Is tech producing a different kind of wealth?
In historical terms, technology companies have amassed value and market share at a dizzying pace. It demands a hyperbole: no type of business in the history of the world has been created and taken on such cultural, economic, and even political importance in so little time. Now that this “big bang” of tech appears to be transitioning into a new, more stable phase of development, the sector’s most prominent companies and individuals are facing an interesting (if inevitable) question: what do they accomplish next?
Over the course of the last year, technology companies and the people who run them were often seen gazing towards the future. Yet oddly enough, few of them were doing so through the same realm of technology which made them so successful in the first place. Technology made a lot of people rich over the last thirty years, but for some reason the people and companies that built the sector seem to be taking their wealth out of “pure” technology and instead putting it towards pet projects in other areas.
On the corporate level, Google became Alphabet primarily as a way to institutionalize all of the “moon shot” projects which (it is hoped) will usher in new forms of innovation. None of these appear to have anything to do with the core search business – they are driverless cars and other technologies which aren’t complimentary to the traditional technology sphere at all. Elon Musk seemed to be in the news more for his tube-based transportation project and forays into space than the car-based transportation project which continues to make him wealthy. Mark Zuckerberg made a bid to follow Bill Gates and many other technology executives into the business of society-level charity.
Of course, great wealth can give people the opportunity to pursue any interest they like. Yet it may be telling that today’s technology moguls appear to be chasing interests outside of the sector which created them. Few are using their money to expand their core business or explore parallel markets which might generate additional revenue. Instead, they are looking at new sectors altogether. It isn’t even clear whether they are looking to profit from these sideline interests – driverless cars, space travel, and curing malaria seem more like whimsical distractions than a daring new business strategy.
We’ve always known that the culture of the technology sector would be different from its historical kin. Over the last two centuries, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and the other prominent personalities of corporate America nurtured a certain idea about how great wealth should be self-reinforcing, monopolistic, and expansive.
Today’s tech billionaires are not only undermining that narrative, they seem to be actively fighting against it. Their wealth is about more than expanding a corporate empire. The legacy that tech titans appear to be pursuing transcends individual companies and ideas, focusing instead on the innovation narrative of tech itself. Tech wealth has turned evangelical – it is deployed to keep the idea of innovation itself alive.