January 8, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg’s New Frontier: The World of Ideas

So, Mark Zuckerberg has a New Year’s resolution: he’s starting a book club. He’s committed himself to reading two books a month this year and suggests — although his announcement is a little vague on this point — that he’ll participate in online discussions of the books he’s reading.

It’s hard not to be suspicious of Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" plan, for several reasons. I’m a dedicated bibliophile and I find it hard to read two books a month, in large part because of all the electronic distractions that compete for my attention, Facebook among them. Zuckerberg apparently enjoys a challenge — learning Mandarin was one of this previous resolutions — and he’s certainly set himself one here.

Indeed, reading may well be a challenge for Zuckerberg not unlike learning Mandarin. Katherine Losse’s The Boy Kings, which documents her time working at Facebook in its early days (she was employee #51), demonstrates pretty clearly that, at that point at least, her boss had little interest in the printed page. 

“When I perused Mark’s profile on Facebook after we had become virtual friends,” Losse writes, “I noticed that in the Favorite Books field he wrote, ‘I don’t read.’”

This causes one to wonder about the bibliophilic passion Zuckerberg described in his book club announcement. “I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling,” he said. “Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today.”

The allusion to various online media, including Facebook, seems clear. It also seemed to several commentators that Zuckerberg’s comment conveyed an element of surprise, as if he’s only recently discovered that books might be worth looking into after all. As James Walton of the Telegraph put it, “For old-school book-lovers, the literary reference that springs most readily to mind here is ‘no ——, Sherlock’.”

It’s possible, of course, that Zuckerberg’s resolution represents a hoped-for transformation, rather than an achieved one. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are for, after all. The next sentence in his announcement reminded me of the sort of thing people say when they want to lose weight after a holiday season of culinary overindulgence. “I’m looking forward,” he said, “to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.”

Not surprisingly, some in the press derided the whole thing as a p.r. gimmick, calculated to buff Zuckerberg’s image and to refute the charge that Facebook represents the antithesis of immersive exploration. Charlotte Wilder of the Boston Globe said the tone of his announcement reminded her of a quote from the movie Anchorman: “I have many leather-bound books and my office smells of rich mahogany.” 

Mark Zuckerberg’s bookshelf

(In fact, the photograph adorning the book club’s Facebook page shows a shelf of what appear to be leather-bound books, an image that could convey either repositories of ancient wisdom or the forgotten contents of an abandoned mansion. Either way, an odd choice for a digital book club, in part because it’s reminiscent of the discarded skeuomorph design at Apple’s iBooks, a design Steve Jobs reportedly loved and pretty much everyone else hated.)

Steve Jobs' bookshelf

Sincere or not, Zuckerberg’s book club commitment represents a dramatic shift from the personal habits and interests of the Zuckerberg depicted in The Boy Kings. Here are a few examples: 
  • Zuckerberg tended “to mock or disregard everything that wasn’t a technical issue,” Losse writes. She also writes that the only people he felt completely comfortable with were fellow engineers. He made a point of reiterating that Facebook is a company driven by engineers and engineering, and there’s no evidence that books were a subject of much, if any, discussion there. When Facebook employees got together socially, Losse says, it was only a matter of time before everyone pulled out their MacBook Pros, “happy to have an excuse to have their familiar screens in front of them, networked to the system and to distant friends on instant message.”
  • The “mission” of the Facebook troops was the inexorable expansion of the company’s technological domain. So pervasively and passionately were they dedicated to furthering that goal that Losse felt it was a bad idea to show an interest in issues outside the mission. “The company wasn’t paying anyone to be aware of the world beyond the screen,” she says. “The only questions you were supposed to ask or ideas you were supposed to have at work, as a good citizen of Facebook nation, were about new ways to technologize daily life, new ways to route our lives through the web.”
  • A principal goal of this radically narrow vision, of course, was the all-American dream of getting fabulously, obscenely rich. Hence the atmosphere at Facebook, as elsewhere in the computer industry, tended to be less about intellectual fulfillment and more about the accumulation of power. “[T]he young men of Silicon Valley were not trying to tear down the capitalist system,” Losse writes. “They were trying to become its new masters.” 
Bill Gates in Nigeria

Again, it’s possible A Year of Books represents a transformation in progress for Zuckerberg. Having achieved his dream, perhaps he’s now ready to expand the scope of his interests, as Bill Gates has. If so, good for him. 

