On Thursday 16 February, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and supreme leader of Facebook, the world’s most populous virtual country (population 2bn) published an epistle to his 89m disciple-followers. “Building Global Community” was the headline. “On our journey to connect the world,” the supreme leader began, “we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?”
Good question. But wait a minute, who’s the “we” here? It crops up 156 times in the 5,700-word epistle. And it turns out that it means a lot of different things. Once in a while, it means us – you and me, the poor schmucks who are Facebook users. Sometimes, it’s the entire population of the known world – even those who are not yet Facebook users. Some of the time, it seems to mean the supreme leader and his employees who, it appears, are being called upon to shoulder the Herculean task of building a “global community”. But mostly the message is that the author of the screed presumes to speak for all of humanity. As the critic Nicholas Carr observes: “There is no opt-out to his ‘we’. It’s the default setting and, in Zuckerberg’s totalising utopian vision, the setting is hardwired, universal and non‑negotiable.”
Similarly, what does the supreme leader mean by “community”? It appears more than 80 times in his message, so it must be important. Close reading suggests that Zuckerberg hasn’t the faintest idea of what a real community is: a social group comprising people who don’t agree on everything (think of an English village) but who have devised ways of getting along and doing what needs to be collectively done.
“Our greatest opportunities,” he writes, “are now global – like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses – like ending terrorism, fighting climate change and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community… Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial… In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”
“The reason the idea – that community-building on a planetary scale is practicable, necessary and altogether good – did not seem ‘controversial’ in the beginning was,” observes Carr, “that Zuckerberg, like Silicon Valley in general, operated in a technological bubble, outside of politics, outside of history. Now that history has broken through the bubble and upset the algorithms, history must be put back in its place. Technological determinism must again be made synonymous with historical determinism.”
Carr is right. The best reason for reading the Zuckerberg epistle in full is that it provides the best illustration we have of the degree to which Silicon Valley has become detached from reality. En passant, it also shows how someone can be both staggeringly clever and also astonishingly naive. Facebook’s supreme leader is not an evil person. He just knows little about the world that actual human beings inhabit.
This may be why he has embarked with his wife on a much-remarked voyage of exploration across the US to find out what this puzzlingly obtuse real world is like. The other day, he instructed his satraps to find some Democrats who had voted for Trump, so that he might better understand how people could be so illogical. This strange combination of Forrest Gump’s marathon run and John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley has led some half-witted journalists to surmise that the supreme leader is planning to run for president. The charitable interpretation is more mundane: that Zuckerberg has finally realised that he knows little about the real world and had better start finding out.
There is also, I am sorry to say, a less charitable explanation. It is that he has concluded that what is wrong with the world – all the fanaticism, cruelty, warfare, myopia and xenophobia – is because some parts of the world are not yet on Facebook. If only they were all part of that mythical “global community” then everything would be OK.
I am reminded of the time, several years ago, when Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google, came to Cambridge and told students that a comprehensively networked world would be a much better place. Authoritarian governments would have a harder time holding on to power and there would never again be a genocide in a properly networked society, etc, etc. The students listened to this guff and wondered what the chairman had been smoking. I have the same thought about young Zuckerberg.