Is ‘tech elite’ a class for itself? World’s richest have distinct views setting them apart from others: Study

They believe in meritocracy and deny a connection between democracy and money


                            Is ‘tech elite’ a class for itself? World’s richest have distinct views setting them apart from others: Study
Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Getty Images)

The emergence of the tech elite in Silicon Valley and beyond has raised questions about the economic reach, political influence, and social importance of this group. How do these inordinately influential people think about the world and the future? Scientists have some answers: They conclude that the tech elite may be thought of as a “class for itself” — a social group that shares particular views of the world, which in this case means “meritocratic, missionary, and inconsistent democratic ideology.” These set them apart from other segments of the world’s elite more generally, according to a study by Jacobs University Bremen, Germany.

The global economic landscape over the last half-century is marked by a shift to a high-tech economy, dominated by what the researchers refer to as the “Big Nine” comprising Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei, and Tencent; computer hardware and software manufacturers, and most recently, app companies. In this report, the authors analyzed the worldviews of the 100 richest people in the tech world, as defined by Forbes.

The team initially approached all 100 of their subjects for a face-to-face interview, but only one person agreed. Accordingly, they turned to the internet to learn more about their subjects in their own words, scraping and analyzing 49,790 tweets from 30 verified Twitter account holders within this tech elite subject group. They investigated the same number of tweets from a random sample of the general US Twitter-using population for comparison purposes. 

The authors evaluated 49,790 tweets from 30 verified Twitter account holders within this tech elite subject group (Getty Images)

The experts analyzed 60 mission statements from tech elite-run philanthropic websites, plus statements from 17 tech elites and other super-rich elites not associated with the tech world (for comparison purposes) who signed the “Giving Pledge,” a philanthropic initiative of Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.

The tech elite consists mainly of middle-aged men from an economic superpower. Of the top 100, fully 94 are men and only six are women. Their average age is 54 years, says the study published in PLOS ONE.

Half are Americans by nationality; 17 come from China, three from Hong Kong, and a total of seven more come from other parts of East Asia: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. Like Canada, Europe is home to 5 of the top 100 tech billionaires. Three come from Israel, two each from India and Australia, and one each from Brazil and Russia. Data on citizenship was lacking for one case.

Global clusters of tech wealth (PLOS ONE 2021)

The findings

The Twitter text analysis revealed that the tech elites tweeted with a greater emphasis on disruption, positivity, and temporality compared with the average user. Their most frequently used words were ‘new’ and ‘great’ compared to ‘just’ and ‘like’ as the most common words used by the general users sampled. The tech elite also tended to refer much more frequently to their peers and other tech firms.

The 50 most often used words in tweets of the tech elite (PLOS ONE 2021)

While the authors found no statistically significant differences in whether or not the tech elite Twitter users saw a positive relationship between power and money or power and democracy as compared to the general Twitter sample, they did note that tech elites denied a connection between democracy and money, a belief not shared by the ordinary Twitter users sampled.

(PLOS ONE 2021)

Members of the tech elite also use words that fall into the ‘achieve’ category almost twice as often as the general population. In total, the tech elite used 19,431 achievement-related words in their tweets, whereas the random US Twitter-using population mentioned achievement words only 9,439 times. 

“We hypothesized first that, as products of a society with strong meritocratic beliefs and frequently of elite institutions of higher education, the tech elite would see this world and future worlds in meritocratic terms. Our analysis of a large sample of their statements on Twitter (tweets), relative to the general US Twitter-using population, indeed found that the tech elite tends to speak more frequently about merit-related topics and to more frequently use words that bespeak achievement-related concerns,” the findings state. It adds, “They also speak more expansively and positively about the future than the general Twitter-using population. Our first hypothesis, proposing that the tech elite would see the world and the future in meritocratic, self-affirming, or even self-serving terms, was thus confirmed.”

The philanthropic statements from tech elites who signed the pledge tended to be on average briefer than those from other wealthy signatories, at 1,796 words versus 2,422 words. The tech elite philanthropists also tended to use more similar, meritocratic language as a group, with ‘education,’ ‘work,’ and ‘social’ appearing frequently in their statements along with an emphasis on personal agency, progress, and impact. This indicates that they hold a strong positive interest in “making the world a better place,” but the researchers add that this belief is often frequently espoused by other very rich people as well.

The 50 most frequently used words in foundations’ mission statements by tech cohort (Brockmann et al, PLOS ONE 2021)

There are some limitations to this research. The authors say it is not possible to rule out that Twitter accounts are managed by professional PR experts, and it is also not clear whether the tech elite’s denial of a relationship between democracy and money is strategic or an actually-held belief. However, they emphasize that this study may serve as a starting point for future inquiries into this new class of elite, distinct from previous elite groups and continuing to rise in wealth and power as our world's reliance on technology grows.

“In conclusion, our research contributes to closing a research gap in societies with rising inequalities. We find that the 100 richest members of the tech world reveal distinctive attitudes that set them apart from both the general population and from other wealthy elites. As the companies they have created occupy a commanding position in the emerging tech-based economy, their views of our situation are likely to be of disproportionate significance,” write scientists. 

As the companies they have created occupy a commanding position in the emerging tech-based economy, their views of our situation are likely to be of disproportionate significance, say experts
(Getty Images)

According to the team, as a group, the tech elite “are meritocratically inclined, concerned with the well-being of their fellow human beings, and relatively supportive of democratic society.” Yet their position in a democratic system is contradictory: as a result of their enormous wealth, they have “disproportionate influence” over how discretionary income is spent, they explain. 

“One need not be opposed to philanthropy to see that there is a problem here. Future research will have to address whether the attitudes of this unusual group change over time and whether policies can be found to bring their opportunities to shape social outcomes in line with a democratic social order,” conclude investigators.

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