Deep inside the Palazzo Vecchio, the tall stone fortress that has served as the seat of government power in Florence since the 14th century, there’s a room called the Sala delle Carte Geografiche, the Hall of Maps. The cabinets lining the walls, which once held scientific instruments and other precious items, are decorated with 53 large maps representing almost every part of the globe known to 16th-century explorers and navigators. Executed in oils by the Dominican priest and mathematician Ignazio Danti and painter Stefano Buonsignori, the marvelously detailed maps were created between 1563 and 1584 as part of a massive renovation of the palazzo instigated by Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Danti’s maps strive to be comprehensive and scientifically accurate; they use the Mercator projection system, which was brand-new at the time. But they’re also dotted with visual jokes and curios. One section showing the horn of Africa (modern-day Ethiopia and Somalia) includes a cartoon of a creature that looks like a woolly mammoth. Above it is the tiny caption Questa regione produce molti elefanti—“this region produces many elephants.”
I spent a while in the Hall of Maps last week while on vacation in Florence. Gazing at this room-sized testament to the encyclopedic urge in exploration, it occurred to me that the hall was the Google Earth of its day: a convenient, centralized place to access high-resolution depictions of the planet’s surface.
For Cosimo, the leader of one of Europe’s most powerful city-states, the hall must have served both a symbolic and a functional purpose. It wasn’t simply a mark of the fabled Medici wealth or of Cosimo’s reputation as an art patron. It’s also easy to imagine the Grand Duke actually using the maps as he entertained dignitaries, pointing out the sites of his military exploits or gossiping about the latest reports from the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese sailors establishing new trade routes to Asia and the Americas. (The hall so impressed visitors to the palazzo that Pope Gregory XIII later hired Danti to create the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. But while the Vatican version is larger, it’s more parochial: it depicts only the Italian peninsula.)
Map geeks like me and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings understand that there’s something thrilling, romantic, and inviting about maps and atlases. The Sala delle Carte Geografiche is one of the first places that passion went on full public display. The same love of exploration led serial entrepreneur John Hanke to found geospatial data visualization startup Keyhole in 2001, with money from Sony, NVIDIA, and the CIA’s venture wing, In-Q-Tel. Google bought the company in 2004 and used the technology in its main product, Earth Viewer, to build Google Earth and Google Maps, which now act as the free gateways to a vast, multi-layered virtual globe.
I’d argue Cosimo’s map hall is, in a real sense, the great-great-great-grandfather of Google Earth. Further, I’d say there’s a parallel line connecting the Medici dynasty to Google and the other Silicon Valley companies that are the repositories of so much information, wealth, and thereby power, today.
In fact, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 21st century, it’s hard not to feel a special connection to Renaissance Florence. The great artists, architects, and poets of that time felt they were inheriting and extending the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Similarly, today’s software tycoons have eyed established industries—newspapers, book publishing, advertising, entertainment, telecommunications, business administration—and decided they know a better way to run things. They’ve applied pure brainpower (code is just electronically mediated thought, after all) to undermine all the old economic and social relationships and replace them with new, Internet-based systems that they hope will be more democratic, more flexible, and more efficient.
Of course, what these systems indisputably are is more profitable. Google’s gross profit margin in 2013 was an astronomical 56 percent. Facebook’s was an even loftier 76 percent. In what feels like an entirely new phase of capitalism, the inventions of a few thousand people can now reach a few billion, fueling licensing, advertising, and hardware businesses that have generated unprecedented riches in the big U.S. technology hubs. Apple has $160 billion in cash on hand. Microsoft has $83 billion; Google, $57 billion; Cisco, $47 billion; Oracle, $37 billion; Intel, $20 billion; Facebook, $11 billion [data updated 3/16/14]. Sum it all up, and add in the personal fortunes of these companies’ founders and CEOs, and you’re looking at half a trillion dollars for these seven companies alone. Not even the Medici family, at one time the bankers to the Popes, could dream of this kind of wealth.
And in the Bay Area, as in Florence, the riches are generating side effects—some of them troublesome, others awe-inspiring.
On the down side, so many people are coming here in search of their own fortunes that housing is now unsustainably expensive for people of average means. Popular resentment toward the Silicon Valley elite has boiled over in the form of protests, and even physical attacks, on Google’s employee shuttle buses.
But at the same time, the region is benefiting from Silicon Valley’s largesse. Last year Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated 18 million Facebook shares, valued at nearly $1 billion, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which makes grants to support local educational initiatives and other causes. The gift made them the nation’s most generous philanthropists in 2013, eclipsing even the ubiquitous Bill and Melinda Gates, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Google.org, the search giant’s philanthropic wing, allocates $100 million in grants every year, much of it to Bay Area nonprofits such as … Next Page »
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