To Serve Man: It’s A Cookbook!

Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Part Two

 Here for the introduction and parts one, three, four, and five.

Not only is the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) among the largest foundations in the country, it is also situated in the belly of the beast. The Bay Area is where vast amounts of venture capital have combined with public and privately funded research to propel advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, Internet of Things (IoT), bioinformatics, digital identity, Blockchain, and advanced manufacturing that are catalyzing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The funds held by SVCF derive from these industries. It is a symbiotic relationship; the fate of the foundation is inextricably linked with the economic fate of the donors that feed it.

We are crossing the threshold to an era where data-driven finance of social programs will be enmeshed with ubiquitous computing made possible by IoT sensors and ICT (information and communications technology) devices. Sensors will feed data to digital identity and payment systems that reside on smart phones, tracking how a person accesses services and generating predictive profiles of users. Being poor will increasingly mean constant digital surveillance, a person’s “risk” calibrated in real time to ascertain “impact” and establish returns on social impact investments.

Given how rapidly these developments are unfolding, it is imperative we stop to consider how power concentrated in ostensibly charitable, but unaccountable, institutions like SVCF is being deployed in ways that reinforce structural racism and oppression of vulnerable communities. We must recognize that no true solution to poverty will come from the top of the economic pyramid; the power imbalance is simply too great. The impact-investing machine, the brainchild of billionaires, will never prioritize the needs of the global poor. It’s like the Twilight Zone episode where aliens (venture capitalists) ask humans to trust them, and as the unsuspecting victims (global poor) board the spaceship, a translator runs up shouting “wait, To Serve Man is actually a cookbook!”

In spite of the strategic branding, we must recognize that social impact investing isn’t a charitable endeavor. The intent isn’t “to serve man,” at least not the poor man. What is being sold as the solution to economic inequality is a cookbook; a technologically-mediated, poverty-management cookbook put together by oligarchs to disempower the poor and turn their lives into data for the purpose of legalized gambling.

No investment market is designed to eliminate the source of its profit. Logic dictates data-driven, market based “social solutions” can never put an end to poverty. Rather, investors will manage services in ways that maximize returns while reducing the likelihood those trapped within the system will become sufficiently organized to overthrow it. Knowing that, I’d love to hear ideas about next steps. Not sure how long we have before the spaceship is set to launch, but the clock is definitely ticking.