Why Are Tech Billionaires Like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg So Clueless?

Politics Features Silicon Valley
Why Are Tech Billionaires Like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg So Clueless?

Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview, and it got him into trouble. HuffPo described the latest stumble:

In a lengthy interview with Recode published Wednesday, Recode co-founder Kara Swisher pressed the Facebook CEO to explain how he can simultaneously say he is combating the spread of false information on Facebook but won’t issue a firm rebuke to conspiracy content that claims, for instance, that the Sandy Hook massacre didn’t happen. Zuckerberg dug himself into an even deeper hole by offering up Holocaust denialism as another example of Facebook content he wouldn’t remove from the network.

“Wow, I never imagined this could happen!” That’s what I’d prefer to write here. But I won’t. Because I did indeed expect Zuckerberg to eventually say something along these lines—him, Jack Dorsey, and the rest of the Soylent crowd. I wouldn’t be shocked if Zuck retweeted Alex Jones ranting about how he only drank fresh, racially-pure Nordic blood. Nothing is beyond the clueless rich; nothing.

Why do the Valley titans defend the alt-right? Because they believe in their platforms, and little else.

The obvious response is “Oh, it’s because they have a lot of money.” That makes intuitive sense. Terminal wealth and batshit weirdness do go hand in hand. Wealth limits character, wealth fences in personal growth. Wealth anesthetizes and distracts. It diminishes your personhood.

This explanation doesn’t explain the modern rich. The robber barons had great plunder, and they were wicked, but they weren’t odd in the way the modern Valley elite are. The economic royalists of the 19th century were amoral, certainly. But they were profoundly worldly creatures.

Our current crop of rich psychos are uniquely alienated from reality. In the past week, both Elon Musk and Zuck have given us examples of digital irrationality.

How painful it was, to see the two of them try to wrestle with real humans in real trouble in the real world. Musk spoke of Flint and submarines … and at no point did I believe him in the least. How could anyone?

Occasionally, Muskovites will accuse Elon critics of pure haterdom. If Zuckerberg had fans, I’m sure they’d accuse me of the same thing.

But normal non-billionaire citizens don’t have a choice. We have to pay attention to these guys, the same way we’re forced to ride along with Trump. Zuck’s personality disorders matter—for the same reason that any billionaire’s distempers matter. Musk, Zuck, and their friends exert a huge influence over our lives. I don’t care about what the Kardashians do, but I am forced to care about what Jeff Bezos says, thinks, and chooses, because he has real power over millions of human beings.

As Matt Stoller pointed out:

Why are they like this? It goes back to money, and to the Valley.

There are three reliable ways to secure great wealth: inherit it, buy real estate, or found a company. I don’t know if you’ve ever met scions of inherited wealth, but they’re usually dopey adult-sized children. By contrast, real-estate investors run the gamut: some are competent administrators of land and property; some are straight-up slumlords. A few are like Donald Trump.

That leaves the third style of wealth-making: the company-founder.

Most American companies are small businesses, and if you’re in your thirties, you probably know a couple of people who own their own shop. Some of these small businesses become quite successful, and reach regional status, or become champions of a particular niche. Founders are fairly normal people.

Young people who become plutocrats are decidedly not.

To become fiendishly rich, another element is needed. Namely, great infusions of reckless capital. And that’s where Silicon Valley’s dysfunctions come in. To be a Musk or a Zuckerberg, you don’t have to be competent, or have a good idea, or even to be wise about business.

The sole talent required is this: you must be able to convince a room of other people, usually canny older white men, that you are a hyper-focused digital savant. That is the one skill necessary. Not worldliness. Not kindness. Not even competence at coding or technology. You don’t even have to actually be a savant. You just have to seem like one.

See, most money guys don’t have ideas. If they did, they wouldn’t need to search for companies to invest in; they’d just fund themselves. What the money guys have, or think they have, is a feel for what will be profitable. Since tech is a speculative enterprise, this “feel” usually amounts to a gut-level instinct about the founder.

This explains why a man as unworldly as Zuckerberg was successful. It also tells you about why a long-game hustler like Elizabeth Holmes did so well. Zuckerberg acts like a baffled savant … but at least he had a product to present. By contrast, Holmes didn’t even have a working model. But Holmes could play-act what rich older men wanted to see: here is an eccentric genius, behaving as I expect an eccentric genius to behave, telling me an incredible story. Zuckerberg lucked out by virtue of being his clueless self. Holmes was a sharp card-counter looking for a mark. Both of them sold the boardroom on their story: Zuckerberg through a lack of guile, Holmes through nothing but guile.

If you want to know how a system works, consider at what it actually selects for. As Michael Lewis showed in Moneyball, professional baseball scouting didn’t actually select for baseball talent (although that’s what they told everyone, and what they themselves believed). Professional baseball scouting sorted for appearance. It sifted players who looked like good ballplayers, not people who actually were good ballplayers.

We already know capitalism doesn’t select for hard work. Nobody labors harder than the working poor, and they’re still at the bottom. And by now we know that Silicon Valley doesn’t select for maturity (see Travis Kalanick), effectiveness (see Holmes), originality (see Bill Gates), or decency (see Steve Jobs).

What does the Valley select for? The Valley’s entire ecosystem of status is based on how you do during the audition for venture sugardaddies. The Valley has a nice story that it tells itself, about socially-awkward prophets who come down from the mountains of Stanford or Caltech or MIT, bearing gifts. They’re expecting a certain kind of person … and if you fit into that outline, you will be rewarded. You’ll get funding regardless of whether or not a workable product exists.

Given that fact, why are people surprised that A) Elon Musk has rabid fans, and B) that he talks a big game but does nothing? That’s literally what this system selects for: impressive talkers who may or may not follow through. Of course Musk suggested the flashy, impractical solution for the Thai cave-in, instead of the practical helpful angle. That is what he is paid to do. And Facebook’s CEO is no different. Forget the ”-book” part of his website: saving Face is the only skill that Zuckerberg has to offer.

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