There is suffering: look around. And where there is suffering, there are ordinary people trying to alleviate it. We volunteer our time, help our neighbors, give money when we can. The very rich give differently in scale, but not so much in kind; they often spend their money in a such a way that they can make a visible difference. They might found grand new institutions, for instance, or help expand existing ones. Libraries, concert halls, hospitals, homeless shelters, even vast expanses of pristine wilderness—these are things that, once bought and paid for, can be seen, experienced, and enjoyed.
And then there are the tech moguls.
Felix Salmon (@felixsalmon) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. He hosts the Slate Money podcast and the Cause & Effect blog. Previously he was a finance blogger at Reuters and at Condé Nast Portfolio. His WIRED cover story on the Gaussian copula function was later turned into a tattoo.
Big software founder-CEOs, it turns out, aren’t just different from you and me; they’re different even from other billionaires. The rest of us concern ourselves with individuals, neighborhoods, communities, all of which can be improved; they are more concerned with the whole world, and even hypothetical future worlds.
That’s because, from the Olympian heights of Big Tech, humanity has a tendency to look rather small. We see Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page as the inventors of Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google—tools that touch us every day. But how do they see us? The chilling truth is that if you want to create services at scale—if you want to build machines that transform the lived experience of billions of individuals—then you need to be able to aggregate and simplify humans. You need to reduce us to some kind of algorithm that can anticipate and monetize our collective behavior. Viewed from the Googleplex, or One Hacker Way, humanity is a bit like an ant colony: a complex yet predictable emergent organism. If you can hook that organism on your technology, if you can get it to behave the way you want it to behave, then your reward will be wealth and power on an almost unimaginable scale.
This god’s-eye view of humans is a specific way of looking at the world, as through a telescope backwards. When viewed from a distance, the differences between us get smaller. Given how profoundly these differences shape our identities, this view can be disorienting. But it’s the only way to really understand the quasi-philanthropic ambitions of the current crop of tech billionaires.
Global ambition can have truly global effects. Look, for instance, at what Bill Gates managed to do with Gavi, a hugely ambitious vaccine alliance that brings the world’s governments together for a mass immunization program. Launched with $750 million of Gates’ money in November 1999, Gavi has averted some 10 million deaths in 73 of the poorest countries in the world. In 2000, just 1 percent of the population of those countries received the pentavalent vaccine (covering diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, and hib); by 2016, that number was 76 percent. It’s by far the greatest public-health achievement of the 21st century.
Still, Gavi keeps its feet on the ground. It provides its vaccines one dose at a time, in some of the most remote and dangerous areas of the world, and is run by people with first-hand, hard-earned knowledge of public health in the region. It involves no utopian solutionism, no sense that some technological breakthrough could solve global problems at a stroke. That’s a whole other part of the Gates funding portfolio—things like the attempt to genetically engineer an antiparasitical mosquito, which would be incapable of transmitting malaria.
The gene-edited mosquito is positively mundane in comparison to OpenAI, which is backed by the likes of Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, and Peter Thiel to ensure we don’t all get killed by Skynet. OpenAI is a philanthropic enterprise, after a fashion, but it seeks to alleviate no immediate suffering, nor does it seek to elevate any existing lives. It’s a project, in other words, that appeals only to technology billionaires. Yet if you look at the world through Elon Musk’s eyes, the OpenAI project hits at the paramount ethical obligation facing our species.
Jeff Bezos, too, is thinking at the species-existence level. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” he says. “And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources and solar power unlimited for all practical purposes. That’s the world that I want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in.” That’s why Bezos is spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, his space travel company—and that’s why, controversially, he thinks that Blue Origin is really the only way to spend such enormous resources. If something you did today could materially improve the lives of trillions of humans in the future, then that benefit would have to outweigh anything you did for mere millions of humans in the present.
Mark Zuckerberg has even made that thinking explicit. In his letter to his newborn daughter Max, Zuckerberg wrote that “all lives have equal value, and that includes the many more people who will live in future generations than live today. Our society has an obligation to invest now to improve the lives of all those coming into this world, not just those already here.”
If you take his statement seriously, then it effectively means that our preoccupation with the needs of the present is deeply parochial and probably unethical. To single out one particular group for help and aid, while ignoring others, is often condemned as racist. In the eyes of Bezos and Zuckerberg, it’s equally bad to concentrate on the suffering of the living, if doing so means ignoring the needs of the untold billions of people who are not yet born.
To think in such a manner can certainly be considered heartless. Yet, if you’ve spent your entire professional life aggregating individuals by the hundreds of millions, it’s a pretty natural place to end up.
Larry Page has said that when he dies, he would like to bequeath his fortune to Elon Musk, because Elon is a visionary whose ideas can transform the world. It’s hard to think of anybody who needs Page’s billions less than Musk—and yet it’s possible to see where Page is coming from. If you’ve already transformed the world once, anything conventional that you could do with your fortune must feel decidedly anticlimactic.
Silicon Valley fancies itself the home of bold moonshots, a place where billions of dollars are regularly invested into high-risk projects with a high probability of failure. The tech moguls have all won that lottery once. Now they’re playing it again, for the sake of trillions of hypothetical future humans—who are much easier to model than the real humans next door.