Tom Hodgkinson on the Silicon Valley businessmen posing as do-gooders
You may have been forgiven for viewing Airbnb as a clever money-making scheme, whereby the owners of the platform take bookings for short-term lets via a computer, cream off a percentage and count the millions pouring into their bank accounts. At the other end, skint homeowners make a few extra quid.
The reality, we now discover, is that Airbnb is a spiritual movement which aims to spread love around the world. That’s if its CEO and co-founder, Brian Cheskey, is to be believed. This extraordinarily wealthy estate agent last week wrote a letter to his 8,000 staff announcing 1,900 layoffs. Airbnb’s bookings have collapsed, for obvious reasons. He took this opportunity to present himself not as an avaricious capitalist but as a new incarnation of the Dalai Lama. In the old days, when a mill owner sacked a quarter of the workforce, he was content to be hated by them. But Brian Cheskey wants them to keep loving him, just as he loves them, his little children. He wrote to his staff:
I have a deep feeling of love for all of you. Our mission is not merely about travel. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, “Travel like a human.” The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love.
This is all gold-plated bull crap of the highest order. In actual fact what Airbnb is all about is money, not belonging or love. Victoria and I did it a few years ago to get us over a financial low point. We did it purely for the cash. And this year the owners were planning to float the company on Wall Street, which would have made them even richer. Even now the company is valued at $18 billion (though pre-coronavirus it had been valued at $31 billion). Yet he uses the word “mission” which makes him sound like a high-minded Protestant preacher in Africa in 1870. Warming to his theme, Cheskey, net worth $3.1 billion, goes on to confer immortality on the work of the former staff:
One of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered, and that they will always be part of Airbnb’s story. I am confident their work will live on, just like this mission will live on.
Yea, brother! Former Airbnb employees matter! Does this super-CEO really think that you can serve Mammon and God at the same time? Solomon or St Francis, take your choice. Why can’t tycoons just admit they are tycoons, like in the old days, when they wore top hats and went around in a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce while smoking fat cigars?
It’s a common enough story. Someone makes a fortune in business through a combination of hard work, ruthlessness, good ideas, pure greed, connections, money in the bank to start with and luck. They then decide to reinvent themselves as a selfless world leader, sagely advising governments, business and all manner of lesser beings on how to conduct their affairs.
Another example is the advertising salesman, Eric Schmidt. As chairman of Google he made untold billions (he is worth over £5 billion according to the Daily Mail) spying on people and selling advertising space. These ad salespeople used to be called “media sales executives” and they worked at the less glamorous – though important – end of publishing, selling ads in Vogue or The Sunday Times to large companies. Now they anoint themselves as prophets of a new world.
I heard Schmidt on Radio 4 last week. He boasted of the amazing work he had done in bringing the world together, or “connecting” people, as he and other ad salespeople like Mark Zuckerberg like to reframe their core business. He sounded vaguely annoyed that he hadn’t, with all his cleverness and wealth, been able to stop the spread of coronavirus. He repeated the same mantra that guides all of Silicon Valley: governments should get out his way and let him pursue his business interests without let or hindrance. And, according to Naomi Klein, he is well placed to profit from lockdown. In a recent presentation, he said:
The first priorities of what we’re trying to do are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband … We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.
Klein wryly noted: “Lest there be any doubt that the former Google chair’s goals were purely benevolent, his video background featured a framed pair of golden angel wings.” In actual fact, Google, far from being benevolent, is a highly aggressive ad sales platform that has caused thousands of local newspapers to close over the last ten years by stealing their advertising. Having destroyed the world Eric Schmidt now steps forward to save it.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
I met a Google exec in a bar in Florence and he claimed to be a bohemian.
I tried to explain that it took more than just living in the same area as bohemians to actually be one.
I reminded him he was a corporate employee and that title automatically excluded him from the club he fancied himself as a member of.
I later felt like I’d been judgemental and egotistical but now, after reading your post, I feel utterly righteous and godlike.
– Murray Lachlan Young
Thank you for this! It’s so gratifying to hear these perspectives on tech from far away. I’m (sort-of) on the inside and most of us know it’s rotten. I used to live in Palo Alto, and am now just across the bay in Oakland where we are only a little removed from tycoons and the masses of wannabe tycoons. For years it’s been driving me crazy how greed + luck = brilliant-world-leader-capable-of-anything, in the eyes of the majority around here anyway. Or put more simply “I have cash from tech, therefore am better than you.” For a while I lived near Facebook HQ. Mark Zuckerberg would take his calls as he walked through the neighbourhood, followed casually by other white men in matching outfits (business shirt, tie, dad jeans, dirty running shoes), hoping to be noticed. Even then, circa 2010, they were caricatures of themselves.
– Kate, Northern California
What you could also have included is their lust for having philanthropic foundations named after them, like the Gates Foundation, Chan-Zuckerberg initiative and the Dell Foundation. Of course they do their utmost to avoid paying taxes which are of course anonymous donations to the public good. Instead that tax money is funnelled into these vanity foundations so that the whole world can see how divine these planet saviours really are. And these donations? – tax deductible of course.
– Mark Pearson
A nice rant! The bitter truth is that at the end of it you invite readers to YouTube which is part of….well yes. Does that simply prove that Adorno was right and “there is no right life in the wrong one”?
– Matthias Lehnert
As a tech journo I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this missive. The “fireside chat” with the tech CEO is the low point of any tech event, and I’ve witnessed far more than can be considered healthy. The bit where they tear up and start blubbing about “our wonderful community” and even “our fantastic customers” is particularly galling, especially as those customers generally include ICE [US immigration Enforcement] and the US Department of Defense. Worse still is the reaction of the punters who seem to lap it all up and are not ashamed to whoop their appreciation. Jonestown must have had a similar vibe. I thank the blessed virus that I haven’t had to attend one of those for a while.
– John Leonard
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