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A Charitable Definition of Charity

When the state of the world seems terrible, it becomes all too easy to pine for good news. And if one is to glance at the headlines in recent weeks it is difficult not to conclude that things in the world are, indeed, rather grim. Violence and xenophobia cast a bleak pall over the world and these in turn cloak the future in an equally dark shadow. Some hopeful illumination would be welcome, even if just to distract from the latest evidence of injustices roiling the world. For those with young children, or those about to welcome children into their families, these future prospects may seem particularly frightening as these parents ponder what type of world it is in which their children will grow up.

And it is precisely a letter from two new parents to their newborn daughter that has disrupted the flow of disturbing news in order to plaster a hopeful message across the headlines. This is of course “A Letter to Our Daughter” by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, a hope filled vision of the future that includes the news that Chan and Zuckerberg intend to donate almost all of their Facebook shares (estimated to be worth about $45 billion) during their lifetimes. At a moment when so many of the world’s problems seem intractable it can be heartening to read this letter from two new parents. And yet if one actually reads “A Letter to Our Daughter,” instead of simply applauding the headlines touting this “$45 Billion Birth Announcement,” one will find ample reason to conclude that this letter is not a genuine break from the gloomy news – but is really apace with it. For this “Letter” is less the optimistic vision of a new father (though co-signed “Mom and Dad” the letter appears on Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook page and speaks of Mark as “I” and Priscilla as “your mother”) than it is a mission statement by a wealthy CEO using the occasion of his daughter’s birth to provide a pleasant backdrop for the laying out of a fiercely ideological, and rather self-serving, agenda.

This is not a letter to Zuckerberg’s daughter. This is a letter to you. And in it Zuckerberg is laying out a vision of your future.

[and now a brief digression]

At the outset it is worth recognizing that $45 billion is a heck of a lot of money. This in turn raises the question: how is it that this mountain of Facebook shares are so valuable? And for that, Zuckerberg has you to thank. Yes, you! Assuming, that is, that you are a current or past Facebook user. If you are using Facebook today, or if you used it in the past but have since deleted your account, that $45 billion is a testament to your hard work. Congratulations. If you have, or have had, a Facebook account than you work (or worked) for Facebook. The labor that you poured into that site created a heck of a lot of value, and that value is reflected in that $45 billion.

This may seem an unimportant thing to focus on, but it is important to recognize that Facebook is valuable because of the content that its users create on that social network – if there was nobody posting pictures, updates, and clicking “like” than Facebook would be much less valuable. Granted, this is not just true of Facebook, the same could largely be said of many other valuable online platforms (some of which, like Instagram, are also owned by Facebook) – but the thing to recognize is that the time you (or other people) spend on sites like Facebook is a sort of labor (even if it seems “fun”), it is generating a lot of value, and that value is being pocketed by somebody else. Or, as Christian Fuchs put it in his book Social Media (which provides an excellent discussion of online labor):

“Users spending a lot of time online create more data and more value (work time) that is potentially transformed into profit.” (Fuchs, 115)

And as that $45 billion makes clear, oftentimes that labor is not just “potentially transformed into profit,” it actually is transformed into profit. It’s just that none of that profit accrues to you. Those whose curiosity is piqued by these questions of social media and unpaid labor may find Laurel Ptak’s “Wages for Facebook” interesting.

[digression ends]

When reading “A Letter to Our Daughter,” or reading about the letter, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by the letter’s massive reveal, namely that Chan and Zuckerberg will be donating a quantity of shares valued at nearly $45 billion. Nevertheless, one should not automatically conclude that this represents a massive charitable giveaway. Indeed, it is a rather charitable definition of “charity” to conclude that this is really charitable giving. Instead what the letter makes clear is that this money will, over time, be funneled through the newly established Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which will work towards advancing the vision of the future laid out in the letter. In other words, this is money that is being set aside to be used for propping up the particular causes that Zuckerberg deems worthy. And the “charitable” causes he seems to have in mind are solidly within the wheelhouse of his own self-interest.

Nevertheless, the question becomes: what are the types of charitable goals that have inspired Zuckerberg to part with part of his considerable fortune? Evidently it has something to do with “advancing human potential” and “promoting equality.”

