One day in February, about 40 noisy protesters gathered outside the home of the Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto in California’s Silicon Valley. They chanted slogans and held up signs as a small, select group of people arrived in sleek sports cars and were ushered inside the relatively modest residence where the billionaire lives with his wife, Priscilla Chan.
It must have been an unusual experience for Zuckerberg, 28, whose position as head of Facebook is more likely to inspire admiration or plain curiosity from ordinary Americans rather than outraged, placard-waving demonstrators shepherded by local police. However, this was no ordinary party Zuckerberg was holding. It was his first political fundraiser and his choice of candidate raised eyebrows: Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Under the gaze of the protesters, Republican bigwigs such as former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice started arriving to pay homage to — and write checks for — a governor who has taken stances against gay marriage and raising taxes on rich people, while embarking on a union-bashing crusade against teachers in his home state.
However, the fundraiser was just one of Zuckerberg’s moves into politics. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that he was in the middle of helping to organize a political advocacy group with other top technology leaders. The as yet unnamed organization would lobby for reform on issues such as immigration, education and scientific research. The newspaper said it had already raised millions of dollars from its cash-rich donors and had an initial target of US$50 million.
It is a remarkable development, but also inevitable. The technology sector that has sprung up from Silicon Valley and other development hotspots across the US has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry whose top companies — such as Google, Facebook and Twitter — have fundamentally reshaped how most of us live. As it grew in power and influence, it was bound to enter the realm of politics, seeking to change policy and win allies across the political spectrum.
To Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and Big Banking, you can now add Big Tech. Which raises an important question that is rarely asked: As they increasingly seek to shape US politics, what do the titans of technology actually want?
Kate Losse thinks that question needs a lot of attention. She should know. She was an early employee at Facebook and rose to being Zuckerberg’s speechwriter, before leaving to write a book about her experiences, The Boy Kings.
It seems that her book was aptly titled, and recent technology advances into the political world, especially the creation of a well-funded political organization, are probably only the tip of an iceberg.
“The fact that this sort of development is happening suggests there is a political project,” Losse said. “That is why it is important to ask questions now. Otherwise, we might wake up one day and there is a whole system in place that we did not see coming.”
As with any major industry, the people involved in Silicon Valley have political views across the spectrum, but in general, they are often a blend of social liberalism and free-market economics.
It is a world where people are happy with ethnic diversity and sexual freedoms, but distrustful of big government and see the “heroic entrepreneur” as an aspirational ideal. It is a political culture that owes a debt to libertarian novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, who preached that free-market self-interest was the future and the hand of government was little more than a dead weight on human creativity.