Face­book’s dilemma

The Observer - The New Review - - CONTENTS - John Naughton

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.

Mark Zucker­berg: an ‘as­ton­ish­ing blend of in­tel­li­gence, naivety and hubris’.

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