When I was very young, my parents used to tell me why having “lots of toys” wasn’t a good idea. “The more you have, the more you want,” they would say. I didn’t have many toys — we were poor — so the idea of possessions feeding greed didn’t make much sense to me then.
But I’ve learned the truth of that statement from observation over the years and lately I’ve been observing Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg is a 31-year-old computer programmer who did two things that made him famous: he founded Facebook, the social networking super service, and, as a result, he amassed a fortune worth about $46 billion. His bank account is as large as the capitalization of many countries.
How he got to these lofty heights of wealth and cultural impact is a matter of often fierce debate — he’s been sued by former “partners” several times. But what’s more important than how he got control of Facebook is what he’s constructed with it: a ubiquitous presence in the lives of a billion people with the potential to frame and manipulate their communications, their relationships and, to a frighteningly large extent, their lives.
So last month, when Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced in a letter to their new baby — a rather novel way to package a press release — that, over the course of their lives, they will give almost all their Facebook shares to a project called the Chan Zuckerberg Iniative, the world took note.
The Initiative, they explained, would “advance human potential and promote equality” in health, education, scientific research, and energy. In short, change the world: on its face, a worthy cause. But, like many of Zuckerberg’s plans and projects, this one has another side that is darker, more cynical and, even if only partially successful, a potential nightmare for the human race.
How many zeroes are there in $46 billion? More than most of us will ever see. So it’s tough for us “average people” to fathom what a billionaire does with his or her money. Even living the most opulent life-style imaginable wouldn’t start to dent those savings in a bank — the interest alone would pay for everything you could imagine owning. That, in a sense, is Mark Zuckerberg’s dilemna. At 31, he has so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it.
So he follows a long capitalist tradition called philanthropy. In projects that range from supporting education to enhancing Internet access world-wide to tackling specific social problems, Zuckerberg has thrown money at social inequality like a park visitor throws bread-crumbs to pigeons…except the pigeons actually benefit.
When he gave $100 million to the Newark Public Schools, the money was largely wasted with very little impact on the quality of education in that embattled city. When he has joined other rich philanthropists, like Warren Buffett, in a string of similar projects — funding schools or programs in other U.S. cities, giving major endowments to hospitals or funding initiatives in Global South countries — they have usually fallen short of their expectations or projected expectations that didn’t make much sense in the long term. Some good happens but the social problems remain and often deepen.
At the same time, he’s used his wealth and power to launch Internet projects like one that brings together almost a million software developers to work on Facebook improvement and another, called Beacon, that enables people to share information with their Facebook friends based on their browsing activities on other sites (also providing a huge resource to advertisers and marketing people).
In the Summer of 2013, Zuckerberg launched “Internet.org” whose stated purpose is to bring internet access to over 5 billion people world-wide. The access, however, is partial; only certain websites will be seen by these newly connected people in part because many of the world’s governments don’t allow full access to the Internet. Users will, however, be able to fully access Facebook.
Then there’s Facebook itself which continues to expand. With over a billion users, the company has control over the information, data and communications of much of the human race. All of it is contained in an Internet protocol that feels like the conversation at a party where everyone’s had a few drinks. Short statements followed by long strings of one sentence responses, fattened by photos and videos with no real explanation of their importance and a huge “friends” section. It’s a snapshot of your life without the depth, thinking and development that makes it precious to the rest of us.
But that basic information is very valuable to advertisers and marketing companies who can use your activities and friends lists to develop a consumer profile of you. Facebook sells it to them and then fashions advertising programs that display ads that reflect your buying patterns and insert them into the flow of messages (at a premium advertising rate). It also turns the information over to government spy agencies like the NSA.
Facebook admits no sin. It claims that its user agreement allows it to “share relevant information on users” with advertisers for the users’ “convenience” (and, of course, to generate fantastic revenue) and that it can’t legally refuse to share information the NSA demands. None of which changes the reality of what it does and the potential impact that this has on people’s lives.
There’s a common thread to Zuckerberg’s projects. Those that are completely devoid of benefit to him and his company usually fall short of expectations. Projects that are at least partially successful, while they may benefit people, return a hefty benefit for Facebook.
Throughout all of this, Zuckerberg has trotted the globe projecting an image of a young genius whose altruism and concern for the planet and its people drive his daily activities. He’s written about all the time and been the subject of a major motion picture, The Social Network, although, portrays it in a less than flattering light.
