Musk, Mayer, Zuck and Co.

With the recent spate of news about Mark Zuckerberg's kid's trust-fund, and given that Silicon Valley occupies such a central part of the Amerian Economic Experience, it is worth questioning the priorities and ethos of the Technorati. Perhaps instead of billionaire-hero worship syndrome, we might insist on a broad, critical reconsideration of priorities.

First, for my fellow local Silicon Valley inhabitants who are reading this on their smart phone or cringing while they are doing Pilates with thier personal trainer, this is directed at you. Boo-hoo, you can cry in your triple lattte later on, when your assistant gets it for you.  Here's what I want you to feel bad about. 

  • We do not need more APP startups. We do not need more “smart devices and apps for that portion of the population with supportive and generous families, excellent schooling, and prestigious careers.” *
  • We need support systems for the impoverished, and under-educated. We need to help better single moms and vets, vastly improve education for our children, a massive overhaul of public infrastructure and a complete reconsideration of why we are planning to colonize other planets instead of fixing this one.
  • I apologize, but this might require a minimum curtailment of the "instant billionaire" mentality in American technology. You may be asked to actually "do" what you said you would do for society in your MBA essay. 

There is a whole lot more to Silicon Valley than Musk, Mayer, Zuck & Co. The public barely knows the names of Tech CEOs who are changing the face of philanthropy like Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus, Lynn Jurich, CEO and Co-Founder of Sunrun Eric Lefkosky, CEO of Groupon, Azim Premji, Chairman and CEO of Wipro and Teju Ravilochan, CEO of Unreasonable. 

There is nothing “unfair” about the success some of these companies have experienced. After all, I'm not a communist. However, to look to these businesses for growth in the overall economy or for a model of ethical economic behavior is woefully misguided. In the twilight of "feel-good" glow from COP-21, isn't it time to look to these companies for a guiding sense of ethos?  Arent't these the exactpeople who could help solve the very real problems of poverty and disenfranchisement that plagues the country?

 Instead, we are looking at colonizing Mars. Does that make sense to anyone? 

The vast majority of young entrepreneurs entering the workforce are not focusing their time and super-powers on the pressing concerns of the day—education, clean energy, poverty, famine, and climate change. This should not be a surprise to many people. There are simply too many smart people whose interests are centered on what is ‘social’: food, fashion, and gaming. Too many exclusive-school educated hot-shots with little interest in helping society who are obsessed with creating “me-too” APPs that do little or nothing to address the endemic problems of culture in major transition. Of course, the powers that be, (Facebook, Google, and Yahoo), disagree. They are willing to shell out boatloads of money to buy up so many of these “crap apps” for such an unreasonable amount of money that hardly anyone with a degree in computer science and a frat brother at a hedge fund can resist trying to build one.

Meanwhile, in those states we fly over on the way to New York, 80% of single mothers are living in “working poverty." In other words, they are not one paycheck from away from destitution, they are already there—just working to survive and praying they do not get evicted. There are nearly 10mm of these women, (and some 2mm single Dads who shouldn't be overlooked, either), from all walks of life, race, and color. Poverty has become uniquely egalitarian as of late.

C.Z. Naemeka writes:

“This diverse group of women struggle to raise their kids in a country that seems to conspire against any semblance of proper rearing: a lack of flexibility in the workplace; a lack of free or affordable after-school programs; an abysmal public education system where a testing-mad, criminally-deficient curriculum is taught during a too-short school day; an inescapable lurid wallpaper of sex and violence that covers every surface of society; a cultural disregard for intelligence, empathy and respect; a cultural imperative to look hot, spend money and own the latest ‘it’-device (or should I say i-device) no matter what it costs, no matter how little money Mum may have.”*

