How the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Plans to Save the World: An Update

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October 11, 2016; CNBC

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan recently committed $3 billion over the next decade to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases. The National Cancer Institute alone spends $5.21 billion a year on its quest to tackle its one dreaded disease. What do Zuckerberg and Chan know that everyone else is missing? Besides, when Zuckerberg can make $3.4 billion in one hour, why not double the money and end death by disease within five years?

Zuckerberg and Chan believe that curing diseases and meeting their other philanthropic objectives is merely a technical challenge. CNBC reports that they just hired Brian Pinkerton (Amazon’s Vice President of Search and the General Manager of Amazon’s search and ad technology group) to be the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s (CZI) Chief Technology Officer. That is to say, CZI’s just hired their thought leader. In announcing Pinkerton’s appointment on Facebook, Zuckerberg said this:

Our approach is to use engineering to create social change. This is different from most philanthropy. Lots of people invest capital and hard work, but when you can also do engineering to build tools to empower people to make changes themselves, that’s when social change can really scale.

Pinkerton offers us a perspective on the expanse of CZI’s vision:

The time horizon here is unlike the typical time horizon. Mark and Priscilla are looking out 50 and 100 years. If you look out that far, you can imagine stuff you’ll want to build on your own that you’ll need in 10 years or 20 years. […] It’s super exciting.

Evgeny Morozov begins his recent op-ed for the Guardian with this observation:

A world where billionaires were blunt and forthright, where they preferred pillaging the world to saving it, was far less confusing. The robber barons of the industrial era—from Carnegie to Ford to Rockefeller—did eventually commit some of their riches to charity but there was no mistaking one for the other. Oil and steel brought in the cash; education and arts helped to spend it.

Morozoy concludes his op-ed this way:

That we can no longer differentiate between philanthropy and speculation is an occasion to worry, not celebrate. With Silicon Valley elites so keen on saving the world, shouldn’t we also ask who will eventually save us from Silicon Valley?

In an article entitled, “They’ve Got You, Wherever You Are,” Jacob Weisberg recently reviewed two new books that touch on the ubiquity and intentions of Facebook: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (the author is best known for developing the principle of “net neutrality”) and Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (by a former doctoral student in physics at Berkeley and quantitative analyst on Goldman Sachs’s corporate credit desk.) Weisberg makes the case that everything Facebook offers is done with one goal in mind: to capture the user’s attention. Facebook is currently valued as America’s fourth-most-valuable American company, but that valuation is based on projected revenues to be generated by reselling to advertisers the future attention of Facebook’s global users. The race is on between Amazon and Facebook to be the world’s first $1 trillion company. Meanwhile, some estimate that Facebook users are squandering $3.5 trillion in lost productivity.

The old cliché about advertising was, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” The new cliché is, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”

The value of CZI is based on the value of Facebook stock. What happens to CZI if ad-blocking and other tools are perfected and deployed by revolting Facebook users? What if something more attention grabbing than Facebook comes along and Facebook goes the way of Yahoo! or MySpace? That same principle applies to CZI’s intentions to prevent, manage or cure all diseases—what about the yet-to-evolve “super bug”?

CZI’s intent is clearly praiseworthy and welcome. But its founders and employees would do well to have the humility to remember that philanthropy has a very long history, spanning more than two millennia. Silicon Valley’s elite risk bringing to philanthropy the same one-dimensional thinking that brought success to their very temporary inventions. Few if any social engineering schemes of the past ever worked out as planned. The world that CZI’s philanthropy intends to fix is not the sum of inputs and outputs, algorithms, zeros and ones. The world that CZI intends to save from itself consists of a bewilderingly complex network of interests. CZI wants to work in a rational and kind world where everyone holds to the same values. An MSF doctor at work in Aleppo, Syria might do more for CZI than another recruit from the relatively predictable and risk-free world of Google or Amazon.—James Schaffer