What’s interesting about this record of double-edged philanthropy and innovation is that, contrary to the movie’s depictions of him as a snide self-absorbed jerk, Zuckerberg is by most accounts a friendly, open, funny and fairly humble guy. He and his wife have eschewed ostentatious shows of wealth, travelled mainly to speak with leaders and thinkers world-wide (rather than spend months lounging on beaches) and spent most of their time as a couple doing the things normal couples do (like walk around places rather than take a limousine). What’s more, people who know and work with him insist that his concern for the world is not only honest but consuming. In short, they say, he’s the real deal.
The question, however, is can the real deal be all that real using wealth generated by a morally corrupt economic system that pursues profit over any aspect of human life or well-being? In other words, can you provide a nutricious meal when the food is poisoned?
The answer, demonstrated throughout history, is “no”. You can’t and neither can Mark Zuckerberg.
Philanthropy is about control and always has been. The great philanthropists who’ve left their footprint in huge foundations and museums and universities were also among the most exploitative and viciously repressive capitalists of their time. Morally trapped by their immense fortunes, they have sought to control, not only the daily work activities of people (the source of their wealth), but our culture, education, thinking, social life and the other activities that consume every single second of our existence.
Such control protects their wealth in many ways but that’s not the principal reason for this “giving”. Their motivation is to shape our society as they shape our days. Like monarchs dictating reality from a throne, they want it all and, through philanthropy, they get it.
This is the culture in which Mark Zuckerberg functions. His projects have in common a certainty that his perspective and interests (and the sytem that creates them) offer a future to the human race no other perspective can. His internet projects not only develop internet skill but tie people to Facebook and the “quick message” and superficial relationship culture it drives. Even with his Internet.org project, Zuckerberg can’t conceive of a world in which people make their own decisions about where to go and what to do on the Internet. He is, effectively, trying to take control of the world.
His latest project is an illustration of that approach. Rather than create a foundation, the couple has created a limited partnership corporation, a legal form that has tax benefits, avoids much of the government scrutiny foundations deal with and allows for a much greater secrecy in its functioning and decision-making. A red flag is now flying.
That corporation, one would assume, will now dole out money to projects with potential but who decides the potential? We don’t know but since the corporation belongs to Mark and Priscilla one would assume that they have a big say. As a corporation, it doesn’t have to limit spending to non-profit ventures; it can invest in companies and profit-making projects if it wants. It can even invest in Zuckerberg companies and projects: basically, funding his own work.
While they are busy doling, by the way, Chan and Zuckerberg are still firmly in control of their assets since all that is happening is that the stock of Facebook is cashed in and put into the new company’s bank account with considerable tax benefits (since it’s a reinvestment).
Zuckerberg has yet to specify the projects his new venture will fund but, based on his past, we can confidently speculate. He will continue to encourage development as a way of molding human activity in accord with his vision of it. He will use that spectacular wealth to take even greater control of culture and education. Most of all, he will continue to spread his grasp of the Internet, the one thing that enables human interaction and resists this kind of control.
If Facebook is Zuckerberg’s vision of what on-line communications should be, the remarkable wealth of knowledge, shared thinking, compared experiences and, let us not forget, organizing that has become possible with the Internet will progressively be reduced to a ping-pong game of superficial statements and “likes”. If that vision is imposed through funding of education and other aspects of development, creativity and independent critical thinking will suffer and the kind of machine-like “competence” Zuckerberg frequently champions will hammer another nail in humanity’s coffin. If his funding is used to encourage development projects like the ones he has supported in the past, the cooperativism and the coop movement, the most exciting and potentially game-changing movement in today’s world, will find itself battling against odds that are even greater than the odds it currently faces.
In short, he would end up doing much more harm than good, playing a destructive kind of monopoly with real streets, buildings and lives.
Rich people can’t avoid acting that way and that’s why even “progressive” billionaires like Zuckerberg or Buffett are really part of an anti-future. The schemes and projects and reforms they think up in small groups and fund with large money will never improve the world fundamentally. The only way to do that is to build a world where people like them can never exist and such wealth can never be amassed. It’s hard to imagine the Chan Zuckerberg Iniative contributing that world.