I hate to follow up that Rothenberg post with another story of someone in VR behaving like an asshole, but I also worry that when people who work in tech stay silent when things like this happen, it enables more of that behavior. It makes it seem like everyone else who works in VR isn’t too bothered by it, and I think that it implicitly discourages people who don’t fit the (young, white, male) profile from participating in and working in VR. So here’s something I wrote for There Is Only R about Palmer Luckey and the news that he’s funding an organization that creates white supremacist memes:
The Daily Beast reported yesterday that Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey was secretly funding Nimble America, a 501( c)4 “social welfare” organization responsible for generating white supremacist memes and lobbying for a Trump presidency.
[Just a thought: I co-founded a non-profit 501( c)3 organization in college, and from what I remember about non-profit law and IRS designations, political advocacy means ineligibility for ( c)4 or ( c)3 tax status. Now might be a good time to look at Nimble America’s finances.]
At any rate, Luckey seems to be unapologetic about it. “I thought it sounded like a real jolly good time.” He also notes that he’s doing it in part because he can — because he has the money to do it.
While his public explanation is that he just thought it would be funny, he points to a more serious motivation under his Reddit pseudonym:
“The American Revolution was funded by wealthy individuals…The same has been true of many movements for freedom in history. You can’t fight the American elite without serious firepower. They will outspend you and destroy you by any and all means.”
This grandiose, hyper-elitist, I-should-be-controlling-our-political-system-because-I-have-money-and-I-can viewpoint is not unique to Luckey, to be fair. But it seems to be a disease particularly acute and rampant among successful tech entrepreneurs. I think there are a few factors unique to tech that exacerbate it:
First is that returns for good technology ideas are explosively outsized and, with very few exceptions, wildly out of proportion to both genius of the idea and utility to society. I work in VR, so of course I think good head-mounted displays are amazing, but there are people who are literally curing cancer who will never see the wealth that Luckey has for being the not-even-remotely-first person to decide that VR was a good bet. Which is not to say that Luckey deserves no compensation for that, or that he shouldn’t be made wealthy from it. I mention it because the sudden acquisition of astronomical amounts of wealth often convinces the recipients of that wealth that they have it because they are smarter, more capable, etc.
And as a general rule, that’s not true. A lot of factors go into who ends up with a big exit and who doesn’t. Some of them really do have to do with ability — ability to pitch and sell your company, ability to produce a good product — and others are superficial (do you look the part? — i.e., are you twentysomething, white, male?), a matter of luck (were you at the right event to meet the right investor? were you born in the US? do you have the right network to begin with?), or a matter of what capital markets think can be positioned to generate returns, regardless of quality of product or founder. (I also worked as a tech equity analyst for a while and saw many sub-par companies with sub-par founders get exits simply because an investor saw an opportunity that had nothing to do the quality of either.)
So it’s dangerous to assume that, because you have resources, that those resources are de facto evidence of your brilliance and that brilliance itself is some sort of moral currency. There are plenty of brilliant despots and megalomaniacs, and you can’t argue that they haven’t been successful.
But that seems to be a recurring fallacy that’s particularly ubiquitous in tech, and I think it’s partially because of the often-disingenuous “changing the world” rhetoric that makes every entrepreneur with a consumer-facing distraction app think they have some inherent moral high ground. In no other industry do people wield this rhetoric so aggressively and self-righteously. I know people working on global refugee problems, curing giant epidemics, ending poverty, doing groundbreaking work on space exploration who would not be able to say “we’re changing the world” with a straight face, but I see it built into pitch decks all the time. At some point, any rational person has to admit that this kind of thing might be a weeeee bit grandiose.
And that it has dangerous implications. If you’re convinced that every decision you make is correct and that your solutions to problems are automatically the best because you’re in the world-changing business, and your genius and essential correctness have been validated by capital markets, that’s a recipe for becoming a megalomaniac yourself.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that you assume your efforts have nothing to do with your success, but you will never, ever really know how much luck and the aforementioned superficial things have to do with it — what you’ve earned and what you haven’t. And maybe Luckey should consider that before he assumes that his financial might equals right. (You’d think with his surname, it’d be built into his introspective narrative, but apparently not.)
And here’s the thing: Luckey has every right to back white supremacists (including white supremacists who happen to be the Republican candidate for president) both as a citizen and as a Rich Guy. [Update: A reader notes, “Although Luckey has a right to support Trump, he does not have a right to circumvent campaign finance laws on donation limits by becoming a straw donor-this is a felony.” If Luckey was maxed out on donations and viewed this a way around the caps, the reader has a point.]
But he doesn’t get to couch it in moral rhetoric that implies that what he’s doing is okay because he has money, and so obviously, his idea of freedom is the correct one. (In my view, freedom means things like not allowing discrimination against women and minorities, for example — and those things are obviously antithetical to Luckey’s view of it.)
And he his [supposed, alleged] brilliance doesn’t absolve him of consequences for what he’s doing. If this happened in a non-tech public company, he’d likely be asked to resign. Given Facebook’s dismissal of Peter Thiel’s equally abhorrent behavior, I doubt that will happen. But Oculus needs a lot more than support from white conservative men to be successful in the long run, and if Facebook chooses to look the other way on this, those of us who don’t fit that description will notice.
It should also be noted that this is happening the same week that Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg have announced that they’re spending $3 billion to end disease, which is wonderful. So I hope that if Facebook doesn’t do anything public to address this, that the Chan Zuckerbergs have a long talk with Luckey about what it means to have wealth and to use it responsibly, and in a way that isn’t just about egotistical self-expression, and certainly not in a way that is destructive to large swaths of society. (That said, I hope Zuckerberg addresses it because if he doesn’t, it’s enablement of a sort.)
But given his statements so far, I’m not optimistic that Luckey will actually listen.