One of my favourite books is The Education of Henry Adams (published in 1918). It’s an extended meditation, written in old age by a scion of one of Boston’s elite families, on how the world had changed in his lifetime, and how his formal education had not prepared him for the events through which he had lived. This education had been grounded in the classics, history and literature, and had rendered him incapable, he said, of dealing with the impact of science and technology.
Re-reading Adams recently left me with the thought that there is now an opening for a similar book, The Education of Mark Zuckerberg. It would have an analogous theme, namely how the hero’s education rendered him incapable of understanding the world into which he was born. For although he was supposed to be majoring in psychology at Harvard, the young Zuckerberg mostly took computer science classes until he started Facebook and dropped out. And it turns out that this half-baked education has left him bewildered and rudderless in a culturally complex and politically polarised world.
What is intriguing about the Facebook founder is his astonishing blend of high intelligence, naivety and hubris. In February, when it finally began to dawn on him that the election of Donald Trump might tell us something significant and disturbing about the state of the US society, he wrote a lengthy epistle to his 86 million disciples.
“Today,” it began, “I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?” Ponder that for a moment: note the imperial, hubristic “we” and the implicit assumption that it is possible to build a single world that everyone wants. It comes straight out of the Ladybird book of democracy. The epistle continues in the same vein. “Progress now requires humanity coming together, not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.” And of course Facebook would provide just such a community: after all, it already has more than 2 billion users, which is significantly more people than there are in China.
When it began to dawn on people that the powerful ad-targeting machine that Zuckerberg and his associates had built might also have been used to nudge voters towards Trump and away from Clinton, Zuckerberg’s response was a mixture of denial and incredulity. Then, as the evidence mounted that his machine had indeed been “weaponised” by political actors to send so-called “dark posts” to individual users, he pivoted rapidly from incredulity to scepticism and then – as the evidence became incontrovertible – to technocratic determination to “solve” the problem. In between, he took consolation from the fact that since everyone was now angry with Facebook, the company must be doing something right. “Trump says Facebook is against him,” he wrote. “Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”
Given the ineptitude of his response to the crisis, Zuckerberg makes Theresa May look like Einstein. And therein lies a puzzle. For we know that the lad isn’t stupid. Why then is he apparently behaving like an idiot? The answer is that he cannot come clean about the root of the problem, because to do so would reveal the unpalatable truth that it’s a product of Facebook’s business model.
Facebook, like Google, is an extractive company, rather like ExxonMobil or Glencore. It “mines”, refines, aggregates and sells its users’ personal information and data trails to advertisers, who then use it to target ads at said users. This data is clearly valuable. At the moment, for example, the company earns nearly $20 per user per year (in the US and Canada, anyway) by monetising their data. The downside – from society’s point of view – is that the targeted system that delivers these revenues is easily manipulated by political actors – as we saw from the way Russian interests used it in the 2016 election.
Given the largesse that flows from this golden goose, you can see why Zuckerberg is reluctant to do or say anything that might threaten it. That’s why there’s no discussion about alternative business models that might enable the company to survive without undermining democratic processes. One could, for example, imagine an honest business model – in which people paid an annual subscription for a service that did not rely on targeting people on the basis of the 98 data-points that the company holds on every user. All it would need is for Facebook users to fork out $20 a year for the pleasure of sharing LOLcats with one another.
What’s the likelihood of that happening? You know the answer. Which is why Zuck will continue to keep mum about the sordid reality underpinning his money machine.
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