Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stingy tech

This East Bay Express article on the tech economy is a really worthwhile read. It has its flaws, but I think it gets to the heart of the things that make me most uncomfortable about Bay Area culture. In my mind, it buries the lede by having this passage two thirds of the way through:
But the thing about this particular brand of low-key wealth is that it can lead to a false sense of self, on both a micro and a macro level. Consumption is still consumption even if it's less conspicuous. Class may be harder to see here, but that doesn't make it any less real. Mark Zuckerberg's still a billionaire, even if he's wearing a hoodie and jeans. And if you don't feel or look rich, you don't necessarily feel the same sense of obligation that a traditional rich person does or should: Noblesse oblige is, after all, dependent on a classical idea of who is and is not the nobility. As that starts to fall away, obligation — to culture, to the future, to each other — begins to disappear, too.
That really sums it up for me. Even the older tech guys - Bill Gates etc - took a more old school approach to charity. The newbies are not so into it, the cheap bastards.

As much as I can get het up about Ayn Randian dudebro billionaires, though, I also know that I'm not nearly as generous as I should be. Why? Because I don't feel rich. And that's because I'm not rich! But I'm also making a good living, and I need to be much more rigorous about giving it away. Working on it.

The class aspect of it is most interesting to me. The article is saying - and I, in my limited knowledge, think it seems correct - that if you were born into the upper class, and were raised to believe you deserved to be there, then you also thought it was your duty to help your lessers. It's a weird inversion of how I normally think about class, but an interesting one.

Anyway, it seems like this is something the maker/tech culture should be able to solve. Start some education campaigns, build some apps, let Kickstarter do its thing, and there you go. Boom! Instant generosity.

By the way, I really disagree with the article's argument that Kickstarter is a sign of a culture of consumption, as opposed to cultural philanthropy like the opera or symphony. Relevant passage:
The self-described "world's largest funding platform for creative projects" has, in its three-year existence, raised more than half a billion dollars for more than 90,000 projects and is getting more popular by the day; at this point, it metes out roughly twice as much money as the National Endowment for the Arts...Kickstarter is entirely in and of the web, and possibly for that reason, it tends to attract people who are interested in starting and funding projects that are oriented toward DIY and nerd culture..."A lot of this is about the difference between consuming culture and supporting culture," a startup-world refugee told me a few weeks ago: If Old Money is investing in season tickets to the symphony and writing checks to the Legion of Honor, New Money is buying ultra-limited-edition indie-rock LPs and contributing to art projects on IndieGoGo in exchange for early prints. And if the old conception of art and philanthropy was about, essentially, building a civilization — about funding institutions without expecting anything in return, simply because they present an inherent, sometimes ineffable, sometimes free market-defying value to society, present and future, because they help us understand ourselves and our world in a way that can occasionally transcend popular opinion— the new one is, for better or for worse, about voting with your dollars.
I think that's ass backwards. Rich people don't get anything out of donating to the ballet? Bullshit! They get to go to the ballet, for one, which is something I'd do more often if it wasn't so damn expensive. They get to feel like they're fancy shmancy, and they get to develop a community around other people that are hoity toity like them (hoity toity and fancy shmancy in the same sentence, lucky you, reader). Um, hello, glossy photos in the society pages.

My generation's love of Kickstarter isn't a result of getting to show off our generosity while swanning around in a ballgown in a symphony hall. It's quite a bit more humble than that; it's you, a computer, and maybe a Facebook post about the worthy project. For most of the Kickstarters I've funded I've been driven by a sense of charity (and I mean that in the sense of wanting to help, not of pity), not because I'm going to get some shiny new toy. Also! By contributing to a Kickstarter project, you can be contributing to the broader culture - I've funded some of my friends' extremely worthy arts ventures that many people besides the supporters will get to enjoy. Example 1 and Example 2.

In short (ha!): it's a thought-provoking article, and adds another facet to the dialogue around what the tech community's totally insane wealth means for us all, other than cultural apocalypse and selling our organs to make rent.

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