On Tuesday, Mark Zuckerberg took to his social media platform to issue an apology for — and a defense of — his decision to broadcast a cartoon version of himself exploring the virtual landscape of hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico. The idea, it would seem, was to demonstrate potential use cases for virtual reality and Facebook Spaces, including virtually visiting storm-ravaged communities.
But the public didn’t respond well to the image of a tech billionaire “visiting” a disaster zone from the comfort of Silicon Valley. The moment in which Zuckerberg’s curly-haired, smiling avatar virtually high-fives another Facebook employee’s avatar before a backdrop of flooded streets — “you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place,” his avatar says in the broadcast — is particularly jarring.
In his Tuesday apology, Zuckerberg said his “goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what's happening in different parts of the world.”
“I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery,” he wrote. “Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn't clear, and I'm sorry to anyone this offended.”
But Facebook is far from the only major Silicon Valley player to insert its brand and products into the recent string of natural disasters in the United States. Following not only the crisis in Puerto Rico, but also hurricanes, floods, and wildfires in the continental US, companies including Tesla, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Google have jumped at the chance to showcase what they’re capable of in a crisis.
These initiatives appear to be undertaken out of an earnest desire to help, and at least some of them actually did. But tech’s tycoons, who badly want us to believe they and their companies exist to make the world a better place, often have trouble seeing past their own good intentions. There’s a gap between how they perceive themselves and how the public that’s being sold their products perceives them. These natural disasters have allowed companies to not only boost their brands and earn PR points, but to demonstrate their innovation at a time when people are no longer blindly accepting the notion that technology is a force for good.
“I guess it's sort of the logical conclusion of tech solutionism,” tech CEO and commentator Anil Dash told BuzzFeed News. “Every startup will think any social issue or natural disaster is best solved with their new product.”
Like Zuckerberg, Elon Musk experienced a minor backlash after one of his attempts to aid hurricane victims. Following the flooding and damage that Hurricane Irma brought to parts of Florida, Tesla quietly told customers it would flip a software switch and extend the battery life for Teslas in affected areas. Longer battery life is something all the cars are capable of, but it’s an additional feature that (on certain models it no longer produces) Tesla throttles unless you pay for it. Tesla owners knew this, but the general public did not, and people were surprised and disturbed by the idea that in 2017, you can buy a high-tech, state-of-the-art car, but still not fully control it.
The public responded more favorably when Musk offered to help reelectrify Puerto Rico, which lost 95% of its power grid following Hurricane Maria. CNBC called his idea for bringing Tesla-made battery packs and solar panels to the island “a game changer.” Architectural Digest called it “incredible.”
Like so many of Musk’s propositions, his proposal to save Puerto Rico started off with a tweet. By Friday, he was on the phone with the governor of Puerto Rico making plans, and then back on Twitter announcing that Tesla would divert resources to producing batteries for Puerto Rico — never mind that it’s already behind on production goals for the latest Teslas and its employees are in what Musk cheerily describes as “production hell.”
Reached for comment, a Tesla spokesperson said Musk’s tweets were the only statement the company would be making on the subject. But the image of a future Puerto Rico that runs on clean, sustainable, affordable energy thanks to Elon Musk is already burned into the collective memory. And this possibility was crafted by someone who — after acquiring SolarCity last year — just so happens to be a solar panel salesman.
For Zuckerberg and Musk both, the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico is a chance to play hero and showcase the real-world impact of the technologies they've dedicated their lives to developing. While solar panels and batteries will go a lot further than virtual visits, both initiatives undergird the people-connecting, planet-saving self-image these companies strive to project.
“The issue,” web designer and tech writer Paul Ford told BuzzFeed News, “is that Silicon Valley sees suffering as a problem they can solve.”
One of big tech’s more far-fetched proposals for aiding Puerto Rico’s recovery is Google’s idea for bringing cellular data to the island. The gambit made headlines after Google got permission from the Federal Communications Commission to use its experimental balloons, a moonshot project with the company known as Project Loon, to beam down connectivity. But Google can’t actually deploy the solution until it finds a telecom provider on the island to work with. “To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone,” a spokesperson said in a statement. But as of Wednesday, no such company had come forward and no deadline for executing the project had been named.
