Facebook went public this month, and a 28 year old kid is now one of the richest people on Earth. Combining technology and an innovative idea, Facebook went from being a fun diversion in college to one of the most valuable companies on the planet.
Mark Zuckerberg may be a bit strange according to the media, but billionaires of his generation differ from generations past in a few ways. They appear to have earned their money in their own lifetime instead of inheriting it. Perhaps as a consequence of their earning their own fortune from their own “innovation”, they like to socialize in gatherings quite different than the country clubs of their forefathers. They like to apply their agile minds to solving the world’s “big questions.”
Their preferred setting? Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum or the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. Or there is the Clinton Global Initiative in its many locations.
But the best known to the general public is probably TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design. It began as a Silicon Valley conference in 1984 that started to take off in the 1990s. By the late 1990s, the conference was sold to a British businessman named Chris Anderson. Born in Pakistan to the son of missionaries, he made the conference focus on global issues like war and the environment. Anderson also jacked the price up and demanded that all conference attendees prove that they were “TED-worthy” of attending. Exclusivity meant your ability to innovate and a history of changing the world. In 2006, the conference began to stream their 18 to 20 minute talks online to the general public as TED Talks with the slogan “ideas worth spreading.”
The talks were a hit and some of the lecturers became mega-famous in their own right. A Swedish professor named Hans Rosling launched Gapminder at a TED Talk about inequalities in health and income in the world. Google bought the software and hosts the website.
The talk is usually a Powerpoint presentation in front of a rich and high IQ audience. Topics usually focus on a single issue and how it affects the world. The solution usually has a simple (often high-tech) solution that will fix the problem soon.
There is a general idea that the problems of the world can be addressed by the presence of influential, high IQ, and affluently TEDworthy people at these sort of conferences. Thorny questions of politics, power, history, and social injustice can (and have to be) glossed over in the less than twenty minutes allotted. Bonus points if the solution involves entrepreneurship.
But this month, a talk by a venture capitalist did not get published on the TED website because for being overly political. The capitalist, a traitor to his class, pointed out that the rich do not create jobs if they can avoid it. Hiring is the last resort of the businessmen (he should know, being one). Taxes on the rich have fallen, and the incomes of the 99% have been stagnant or shrinking. The solution was to redistribute wealth to people who can spend more to increase consumption and grow the economy. This was considered too partisan by Chris Anderson and only after a public outcry did the speech get published online.
I cannot bash the new elite too much; they aren’t like the Russian oligarchs blowing their fortunes on English football teams or ties at Harrod’s. At least they like to show that they care, and their concerns will lead to ameliorating the lives of many people. But just as the rejection of philosophy is a philosophy too so too does the rejection of ideology and the “political” become an ideology in itself.
Centrist wise men (like the cartoonish Thomas Friedman) will prattle about how a “non-ideological, centrist, and technocratic” approach to the solutions of the world is needed. These solutions will not threaten entrenched corporate power. It also ignores the actual track record of technocrats and their record of disasters: money-laundering in Russia by Harvard University, food riots in Venezuela by the IMF, a second Great Depression in Argentina in 2001, and counterproductive mass austerity and unemployment imposed on Southern Europe by the current European Central Bank. In contrast, the markets reacted negatively in 2002 when Brazil elected Lula da Silva (a former shoeshine boy and steelworker) as president. He managed the country so well over two terms it continues to grow during the Great Recession. Sometimes the smartest aren’t so smart.
The nonprofit sector that elite idea conference industry hopes to attract have their own downsides. The nonprofit foundations can defang the most strident critics of injustice and turn them into salaried professional NGO workers. A recent speech by Arundhati Roy pointed out how business foundations have shaped public discourse unaccountably for decades in the United States. The first foundations were by Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. The Gates Foundation today plays a destructive role domestically by funding every significant university, think tank, and media outlet promoting their vision of charter schools and a business approach to public education (see my previous post on this topic). Roy points out how big business in India is now adopting these tactics by sponsoring literary festivals and philanthropic endeavors.
Foundation money saps the anger of the community organizers most capable of fighting for radical change. By giving Indian activists big money, social status, research fellowships, “genius grants”, and accolades at conferences internationally it mutes their criticism of the structural causes of injustice and inequality in society. They too want to climb the NGO ladder in a way similar to the corporate ladder. “Justice [has been transformed] into the industry of human rights,” she says.
But a conference of the 1% talking about the problems of the 99% will never solve any of the big problems in the world. It is only when the 99% wakes up and takes power with its own hands will humanity make this a fairer and more just world.
Now that is an idea worth spreading.
New York magazine – “How the TED Conference started an Intellectual Movement”
Arundathi Roy – “Capitalism: a Ghost Story”
Atlantic Monthly – “The Rise of the New Global Elite”