Mark Zuckerberg and the $3bn cash fling: He's not your father's tech kingpin

History, philanthropy and the Victorian computing age

Mark Zuckerberg photo by Bangkokhappiness via Shutterstock

Lou Gerstner, Ray Noorda, Lew Platt. Remember them? Ever even heard of them?

Anybody with a memory or knowledge of the tech industry will know them as former, if anonymous, leaders of IBM, Novell and Hewlett-Packard. Newbies and the average person outside tech won’t without a quick Google.

I recently visited the London offices of a major cloud firm where the meeting rooms were named after famous computers from history. Sitting in the “Vax” room, I noticed a printed description behind plastic of Vax - you know, for the kids. The idea was to remind people of their computing past.

That’s the irony of tech, a sector so obsessed with moving on it forgets its own past. It’s a sour irony that people, places, dates and events that proved critical in the evolution of technology are in danger of simply disappearing into the past when there’s fat chance of forgetting today’s names in tech. They're already becoming brands as big as, if not bigger than, their companies.

Mark Zuckerberg was already at least as well known as the company he started, but last week he went one further, announcing that, together with wife Priscilla Chan, he plans to spend $3bn to cure, prevent or manage all known diseases by 2100 through the couple's Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

That's $3bn. Doing no less then curing, preventing or managing all – that’s all - known disease by 2100. This is staggering.

It’s staggering because this blue-sky target comes not from a charity or an arm of the United Nations with a vested interest, but a company – and a company whose raison d'etre is to profit from the things people post on its website.

Some have written that with AI, machine learning and virtual reality we’re on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, with self-driving cars, headsets that create our work places, and supercomputers able to write songs and diagnose diseases.

Conspicuous compassion

By extension, the captains of the firms behind this are seen as the new Victorians. And with Victorianism goes philanthropy.

Zuckerberg and Chan’s pledge will certainly reinforce this view, but we’ve been en route to this point for some time. Arguably, the Valley’s passion for the fashion of charitable giving was ignited by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 - now the world’s largest private fund with assets of $36bn and an investment income of $53m.

Gates, the richest person in tech with a net worth of $81bn, left full-time duties at Microsoft in 2008 to devote more of this time to the Foundation.

The man's life work was bound up in Microsoft and where was he going next? To heal the world, was the answer.

Not to be outdone, Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff and wife Lynne, meanwhile, have donated to non-profits and causes personally. This has included $250m to the UCSF Medical Center. There also exists the separate Salesforce Foundation that's part off Salesforce.org - the philanthropic arm of Benioff's company that directs its own investments.

But if it were the giving that would be one thing. It’s both the ambition and the attention, however, that has gotten larger over the years.

In 84 years' time...

The Zuckerberg and Chan plan received the predictable saturation coverage but the money they are committing is actually tiny by comparison: with a net worth of $55.8bn, Zuckerberg is tech’s third-richest individual so arguably he could spare more.

Facebook made $3.69bn on revenues of $17.93bn in 2015. It also spent $19bn buying WhatsApp in 2014.

Also, the 2100 goal is so distant it’s unknown whether Facebook would be in existence then. IBM has the longest shelf span of any tech firm at over a century.

Certainly most of us will not be alive 84 years from now to check in and see whether Zuckerberg and Chan delivered. But it got a reaction – and that was surely the point.

One response The Reg heard was from a commenter who said they wouldn’t bet against Facebook curing all diseases in the 21 century. Others on Twitter called it “cool” that Facebook isn’t just doing something benevolent but “ambitiously benevolent”.

If it’s about “effect” – using the high-profile nature of its own brands – then it has succeeded.

According to The Guardian such “audacious goals” are precisely what’s required to challenge thinking into breaking barriers.

Feel the clicks, not the commitment.

Bill Gates – along with Apple’s Steve Jobs – was arguably one of the tech’s first "personalities" – with a name recognizable outside the confines of the sector.

Gate created Windows and co-built Microsoft, the multi-billion franchise and business.

But The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation remained firmly a side operation to his day-to-day work, which was running Microsoft with buddy Steve Ballmer.

He was an amateur by comparison in an age when the PR machine was relatively naive. Today, you need to think bigger.

Zuckerberg’s sickness pledge isn’t his first big promise this year. Remember January? He promised to personally built an AI Jeeves to run his home this year.

Salesforce’s Benioff isn’t a retiring benefactor. He tweets regularly of his work with UCSF and re-tweets the praise he receives, just in case you’d missed it.

It’s uncertain what’s driving these people’s desire to “get involved” – a genuine conviction, a desire to secure a place in posterity, or a realisation that what they are doing is ephemeral accompanied with a desire to make a lasting impression on humanity.

But, certainly, we are seeing a growing belief from those at the top of this sector to effect change or make their mark in a way their predecessors didn’t and there are using the power of their own brand and that of their firms to achieve it.

Benioff has gone beyond money and charitable causes to change US laws he disagreed with. In North Carolina and Georgia he used the weight of Salesforce to challenge laws that would have discriminated against citizens over gay rights and workers on faith.

But not everything is on the progressive side of politics.

Mozilla founder and JavaScript daddy Brendan Eich in 2014 was ousted from his brief tenure running Mozilla after it emerged he’d donated to the campaign supporting the then Proposition 8, which was attempting to legislate against same-sex marriage in California.

His values weren’t shared by those using Firefox, even though they shouldn’t really have been a factor and it’s just a browser.

Occulus Rift’s Palmer Luckey, meanwhile, is reported to have contributed to a campaign group called Nimble America working online to get Donald Trump elected US president. PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel helped close Gawker by bankrolling WWF’s Hulk Hogan during the wrestler's court case against the site.

Putting money into causes is not new to the world of tech: the corporations have been spending on causes or to try to influence politics for decades.

Microsoft, Oracle, Google, AT&T – to name just four – have poured billions of dollars into professional lobbying groups (on both sides of the coin) for decades.

What’s changed, however, is the willingness of those running these firms to actually stand up and to stand out themselves, and put their own wealth into causes.

And the causes are getting bigger: from Gates took a humble stab at malaria, HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis but Zuckerberg wants to cure everything.

Will it work? We cannot say. What is certain, however, is the days of the anonymous Gerstners, Platts and Noorda are as dead as the era of boxed products their companies churned out. ®

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