ATN: Nicholas Carr on Zuckerberg’s World

InsightaaS: Let me start this post with a personal admission: I haven’t really been able to read Facebook since last November. The vitriol that poured out on both sides (Clinton didn’t really have a side – it was more anti-Trump and pro-what? Not Trump, exactly, and a little short of ignorance and fascism. Pro-‘recognize that I’m not in favour of the status quo, regardless of what that costs in terms of civility’ maybe).In any event, and sorry for the preceding aside, Facebook became a microcosm of a society where rational discussion was impossible. The situation continues to this day, with factions talking to them selves and past the others. It’s a worrisome situation, and one that seems to have been exacerbated by technology: social media in general, and Facebook in particular, was used (brilliantly if malevolently) to amplify the fake news that ‘informed’ the votes of millions of Americans.

Mark Zuckerberg is apparently determined to start righting some of the wrongs that lay, at least in part, at the feet of his company. He published a long manifesto to his followers that skimmed past the ways that Facebook reinforces bias rooted in ignorance (“The two most discussed concerns this past year were about diversity of viewpoints we see (filter bubbles) and accuracy of information (fake news). I worry about these and we have studied them extensively, but I also worry there are even more powerful effects we must mitigate around sensationalism and polarization leading to a loss of common understanding”), and focuses instead on the ways that Facebook can lead positive change in the future: “many of us around the world are reflecting on how we can have the most positive impact…we may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today.”

This leads to the actual subject of today’s ATN: a response to this post, entitled “Zuckerberg’s world,” by Nicholas Carr. Carr has become one of the foremost sources of philosophical thought on IT and its impact on society. He offers a highly-intelligent perspective that isn’t constrained by mainstream positions; this is very valuable, and can be highly entertaining as well.

“Zuckerberg’s world” is a good illustration of Carr’s approach. He dissects the key assumptions underlying Zuckerberg’s positions, laying bare Zuckerberg’s belief that whatever problems emerge from use of the platform can be addressed by simply focusing on better results and screening for bias and misinformation. Put that way, Zuckerberg’s approach is at best laughably naive, and at worse, a prescription for a further-factionlized and more intolerant world.

But this editorializing does a disservice to Carr’s witty and incisive post – it stands powerfully on its own, and is well worth the time spent reading (and thinking about) it!

The word “community” appears, by my rough count, 98 times in Mark Zuckerberg’s latest message to the masses. In a post-fact world, truth is approached through repetition. The message that is transmitted most often is the fittest message, the message that wins. Verification becomes a matter of pattern recognition. It’s the epistemology of the meme, the sword by which Facebook lives and dies.

Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?

It’s a good question, though I’m not sure there is any world that we all want, and if there is one, I’m not sure Mark Zuckerberg is the guy I’d appoint to define it. And yet, from his virtual pulpit, surrounded by his 86 million followers, the young Facebook CEO hesitates not a bit to speak for everyone, in the first person plural. There is no opt-out to his “we.” It’s the default setting and, in Zuckerberg’s totalizing utopian vision, the setting is hardwired, universal, and nonnegotiable.

Our greatest opportunities 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.

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 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.

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.

Infrastructure is destiny. (The word “infrastructure” appears 24 times in Zuckerberg’s message.) Society is not a fluctuating arrangement of contending and at times noxious interests brought into a tenuous equilibrium through a difficult, ongoing process of negotiation and struggle. Society is itself a technology, a built thing that, correctly constructed, “works for all of us.” Get the engineering right, and the human community will scale as a computer network scales. Global harmony becomes a technological inevitability…

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