In case you haven’t heard, in the wake of fake news criticism, the founder of Facebook has released a manifesto that outlines the future of Facebook. It is extremely political, idealistic, and downright naive. What’s more, it’s downright dangerous.
Zuckerberg wants to use his influence, his platform, and AI to save globalization. At the core of his argument is the assertion that the world has moved from families and tribes to nations and supranational bodies, and must inevitably end up as a global community, a kind of idealistic trajectory towards a truly cosmopolitan future. If only! Facebook wants to enable this global community. It wants to be its plumbing.
Zuckerberg’s view of the world is naive
What’s wrong with that view? It’s not true, that’s what’s wrong. Humanity is not inexorably turning into a global community. Progress of that sort is not inevitable. Human history doesn’t go in one direction. Chinese philosophy has known that for centuries. “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide,” (分久必合，合久必分) begins the famous “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”.
The Chinese, the Persians, the Mongols, the Romans … History shows that every period of freedom, globalization, unification, and free movement of people and ideas was followed by strive, isolation, and warfare.
Zuckerberg is dangerously elitist
The time before World War I was the most globalized period ever, with free trade and movement of people. It was followed by two world wars. After the Second World War, Europe formed the European Union under the slogan “never again.” The EU is now on the brink of collapse. On the other side of the pond, after decades of unbridled globalization, Trump is president and pursues a deeply divisive, nationalistic agenda.
Every period of openness in human history was ultimately followed by destruction and isolation. This one is no different. Why? Because the idealistic view of unification and free trade was never that of ordinary people. Ordinary people don’t care, they don’t have time to worry about other countries and races, or the future of humanity. They are busy worrying about jobs and family and loans and health. To think that this will change just because we now have global social media platforms is idiotic.
The glorious and prosperous periods of progress and globalization have always been created, steered, and welcomed by the elites. The free trade climate of the early 1900s benefited mostly the aristocratic elites. The EU is held up as an ideal by bureaucratic elites; its economic policies benefit primarily the rich and big corporations. Ordinary taxpayers and small companies have been left behind. They are angry and resentful.
Facebook is no different
What does that have to do with Facebook? It’s simply not a global network. Just because it is available globally does not mean people use it that way. Most people on Facebook are connected only to people in their vicinity, acquaintances, colleagues, members of the same clubs and churches. They do not consume content from outside their comfort zone or their primary language.
The echo chamber effect of Facebook means the social platform is not actually pushing humanity towards a more global consciousness. It does the opposite: it is being used primarily to re-enforce mediocrity, wallow in self-pity, advance your own views, and attack others for their beliefs.
Facebook has enormous power to influence people, but the influencers are not held accountable. Because the distribution is free, it is being abused. Facebook is certainly not the panacea against indoctrination and isolationism. Never in history has it been easier to manipulate other people’s views; never were people more isolated from opposing viewpoints. Social media is largely to blame for that. Just look at who Donald Trump is following on Twitter, and you know where his world-view comes from. Most of us are guilty of the same crime. (Here is my Twitter if you want to check up on me.)
In a time when newspapers were the main delivery system for news, most people were invariably confronted with facts and opposing views. Newspapers had editorial standards. Journalism had an ethical code. There was a hunger for facts, a celebration of science and progress.
Now that people don’t read newspapers and get all their news from a customized and biased social media feed, ignorance and parochialism are making a massive comeback. We sit in echo chambers, and Zuckerberg built them.
Even if Zuckerberg is right, he isn’t
Zuckerberg’s manifesto seems to say that Facebook will make the world more inclusive and thus better, by using the tools of technology. There is no guarantee for that. And it’s very dangerous for one person and one company to have all that influence. No one is smart enough to figure out what is best for the world. Certainly not a young tech entrepreneur with a naive view of human history.
Technology in itself is not progress
The belief of the Silicon Valley elite that technology will solve all our problems is at the heart of Zuckerberg’s hubris. In his manifesto, he is effectively saying that Facebook is a tool of social engineering. He has no right to do that. Technology in itself doesn’t mean progress, it is the application that counts. Progress has to be fought for. What we fight for is a matter of people to decide, of democratic systems, of checks and balances, not of one technology company introducing a new Dislike button.
No one elected Zuckerberg the arbiter of world opinion, nobody made him Chief Social Engineer. There is no guarantee that whatever technological innovation Facebook comes up with will improve things. It is a private company. Its algorithms are secret. Governance is a matter of transparency, not secrecy.
So what needs to be done?
Does it make sense for countries to ban Facebook? Probably not. Just look at China, which has replaced Facebook with a form of digital dictatorship. Should Facebook be broken up or nationalized? Will technology solve the problem, perhaps through automatic machine translation or forcing people to see content they don’t like? Should Facebook be forced to become transparent?
Facebook is so powerful that unless Mr. Z sees the dangers of his elitist point of view, and the error of his ways, he needs to be removed permanently from his creation. Governments or even the U.N., or a similar non-profit body will have to take charge. That is not ideal, and I am not advocating it. But what other options are there?
Perhaps some form of regulation is necessary in the face of Facebook’s monopoly. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to buy any more social networks. Instagram was already one step too far. Whatsapp shouldn’t be owned by the company that already does Messenger.
Personally, I believe that long before governments will wake up to the seriousness of the Facebook problem, artificial intelligence will throw a spanner in the works. In the meantime, Zuckerberg’s dangerous manifesto is good for Facebook, but detrimental to the world. We need to take this seriously.