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 Second Harvest Food Bank. Over the last few years, Google has also donated tens of millions of dollars to science museums around the world, including the new San Francisco Exploratorium on the Embarcadero and the recently rebuilt California Academy of Sciences.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs didn’t have much of a reputation as a philanthropist, but current Apple CEO Tim Cook does—in 2012 he gave $50 million to Stanford’s hospitals. Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs, meanwhile, is said to be a major behind-the-scenes donor to causes such as global conservation, nutrition, and immigration reform. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who co-founded Netscape, and his wife Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, the daughter of one of Silicon Valley’s most successful real estate developers, have set up a whole foundation dedicated to teaching other people in Silicon Valley how to give away their money.
In San Francisco proper, the larger economic boom rooted in Silicon Valley is freeing up money for big urban redevelopment projects. By enticing companies like Twitter, Yammer, Square, Spotify, and Zendesk to relocate to a once-blighted stretch of Market Street, San Francisco politicians are engineering the rebirth of a whole neighborhood. Meanwhile, state and local tax revenues have bounced back after the economic downturn, and real estate values—propped up by the tech sector’s insatiable need for office space—are soaring. That’s giving local agencies the wherewithal to undertake huge infrastructure projects like the SFMTA’s Central Subway and the mixed-use Transbay Transit Center, which, by 2016, will be home to the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper.
Then there’s all the crazy experimentation going on thanks to the unreasonable fecundity of companies like Google. GoogleX, the company’s skunkworks operation, is dedicated to what its chief Astro Teller calls “10x thinking”—the kind that can put men on the moon and, with luck, “solve some of the biggest problems facing humankind,” like traffic deaths (the self-driving car) and global Internet access (Project Loon). And there’s Calico, the Google subsidiary where former Genentech CEO Art Levinson and prominent geneticists hope to combat the diseases of aging. None of this has much to do with Web search or advertising, but it might be the way all those clicks on AdWords links finally get translated into real humanitarian advances.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call this whole giant windfall the Medici Effect—except that it’s proceeding on a much grander scale than Cosimo de Medici’s patronage of Florence’s painters, sculptors, writers, and architects ever did.
To take one more small example, look at Seth MacFarlane. The 40-year-old creator of the animated TV show Family Guy owes his power and fortune to the television industry and to a fan base built largely through the Internet. (Family Guy has 55 million Likes on Facebook.) In a case of unexpected spillover, he’s now the executive producer of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, the Fox Network’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s science documentary series.
The first Cosmos, which aired in 1980, had a large budget for a PBS series—$6.3 million, or about $20 million in today’s dollars—and used a combination of live-action historical recreations and special effects to tell the story of the origins of the universe, the evolution of life on Earth, and the rise of science. But MacFarlane and Fox clearly wanted to do much more with the new show, as you could see from the debut episode on Sunday (the day I got back from Florence, coincidentally).
The space-travel sequences were rendered using the latest Hollywood CGI technology—host Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, clearly spent a lot of time in front of a green screen. And the historical sections, detailing the persecution of 16th-century Dominican friar and philosopher Giordano Bruno for his heretical cosmological theories, were expensively animated. Fox hasn’t said how much it’s spending on the series, but Tyson told the Associated Press that the budget is “commensurate” with the show’s scope.
According to a New York Times story, Tyson and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, had been developing the concept for a Cosmos reboot for the better part of a decade. But they weren’t able to get a network interested until Tyson met MacFarlane through the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program designed to connect entertainment executives with top scientists. MacFarlane, a fan of the original series, agreed to helm Tyson and Druyan’s project because he believed that it was important to reawaken TV viewers to the wonders of the natural world and the importance of science. (He would later purchase Sagan’s historical papers and donate them to the Library of Congress.)
My point is that the Cosmos sequel—and I’m eagerly awaiting the 12 remaining episodes—wouldn’t have happened at all without the involvement of an enlightened media-industry mogul. And the connections go back farther than that: Cosmos Studios, the Ithaca, NY-based production house behind the new series, was long led by tech entrepreneur Joe Firmage, who made his name as the co-founder of Web design and consulting firm USWeb in the 1990s.
In modern-day California, just as in 16th-century Italy, science, education, and the arts benefit from the surplus wealth and attention of the commercial elite. Patronage isn’t their only source of support, thank goodness. Unlike Florence under Cosimo’s authoritarian rule, we’ve been smart enough to set up independent, taxpayer-funded agencies like the NSF, the NIH, NASA, the NEA, and the NEH to support research, scholarship, and the creative arts. But it would be unthinking, and ungrateful, to overlook the surplus we’re reaping from the tech boom.
What’s most exciting is that today’s big tech philanthropists are still so young and have so much time left to give away their money—Mark Zuckerberg is 29, Larry Page is 40, Marc Andreessen is 42, Tim Cook is 53, and Bill Gates himself is only 58. And while they’re all hard-driving businessmen, they are also relatively enlightened guys—at least, none of them has had to assassinate cousins or decimate vassal cities to stay in power, as Cosimo de’ Medici did. If Danti were painting the map of Silicon Valley, he might well repeat: Questa regione produce molti elefanti.
For a look at the flip side of the Medici Effect, read the sequel to this column, The Missing Middle Class: Jobs in the Second Machine Age.
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