Home > Uncategorized > Birds of a Feather: The Sacklers and Silicon Valley CEOs

Birds of a Feather: The Sacklers and Silicon Valley CEOs

October 31, 2018

Several months ago the New Yorker published an article on how the Sackler family made billions of dollars through the sale of oxycontin, a drug their researchers knew was addictive but their marketing department insisted was not so. The article was one of the first ones I read that underscored what I call the philanthropy paradox. The Sacklers have used their massive fortune earned by selling an addictive drug to open museums and support cultural endeavors that are a clear benefit to the public. Should they be praised for the investments in the arts or condemned for the way they earned their fortune? This seems like an easy call: the Sackler’s names should be taken off every arts project they underwrote, their stocks and inheritances liquidated and given to public addiction clinics, and charges should be brought against them for knowingly harming the citizens of our country.

This past weekend a NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles titled “A Dark Consensus about Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley” raises a similar question about the technology billionaires. What is the “dark consensus”?

The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high.

Ms. Bowles then offers several chilling quotes from Silicon Valley executives who have personally witnessed the damage electronics are doing to their own children and concluding that they have opened Pandora’s Box by unleashing phone technology on the world. Here’s a sample:

Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”…

Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”...

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company and founder of GeekDad.com said of screens:

“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine”… “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”

Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, said earlier this year that he would not let his nephew join social networks.Bill Gates banned cellphones until his children were teenagers, and Melinda Gates wrote that she wished they had waited even longer. Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads.

John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology.

“I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.’”

How are these executives any different from the Sackler family? How can we possibly lionize them as entrepreneurs and philanthropists when they are knowingly promoting a product that damages the thinking of citizens?

I’m not sure how to get the genie back in the bottle on technology… but it is evident that one of the motivating factors in providing children with phones is the pervasive fear that harm might come to them. One of the defenses offered by parents who provide phones to their children was this: they want to be able to keep track of where their children are at all times. As one who experienced what is now called a “free range childhood” and laments that such a childhood now seems abhorrent, the notion that my parents would need to keep track of my every move seems overbearing. But while getting the genie back in the bottle would be problematic, it seems to me that the people who invented and profited from the advent of these addictive gadgets bear some responsibility for developing a counter measure… even if the counter measure does not make their shareholders happy.

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