity evidently have scant familiarity with the history of their own do-gooding impulses. If our present-day info lords had the slightest curiosity about the history of American philanthropy, they’d soon learn the bracing tale of Andrew Carnegie, the 19th century steel titan who also made a point of largesse for the betterment of the world. Indeed, Carnegie laid out the principles of modern charitable giving in his celebrated 1889 tract “The Gospel of Wealth,” where he calmly explained that people of great wealth, by the simple logic of natural selection, should also oversee the proper channels of its dispersal.
“The man of wealth,” Carnegie preached, serves as “the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could themselves.”
“Having declared that his role in the larger evolutionary schema was to make as much money as possible so that he would have the maximum amount to give away, [Carnegie] was obligated to squeeze profits out of his enterprises,” Carnegie’s biographer David Nasaw notes. “And that required him to pay his workers as little as possible. … According to figures compiled by the geographer and historian Kenneth Warren, while the value of goods shipped from Carnegie mills increased by some 226 percent [between 1892 and 1899], the percentage of revenues paid out in wages decreased by 67 percent.”
It’s true that Zuckerberg extracts surplus value more from his user base than his in-house employees, but in structural terms, the similarities here are striking. In each case, the proprietor of a cartelized economic resource — steel in Carnegie’s case, data in Zuckerberg’s — discovers a sudden aptitude for philanthropic heroism. In each case, they pledge to give away the great bulk of their fortunes to charity — but in each case, they’ve succeeded largely in making over the recipients of their largesse into their own preferred virtuous image, and casually disregarding all manner of workers and citizens who don’t fit the template.
Carnegie never succeeded in carrying out his stated goal of giving away all his wealth before his death — and far from serving as the benevolent and enlightened face of corporate paternalism in his age, he and his company became bywords for the brutal repression of organized labor in the wake of their murderous handling of the 1892 Homestead strike. By the time he died, in 1919, he had become morbidly depressed by the calamity of the First World War — a conflict that, true to form, he thought he could spend out of existence by sponsoring a series of international peace conferences.
This glum epilogue to Carnegie’s philanthropic career is what the literary critic Walter Benjamin, cribbing the notion from Hegel, called “the cunning of history” — the idea that not only are the features of the taken-for-granted order of things other than what they appear to be, but can also mutate into their polar opposite. But perhaps Zuckerberg would conclude that Carnegie, too, simply lacked connectivity. With IMs, MOOCs and Oculus Rift — and the epic lack of self-awareness of our history-defying info-elite — this time will surely be different.