Still, some skepticism seems in order. Given Zuckerberg’s belief that technology is a vehicle of individual empowerment (certainly his personal experience would affirm such a conviction), it’s not surprising that his first book club selection would celebrate the supposed liberating powers of technological expansion. 

“Our first book of the year will be The End of Power by Moisés Naím,” he said. “It's a book that explores how the world is shifting to give individual people more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organizations. The trend towards giving people more power is one I believe in deeply, and I'm looking forward to reading this book and exploring this in more detail.”

Moisés Naím (with leather-bound books)

Presumably Zuckerberg is basing these comments on reviews, the book jacket or a press release, unless he got a head start on his resolution and has already read The End of Power. In any event, two commenters who have read Naím’s book had some interesting things to say about it. 

It’s true, writes Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post, that Naím believes various changes, most having to do with technology, are diminishing the power of large, traditional institutions. This doesn’t automatically translate, however, to liberation for individuals. 

Naím argues, Lozada says, that the revolutionary impact of social media, such as in the Arab Spring protests, has been "exaggerated." He also points out that the same technologies that have supposedly empowered average citizens have also (as Naím puts it) "ushered in new avenues for surveillance, repression, and corporate control."

These aren’t original observations, by any means, but they do directly challenge the technology = freedom dogma that Zuckerberg apparently endorses. 

These qualifications aside, it’s fair to assume that Zuckerberg will find the overall message of Naím’s book amenable, which is why Flavorwire calls its selection for A Year of Books  “a shameless act of propaganda.” Anyone who thinks The End of Power documents anything close to a genuine end of power, says literary editor Jonathan Sturgeon, is a sadly mistaken. He calls it “a neoliberal update of libertarianism, one that would pave the way for free-market capitalism to conquer the world.” 

If true, this diminishes any hope that Zuckerberg will have the balls to choose book club selections that challenge the libertarian ideology that dominates the billionaire boys club of Silicon Valley. It will be interesting for that reason to watch his choices, and especially interesting to read his comments about his choices, if he makes them.

If he does make them, we’ll have to wonder if it's really him who's making them, rather than a ghostwriter. Katherine Losse describes an episode when Zuckerberg wanted her to write a series of blog posts that would explain his take on “the way the world is going.” Topics to be addressed included “revolutions and giving people the power to share,” “openness as a force in our generation,” “moving from countries to companies,” “young people building companies” and “everyone becoming developers and how we support that.”

Losse says she wasn’t at all sure what Zuckerberg was trying to get at with some of these arguments. She asked him to schedule time to sit down with her to explain his thinking in more detail, but he never got around to it, and the blog posts were never written. Just as well, from Losse’s perspective, since she was pretty sure they wouldn’t have expressed anything she herself could subscribe to. “It sounded,” she writes, 
like he was arguing for a kind of nouveau totalitarianism, in which the world would become a technical, privately owned network run by young, “technical” people who believe wholeheartedly in technology’s and their own inherent goodness, and in which every technical advancement is heralded as a step forward for humanity. But that reasoning was deeply flawed. While technology can be useful, it is not God; it is not always neutral or beneficent. Technology carries with it all the biases of the people who make it, so simply making the world more technical was not going to save us. We still have to think for ourselves, experience the world in reality as well as online, and care about one another as people as well as nodes in a graph, if we are going to remain human.
Amen, sister. Check out The Boy Kings. It’s not likely to appear as a selection for A Year of Books.

©Doug Hill, 2015

1 comment:

  1. i too wondered what was behind this book club. that whole ceo as thot leader notion? it's a little scary that this is someone with an elite education (hs as well) who is newly arrived at the value of books.