March 1, 2017

Four (Insurmountable) Problems With Mark Zuckerberg's Global Community

Mark Zuckerberg wants to help save the world. That's the gist of "Building Global Community," the 5,732-word manifesto he posted on February 16.

In addition to diagnosing some of the main causes of our current problems, his attention focused, naturally, on where Facebook can contribute. It's an earnest, well-meaning document, and it's to Zuckerberg's credit that he wrote it, even though its genesis surely has something to do with the glut of bad press Facebook has endured over the past year. If controversy has motivated him to dedicate more resources to constructive purposes, great.

As sincere as Zuckerberg's intentions may be, however, his manifesto is filled with assumptions and opinions that demonstrate, unintentionally, important points about the relationship between technology and society. What follows are four reasons his plans may not lead where he hopes they will.   

1. The "We" Problem. The manifesto's second sentence clearly defines its goal: to answer what Zuckerberg considers "the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?"

An important question, indeed, but who's the "we" he's talking about? Does he think the world Trump voters want is the same world Clinton's voters want? Do Israelis want the same world Palestinians want? As human beings, we share certain basic needs and desires, but beyond that, things get complicated.

The manifesto is shot through with confusion about what Zuckerberg means when he talks about "community." Sometimes he uses that word to refer to the community of Facebook users, other times to the community of the people who work at Facebook, other times to the collective community of humankind. For example, he states at one point, "Whatever your situation when you enter our community, our commitment is to continue improving our tools to give you the power to share your experience." The "our" there clearly refers to the community of Facebook employees, but that sentence is immediately followed by this one: "By increasing the diversity of our ideas and strengthening our common understanding, our community can have the greatest positive impact on the world." Zuckerberg probably isn't talking in that case about increasing the diversity of ideas at Facebook headquarters, but it's hard to tell.
The phrase "common understanding," which he uses several times, is especially awkward. There's no such thing, and to suggest there is points to a fundamental characteristic of technology that Zuckerberg would like to overcome but can't: Action at a distance.

Whether it's a spear used by cavemen or a phone call from London to Los Angeles, technology has the ability to project human will beyond its natural reach. The greater the power of the technology, the greater its reach, and the greater the distance between the instigator of the action and the things or people it affects. This makes it possible, and often unavoidable, to have relationships without intimacy.

The Internet is one of the most dramatic manifestations of action at a distance yet invented, which is why in a little more than a decade Facebook has been able to increase its number of active users from a few hundred to nearly two billion. Zuckerberg emphasizes that those nearly two billion users are broken up into millions of sub-groups, and no doubt that's true. But to think of Facebook's user base as a whole as a "community" stretches that word into meaninglessness, no matter how hard Facebook tries to convince us otherwise. Thus, when I open my Facebook page in the morning and find a greeting that says, "Good morning, Doug! Stay dry in Philadelphia today. Rain is in the forecast," I know it's an algorithm speaking and that there's nothing in the least bit personal about it. Even harder to take seriously is a Facebook message that says, "Doug, we care about you." If it's connection we're after, this isn't it.

The limitations of algorithmic intimacy are indicative of the larger problem. It's understandable that Zuckerberg would be eager to exploit the full the scope of Facebook's potential in pursuit of a better world, but in truth the full scope of Facebook's potential is precisely why it will be difficult to realize the contribution he desires. Zuckerberg recognizes the challenges. He mentions that even if his reviewers catch and remove inappropriate content ninety-nine percent of the time, millions of offensive messages still get through. More sophisticated artificial intelligence systems of control are in the works, he says, but they may take years to develop; "operational scaling" issues cause mistakes. Technologists dream of the perfect set of algorithms, but is it really possible to design a system that accurately monitors the daily communications of two billion people, and would we want one to be used if it were?

Zuckerberg may not want to admit it, but Facebook is much bigger and more powerful than he is. The dirty little secret of his success is that so far he's managed to ride a runaway technology without getting thrown off.

