The Zuckerberg Donation and a Legacy of Control
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.