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Every tech CEO wants to change the world, now’s their chance

February 3rd, 2017

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Staff

Longtime Verge fans who’ve followed the founders from Engadget to their new home at Vox Media are well aware of our preoccupation with doomsday — it’s been a running gag for a decade, akin to a secret handshake between members of a club. For years, every robot post was greeted with an “I, for one, welcome our new overlords” comment from readers, and a wink-and-a-nod of appreciation from the staff. Hell, our very first big launch feature in 2011 was a story about doomsday bunker weirdos, followed by a five-part series on doomsday culture a year later.

But that was before the Doomsday Clock ticked even closer to midnight. It was before Brexit and Wilders and Le Pen. It was before the 2016 US election and before the first two weeks of a Trump presidency that have put lots of people on edge. I’m old enough to remember how disappointed people were when Gore lost to Bush in a court decision. But this is different. People around the world are sickened by the systematic disassembly of fundamental American ideals, and are genuinely scared about the future. Even Silicon Valley’s super rich are earnestly prepping their just-in-case strategies. In this light, doomsday scenarios just aren’t funny anymore.

The companies we cover have long positioned themselves as “disrupters” of outdated norms, as “change agents” for the betterment of humanity, and literal saviors of the world. So it’s no surprise to see people looking for answers, for hope, from the CEOs of America’s largest tech companies. Remember, the American people just elected a CEO president.

Steve Jobs famously positioned Apple as a company of renegades in the late 90s, “because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones that do.” Tim Cook bought into the idea as well. "I always figured that work was work," said the Apple CEO in 2015. "There were things I wanted to change about the world, but I figured that was what I had to do on my own time. Steve didn't see it that way. He convinced me that if we made great products, we too could change the world."

Larry Page isn’t short on aspirational hyperbole either. “If you’re changing the world, you’re working on important things,” said the Google co-founder in a 2012 Fortune interview. “You’re excited to get up in the morning. That’s the main thing. You want to be working on meaningful, impactful projects, and that’s the thing there is really a shortage of in the world. I think at Google we still have that. We’ve always had that in spades.”

Elon Musk has an even grander vision. He doesn’t want to just change the world, he wants to save it. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO said his motivation after PayPal was to solve problems that would most affect our future. “The biggest terrestrial problem is sustainable energy. Production and consumption of energy in a sustainable manner,” he said in 2012. “If we don't solve that in this century, we're in deep trouble. And the other thing I thought might affect humanity is the idea of making life multi-planetary.” In 2013 he elaborated. “The future of humanity is going to bifurcate in two directions,” said Musk at the AllThingsD conference. “Either it's going to become multi-planetary, or it's going to remain confined to one planet and eventually there's going to be an extinction event.” Great.

Jeff Bezos wants to save humanity with his rockets just like Musk, only with one big difference. "I don't want a Plan B for Earth. I want Plan B to make sure Plan A works," said Bezos. "I think you go to space to save Earth.” Something Bill and Melinda Gates can surely help with in their quest to eradicate poverty and disease from the planet.

I could go on but I think you get the point. World-changing, humanity-saving claims run rampant in tech. It’s what they do, and it’s easy when times are good. So how ‘bout now? Imagine if those CEOs channeled their reported anger by stepping up in unison to throw their combined economic might around the Oval Office. Trump needs their backing if he’s going to deliver on the promise of new jobs and a dramatic acceleration in economic growth. Imagine a staunch, unified defense of scientific facts, of women’s health issues, and of immigration — all areas currently under attack. Now is the time to put that idealism to the test. Anything less would be hypocritical.

Tech CEOs of America, unite!