In the late 19th and early 20th century, industrialists like Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt created vast empires of factories, shipping companies, and warehouses. These “men of industry” represented all that was good and evil in America during that period.
On the one hand, they brutally abused their power, gobbling up small companies through monopolistic (and unfair) practices, providing unsafe workplaces and non-living wages, and at the same time building massive mansions of extreme decadence. But they also founded some of the greatest institutions of our time, like the University of Chicago, Carnegie Hall, and Vanderbilt University.
There are some striking similarities between the robber barons of the 19th century and the technology nerds of the 21st. Consider:
- Then: horrible working conditions, but huge charitable endowments created by company founders: Now: Bill Gates – the evil genius that also gives billions to students through the “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” Sergei Brin – the quirky computer scientist who promised to “do no evil” until the lure of China proved too much.
- Then: 19th century concerns over factory safety, long working hours, and monopolistic practices. Now: concerns over the security of personal information, censorship, and, well, monopolistic practices.
- Then: Americans worried that the traditional agrarian, rural society was rapidly being replaced by the industrial, urban society. Now: we are seeing that the industry society that made the 20th century the “American century” is disappearing in the face of cheap labor and materials across the globe. American society is becoming an “information worker” society, where brains are valued over brauns. And, of course, the Internet is leading the charge is this respect.
- Then: Movies like “Citizen Kane,” books like “The Jungle,” and musicals like “Annie” depicting the lives of “great men” and the everyday worker alike. Now: Movies like “Startup.com”, books like “The Search,” and dozens of magazines dedicated to Internet technology.
- Then: Close, perhaps too close, relationships between industrialists and the government. Now: MSN and Yahoo complying with federal requests for user search information.
At the end of the day, I’m not saying that today’s leaders are yesterday’s robber barons. Nonetheless, to quote Lord Acton, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As search engines and technology companies continue to wield more and more power over everyday life, Lord Acton may be proven right again.
Who knows, perhaps 30 years from now we’ll watch a movie with an elderly Sergei Brin painfully reaching his hand toward the screen, and with his dying breath, whispering “Rosebud . . . dot com.”