Tech CEOs and Modern-Day Prophets

Why celebrity culture amongst tech CEOs reminds us that power should not outweigh contribution.


By Hanna Khosravi, Opinion Editor

One of the formal definitions of a prophet is a divinely inspired person — more generally, a visionary. The term prophet is traditionally associated with spirituality, divinity and religion, but as human beings, we have a historic propensity to make prophets out of ordinary people. Whether or not they deserve this status is somewhat ambiguous, but these characters do typically exemplify the convention of a visionary, and come to encompass the power of those whose words, actions and decrees are followed and preached by millions.

The glorifying of a prophet is a slippery slope, and in today’s era of technology and social media — an era in which the President of the United States addresses the nation more often through Twitter than on a podium, tech CEOs come to embody a new type of celebrity — a newfangled hybrid of the modern-era. These figures are powerful, wealthy, outspoken and influential. Tech CEOs and Silicon Valley giants are permeating every aspect of our world, and through this, becoming modern-day prophets.

This breed of influencers is now a part of our everyday life. It has culminated in Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to the international consciousness, and it also led to the rise of fraudulent CEO Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Kids look up to Elon Musk. Jeff Bezos goes to the Oscars now and hobnobs with celebrities because Amazon produces a percentage of films that make the annual awards circuit. He’s worth around $140 billion, and five years ago, he acquired The Washington Post for $250 million. A few months ago, he met with crown prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to partake in whatever Saudi-specific wheeling and dealing that we have all too often turned a blind eye to.

Amazon started by delivering us our books, and it is now so intimate that it delivers us our groceries. Amazon produces the movies we watch in the theaters and at home. Amazon’s “Alexa” is now in over 10 million homes and places of business. That number is rapidly rising, and the machine’s capabilities to eavesdrop and record human conversation are unquestionable, although Amazon attributed any seeming surveillance onto human error. Jeff Bezos is everywhere. That’s a lot of power for one man to have, even if Bezos isn’t keen on making it known to the entire world the way some more outspoken Twitter characters like Musk are.

But if a prophet is indeed defined as being a visionary, and as the initiator of inspiration, perhaps these figures do fit the mold. Look at Steve Jobs, a man whose utter transformation of our universe and daily life will cement him forever as an iconic, somewhat prophetic figure. I, and many of my peers, remember the day Jobs passed away — the Apple stores in Palo Alto nearby my house in the Bay Area, mecca of the tech universe and home to Jobs himself, transformed into glow-lit shrines of worship and remembrance. We see the way he is immortalized in the popular consciousness — as the indelible, pensive black-and-white image on the cover of Walter Isaacson’s renowned biography. He is remembered as an ascetic, almost monk-like black-turtleneck-and-sneaker-wearing leader. Isaacson describes how Jobs would at some points eat nothing but carrots and apples for weeks at a time.

But while Jobs gave birth to this kind of celebrity, he does not typify what it has grown into. It is not necessarily the figures themselves that are the problem — it is the ecosystem of glorification that their form begins to cultivate.

We treat these CEOs with a certain brand of idolatry that is specific to this generation — they are our millennium’s version of rock stars and superheroes. It’s a culture of celebrity, cutthroat ambition and wealth that breeds calamities like that of Theranos, in which the familiar tale of drop-out-from-a-prestigious-university who uses their genius to get rich quick — a Cinderella story of the modern era trademarked by the likes of Zuckerberg — quickly turned deceitful. And the Cinderella story is appealing —  I mean, Aaron Sorkin did direct a pretty darn compelling rendition of Zuckerberg’s life, the journey from Cambridge to Palo Alto, the bridges burned and the money made. But when this tale gets conflated, we begin to put too much power into the hands of these leaders.

The industry becomes defined by the billion-dollar values within it rather than the good it can establish. When Elizabeth Holmes began to amass hundreds of millions of dollars in investments off of an at-home blood-testing device that was still at the stage of a problematic prototype, she was modeling her public persona and aspirations after her ultimate role model: Steve Jobs. (She was actually called “The Next Steve Jobs” on the cover of Inc. Magazine in 2015. What was she wearing during her big moment? A black turtleneck, of course.)

Holmes was touted as a prodigy, a genius, and yes, a visionary when she started Theranos. She gained investments from well-respected figures like former Secretary of State George Shultz, sat on the cover of Forbes magazine and was projected to become one of the world’s youngest self-made billionaires. Holmes was idolized as a prophetess of sorts, a cycle which further entrenched her in the deception that would soon endanger the lives of those who might rely on her fraudulent blood-testing.

People observed Holmes’s ascent to power like audience members watching a show, obsessing over the wealth of this ingenue with intentions to transform medical technology forever. They fawned and obsessed over her wealth and ambition until she became a caricature of scientific superstardom. Today, Holmes is worth zero dollars, and she has been charged with criminal fraud.

Holmes is, of course, an outlier. This culture of tech CEOs is predominantly built of extremely innovative minds. But perhaps they should handle their newfound brand of celebrity with more humility, and remain innovators rather than become socialites. It will, if nothing else, help their credibility.

Seeing figures like Musk engage in Twitter rampages and strange power trips creates a formula for a leader whose sense of authority and influence overcomes their contribution. Last September, Musk unreservedly succeeded in furthering his aura of instability when he indulged in a vitriolic Twitter tantrum, calling a British diver who saved the twelve football players from entrapment in a deep sea cave in Thailand a “child rapist” and a “pedo guy” on Twitter. We aren’t here to muse on how utterly grotesque Musk’s statements were, or how his public persona has gotten inexplicably weirder and weirder — smoking pot during an interview? Saying he will “probably move to Mars”? But the idolization of these figures, combined with the power they wield, is distinctly problematic.

As America made the dramatic transition from the 19th into the 20th century, the titans who changed our nation and the world at the zenith of the industrial revolution — like Rockefeller, Ford, Vanderbilt and Carnegie — were rather singularly Americans. It is important to exercise humility because unlike those influencers and visionaries of the past, today there are more Zuckerbergs and Bezoses in more places than ever before. And while their contributions to the Information Age cannot be underestimated, they should also encourage the practice of modesty in their endeavors. Their ability to influence should not sway their ability to contribute.

As The New York Times stated in regard to the burgeoning era of tech CEOs, “Boring is the new big.” There is more value in being a serious, solid leader —  take Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, who rather than strive to emulate his successor, leads the company with a rather understated sense of determination regarding its purpose and with little engagement in Hollywood parties or Twitter tantrums. It is crucial to reel in the culture of bombastic, larger-than-life leaders before it combusts or subsumes Silicon Valley in cultural toxicity.

There is no doubt that figures like Steve Jobs were aware of the role they would have in history thanks to the immensity of their impact — in fact, Jobs commissioned Walter Isaacson to write his famous biography, armed with the knowledge that Isaacson had previously cataloged the lives of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. He knew how he’d be remembered — and how he wanted to be remembered. He knew he was defining a generation. But whether or not he knew that he was creating a culture of perceived prophethood is up for debate. Should we treat them as such? Does being a greater media presence make you more of a visionary? Is there not an advantage to embracing principle before indulgence, subtlety before rhetoric, and equanimity and humility before power? As these figures continue to grow and continue to be cast as ideologues of our generation, it is important to remember one thing: what goes up must always come down.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, print edition. Email Hanna Khosravi at [email protected]