Casting around for an example of the simple life to use in an Arab-bashing column, veteran columnist and editor Alexander Chancellor alighted on what he must have thought was the perfect foil to the free-spending Saudis.
It appeared right there in front of him, on his PC, nestling between some coloured balls.
Unlike Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, wrote Chancellor on Saturday, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin “don’t have private jets, Rolls-Royces, yachts or any of the other pointless accoutrements of the super-rich”.
“Page and Brin each own nothing more flashy than a modest Toyota Prius, the environmentally virtuous hybrid car,” he explained, adding:
“Like the other princes of Silicon Valley, they don’t show off. They are eager to appear unpretentious and affect to like simple things. Theirs is a world of jeans, sneakers, Starbucks, and girls-next-door.”
Chancellor didn’t mention high school bops, the Everly Brothers or bobbysox, but it was clear he’d fallen asleep by his PC, dreaming of some forgotten 1950s film (or girl).
Then the blue ball bumped into red ball, and reality returned.
Chancellor was duly corrected by readers, including the excellent Tim Worstall. In fact Larry and Sergey, along with their childminder Eric Schmidt, own a Boeing 767, lavishly kitted out to their taste, a 757, and two Gulfstream Vs.
Chancellor almost certainly drew on this ancient, pre-IPO BBC profile of the Google founders, but inexplicably failed to read the paragraphs about conspicuous consumption being common amongst Silicon Valley CEOs.
There’s the modest and discreet Larry Ellison, of course. You’d hardly notice him creeping around in his humble MIG fighter jet. (At one stage, even Ellison’s accountant worried about his lavish spending, which includes a $30m Woodside mansion nicknamed “Kubla Khan”).
Then there’s Steve Jobs, who went all the way to the Californian Supreme Court for the right to demolish the historic 17,000 square foot Jackling House. Where’s a guy supposed to keep his strimmer? In the coal bunker? Give the guy a break!
So Chancellor allowed wishful thinking to triumph over facts. But it’s evidently a common yearning.
Recently I almost had my arm twisted off by a radio producer when I disclosed I’d once met the founders of Google. Personal anecdotes of the wacky, toothsome twosome are at a premium in documentary-land.
I’d rather not, I explained, because the anecdote revealed them as not very nice people. (Page was arrogant and incredibly ignorant, and his flunkeys were evidently in fear of contradicting him – it was a young Bill Gates, without the appealing argumentative streak.) So believe it or not, with airtime so short, I said I’d rather not say mean things about them.
This was met with looks of astonishment. But it’s Google – how could they not be as whimsical, as charming and as benevolent as their public image?
It was the bit about moral virtue that really got me thinking, though.
Blame Beardie for the cuddly CEO
Technology company CEOs are evidently expected to be all these things, but I can’t imagine why journalists want to create this particular fantasy. Are successful chief executives in any business expected to be nice and cuddly? Thanks to TV, the US has Donald Trump as its popular businessman celebrity, and we have Alan Sugar – both rude, ruthless and proud-as-hell of it.
Is there something about technology that should make a tech CEO less of a charmless bastard and more of a kindly old wizard? Chancellor seems to think so, and he’s not alone.
The explicit affirmation of their moral virtue – frugality makes one a good person – was the most puzzling of all, however. Why?
While Chancellor was composing his column, Google was running a “carbon footprint” calculator on its front page. He’s not the first to prefer the hyperreal to the real.
I blame Richard Branson, who carefully cultivated the fictional persona of the cuddly altruistic boss, while being as ruthless and cynical as anyone else.