The Baffler
Julianne Tveten,  December 19

The Carpetbaggers of Tech

Mark Zuckerberg, J.D. Vance, and Steve Case launch tech's takeover of the heartland

The Baffler
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Some time next year, North America will learn which city Jeff Bezos plans to bulldoze and plunder in order to build Amazon’s second headquarters. Until then, it’s tempting to speculate on the criteria Bezos will use to select his pitiful Olympus. A municipal tax plan, perhaps, that would sooner swell the cost of soda and diapers than force a corporate executive to part with another half-percentage on his multi-acre mansion? Millions of square feet of land ripe for the developing, low-income tenants be damned? A level of economic depression low enough to sustain a workforce, but high enough that an e-commerce behemoth can relish the sanctity of its single-handed “economic revitalization?”

Smaller towns that might be so accommodating, like Frisco, Texas, and Danbury, Connecticut, are nowhere to be found on the lists of top contenders; analysts, reportedly, suspect Amazon to favor midsize U.S. metropolises salivating at the prospect of growth. Still, the real potential of an Amazon invasion of an Atlanta, Pittsburgh, or New Orleans—sites that haven’t seen the magnitude of West Coast tech colonization—is revealing. Regardless of which candidate the corporate beast selects, the civic scramble to attract Amazon has shone a spotlight on the tech elite’s interest in the parts of America it’s long ignored.

It’s not just the argyle-socked futurists who will rescue beleaguered communities—there is also Mark Zuckerberg.

In March, J.D. Vance—the character Horatio Alger would have written had he lived to see twenty-first-century San Francisco—became the suit-jacketed hype man for venture-capital firm Revolution LLC. Among his primary tasks: to leverage his Hillbilly Elegy authorship and Peter Thiel-backed VC chicanery into promoting Rise of the Rest, the company’s itinerant initiative to invest in startups throughout the country. Spearheaded by AOL co-founder Steve Case, the bus tours—a DNC-friendly companion to the zanier mobile dystopias of Sarah Palin and transhumanist Zoltan Istvan—comprise breakfasts with city officials and local business owners, visits to the “fastest-growing” startups, and pitch competitions that culminate in a $100,000 reward for the winner in each of five cities.

“Right now, most of the venture capital, 75 percent last year, goes to three states: California, New York, Massachusetts . . . So forty-seven states fight over 25 percent,” Case announced at a spring ReCode conference, following with liberal-baiting lamentations about those Middle Americans who feel “left out and left behind.” Case then cooed with solace about the inchoate wave of startup founders who’ve left the urban coastal hubs where they first set up shop to return to their homes in Arizona, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. (It’s proven a winning formula for Rise of the Rest contenders.)

If there’s virtue in transposing the mechanics of Silicon Valley onto towns hundreds of miles away, Vance is a saint. After migrating from San Francisco to Columbus, he told TechCrunch it was incumbent upon him to spark innovation in the Rust Belt. The move is manifestly on-brand: further capitalizing on the region whose poverty he’s so lucratively documented is a no-brainer. Like Bezos, Vance (and Case) can take credit for the pillars of a tin-eared technocracy—Creating jobs! Inspiring entrepreneurship! Modernizing the local economy!—all the while peddling from his carpetbag—The American Dream! Personal responsibility!—as the investment checks stack up.

It’s not just the argyle-socked futurists, however, who will rescue beleaguered communities with their down-home business acumen. One hopeful savior, Mark Zuckerberg, prefers gray T-shirts. Thanks to his grandstanding 2017 traipse throughout dozens of states, Zuckerberg has further exemplified the roving-Americanist version of the tech billionaire. Next year, Facebook will launch Community Boost, a thirty-stop road trip designed, in part, to convince and instruct small businesses to advertise on Facebook as much as possible; more than seventy million small businesses use the site, the company says, but fewer than six million advertise. 

When Zuckerberg insists that the stunt isn’t just a wile meant to bolster ad revenue, he should be believed. For starters, Community Boost marks the corollary to a Sheryl Sandberg-starring pilot in Detroit, where three thousand adults were trained to code and advertise with Facebook-sanctioned social media platforms. Of those thousands, the company vaunts, 40 percent were women; an even greater percentage were people of color. The amount of overlap between the two, however, is unclear.

Through such posturing, Facebook is playing the long con. Surely, by inflating the white-male-dominated pool of software engineers and marketers with historically underpaid demographics, the company will leverage the grand “Learn to Code!” scheme to drive down the cost of employing such workers. Compounded by mounting ad revenue (should Community Boost succeed), Facebook’s profit potential will grow still more astronomical. Meanwhile, a public fed the right dose of Sandberg-patented empowerment pablum, at least in theory, won’t suspect much.

Community Boost also affords Zuckerberg a soapbox for his more Randian proclivities. “Most of the discussion we have nationally is about what the government should do, or to some degree what families should do,” he said in an interview. “People don’t spend that much time talking about community, and I think probably that’s the most important part of people’s support structure.” To mistake this vague pontificating for a benevolent stroke of anarcho-communism would require a complete absence of knowledge of the last fifteen, maybe thirty, years of the internet and its capitalist leeches. It’s probably safe, then, to assume the program is a taste of a broader anti-regulation, small-government campaign to keep Zuck’s cash flowing.

The ruses of Vance, Case, and Zuckerberg have much in common, and the examples of the latter two provide a sort of Good Billionaire blueprint. Certainly the act of lauding Middle America portends a rich promotional advantage, one only amplified by its disingenuous boosterism in the name of small business. Despite his visible discomfort with public speaking, it’s all too easy to imagine Vance’s impending run for public office: calling for public-private partnerships (emphasis on private) and funding for STEM programs, using words like “bootstraps” and “social enterprise,” and evading ones like “systemic” and “redistribution.” With enough prattle about his “cultural outsider” stature, it’d appear all the more authentic.

Zuckerberg’s cattle-ranch photo ops and objectivist remarks continue to smack of political peacocking.

Much of the same, of course, has been said for Zuckerberg. While he persists in denying presidential ambitions, the cattle-ranch photo ops and objectivist remarks continue to smack of political peacocking. What’s more, likely cognizant of the long-term untenability (political or otherwise) of traditional social media, Zuckerberg has been diversifying at home and elsewhere: he’s invested in housing and freeways; proposed basic-income schemas; sought to fund police units; ingratiated himself with Dreamers; and offered to cure disease, among other adventures in egomania.

He’s also building a school. Via his philanthrocapitalist LLC the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Zuckerberg has begun construction on The Primary School, a private institution for “low-income children” in the historically poor but gentrifying town of East Palo Alto, California. In the process, families living in cars and RVs—many of which include low-income children—have been served eviction notices for becoming a “flood hazard.” The subtext: their pesky homes were obstructing a local celebrity billionaire’s latest power grab.

The tragic, predictable irony of The Primary School is a bellwether of the woke-billionaire American takeover. As our strong-arming visionaries leave a market-saturated, financially bloated West Coast for cheaper, landlocked grounds, we must only look to their evicted neighbors—people who, too, are “left out and left behind”—to understand the damage they’ll do. It’ll be a Sisyphean task for Vance, Case, Zuckerberg, and whichever pallid technovillain is next to inspire their communities when no one can afford to be a part of them. At that point, the traveling hucksters might simply be spinning their wheels.

Julianne Tveten writes about the technology industry's relationship with socioeconomics and culture. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, Hazlitt, In These Times, The Outline, and elsewhere.

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