Also, then we have the vets. You know, the ones to whom we give five minutes of hand-on-heart attention before a ball game, or for whom Mark Wahlberg paraded out bikini-clad girls in honor at the recent Spike awards. The ones who are committing suicide in droves. The veterans of ourlatest excursions in global policing do not return to ticker tape parades. They return from combat and wait nine months for medical benefits. Vets who’ve returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have to wait roughly 270 days, (up to 600 in New York and California), to receive the medical, moral, and financial help that they so urgently need and to which they are so honorably entitled, after having fought for that dying exceptionalism overseas. Vets send their endless reams of paperwork to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, where, by its admission, it processes 97% of its claims by hand, stacking them in heaps on tables and in cabinets. *

I am not alone in this castigation. Business Insider editor Henry Blodget wrote last year that the entrepreneurial upsurge in the tech field will not translate to job creation and maybe, just maybe, we ought to be a little more realistic about our expectations of tech and social media in particular. I think this is sage advice. Blodget writes: “[Silicon Valley entrepreneur Nick] Hanauer’s more subtle point, which explains one of the things that is ailing in our economy, is that rich people do not create the jobs. What creates the jobs is a healthy economic ecosystem.”

Specifically, a healthy ecosystem that addresses the needs of all of its citizens, especially those who are most in need, or who served to defend its interests.

Perhaps we ought not to be encouraging every kid that can do the math to be the "next Zuckerberg", perhaps we should look for the next Mahatma Ghandi or E. F. Schumacher. Perhaps we should instead be focusing our future collective genius on building better systems improving societies' lot as a whole. We should be developing systems for transportation and water purification, and better ways of delivering energy at low cost to homes in the Midwest. Perhaps we ought to reintroduce civics and ethics into all school curriculum. These ideas just barely scratch the surface of what could be done with all the super-powered intelligence. 

Creating consumer media platforms are exciting and innovative in its right, but it does nothing for society as a whole. It is great that you can get your video distributed in real time to segmented audiences, but have you been on public transportation recently? The Chinese have altruism and social atavism militarized into their culture, and they write algorithms. They presently have ninety (that is right, 90) magnetic rail bullet trains crisscrossing their country. The Chinese are going to kick our butts in the next twenty years. Why? They have their priorities straight.

One doesn't need to be a genius to see that the American innovation bug tends to pivot the attention of the person inward instead of focusing that energy outward. We are a heroically individualistic society. Businesspeople are not trained to think about things that could benefit society as a whole. Ten years ago, the iPhone did not exist. Today, a device that fits into the palm of my hand can do innumerable smart things.

However, the iPhone is a gadget, not an economic plan.

We need to begin to work together to create systems that benefit the whole of society. There is nothing wrong with the marketplace; it just needs to go in the "right" direction. Let’s be clear: it is going to come down to the willingness of major companies and entrepreneurs to live up to the implied contract they have with society—and that means everyone.

What some are calling the "Second Economy" will comprise collaborative solutions architects —people who will want to make money by improving many societies. Shared value systems are not just novel ideas for dinner-party conversations; they are essential for reinvigorating an individual's sense of purpose and their role in society. At a minimum, shared value systems insist that corporations and customers can collaborate on solving these pressing issues together. In the final analysis, we would do far more for ourselves to teach our children about altruism and teach them to write algorithms.

Stated plainly, American tech entrepreneurs, like politicians, are neither solving the right problems nor have the right priorities.

The tech industry hires young, well-educated, tech-savvy people to create apps that serve their socio-economic group, and then siphon off the development work that could go to moms and vets to the indentured people of Southeast Asia. They hire a 22-year old whose role it is to “leverage social media to deliver a seamless authentic experience across multiple digital streams to strategic partners and communities.” In other words, this person gets paid six figures to send out tweets. All of this is supported by a top management layer thick with perks, golden parachutes, stock options. The institutional and individual people with power, “the highflying VCs, the entrepreneurship incubators, the top-ranked MBA programs, the accelerators, the top -universities,” are complicit with this, and it is high-time we encourage them to redirect their genius. I do not blame these ambitious people for societies issues, but I do expect them to contribute to their alleviation.  

Out of fairness, I also speak to the gadget-gripping, tech-obsessed public who stay silent while another Marine blows his brains out because he could not get healthcare, or another single mom sells herself into prostitution or a strip-club because she is unsure where the rent is. 

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