By far, the tech company that has received the most credit for its post-disaster relief program is Airbnb. Airbnb has encouraged its hosts to offer free housing during crises since 2012, an initiative it formalized under the name “Open Homes” in 2016. Through the company, hosts have housed roughly 2,800 people for free in 2017 alone.
The program costs Airbnb virtually nothing, but without fail gains them a warm round of congratulatory press with every new wildfire, earthquake, and flood. Airbnb even turned on the feature following President Trump’s travel ban, vowing to facilitate housing for 100,000 refugees by the end of 2017 and raising the bar for progressive corporate opposition to the president’s controversial immigration policies.
In addition to helping people in crisis find a place to stay, Airbnb Open Homes exemplifies Airbnb’s core marketing pitch — that by inviting strangers into our homes, not only will travel become more affordable and pleasurable, but life itself will become more meaningful. Put more succinctly, Open Homes is great for Airbnb’s brand, something that its Super Bowl commercial suggests it’s willing to pay a lot of money to maintain.
It also brings new potential hosts to Airbnb’s platform. While the majority of people who have participated in the program were already hosts on the platform, some were not. When you sign up to host evacuees or refugees for free on Airbnb, you’re directed to create an Airbnb listing profile much as you would if you were hosting for money. Though you don’t automatically become a paid Airbnb host after creating a free listing, the listing you created continues to live on your host profile page, and you’re still setting up an account, sharing your info, and familiarizing yourself with how to design a hosting profile.
Lately, the idea that technology exists as a force for good — to connect people, to save the planet — has been looking rather threadbare, especially in light of recent revelations around the role social media companies played in the presidential election. Zuckerberg himself recently walked back his initial reaction to these allegations, acknowledging that Facebook was more influential during the election than he was previously willing to admit. The parade of tech initiatives in response to these recent natural disasters is an attempt to reanimate the myth that technology is progress, and progress is good.
Macej Ceglowski, leader of a national grassroots tech activism group called Tech Solidarity that sprung up after Trump’s election, said tech companies aren’t helping displaced disaster victims as much as they’d like to think. “Puerto Rico is an example of the government failing its citizens, who have no federal representation,” he told BuzzFeed News. “These tech companies have enormous lobbying clout, but choose instead to promote their own science projects in a moment of crisis.”
Ceglowski specifically cited Musk, whose promise to help Puerto Rico he sees as a continuation of the billionaire’s history of “claiming he can build infrastructure (tunnels, high-speed rail, Mars colonies) at a fraction of the price, without delivering.”
“There is the same failure here to connect with reality in any useful way,” Ceglowski said. “They’re taking advantage of a tragedy to spin their sci-fi dreams.”
The reality is, the government is struggling to handle disaster recovery on its own, especially given the rate at which disasters are currently occurring. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is advertising a desperate need to hire more workers as 85% of its workforce is currently deployed in recovery efforts across the country. Back in August, former FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre told BuzzFeed News that partnerships with private companies like grocery stores and Walmart are a vital part of recovery efforts across the country. Lemaitre worked on FEMA’s public-private partnership program under the Obama administration and now works for IEM, a company that facilitates such partnerships. He said tech companies — especially those with presences on the ground — could be a big help.
“Before Katrina, people thought it was government’s job or the fire department’s job. But particularly since Katrina, we have to look beyond just government to incorporate citizens themselves and the private sector to play a part in this,” he said. “When it comes to Uber, Airbnb, or those types of companies, they do have a role.”
And tech companies have done things that are genuinely helpful, for which victims were genuinely grateful. Facebook donated $1.5 million to two aid organizations on the ground in Puerto Rico, and sent employees there to work with the NGO NetHope on bringing connectivity back to the area. Tesla started shipping free battery packs to Puerto Rico as soon as the hurricane passed. After hurricanes hit Texas and Florida, Uber and Lyft made monetary donations to local organizations and gave away free rides to shelters, paying for driver time without charging passengers. And apps like Zello and Nextdoor were essential for communicating during recovery efforts in Texas and Florida.
But every well-meant gesture — every free room, free ride, or free phone call — bolsters the public image of these corporations as the saviors we should turn to whenever a new, seemingly insurmountable problem arises, even as the public controversies around these companies, and the unchecked role they play in our lives, grow.
“Tech thinks of itself as problem solvers,” said Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist who works for Snapchat. “And disasters are an opportunity to sell their solutions.”
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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