London: Here’s an interesting fact: 10 of the people on Forbes magazine’s tally of the world’s 100 richest billionaires made their money from computer and/or network technology. At the top (second on the list) is Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $61 billion, despite the fact that he continues to try to give it away. Gates is followed by Larry Ellison, boss of Oracle, with $36 billion, and Michael Bloomberg with $22 billion. Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-founders of Google occupy joint 24th place with $18.7 billion each. Jeff Bezos of Amazon is No 26 with $18.4 billion while the newly enriched Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook sits at No 35 with 17.5 billion. Michael Dell, founder of the eponymous computer manufacturer, is at No 41 with $15.9 billion while Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, is three places lower on $15.7 billion and Paul Allen co-founder of Microsoft brings up the rear at No 48 with a mere $14.2 billion. Steve Jobs, who was worth about $9 billion when he died, doesn’t even figure.
What’s striking about this is not just the staggering wealth that these people have managed to squeeze out of what are, after all, just binary digits (ones and zeros), but how recent are the origins of their good fortunes. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, went from zero to $17.5 billion in less than eight years. Microsoft the company that has propelled Gates, Ballmer and Allen into the Forbes pantheon dates only from 1975. Oracle was founded in 1977. Bloomberg turned a $10 million redundancy cheque from Salomon Brothers into his personal money-pump in 1982. Dell started making computers in his university dorm in 1984. Bezos launched Amazon with his own savings in 1995. Brin and Page turned their PhD research into a company called Google in 1998. And Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004.
For some of these people, great wealth is correlated with significant power. Once Microsoft captured the market for PC operating systems and office software, Bill Gates and co ruthlessly leveraged their monopoly to eliminate rivals (remember Netscape?) and dictate pricing. So we got a world where you could have any kind of computer you wanted, provided it ran Microsoft Windows. In the era when the PC was the computer, Bill Gates was king because he controlled the PC.
But although Microsoft remains a significant force, its power waned as computing moved from the PC to the network and, therefor, to the people and companies who dominate that. Step forward the Google boys, who have the power to render any website virtually invisible, because if their algorithms decide not to index a site then effectively it ceases to exist at least in cyberspace. Their computers also read our mail and store our documents. Google dominates the online advertising business. The company’s founders say grandly that their mission is “to organise the world’s information” and they mean it. They have already digitised a significant amount of the world’s printed books although they are not yet authorised to make many of them available online. And Google’s cars have photographed every street in the industrialised world.
Meanwhile, in another part of the jungle, Amazon’s Bezos is not just vaporising bricks-and-mortar bookstores; he’s also on his way to becoming the world’s biggest publisher. And he’s already the world’s largest online retailer — the Walmart of the web. In social networking, Mark Zuckerberg has cunningly inserted himself (via his hardware and software) into every online communication that passes between his 900 million subscribers. And because of the nature of networks, if we’re not careful we could wind up with a series of winners who took all: one global bookstore; one social network; one search engine; one online multimedia store and so on.
There was a time when the power exercised by computer and internet companies seemed a matter of relatively esoteric concern. But as digital technology began to pervade our daily lives, it suddenly mattered, and not just in Tunisia and Egypt either. Think of the way Steve Jobs’s creation Apple exercises such dominance over online music, smartphones and tablet computers. Or ponder what Google and Facebook now know about our lives, loves and obsessions. Or what Amazon knows about our consumption patterns. The implication is that cyberpower has correlates in the real world, which means that it’s time we had a really good look at those who wield it.
Given their prominence, we know surprisingly little about our modern moguls. We are remarkably incurious about what makes them tick. We focus instead on the fact that one of them (Zuckerberg) wears a hoodie even when being interviewed by investment bankers; or that Larry Page, co-founder of Google, refused to stop using his laptop when a big media mogul came to talk to him; or that Bill Gates used to rock furiously backwards and forwards in a rocking chair when being interviewed for an anti-trust case; or that Steve Jobs drove a comparatively modest sports car and lived in a small, old-fashioned house rather than the postmodern minimalist palace that many people would have predicted.
But this is all superficial stuff. What’s much more significant about these moguls is that they share a mindset that renders them blind to the untidiness and contradictions of life, not to mention the fears and anxieties of lesser beings. They are technocrats who cleave to a worldview that holds that if something is technically possible then it should be done. How about digitising all the books in the world? No problem: you just throw resources and technology at the task. And if publishers protest about infringement of copyright and authors moan about their moral rights, well, that just shows how antediluvian they are.
Same story with Mark Zuckerberg’s fanatical, almost sociopathic, belief that the default setting for life should be “public” rather than “private”. The prevailing technocratic motto is: if something can be done, then it ought to be done. It’s all about progress, stoopid.
Actually, it’s all about values. And money. The trouble is that technocrats don’t do values. They just do rationality. They love good design, efficiency, elegance and profits. That’s why one of the poster children of the industry is Apple’s creative genius, Jonathan Ive, who designs beautiful kit in California which is then assembled in Chinese factories. And when the execrable working conditions prevalent in such places are exposed, the company’s senior executives profess themselves surprised and appalled and resolve to do everything they can to ameliorate things. And we believe them and continue eagerly to purchase the gizmos manufactured in such oppressive plants.
Why are we so credulous, so forgiving? It’s partly because wealth — like political power — is a powerful aphrodisiac. But it’s mainly because we accept these people at their own valuation. They see themselves as progressives, as folks who want to make the world a better, more efficient, more rational place. We’re charmed by their corporate mantras — for example, “Don’t be evil” (Google) or “Move fast and break things” (Facebook). In their black turtlenecks and faded jeans they don’t seem to have anything in common with Rupert Murdoch or the grim-faced, silk-hatted capitalist bosses of old. Instead of grinding the faces of the poor, our modern technology magnates move effortlessly from tech forums to Davos, reclining on spotlit sofas discussing cloud computing with respectful or admiring moderators. And in recent times, they are even invited to lunch with President Obama or as guests at political summits where they are fawned upon by presidents and prime ministers who hope that some of the magic dust will rub off on them.
What gets lost in the reality distortion field that surrounds these technology moguls is that, in the end, they are fanatically ambitious, competitive capitalists. They may look cool and have soothing bedside manners, but in the end these guys are in business not just to make money, but to establish sprawling, quasi-monopolistic commercial empires. And they will do whatever it takes to achieve those ambitions.
Digital technology has added a whole new economy based on information. The fact that one cannot see the information goods that Google and co gather, store, disseminate and control doesn’t mean that those goods aren’t real and valuable. To take just one example, Facebook now owns and controls a virtual space that will soon contain more people than the entire Indian subcontinent. Facebook has only been going since 2004. Who knows where Zuckerberg and the Google boys will be in 2041? The digital economy has a lot more growth left in it. As Churchill might have said, we haven’t yet reached even the end of the beginning.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd