Toxic Philanthropy Part 1: Surveillance

We are living through desperate times: populations dislocated by climate catastrophe and dispossessed by state violence. Many are attempting, unsuccessfully, to navigate economic systems grounded in low-wage, disposable labor and insurmountable debt. The cost of living continues to rise, especially in cities where wealth is concentrated in the hands of speculative investors.

Stable housing is hard to find; food insecurity is real. Addiction is rampant with limited treatment options, and affordable healthcare is beyond reach. Meanwhile, education is being privatized as children are plugged into devices and told to cultivate a “growth mindset.” Digital tracking of mental health and social-emotional competencies is being normalized. It’s as if the Davos / Fourth Industrial Revolution crowd knows things are about to get much, much worse, and is rapidly locking systems into place to track and manage citizens before they become ungovernable.

As the buying power of the working class withers, capital must find new ways to circulate. Increasingly it will flow into investment markets created by outcomes-based service contracting. Such a model will fuel growth in P3 public-private partnerships and enrich those consulting firms, like Ridge Lane LP, angling to broker agreements. Seed funding to jumpstart this transition was part of the Federal Budget in February, the Social Impact Partnerships Pay for Success Act.

Against such a backdrop, we must critically examine the toxic network of arrangements that have been made between non-profit health and human service organizations (including public education systems), predatory venture philanthropy, and companies that have developed technologies to turn citizens into “impact” commodities that can be tokenized and traded like toxic bundled mortgages in derivatives markets.

Branding poverty-mining as “what works” government makes it easier for finance and technology interests to convince elected officials that wringing profit from the misery of society’s most vulnerable is something that could actually be made palatable enough to sell to the unsuspecting masses. Whether living in abandoned warehouses or tents in Kensington, in rural Indian villages, or refugee encampments, those needing access to services will have their lives increasingly subject to digital surveillance. Big Data, predictive analytics, and “smart” Internet of Things sensors rooted in Silicon Valley’s technologic systems of control feed social service data dashboards. The “evidence” often emanating from oligarch Jeff Bezos’s omnipresent Amazon Web Services (AWS).

We must be mindful of ties between AWS and the state surveillance apparatus. Last year AWS finished a new “secret region” to hold data for the US Intelligence Community, part of a $600 million contract signed in 2013. They also host data for Palantir, Peter Thiel’s engine for ICE deportations and the predictive policing of Black and Brown communities. Recent deployment of AWS Rekognition software caused waves of protest among the company’s own employees. Amazon stood firm asserting its support of police and military use of its facial recognition technology.

Click here for interactive version of the map below.

This spring AWS partner, San Francisco-based Salesforce, awarded Australian firm, SocialSuite, capital funds to refine outcomes measurement software they’d developed in conjunction with the IXO Foundation. IXO and TrustLab piloted Blockchain impact investing tokenized pre-k services in Cape Town South Africa last year. Remember Bezos’s pledge to create new pre-k opportunities through his new $2 billion Day One Fund? Seems like this would be a match made in crypto-heaven.

Salesforce also recently teamed up with the Lumina Education Foundation and the Robinhood Foundation on a $15 million venture philanthropy program to underwrite for-profit education and workforce training, which is an impact investment sector. The Robinhood Foundation, established by New York billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, was among the first to require detailed benchmarking of all its grantees.

This year’s federal budget included generous tax breaks for businesses, including charter schools and for-profit education, that are started in designated “Investing in Opportunity Zones” in low income communities across the nation. It seems likely the Salesforce/Lumina/Robinhood alliance will be taking advantage of this windfall.

So we have:

1) adoption of dashboards to evaluate education and social services;

2) software intended to analyze and measure “impact” for investment evaluation;

3) digital identity systems for those receiving services;

4) much of this data being managed by one of the most powerful companies in the world, one that maintains close ties with policing and intelligence interests; and

5) tax policies that fuel dehumanization while enriching elite investors.

It is time to take an unflinching look at the grave harm an industrialized “social sector” will inflict in this new age of automated decision-making and sophisticated social and financial risk scoring. Ronald Cohen and his ilk have designs to consolidate the sector and scale “innovative” solutions to benefit fin-tech while throwing humanity literally to the curb. We must recognize the seriousness of this threat and actively seek out and grow systems of mutual aid grounded in responsive cultural practice and community. We need to support grassroots solutions centered on the personal agency and leadership of oppressed and impoverished people. We must also envision alternative ways to accomplish this mammoth task outside the constraints of online crowd funding platforms, a foundational element of digital economic technocracy.

In my next post I plan to outline how the infrastructure surrounding the US social sector has been systematically transformed to serve the demands of social entrepreneurs, largely through extensive grants made in the area of “effective philanthropy” by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation since the early 2000s. Hewlett Packard and Hewlett Packard Enterprises, based in Silicon Valley, have a clear financial interests in turning our lives into extracted data given that their bottom lines rely on selling not only devices but also enterprise solutions and a growing array of IoT and Blockchain services.

If you want a sneak peak, check out the philanthropy grant map here.


2 thoughts on “Toxic Philanthropy Part 1: Surveillance

  1. Laura H. C hapman says:

    I listened to most of the MSNBC “Revolution” interview with the CEO of Salesforce. The program was filmed in the San Francisco sky scraper housing Salesforce, with so much smog/fog/smoke that the intended spectacle was lost. The CEO, Marc Benioff was full of it—the “it” being ethical and equity posturing about his company and belief in capitalism. He was especially proud of a corporate tax he successful pushed for San Francisco. Funds will be used to address the acute homelessness there (not the underlying problem).
    He claims not to be interested in political office but was flattered by the suggestion that his progressive values and faith in capitalism, entrepreneurship, minimal regulation and all of that might win the day.
    I was really put off by his clear desire to be perceived as ethical, as if equity in workplace hiring and reimbursement and opening his skyscraper’s top floor to community groups for fundraising was proof positive of wanting to do good while doing well. He spoke of his other “headquarter” buildings, one of these in Indianapolis. He implied he located there only after getting Pence to make some concessions for his “equity” in hiring (perhaps also some tax breaks?)

    In any case, I was underwhelmed—no disturbed–by his eagerness to wrap himself in a blanket of concern for the homeless and equity issues and in about the same way as billionaires whose foundations are undermining public education and the idea of common good, all the while claiming they are addressing civil rights issues.

    As it turns out Salesforce is knee deep into impact investing and for-profit higher education keyed to job preparation. I think you are much better informed about versions of Salesforce ventures than I am, but I certainly credit your work and especially with Lil Sis to display the interlocking for-profit ventures so eager to make money and bypass any governance of these activities by the public.

    The labyrinths of interlocking relationships pushing and shoving our personal, social, and civic activities into corporate-determined “projects for profits” will require a host of informed coordinated actions to prevent this relentless march toward a corporate state.
    see also

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      Thanks for the link to that CNBC clip Laura. The part around timestamp 8 minutes when he says Business should take over the role of government is pretty chilling, and also for the prior information on the Robinhood Foundation Metric System. The fact that thy are teamed up with Salesforce and now Lumina should really scare people. They are priming the pump on the human capital pipeline.

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