x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The Facebook Effect: beyond privacy

A new history of Facebook portrays the company's founder as an idealist devoted to the cause of total transparency. But he may not understand his own rhetoric.

Facebook's founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook's founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

A new history of Facebook portrays the company's founder as an idealist devoted to the cause of total transparency. But the digital revolutionaries may not understand their own rhetoric, writes Evgeny Morozov It used to be that highly idealistic young people - those starry-eyed mavericks burning to change the world - were attracted to studying politics, learning their Trotsky and Gramsci, and dreaming of the worldwide triumph of justice, if not equality. What could seem more quaint today? In our innovation-obsessed society, political science no longer commands the respect of adolescent revolutionaries, who would rather become venture capitalists than public intellectuals. Having abandoned their Molotov cocktails for cans of Red Bull, they flock to computer science departments instead.

And for a very good reason: among recent social innovations, it is the development of the internet - rather than some new political ideology - that holds the greatest promise for reshaping how we live, vote and govern. Francis Fukuyama got it all wrong: history didn't end: it just took a temporary refuge in cyberspace. The previous generation of digital visionaries, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, saw themselves as hackers fighting the system, before they launched their own multibillion-dollar empires. Their successors, having made their money much faster, still fashion themselves as genuine revolutionaries, with highly idealistic plans for the rest of us. They don't shun profits, but financial considerations often take a back seat to their ambitious agendas for social engineering.

Such rhetorical flourishes, particularly the growing buzz about "Internet freedom", are, of course, very helpful in creating a favorable political climate in Washington and Brussels: who wants to regulate the next Gutenberg or Edison? But the idealism emanating from Silicon Valley is not fake. Unfortunately, all too often it rests on a rather delusional reading of modern politics: Google's China gambit, where the company believed in its ability to outmaneuver the Communist Party and democratise the country by letting citizens search for whatever they want,is a case in point. The problem with all this digital hubris, usually wrapped in revolutionary rhetoric, is that it's matched by an uncanny ability to influence public life: today's technology giants are not just idealistic, they are well-armed.

No entity embodies this new revolutionary urge better than Facebook, the six-year-old behemoth that has come to dominate the world of social networking. The odds that it would succeed were tiny: Facebook was a late entrant into an already overcrowded market (remember Friendster?) while its main competitor, MySpace, had all of Rupert Murdoch's money to burn. Besides, a company run by nerdy college drop-outs sounds like the worst possible place to entrust one's private data.

Why did Facebook succeed? Not least because Mark Zuckerberg, the company's youthful founder, understood that in order to be popular, any social networking site needed to be a hormone stock exchange. And what better place to trade in hormones than a university campus? By initially limiting the site to college students, Facebook tapped into a market that was active, hip and very appealing to advertisers. Soon it was growing thanks to what economists call the network effect: the more users it had, the more useful it was, and the more incentives there were to join.

Facebook then took off globally, often with minimal effort from its headquarters in Palo Alto; before long the site was used for all kinds of dubious purposes, from killing time with the numerous games that have sprung up on its platform to joining Holocaust denial groups. (Facebook's management decided to let most of those stay). Other web entrepreneurs might have laughed at such serendipitous uses of their site and moved on, but Zuckerberg took Facebook's success to mean that the world had radically changed: the internet was poised to play a new and increasingly important role in our lives, and he was convinced his creature could spearhead that revolution.

According to The Facebook Effect, a new book by the technology reporter David Kirkpatrick, Zuckerberg is a strong believer in the benefits of transparency fostered by the Internet. "A more transparent world creates a better-governed world and a fairer world", Zuckerberg says. That this mission happens to be lucrative is just a coincidence. In Kirkpatrick's account, Facebook is a social phenomenon first and business phenomenon second, despite the fact that Zuckerberg, who navigated the company to its $15 billion-dollar valuation, has become the youngest self-made billionaire in history.

But if there is a tragic hitch to Zuckerberg's rise, it has less to do with his status as an accidental billionaire (to quote the title of another recent book about Facebook) than his role as an accidental revolutionary, one who lacks the intellectual grounding to wisely use the immense power he hass accrued. It's as if the president of a university "Save Darfur" club was appointed the UN envoy to the region.

Zuckerberg's refusal to acknowledge that there are negative sides to his transparency revolution is particularly glaring, if only for the banality of his excuses. His musings on politics would make even Sarah Palin blush: "These things [social networking sites] can really affect people's liberties and freedom, which is kind of the point of government." It gets worse on the subject of privacy. Zuckerberg believes that the internet will push us to be better, more honest citizens: "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly". This is a good thing, he thinks, since "having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity".

But this is just plain wrong, even by Palo Alto standards. Those who feel it necessary to maintain two "identities" might remind Zuckerberg that old prejudices persist even in the most liberal societies. Being openly gay on Facebook, to take one example, is a luxury that people in more conservative countries (or families or offices) still can't afford. The digital revolutionaries may lack nuance, but they certainly excel at moralising.

Zuckerberg wants the world to acknowledge the revolutionary status of his company before it becomes subject to aggressive regulation, a possibility that looks increasingly likely. He often calls it a "utility", a rather risky move for any chief executive; akin, perhaps, to asking for more government oversight. But all this "utility" talk is not for nothing. Most utilities simply satisfy basic human needs; they don't create demand for them. Who would blame the electric company for climate change? They are just the middle man.

Facebook, too, wants to claim such privilege. Thanks to the internet, the world is becoming more social and people are sharing more information. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook is only facilitating what would be happening anyway. Like most digital revolutionaries, he holds technology in awe, seeing it as an autonomous force that can't be stopped or regulated. Such views are a dangerous amalgamation of social and technological determinism: Zuckerberg and his colleagues believe that neither human behaviour nor the manner in which technology unfolds can be altered (even Facebook's annual technology conference is called "f8" - read as "fate"). It's not surprising that there is no place for politics in the digital revolution: for its leaders, the state exists, if at all, merely to provide cheap broadband.

But such determinism is as dubious as the view that Facebook is an innocent and powerless player following rather than shaping privacy trends. The bouquet of barely visible behavioural modifications, ranging from narcissism to voyeurism, that the Facebook panopticon encourages would require the second coming of Michel Foucault to think through. It may very well be true that Facebook is making the society "more open" in some very limited sense of "openness", but surely it has other effects on public life. Of those Facebook's founders are conspicuously silent

Perhaps Zuckerberg is just confused about the social implications of his creation, for its intellectual complexity has outgrown his own. Alternatively, he is simply playing dumb, hoping that his talk of an impending transparency revolution will help to keep Facebook unregulated. And then there is the least plausible thesis, the one favoured by Kirkpatrick: Zuckerberg is a seer, and he peeped into the future and saw that privacy had become obsolete.

But even if the likes of Facebook do believe in the social usefulness of what they are doing, societies need more than their blind faith to assess such claims. The promises and perils of innovation need to be assessed through a value-laden prism of ethics. As it happens, this has been the bread and butter of philosophy and political science, the two disciplines that digital revolutionaries were quick to discard in favour of computer science. But one can't cook a revolution, even a digital one, out of bytes alone; ideas are still its key ingredient, and Zuckerberg's, unfortunately, seem dangerously half-baked.

Evgeny Morozov is a fellow at Georgetown University. His book about the internet and democracy will be published in November.