Welcome to episode 133 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
For this week’s topic, we’re going to discuss the recent announcement from Mr. Mark Zuckerberg as a celebration of the arrival of his first baby that he and his wife were going to be giving 99% of their Facebook stock over to humanistic, charitable causes over the course of a lifetime, over their lifetimes. They’re going to pursue curing diseases, personalized education, the sorts of big problems that we’d like to see tackled. I think it’s a very interesting move by Mr. Zuckerberg for a couple reasons, and it’s also sort of reflective of a larger shift, I think, in the way the digital gilded age is playing out in front of our eyes.
It’s a new era of wealth, and we’re seeing how it’s being handled by this century’s luminaries. You’ve got a lot of people with a lot of money. This has happened many times before in human history, and there’s an interesting take on this as to how our world works now with so much concentration of wealth in the hands of very few. I wanted to dig into that a little bit today. We all know the classic example of this is the great amount of wealth that was centralized in the Medici family which helped fund a lot of the art and science that made up the Renaissance.
A very important leap forward in human knowledge was facilitated by the grand accumulation of wealth through a family that had massive influence in banking, in religion, I think they had 4 popes as part of that family, and then of course, all sorts of nobility as well, and just multiple centuries of dominance. 13th, 14th, and 15th century they spent accumulating this wealth. Eventually it has this sort of positive outcome insofar as looking at the Renaissance as a positive thing.
In today’s world, we have the equivalent of that family wealth in the Zuckerberg family. Interestingly enough, 12 years ago, Mark Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard, so we’ve compressed the amount of time that it takes to accumulate massive wealth and leverage by, oh, I don’t even know what that factor is, but 3 centuries versus 12 years, that’s at least an order of magnitude there. Additionally, as much as the Renaissance had global impact, it was … In large part, that influence started in
Yeah. It started in Italy …
For a long time, just Italy.
.. and then had growing influence. Both the problems that the Zuckerbergs are willing to take on and the distance that their influence can travel, it’s global. Not only do you have this very important, very influential person, like I said, very recently was a student at the same time, he has global impact now. These are the plutocrats of our society. In watching all of this play out, and there are plenty of other examples we can get into, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Warren Buffett has done things in these areas as well.
Many wealthy people have at least a tax write-off.
Right. Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Is this any different from these previous ages of great wealth where it seems almost counterintuitive that we would assemble all this power and influence under 1 person to then defer to their judgment to redistribute things according to what problems are needed, need attention? Is it any different now, or is this just the digital age accelerating the same stuff that we’ve seen since the Renaissance?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s any different, but I’m not going to go as far back to the Renaissance, because I’m not … Even though I’m well studied in the art history, I’m not as studied in the political history governing that period. I’m going to go back to a more recent gilded age and talk about folks like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, because I think, while this is all part of the same tradition in a certain way, I think they’re more of a linear comparison to what’s happening with Mark Zuckerberg today. Andrew Carnegie, I’m familiar with his history more than John D. Rockefeller, so I’ll focus on him.
Carnegie funded many of the libraries in the United States, came directly from Carnegie or one of his companies or one of the charitable organizations that he set up. Going back and looking at the story now, we might be a little bit jaded. I say that from the standpoint that Carnegie was consistent with his time, a brutal businessperson. The most egregious of things that happened under Andrew Carnegie’s watch was basically a strike busting effort at one of his plants in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where he had Pinkerton murder, I don’t want to exaggerate the total or give an inaccurate total, but a dozen or so men. Imagine today if a dozen or so factory workers who were striking were to get gunned down by security people. It would be unbelievable. We can’t even fathom it, I don’t think, in this world today, at least here in the United States.
He was in all of this dirty business. He was a very ruthless guy, but eventually he put a library into Homestead, Pennsylvania. The natives there weren’t very happy to see him come. A history geek like me might be aware of that story, but for other people who are familiar with the name Andrew Carnegie, it means libraries or Carnegie Mellon University. It doesn’t mean a ruthless businessperson. Mark Zuckerberg is in that same tradition, along with Bill Gates and many others who came before, of accumulating massive amounts of wealth and then philanthropically donating it to causes that they optimistically see as worthwhile, skeptically see as the best way to exaggerate their aura. It’s all one and the same.
I predict … Right now, we look back. If you could read Carnegie’s bio, you’d say there’s nothing to admire about this guy. This guy’s an asshole, is what you would say today, 100 years later. I think 100 years from now, people are going to say the same shit about Mark Zuckerberg, because we’re going to see in retrospect the wastefulness, the foolishness of something like Facebook, all of the focus that goes into this type of very superficial social networking, or maybe the story will be how Facebook is like a virtual … Oh, what the hell is that machine in the casino?
