Can you create economical empires and make the world a better place at the same time? If you gauge the Zeitgeist of the digital age, there are not necessarily clear answers to straight questions

Seen from Silicon Valley reality is a far away and exotic place. That’s why Bill Gates had the emergency room of an Ebola clinic built into one of the halls of the Vancouver convention center. He did it for the audience of the TED Conference, a festival of ideas, which still stays also true to it’s roots as a summit of digital culture.

Three tents stood there. In the first tent one could let oneself get outfitted with a protective suit fully equipped with boots, gloves and mask. In the second tent Gates’ team led the curious who were willing to go through the course to a table, where they had to stack Jenga blocks into a little tower, prepare a drip and sort some M&Ms, all routine tasks of an Ebola doctor. The ladies and gentlemen from Silicon Valley were surprised, how hard it is to complete these simple tasks in full gear. In the third tent they got their shoes back.

Vancouver is of course not part of the Silicon Valley. In fact it is the northwesternmost outpost of American civilization. Beyond it’s city limits there’s only the Canadian Rockies, Alaska, the Bering Strait and the more inhospitable parts of Russia. But Silicon Valley has long ceased to be a geographical location. It is a state of mind that has gripped all of the Bay Area, Seattle, Texas, Brooklyn, Berlin, Tel Aviv and Seoul. Once in a while Silicon Valley fans out to gatherings like DLD in Munich, SxSW in Austin or most and foremost TED, which has relocated to Vancouver from California. Every year TED presents a work week full of short talks by the currently leading scientists, designers and activists, which makes the conference something like an intellectual particle accelerator. That’s why it is a good place to gauge the state of mind of Silicon Valley.

Even after his departure from Microsoft Bill Gates personifies the classic nerd, still the central character of the digital age—the awkward, slightly absent-minded technologist with a streak of genius. He wears a pink V-neck sweater and when he talks about a topic he’s well versed in he rocks from one foot to the other. On that afternoon like on so many others in recent years it is the topic of fighting disease in Africa, a cause he has invested double digit billions in over the past twenty years.

He warns that Ebola will remain a clear and present danger. Still he assures „we will be better prepared“ when the next outbreak comes. And in about twenty years there will be vaccines. It is actually quite reassuring to hear that from Bill Gates. His foundation has more money to fight Malaria than the World Health Organization. He was also involved in combating the Guinea Worm, a parasite that used to afflict millions in Africa, now almost extinct.

The state of mind of a man who obviously considers nothing impossible is an enviable one. In Vancouver that week it seems almost doctrine. Hard to imagine a place more optimistic. Understandably so—these are the men and women who in cyberspace have conquered something like the fourth dimension. Now that they have consolidated their wealth and power the look for new challenges.

Listening to the talks and conversations, plagues and poverty are problems to be solved, the vastness of space, the depth of the oceans are like virgin soil to be conquered, even death loses its sting. It’s a state of mind deeply rooted in the intellectual history of America. Which is the reason why it is so hard to comprehend for Europeans.

Seen from Europea Silicon Valley indeed is a far away and exotic place, not matter it’s location. If you for example listen to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos talking about his expedition into the Atlantic to salvage Apollo 11’s rocket engines his enthusiasm is both infectious and disconcerting. Space exploration is his passion. He has even founded a space company called Blue Origin.

He is not the only digital luminary reaching for outer galaxies. The pioneer of electrical cars and artificial intelligence has already launched rockets with his company Space X. Bill Gates’ business companion Paul Allen has teamed up with Virgin’s Bill Branson to send SpaceShipOne on manned missions. And there is Alan Eustace, an archetypical geek who functions as Google’s senior vice president of knowledge. Past October he went up the stratosphere with a balloon and jumped in a spacesuit, breaking the world-record for highest altitude free fall jump of Austrian Felix Baumgartner. Eustace gets to tell his tale on the TED stage. Another story of infectious euphoria.

Boyish excitement aside, you shouldn’t forget that these are men and women who can afford to change the world according to their ideas. A the Edge dinner a small group of them meets in the adjoining room of an upscale seafood restaurant. Literary agent John Brockman has arranged the dinner, who negotiates the book contracts for many an original thinker accelerating Silicon Valley’s intellectual particles. His guest list of two dozen reflects this.

There’s Larry Page who invented Google and Paul Allen who co-founded Microsoft, there is Marissa Mayer hired to save Yahoo and Tony Fadell who thought up the iPod. But there are also eternally cutting edge singer Peter Gabriel and architecture shooting star Bjarke Ingels, science historian George Dyson and counter culture era intellectual Stewart Brand. This is quite a gathering. The German newsweekly Der Spiegel recently featured a cover claiming that circles like this are the new „Weltregierung“ (world government). In Vancouver they would laugh about the clumsy, hopefully unintended prejudice of the imagery showing Apple’s Jim Cook, Uber’s Travis Kalanick, Google’s Sergei Bring, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in a sinister action movieesque phalanx (Three jews, a gay guy and a blonde are the new world conspiracy? Really?). Wouldn’t German-led Europe be such a stronghold of resistance against the spirit of Silicon Valley. In California they call it protectionism. In Europe they call it self-defense, claiming copyright and privacy laws amongst other things non-negotiable values.

Meat and fish are served, excellent, but unpretentious wine. Nobody wears ties or jewels. Actually there is in general a distinct lack the customary insignia of power, you will not find Washington’s limos and bodyguards, Hollywood’s accessories of glamour, the excesses of Wall Street and Rock’n’Roll. It’s not quite clear if Silicon Valley’s massive global success came with such swiftness that there was no time to gear up, or if there was a conscious rejection.

There is of course this omnipresent sense of Silicon Valley as the technocratic but true heir to the utopia and socialist stance of San Francisco’s counter cultures. Which is misleading. The ideas of freedom and collective are rooted in the libertarianism going back as far as Henry David Thoreau, in the anarcho capitalism as propagated by Milton Friedman’s son David, in the manifest Manifest Destiny of the 19th century, which later was expanded to spread American ideas over the rest of the globe.

Silicon Valley’s Manifest Destiny is not satisfied with the lands of this Earth, which it has conquered with it’s soft- and hardware already. Beyond space and the seven seas it wants to conquer every single minute in man’s life, every cell in the body, spirit and soul.

You can follow this train of thought into a intellectually convenient cultural pessimism, even into conspiracy theories. True—the monopolies of the digital economy seem to consider rights, laws and taxes as annoyances. But you could also compare the triumph of digital culture with the democratization of large parts of the world during the past one hundred years, a feat that after World War 2 has been  jointly pursued by America and Europe.

The truth lies in the middle. If the head of the Google department for self-driving cars Chris Urmson talks about the failing of human drivers on the TED stage yon can detect a whiff of eugenics in the techno-euphoria. Or you see it as a confirmation that machines will serve for the true good of mankind. And serve they will, if you listen to another TED talk by Stanford scientist Fei-Fei Li.

In the end historical comparisons fall short. What spreads from the Pacific Coast of the American continent to the rest of the world is something unprecedented. Never before has technology affected so many facets of human life and existence. That should be a good thing. The dogma to find a pragmatical or technological solution for every imaginable problem described by cultural critic Evgeny Morozov as solutionism is in it’s essence scientific thinking. So far that has mostly advanced humankind. The recent fusion with libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism though is so far untested. Facing this new chapter of intellectual history you’re left with euphoric skepticism. Can you build economic monopolies and still make the world a better place? Can total economic power be brought in line with privatized promises of salvation? This is where Silicon Valley might actually reach its limits. The dilemma as such is so far the one factor that can neither be calculated nor quantified.