Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe
By Roger McNamee
The dystopia George Orwell conjured up in “1984” wasn’t a prediction. It was, instead, a reflection. Newspeak, the Ministry of Truth, the Inner Party, the Outer Party — that novel sampled and remixed a reality that Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism had already made apparent. Scary stuff, certainly, but maybe the more frightening dystopia is the one no one warned you about, the one you wake up one morning to realize you’re living inside.
Roger McNamee, an esteemed venture capitalist, would appear to agree. “A dystopian technology future overran our lives before we were ready,” he writes in “Zucked.” Think that sounds like overstatement? Let’s examine the evidence. At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry T.A. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself “a platform.” Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men. No one is paid by the company for this labor; on the contrary, users are rewarded by being tracked across the web, even when logged out, and consequently strip-mined by a complicated artificial intelligence trained to sort surveilled information into approximately 29,000 predictive data points, which are then made available to advertisers and other third parties, who now know everything that can be known about a person without trepanning her skull. Amazingly, none of this is secret, despite the company’s best efforts to keep it so. Somehow, people still use and love this platform.
Hostile foreign intelligence services also love this platform, if only because its users have proved shockingly vulnerable to social manipulation — a dark art the company itself has admitted to dabbling in. In 2014, the company set out to learn whether it could make its users sad and angry on purpose. It learned it could. When this astonishing breach of user trust became public, the company claimed it wasn’t a big deal, that many companies did similar things. It was, and they don’t.
A tech company founded on creating human connection is now ripping American society apart and compromising our civic foundation, though not because it has overtly wicked intent. As McNamee elucidates, our “democracy has been undermined because of design choices.” Choices including the platform’s pleasurable, frictionless interface, which encourages users to stay and return. It’s no stretch to posit that because human neurotransmitters respond to the platform’s iconic use of a certain shade of blue, and spark with dopamine upon receiving a “like” or “tag” notification, desperate children are now living in cages and a raving madman occupies the Oval Office. Not even Orwell, after a feast of psilocybin, could have predicted this dystopia. This one’s all ours.
For any aliens or recently arrived time travelers reading this, the company in question is Facebook, and its young leader Mark Zuckerberg, with whom McNamee has such a long and familiar relationship so as to refer to him throughout by his diminutive, Zuck. In 2006, McNamee writes, he counseled the 22-year-old C.E.O. against selling Facebook to Yahoo for a billion dollars. “I don’t want to disappoint everyone,” Zuckerberg said. McNamee urged him to look beyond that and “keep Facebook independent.” Zuck heeded McNamee’s advice, and here we are.
McNamee also profited from this mentorship. Along with his venture capital firm, Elevation Partners, the author made a fortune off an early investment in Zuckerberg’s company, a subject about which he is now suitably circumspect, given his belief that Facebook, along with Google and other tech giants, today represents “the greatest threat to the global order in my lifetime.” A self-identified “capitalist,” McNamee currently advocates breaking up Facebook’s data monopoly by force, and heavily regulating its appalling business practices. “Zucked” is thus a candid and highly entertaining explanation of how and why a man who spent decades picking tech winners and cheering his industry on has been carried to the shore of social activism.
McNamee saves his most conspicuous outrage for Facebook’s amoral leadership at the hands of not just Zuckerberg but also his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, whom McNamee recommended Zuck hire before she could take a job at The Washington Post. McNamee describes their grip on the company as “the most centralized decision-making structure I have ever encountered in a large company.” Their power dyad is possible only because Facebook’s “core platform,” as McNamee puts it, is relatively simple: It “consists of a product and a monetization scheme.” Non-tech companies with comparable global reach (Coca-Cola, Exxon) must deal with complex real-world infrastructure issues as well as the needs of a highly diverse work force. Large corporations also typically create interrelated eddies of economic activity, whereas Facebook’s business model is founded upon sucking the economic activity out of otherwise productive workers. Most troubling of all, a company whose product is used by one-third of the planet has only 30,000 employees. In every imaginable sense, Facebook is a Borg-like drain on the world’s economy. It doesn’t make you better and likely makes you worse. Unlike Exxon, it can’t even get you to Albuquerque.
The story of Facebook has been told many times before, but McNamee does a superb job of contextualizing its rise within the proper technological history. Without the advents of the iPhone, cloud data storage and the industry’s “lean start-up” model, Facebook may well have wandered down the bleak path of the short-lived early-2000s social media entities Myspace and Friendster. McNamee also takes care to remind the reader of the telltale heart (or lack thereof) beating beneath the floorboards of Facebook headquarters: Its first iteration, Facemash, invited Harvard students to compare photos of female classmates — photos Zuckerberg stole from online student housing directories — for the high cause of determining who was hotter. Yes, the world’s fourth most valuable company can trace its origins to the frustrated misogyny of an ur-incel. The moral vacuousness Zuckerberg displayed as a young adult should have told us something about how he and many other young “disrupters” intended to operate. As McNamee writes, “You can imagine how attractive a philosophy that absolves practitioners of responsibility for the impact of their actions on others would be to entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley.”
The most stirring parts of the book are those in which McNamee makes the angry but measured argument that “social media has enabled personal views that had previously been kept in check by social pressure.” The kook we will always have with us, to paraphrase Jesus, but the kooks of yore had to work to maintain their kookery and locate fellow kooks. They had to pick up their kook phone, subscribe to the kook newsletter, drive to the kook convention. Nowadays, all the kook has to do is log in to Facebook, where his feed will be enlivened by the chatter of fellow — and likely more extreme — kooks, toward which Facebook’s algorithms helpfully steer him. Zuckerberg et al. probably didn’t set out to transform American neo-Nazism into this generation’s punk rock, but the platforms they created have generated “a feedback loop that reinforces and amplifies ideas with a speed and at a scale that are unprecedented.”
McNamee’s book is not merely the cri de coeur of a forsworn tech optimist zinged by moral conscience. It’s also a robust and helpful itemization of the ways Facebook could be brought to heel. McNamee clearly believes the company can be made into something more benign, and perhaps even socially beneficial. That may or may not be true, but the damage it has already done is not precisely containable. Considering the high likelihood that Russian activity on Facebook may have tipped the 2016 election to Donald Trump, the damage is already of generational measure.
But here’s the bizarre quirk of the Facebook dystopia, whose sheer perversity would have likely pleased Orwell: It’s all Big and no Brother. Our time and lives are the company’s only currency. Without our continued attention, Facebook quite literally has nothing, and its empire could be brought down with a feather. Now, blow.
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