Who among us wants to be the first to say that they do not support “advancing human potential?” Who wants to loudly disagree with the goal of “promoting equality?” It would seem monstrous, or at the very least horrifically xenophobic, for one to blithely oppose such lofty goals. Which is precisely the problem – they are so broad and all encompassing as to be nearly meaningless – or to put it another way, they are really just pleasant sounding vagaries that provide coverage for all manner of other agendas.  Luckily, Zuckerberg makes it clear that these are really just the heady goals, and therefore what matters is the initiatives that will be undertaken to try to reach these goals – and these specifics say a great deal about what Zuckerberg means when he writes of “advancing human potential” and “promoting equality.” According to the letter, these goals shall be reached through a commitment to “personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.” In this set there are once more certain things that it seems everybody would support (“curing disease”) even as some might cock an eyebrow in slight befuddlement at other aspects (“personalized learning”). Of this list it may be that the element that solicits the easiest agreement is the actual outlier: “curing disease.” The other three things on that list are all rather amorphous – “personalized learning” can mean many things (such as more teachers and less testing) and “building strong communities” can look like everything from community gardens to fighting off gentrification. Yet Zuckerberg’s letter makes it quite clear that, with the exception of “curing disease,” these three others goals all revolve heavily around deploying the Internet (and other hazily defined technology) as the way to meet these goals.

“A Letter to Our Daughter” is a magnificent statement of the techno-utopian ideology, and the letter makes the most sense if it is read in such a way. It is as much a manifesto as anything else. It is the smiling techno-utopian compliment to John Perry-Barlow’s techno-libertarian “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” And both documents share a certain almost religious faith in the power of technology (and the Internet) to bring salvation to humanity. It is a letter which openly acknowledges the challenges facing the world, the challenges to the future, but which responds to these seemingly insurmountable challenges with shiny optimism that the solution is the Internet and technological advances. And lest there be any confusion, it is optimism that is backed up by $45 billion to be invested in making this vision a reality. Thus Zuckerberg’s letter provides a nice modification of the old saying “to a person with a hammer every problem looks like a nail” it should read “to the CEO of a technology company every problem looks like one to be fixed by technology.” This adoration for the Internet informs the initiatives laid out in the letter – “personalized learning” is just a subtle way of saying education with a heavy online component, “connecting people” is just a different way of saying “getting everybody online,” and “building strong communities” is just another way of saying that “all people need to join the online community.”One can easily imagine Zuckerberg arguing in the coming years that the VR headset Oculus (which Facebook now owns) is the perfect tool for accomplishing the aforementioned goals. Furthermore, and this is a very important point, Zuckerberg’s initiative is not a nonprofit, nor for that matter is a charitable trust. Instead it is an LLC, which means that the funds being funneled into it can also be used for private investment. Or to restate an earlier point – calling that “charity” is to give a rather charitable definition of charity.

While the letter does deign to mention serious issues like racism, poverty and environmental degradation these topics are quickly glossed over so that the talk can return to the ways in which the Internet is making the world a better place. No mention is made of the way that the Internet can be a haven for racist trolls (and racist organizing), no attention is paid to the fact that income inequality has continue to grow even in the age of the Internet, and nothing is said of the environmental impacts of highly technological societies where those touting of the benefits of technology are rarely the ones living next to e-waste dumps. Indeed, there is a certain amusing irony to the fact that the letter should emerge even as world leaders argue about climate change in Paris. Zuckerberg’s vision is one wherein the biggest problem today, that which is holding people back more than anything else, is lack of Internet access – and therefore the only solution is to get these unfortunate folks online. And once those people – those unlucky 4 billion who still lack Internet access – are online, Zuckerberg seems certain that through the magic of the Internet they will be lifted from poverty. Or at the very least they will be able to join Facebook, which will make those Facebook shares even more valuable.

Beyond being a sort of techno-utopian manifesto, “A Letter to Our Daughter” represents Zuckerberg attempting to shed his image as a hooded-sweatshirt-wearing CEO in order for him to be able to reemerge as a CEO with a vision. It is an attempt to move from being just a CEO to being a major philanthropist – even though the agenda that Zuckerberg lays out in the letter is not particularly different from the agenda that he is laying out any time that he says with a straight face that Facebook’s mission is to connect the world. And though this transformation involves Zuckerberg announcing that he is going to quasi-give away a huge amount of wealth it is the sort of transformation that may change remarkably little. While new technologies, and the Internet, may have considerable potential for improving the world it takes a certain naïveté to consider them to be panaceas. After all, the grim world that appears in the headlines today is that of a world with plenty of technology and in which numerous individuals enjoy Internet access – and yet the social, economic, political and environmental problems facing humanity persist.

