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Puerto Rico and tech plutocracies

When there are disasters, there are calls for action. And often, we look towards those with power and, almost synonymously, to those with wealth, to step in and help those left in such a scary situation.

And with the immense damage left behind by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the technology giants of Silicon Valley have not disappointed. Many of them have stepped up publicly to help Puerto Rico navigate the post-hurricane relief efforts. And they’re not just sending money to the island; many have volunteered resources they are uniquely suited to provide. According to a post by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook has sent in a “connectivity team” to provide emergency telecommunications support after the hurricane caused about 90 percent of the cell phone towers on the island to stop working. Elon Musk has tweeted that Tesla could rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid using solar — and the island’s governor Ricardo Rossello seems interested. Microsoft is providing free Skype calls in the area, and Airbnb is helping people displaced by the hurricane find shelter.

It is heartening news to read — especially compared to the rest of the stories coming out of the country every week. But it made me uneasy nevertheless.

Yoni Appelbaum, writing in June for The Atlantic, posed the question: “Is Big Philanthropy Compatible With Democracy?” The article drew on arguments made by Stanford’s own Professor Rob Reich about big philanthropy. Reich takes the foundations we view so favorably and reframes them: He sees big philanthropy instead as an exercise of power, on a large magnitude. And according to him, “Rather than responding to power with gratitude, we should respond with skepticism and scrutiny.”

It is an interesting idea, and a novel one. Because while we do talk about and think about philanthropy, it is often to wonder how it is that such altruism emerges or what compels people to be so kind. So to see these foundations instead as a possibly plutocratic power, unchecked in a democracy and yet yielding immense influence, is jarring. But Reich posits that these institutions are oddities — existing outside both market and electoral accountability — and our unskeptical acceptance of their power is a lapse in our civic duty.

Which brings me back to the technology giants and their role in helping Puerto Rico get back on its feet. To be witnessing their generosity and help is also to be witnessing their immense power — and their offers of help, and the particular modes in which they do help, are how we see how they can wield that power. And it makes me uneasy just how powerful these companies are and how unaccountable their power is to any authority. Of course they, unlike philanthropic institutions, are accountable to the market, and yet, when it comes to their philanthropy, it is only tangentially so, through channels like CSR laws. And even if their actions were closer to market practices — as is the case with Tesla and their solar cells — it hardly seems possible that the market could punish Elon Musk for not helping Puerto Rico. Because philanthropy exists in that negative space — we don’t see how much these companies can do until they offer, in some capacity, to do it. And yet all along they have immense power, in this case, to change the course of an island’s future.

So is their power compatible with democracy? Or are we fine with plutocratic power stepping in to provide support and rescue hundreds when the democratically elected government fails to step up?

These are strange questions for the mere fact that Puerto Rico needs help, and to question where it comes from seems like armchair rhetoric that has nothing to do with the real world or with real problems. And to meet philanthropy with skepticism instead of blind and overwhelming gratitude seems, as Reich puts it, “impertinent.” But, as he explains, one of the reasons that this reaction seems misplaced is because we often compare philanthropy to private consumption, and then of course it is praiseworthy. But the philanthropy — in his case of large foundations, and here of these tech giants —  need not be seen in that light. It can also be viewed as a way of changing the world in particularly the way you want to see it changed — which is power. Something that, as a part of civic duty, it is our job to be skeptical of.

It is admirable that Google is sending $1 million to Puerto Rico — especially when you consider that it could instead add that money to the guesstimated $72 million it spends on free food for its employees — but it is scary to think that we need to rely on a private organization like Google, with any number of competing priorities, to step in and help an island in need. What happens if Tesla gets to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid with its solar cells, a project of a scale it’s never attempted before? Maybe it’s all good things — but when there is no other choice because Congress won’t approve all the money the island needs, no questions are asked, and no protections against malpractice are put in place.

The point is not to say that technology is scary and the rich are evil — at least not of this article. It’s not a new idea that technology is powerful and that those who control it are exercising power over us every day, without us really knowing how, or even caring about how to stop them. But in a world where a few companies can have such disproportionate impact on the welfare of so many, it is worth asking if that power can be left to the whims of technology executives who were not promoted for their sense of civic duty. And if it can’t — then who is thinking about solutions for this new world we live in?

When tech giants step in to take control and be more responsible in the way they shape the world, we applaud them. Be it Mark Zuckerberg’s “few thoughts” after the U.S. elections or anything Peter Thiel says, it is terrifying to me that when these few individuals aren’t making public statements or subtweeting their colleagues, this massive power is so often undefined, unchecked and unnoticed.

When the progress of technology outstrips education or legislation or public knowledge, we accept it because it’s convenient. When it creates new pockets of power and new ways of exercising them, it’s easy (by definition) to continue living on in the tyranny of convenience that the information inequality produces.  

And that’s my point — that power is hard to describe, harder to pin down and really hard to keep in check. But we live in a democracy, and we love to celebrate it! But the point of celebrating democracy is celebrating our right to check large concentrations of power and to be wary of them — and that starts with figuring out where it exists. And expressions of power — even benign or pleasant ones — are our first clue.

 

Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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