Like a virtual slot machine, just taking our money out of us as it completely puts us to sleep. I think the narrative on Mark Zuckerberg is going to be pretty ugly in 100 years as well, but right now, look, he’s participating in a capitalist environment. Legally, I’m sure there’s no doubt on the tax side or something, something illegal’s happening, but I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, for the most part, legally participating in the system as it’s designed to be participated in. He’s choosing now that he has all of this cash and all of this net worth to take a chunk of it, and Facebook stock today might look pretty good. In 30 years while he’s still doling it out, I don’t know, but taking that and giving it …
Look, it’s a lot better than a guy like Steve Jobs who just sat on his cash and didn’t take that pivot into philanthropy to at least have a chance to give something back. To answer your specific question, it’s just the latest. It’s a long tradition. We could even take it back to Roman emperors with public works programs that were really ostensibly about taking their image and visage and blowing it out onto coins, into public spaces. It probably even goes back farther than that in ways I’m not familiar with, but it’s this long string of self-aggrandizement and attempt for some kind of immortality beyond what we would otherwise have. It works. It works.
I think there’s an interesting theme to dig into that I’d like to explore, just about the way that the digital age has accelerated this process. I see that coming from 2 angles. One is as we already spoke of, how rapidly this can happen. Secondly, I think there is a plutocracy that is forming, has already formed, of very powerful influencers who start out with corporations being their leverage, but essentially are the nobility of the 21st century. I put Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg in that crew, but it’s notable in that we have things like the Paris climate change summit last week.
Some of the exciting news coming out of that was that the 21st century royalty were also looking for solutions to climate change using their own money to back it, with Bill Gates being one of the front people for that and Mark Zuckerberg as well. It reminds me in a lot of ways of this … They’re not democratic representatives anymore. They’re private individuals with a lot of power accumulated in 1 generation. It seems to me that they are operating so far ostensibly for the public good, but outside of the bounds of our normal political process, of any sort of democratic process. They have global influence. They have a global stage for their works.
This is a post-corporate environment that I’m talking about, because you’re no longer talking about a corporation which is beholden to, at the very least, stockholders and maybe to some extent, employees and things like that. These are individuals now. As we understand that, taxes are a very important part of this. The tax burdens are spread out across multiple countries. They have more in common with each other than they have with the citizens of the United States or really any other country. This is sort of the digital pinnacle of power that we’re seeing manifest here. Good on them if they’re able to help mitigate climate change, but it’s sort of like, “Oh, there’s the President of the United States. There’s the President of France. Then there’s the Duke of Microsoft and the Baron of Facebook.”
Yeah. I like that you use duke and baron, because really nothing’s changed. It’s just a shift of how power is accumulated, how wealth is accumulated, and superficially having it be something other than hereditary wealth, when in fact it is exactly hereditary wealth. The ugly secret of the American Dream and the American opportunity is while it is true that anyone can get ahead here, the vast majority of people who in their lives amass massive wealth are those whose parents had already amassed massive wealth. The saying, “The first million is the hardest,” is because you need money to make money. The majority of us schlubs who don’t start out with a lot of money, we’re very likely to end up somewhere in the fat middle. This is just the latest manifestation of generation over generation power being transferred and exercised. Yeah.
Yeah. I think it’s a good example of how the digital age is accelerating democratic decline, because ostensibly at the end of the day in the US anyway, Mark Zuckerberg has 1 vote for president or whatever local official or whatever, but his personal fortune has made him an individual with global impact that is extra democratic. It’s fine to suppose that our technorati have a moral compass or at least some kind of problem-solving compass where they want to have impact on the world at large, but we’re leaving open an awful lot of territory for these folks with this digital leverage now.
There aren’t a lot of checks and balances anymore, or at least the ones that are in place are all artifacts of the 20th century and so not very effective. Whatever checks and balances are going to come, they’re not there yet. It’s an interesting time for this to happen, because we’ve got so many problems that we’d like to solve. At the same time, we have a new class of people who are outside of the bounds of nation-states and democratic process in a way that has not been seen exactly in this way before.
You don’t think that Carnegie and Rockefeller were the same way? I’m going to forget which president now, but those 2 people in particular were tremendous rivals. There were other business rivals they had at sort of that crème de la crème. They came together to elect presidents. They came together to help influence the political process at the level of presidents. I don’t know. Is it that different? Is it?
Yeah. I think the only difference perhaps is in the global reach and the almost … what’s seemingly instantaneous global reach, and the levers of power which are in some ways increasingly becoming digital now. People in power can do things a lot more quickly, I think, but it’s an interesting area to dig into and to keep an eye on as our country and our world really comes to terms with what it means for there to be powerful people in the digital age.
I think at that point, listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just 1 L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody. It’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O, dot com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, or email me email@example.com.
That’s it for episode 133 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.