Most of us would be lucky to be remembered by history for one thing after we die. Paul Allen, who died Monday at 65 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is being remembered for so many things that you could almost lose track of the one that made him rich and famous in the first place.
No one’s forgetting that Allen co-founded Microsoft, of course. His obituaries prominently feature this striking quote from his co-founder Bill Gates: “Personal computing would not have existed without him.” That seems a bit strong: A more careful assessment would be that Microsoft would not have existed without Allen, who persuaded Gates to drop out of Harvard and start the company with him in 1975. Personal computing was already on its way, but Allen and Gates shaped its course by building the software that became the industry standard.
Anyway, Allen’s place in the history of technology is secure—even though he left Microsoft in 1983 after being diagnosed with cancer.
What’s remarkable is that Allen’s subsequent acts have in many ways eclipsed his world-altering first one. When his death was announced Monday, the tributes were so varied, the memories so disparate, you might have thought they referred to six or eight different people. Professional sports owner, real estate magnate, inventor, investor, philanthropist, guitarist, shaper of modern Seattle.
Allen’s life is a reminder of both the stunning opportunities that our world affords to the very rich—unfairly, no doubt—and how much can be accomplished by one person who truly seizes those chances. Here’s a quick tour of a handful of the many Paul Allens people are mourning:
Paul Allen, patron of brain research:
Paul Allen, sports website creator:
Paul Allen, builder of giant aircraft:
Paul Allen, elephant conservationist:
Paul Allen, Seahawks and Trail Blazers owner:
And, of course, Paul Allen, second coming of Hendrix:
These are all tributes to Allen, the person, and by most accounts they’re probably deserved. He’s wrought more good in the world than most of us could dream of. His record is less than spotless on, say, the remaking of Seattle as a pricey tech haven with a nasty homelessness problem. But that doesn’t have to negate his work on conservation or brain research.
Likewise, the vast sums he spent on his own entertainment, including a $200 million yacht, don’t seem worth much begrudging, especially to a man who knew from a young age that his life would be shorter than most. The specter of his mortality seems to have clarified his priorities, and if some lavish recreation was among them, it didn’t seem to stop him from pursuing the nobler ones. That said, there have been hints over the years that he was more of a playboy than was widely known by the public. His reputation among the globe-trotting set was that of a Gatsby-esque party host.
But if what Allen accomplished is a tribute to him, it’s also a monument to the deep inequalities of modern capitalism, which have been exacerbated by the personal technology industry. One needn’t blame Allen for the winner-take-all nature of the software economy to recognize that he played a role in creating it, and benefited from it to the tune of many billions.
And it’s worth remembering that the reason Allen was able to accomplish so much, in such wide-ranging fields of endeavor, is not because he was superhuman, or better than the rest of us. It’s because he was really, really, ridiculously wealthy. It’s the same reason Gates wields such outsize influence on sectors as disparate as K–12 education and global agriculture.
It’s also a good reminder that today’s tech titans—Bezos, Zuckerberg, Benioff, Page, and Brin—will likely one day be remembered for much more than the companies they built. When we talk about their inordinate power, we’re talking about their power to control the flow of data, money, and information through the products over which they preside. But they’re also amassing wealth that will give them enormous power over all kinds of other things, long after their careers are over.
This isn’t new, of course: Think Carnegie and Rockefeller. What’s new is the speed and scale of wealth creation in today’s software industry and the desire of its captains not just to spend and give of their fortune, but to leverage it for influence.
Tech concentrates money, and that money talks—and in the absence of stronger redistributive policies, we can only hope that moguls such as Allen wield it with care.