Alas, despite the enthusiasm many still have for the Internet, moves like Zuckerberg’s seem to just be confirmation of a situation Langdon Winner wrote of in his book The Whale and the Reactor:

“Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy. Far from demonstrating a revolution in patterns of social and political influence, empirical studies of computers and social change usually show powerful groups adapting computerized methods to retain control. That is not surprising. “ (Winner, 107)

Getting more people online may very well just reinforce the status quo. Granted, for those who have been made fantastically rich and powerful by this state of affairs that may not seem like too bad a thing. Sure, they may honestly believe that it would be better if more people could reach their “potential” or achieve “equality” – but only if such pursuits do not risk dethroning them. Such moves can therefore be an easy distraction from larger issues about economic inequality, social stratification, and political inaction, by donating such a sum Zuckerberg (and similar wealthy individuals) are able to hide behind an altruistic facade that seeks to retroactively prop up the very economic inequality, social stratification and political gridlock that produces billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg is invested in shaping the future, and thus he is making the type of investment that will allow him to do so.

Zuckerberg is not giving away $45 billion dollars. Rather, he is buying something with it. And what he is buying with it is prestige and influence – the type that can only be purchased through an action that is perceived as being the very opposite of “buying something.” Nevertheless, as the quote from Winner emphasizes, Zuckerberg’s move is really just a way of shoring up his own position of power – even as he trades some of his financial capital for an even greater sum of social and cultural capital. What the announcement of this donation does is that it makes Zuckerberg a CEO with a vision, suddenly there is ethical heft behind his dreams for a more “connected” world. Now Zuckerberg can be touted as a “visionary” or a “thought leader” when all that he is doing is putting a charitable face on what has always been a key part of Silicon Valley’s agenda: get more people online.

To read “A Letter to Our Daughter” critically is to conclude that there is nothing in that letter which does not serve to benefit Facebook. Getting more people online delivers more potential users to Facebook, celebrating openness and connectivity demands that every country should bow to the whims of Facebook by allowing their populaces to create accounts, and having a CEO who is viewed as such a charitable chap makes Facebook look like a righteous company instead of a panopticon. Most importantly what this does is it takes Zuckerberg’s techno-utopian ideology out of the board room and gives it the financial means to transform your community. Whether you like it or not. After all, the letter acknowledges the need to influence public policy, but has nothing to say about supporting real democratic control. For to have real, genuine, democratic control over your life, one also needs a voice when it comes to the technological regimes that shape your world.

Ultimately there is something a little bit grotesque about “A Letter to Our Daughter” – as it is a text in which Zuckerberg is exploiting the announcement of his daughter’s birth for the purposes of advancing an agenda he has been touting for quite some time.

But it would be a mistake to read the letter as actually being addressed to Zuckerberg’s new daughter.

Rather it is addressed to you, the Facebook user. And what it is saying is quite simple: you don’t need to worry about the future, let somebody else do that for you. Keep clicking “like” and remain confident that everything will be sorted out for you. Or, to put it another way…

Father knows best.

Works Cited

Fuchs, Christian. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. Los Angeles: Sage, 2014.

Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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A Mechanical Moses

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With Great Technological Power – What of Responsibility?

Riddled With Questions – Thinking About Technology

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

5 comments on “A Charitable Definition of Charity

  1. Josh P
    December 2, 2015

    An excellent piece! Thank you for exposing “Letter to Our Daughter” for what it truly is – a marketing campaign. As you mentioned, “it is a text in which Zuckerberg is exploiting the announcement of his daughter’s birth for the purposes of advancing an agenda he has been touting for quite some time.”

    I get the impression that our globally interconnected environment is one that rewards pathological behavior. The ability to manipulate people in particular seems to be incredibly valuable in this environment. I’ll give credit to Zuckerberg for this – he is a master manipulator. I’m glad that there are still some people out there who can see through it!

  2. Craig
    December 2, 2015

    Great points. Whenever I hear of global ‘free internet’ initiatives (I think Mark Zukerberg is running one probably a place he will funnel some of his ‘charity’ money to) I always like to wonder why there is such a drive to force people online. Is it really just for the humanitarian aspects or is it because when people are online they are a lot easier to commodify?

    Great points in this piece, thank you.

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