2. The Bowling Alone Problem. Zuckerberg's longing for common understanding points to another contradiction that crops up at various points in his manifesto. On the one hand he's enthusiastic about the role Facebook can play in "building the world we all want." On the other hand building the world we all want from his perspective seems to entail returning to a time before Facebook and other technologies became the powerful forces they are today. He speaks of helping people build "supportive communities that strengthen traditional institutions," and it is those institutions that are the building blocks of the "social infrastructure" he seeks to restore. His "common vision" is one in which "churches, sports teams, unions and other local groups" supplied "us" with "a sense of purpose and hope," "moral validation, "mentorship," "rituals" "accountability" and "guidance," and he mourns a "striking decline" of those institutions and qualities over the past few decades. "Since the 1970s," he notes, "membership in some local groups has declined by as much as one-quarter, cutting across all segments of the population."

There's a poignancy to passages such as these — it's almost as if Zuckerberg wants to "Make America Great Again!" I kept waiting for him to cite Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam's influential treatise documenting the precipitous decline in local group participation and the deleterious impact of that decline on the nation's social fabric. Perhaps the reason Zuckerberg doesn't cite Bowling Alone is that it was published in 2000, four years before Facebook's founding. In the book Putnam notes the growing presence of social media, but says it's far too early to judge whether they'll help mend weakened communal ties.

In his manifesto Zuckerberg says that the decline in local group participation is related to "deeper questions." Surveys reveal widespread feelings of isolation and hopelessness, suggesting to Zuckerberg that the challenges confronting "us" may be "at least as much social as they are economic — related to a lack of community and connection to something greater than ourselves." He quotes a pastor, unnamed, who told him, "People feel unsettled. A lot of what was settling in the past doesn't exist anymore."

Zuckerberg believes Facebook can be an effective tool for helping reduce unease and isolation. He names several examples. A woman with a rare tissue disorder becomes a member of a Facebook group of more than two thousand fellow sufferers; a black father raising two kids alone starts a support group to share advice and encouragement; a group of some 4,000 military families helps spouses connect with one another. I'm sure thousands of other examples of genuinely helpful Facebook networks could be mentioned. I myself have benefitted from re-establishing connections with long-lost friends and from making new acquaintances on Facebook.  

It's also likely, however, that the digital revolution of which Facebook is a part has contributed to the social malaise Zuckerberg describes. It's widely assumed that technological disruption is a cause of the stress and anxiety that's so prevalent today — the phrase "future shock" comes to mind. Thus Zuckerberg offers another of the homeopathic remedies we've come to expect from Silicon Valley: a technological cure for a technological disease.*

One sentence in "Building Global Community" made me laugh out loud: "Just as TV became the primary medium for civic communication in the 1960s, social media is becoming this in the 21st century." Presumably Zuckerberg is thinking of those moments, like the Kennedy assassination or the moon landing, when TV "brought us all together." For the most part, though, what we witnessed in the 1960s was the beginning of the decline of social infrastructure that so worries Zuckerberg now, a decline many if not most social analysts believe had a lot to do with the growing influence of television. One of those analysts is Robert Putnam, who writes in Bowling Alone, "More television watching means less of virtually every form of civic participation and social involvement."

3. The Digital Dualism Problem. Among people who like to philosophize about the Internet there's long been a debate about whether or not you enter a closed, constricted version of the world when you go online. The movie "The Matrix" represents an extreme, sci-fi version of the view that the Internet is a separate, false reality; many parents worry about their children getting lost there. Those who oppose this point of view feel that what they call "digital dualism" is an alarmist construct. Yes, they concede, it's possible to become addicted to technology, but generally speaking, you can be just as engaged with reality when you're online as you are when you're not online.

I'm a consciousness conservative: I believe the absorptive powers of our screens are enormous, and that they do have the effect of narrowing our awareness. On the other hand, as I mentioned, I also think Zuckerberg is correct that Facebook and other social media can, in the right circumstances, serve as a powerful connector of people and communities. He states in his manifesto that Facebook will endeavor in the future to "strengthen existing communities by helping us come together online as well as offline, as well as enabling us to form completely new communities, transcending physical location." 

