Can We Trust the Hacker Philanthropists?

We now rely on tech billionaires to solve our most pressing problems. That’s a problem, too—and it’s our fault.

Mark Zuckerberg, left, and Bill Gates.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Vanity Fair, Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images, and ravl/Shutterstock.

The billionaires are here to save us. As the governments of the world twiddle their thumbs in Paris over carbon emissions, on Monday Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg announced an ambitious philanthropic undertaking to fight climate change. That was followed by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s announcement Tuesday that he plans to donate nearly all of his money to philanthropic efforts. In a letter to his newborn daughter Max, Zuckerberg poured out the milk of human kindness:

The internet is so important that for every 10 people who gain internet access, about one person is lifted out of poverty and about one new job is created … If our generation connects them, we can lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. We can also help hundreds of millions of children get an education and save millions of lives by helping people avoid disease.

This magnificent magnanimity provokes two inevitable reactions: 1) What great guys! and 2) Wait—are they really so great? As much as we might appreciate the generosity of our software billionaires, their raining of money over good causes also highlights the direness of a world in which a handful of individuals, through a combination of skill and luck, end up with monetary resources beyond that of most small nations. There but for the grace of Zuckerberg go we.

This reaction is natural. Zuckerberg’s announcement is the closest thing we can see to the unconstrained action of a single person shaping the world. President Obama is hamstrung by Congress. Pope Francis exerts indirect influence instead of direct power. Xi Jinping works within the apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party. Mario Draghi spends his time trying to mop up Europe’s messes. But a Gates or a Zuckerberg doesn’t face such impediments. When Zuckerberg decides to donate his money after the birth of his child, it feels as though he’s casting himself as the protagonist and the entire world as his philanthropic canvas. It’s natural for the rest of us, who have no say in how he spends his billions, to feel a bit slighted.

Spurred by Sean Parker’s exhortations for “hacker philanthropy in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Massing recently wrote in the Intercept about the problems with a philosophy that calls for “hacking” the world’s problems using money instead of code. Massing is scathing, and rightly so, on Gates’ philanthropic efforts in education. Thanks to a top-down, results-oriented approach but little attention to details, the Gates Foundation’s efforts have exacerbated the worst instincts of the school-reform movement, embodied in figures like Michelle Rhee and outgoing Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan (whose agency has helped push pseudoscience into public schools). The problem isn’t the intentions, but the belief that the unilateral throwing of money at a problem alongside performance-based metrics can solve any problem just as easily as they once enabled Windows to crush its competition.

In contrast, efforts in public health and research have gone better. The Gates Foundation’s programs in Africa have helped to reduce measles by 90 percent in the past 15 years, among other successes. In realms where a functioning infrastructure already exists—such as medicine—an influx of cash can bolster existing projects and help organizations see them through more quickly and effectively. Where the infrastructure is poor, as in education, outside injections of cash meant to fundamentally alter the existing ways of doing things simply don’t help. This goes to show that money and philanthropy work best in a supporting role rather than a fundamental structuring one. For billionaires to take on the latter, they’d have to become dictators, and unless you’re a Donald Trump supporter, that’s probably not an appealing idea.

Massing bemoans that Gates and Zuckerberg aren’t interested in radical change or wealth redistribution, and it’s true; billionaires tend not to be big advocates for these things. But it’s absurd to expect them to be. Rather, it’s here that they become scapegoats for our own failings. While Zuckerberg and Gates have a great deal of influence owing to their money, that power is magnified by the sheer lack of public will for governments to fix our most pressing problems. Given the amount of effort it took to make an incremental fix to our health insurance system in the form of Obamacare, the next drastic steps in health care reform may very well come not from government but from the private sector doing an end run around the big insurers. There is a massive investment void in America, and with our political system’s inability to utilize it, it is inevitable that private parties will start to fill it. Their judgments may be reasonably good (I’ll give this one to Gates), or they may be bad (hello, Koch Brothers!), but they definitely will be autocratic. But that’s not on them. It’s on us.

Ironically, asking Gates and Zuckerberg to try to fix the problems of climate change, income inequality, wealth redistribution, and the failing welfare state only confirms this thesis. The futility of public works has become so ingrained as an idea that the return to a Cold War–era public-private partnership—the kind of partnership that drove the creation of the free, public, unified Internet rather than the fractured landscape of cloistered social media sites we have today—never even enters our minds. Even Bernie Sanders’ suggestions for free college are far less radical than the postwar GI Bill and other programs designed to fight the Soviets. (This was a time, remember, when the CIA was funding abstract expressionism as a means to fight communism.) American’s commitment to making smarter Americans was one of the best things to come out of the Cold War (even if it brought with it xenophobia and nuclear terror), and for a time it was a reasonably successful effort. Gates has tried to do the same and is beginning to find that the education system is far too broken for one person, or even one education-reform movement, to fix. As Massing notes, for example, Gates has backed off of demands for teacher assessment based on test scores in the face of its utter failure as a metric.

It is the more blatantly political efforts of people like Ken Griffin in Illinois that promise to remake America more thoroughly, gutting public-works infrastructure even further by pushing rabidly anti-tax candidates into local and state office. By stacking local and state governments with allies, they will weaken the public and the government’s ability to resist any intrusion by the ultrarich, good or ill. Gates and Zuckerberg, I presume, lack the appetite to shove their own ideological allies into fighting those of Griffin; we still could be headed toward a kind of large-scale billionaire proxy war, one in which conservative and neoliberal plutocrats duel to influence our most pressing issues while governments become limper and limper. While Republicans have taken over local and state governments to an unprecedented degree, progressives are fighting culture wars over Halloween costumes and video games. For now, we can’t set a safe emissions target, we can’t raise our debt ceiling without throwing a hissy fit, and people can’t figure out that Kynect and Obamacare are the same thing. There’s only so much blame you can put on the billionaires for this.

Gates and Zuckerberg constitute a massive improvement over the likes of the Kochs, whose interest in criminal-justice reform only went as far as reducing sentences for white-collar crime. And of course there’s Donald Trump, who is using his money to treat the presidential race as a cross between Citizen Kane and The Great Dictator. The hacker philanthropists do seem to share something of a genuine utilitarian sensibility, and in the annals of the uber-rich that speaks rather well of them. We should fear them less than their possible successors. The world coughs up a lot more Kochs than Zuckerbergs.

Gates and Zuckerberg don’t need me to defend them, of course. What’s important is that we not allow their generosity to make up for our own lack of agency. Their flaws are not the flaws of horrible men, but of people, period. The real flaws in our world are structural.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.