Why do tech tycoons think they're the Dalai Lama?

clock • 4 min read

Apparently Airbnb is a spiritual movement which aims to spread love around the world and Google is here to bring us all together

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 online, 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 centre of belonging is love."

In actual fact, what Airbnb is about is money, not belonging or love. My partner 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. 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 goes on to confer immortality on the work of the former staff: "One of the most important ways we can honour 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? Why can't tycoons just admit they are tycoons, like in the old days, when they wore top hats and went around in a 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 and pure greed. 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.

Not Eric Schmidt. Source: Christopher Michel, Flikr

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 BBC 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 author 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.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of  The Idler.

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