The question is whether transcending physical location works at cross purposes to rebuilding social infrastructure. Zuckerberg wants it both ways: he's a digital globalist who recognizes the importance of face-to-face, in-person engagement. It's still too early to say with any certainty whether social media's impact overall will be weighted more toward engagement or disengagement. I'm betting the results will continue to be mixed, but that in the long run disengagement will be the winner, as I suspect it is now.

4. The Celebrity Problem. A corollary to the problems with Zuckerberg's manifesto I've mentioned is that he's unqualified to comprehend the problems he hopes to address. Again, I'm not cynical about his intentions. I'm sure he sincerely wants to use the influence he's acquired as a force for good in the world, and I assume he appreciates how lucky he is to have acquired that influence. Nonetheless it’s also true that his manifesto, in addition to being transparently self-serving, reeks of hubris.

Zuckerberg obviously believes that Facebook's incredible success means he possesses special insight into the important issues of the day. Although his position as a famous and powerful person affords him educational and experiential opportunities not available to lesser mortals — conferring with international leaders and traveling first class around the world, for example — they don't erase the fact that before Facebook his interests seemed to have been confined largely to his computer. The intensity of his focus as a hacker certainly paid off, but it's fair to assume it's also left him with deficits in other areas.

In The Boy Kings, her memoir of her days as an early employee at Facebook, Katherine Losse recalls that under the category of "favorite books" on his personal Facebook profile, Zuckerberg wrote "I don't read." His "Year of Books" project was an earnest effort to redress that omission, but reading two books a month for a year on a variety of subjects isn't sufficient preparation for comprehending some of the most complex and intractable issues of our time. 

Zuckerberg's wealth, power and fame also hinder his ability to serve as a reliable social analyst. Simply put, his day-to-day experience unfolds in a rarified atmosphere that's miles above the day-to-day experience of the people and communities he hopes to help. He's announced that by the end of this year he will have personally visited all fifty American states, a project that's ambitious in one sense but quite limited in another, given Facebook's international reach and the global scope of the goals expressed in his manifesto. Will he visit all the regions of France next year, and the territories of India after that? Will some "common understanding" applicable to all these places emerge from his travels?

Again, Zuckerberg's intentions seem sincere enough, and it's good that he's getting out a bit — like Swift's Laputa, Silicon Valley hovers at a distance somewhat removed from terra firma. At best, though, these jaunts can provide only glimpses of the rooted locality that Zuckerberg prescribes as the solution to the disconnections that plague us. Basically they're exercises in celebrity tourism and public relations. Warren Buffett, despite his billions, seems to have remained relatively grounded in Omaha, which may be why his reports to stockholders tend to stick to investment strategies, leaving problems of hopelessness and global community to others. 

Wealth, in fact, is a subject Zuckerberg's manifesto almost entirely ignores. He includes "spreading prosperity" and "lifting people out of poverty" on a laundry list of global "opportunities" now before us, but specific suggestions as to what Facebook can do about those opportunities aren't forthcoming. The word "billion" is mentioned six times, but always in connection with numbers of people or numbers of messages on Facebook, never in association with the word "dollars."

Has Zuckerberg considered the possibility that the growing imbalance between rich and poor — an imbalance technology has played a substantial role in exacerbating — might have something to do with the hopelessness surveys describe? There's no sign in his manifesto he has. If he sees a link between the inability to earn a living wage and the deterioration of "our" communities, "Building Global Community" doesn't mention it. Nor does he discuss whether a connection might exist between global capitalism and the collapse of traditional institutions.

At one point in his manifesto Zuckerberg quotes what he says is his favorite saying about technology: "We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years." As an enthusiast, he seems unable to acknowledge, even as he responds to a string of painful Facebook controversies, that what we actually achieve in ten years might be radically different, and less desirable, than what we hope to achieve.

For more on how technological disruption has provoked psychological disruption since the Industrial Revolution, see my earlier essay, "Falling Man."

©Doug Hill, 2017    

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