Benevolent digital dictators, without control

What is Facebook? That strange but relevant question was recently at the center of a long piece by Select All. Clearly, to describe Facebook and other highly influential tech firms simply as profit-driven companies like any other enterprise falls absurdly short, as it doesn’t allow us to grasp what they do and what they represent. It is like labeling every person as a “human”, and then ignoring what she/he does with their life. Obviously, it matters to our understanding of that person whether we are talking to a car mechanic, artist or president of a state.

The title of the article posed the question if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows what Facebook is. Most likely he doesn’t. Facebook’s conflation with essentially every of our civilization’s and daily life’s major systems, has turned Facebook into a thing which doesn’t represent anything that humanity has seen before, and that lacks a proper descriptive name.

Bill Fitzgerald describes the status quo like this:

“For all the talk of disruptive innovation, how tech entrepreneurs are the smartest people in the room, etc, etc, we are now in a situation where billions of dollars have been spent creating platforms that the creators neither control nor understand.”

So we don’t know what Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are. Neither do their leaders. Nor do they have control. Sounds awkward and uncomfortable.

This also leads to another question: Who/What is Mark Zuckerberg, who/what is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? If Facebook and Twitter aren’t just companies like [enter any major brand or manufacturer of consumer goods or traditional media company], then these guys aren’t just CEOs. They are something else.

Here is my proposal: They are a type of dictator. A digital equivalent, not ruling over geographical nations but over something akin to a digital nation. For now, these dictators are not intentionally evil. They are, or at least want to be, benevolent. And last but not least, as we just learned, they are kind of clueless and have lost control.

Digital, benevolent, clueless dictators without control over what’s happening with their platforms. But with the (accidental and undemocratic) power to change the whole world. That’s something to chew on.

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How to think about today’s larger than life tech moguls

Stephen Hawking predicts that humans only have at best 100 years left on Earth, therefore colonizing space as fast as possible is essential. Elon Musk wants to bring tens of thousands of people to Mars for the same reason. He also expects a brain computer to become feasible within a comparatively near future. Mark Zuckerberg believes that connecting every human being on a digital platform (his digital platform) will make the world a better place. And Jack Dorsey believes in the importance of a platform to spread 140-character messages to the world.

When very accomplished and respected people from the technology industry and neighboring fields forecast the future and explain their visions, we listen. But should we?

That’s a question I ask myself every time when some bold quote about the future made by one of today’s tech celebrities travels through the international media.

The larger than life individuals from the entrepreneurial and technology sphere that nowadays dominate the headlines belong without a doubt to the smartest people on this planet. Otherwise they wouldn’t be in positions in which everyone listen to them. But they also are humans with the same flaws as everyone else. Their brains don’t fundamentally function in a different way. They simply have developed ways to leverage the brain’s capabilities in an especially effective way while simultaneously limiting or controlling the negative effects that their cognitive biases and primal impulses have on their own thinking.

Still, as long as they are human beings (to which there are no indications for the contrary), there will be flaws, thinking errors, biases. If whenever you speak everyone pays attention no matter how freaky your ideas are, how do you make sure not to develop hubris? The risk for an inflated ego inevitably increases.

That alone suggests that one should never stop being skeptical about any of these claims, no matter how much one otherwise admires a person. In addition, it’s impossible to distinguish the genuine result of hard and long thinking about humanity and the future from the self-serving promotion of narratives conducive to one individual’s reputation or strategic business interests. Does Mark Zuckerberg really believe what he wrote in his controversial manifesto, or has he chosen to claim to believe it knowing that promoting this vision will make his company prosper?

What I am writing here might sound obvious. Yet, thanks to the Halo effect, once we acknowledge someone’s accomplishments and intellectual authority, we tend to be susceptible to overestimating their foresight and intelligence in other areas of life and fields of knowledge. We tend to ignore the range of other motivations or causes that could be behind their statements.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt just cited a popular story about how ATMs led to more bank teller jobs – and was properly called out for this flawed anecdote. But he of course knows that rebuttals usually are only seen by a small share of those who heard or read about the initial claim.

In these moments when I catch myself forgetting to remain sceptical, I like to picture sitting with Musk or Zuckerberg in a bar, them being completely drunk. That usually helps to put things into perspective.

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Zuckerberg’s globalization manifesto says: “it’s really, really… really complicated”

That’s the type of coincidence I like: Just a few days after I opened a blog post with the rhetorical question about what’s keeping Mark Zuckerberg up at night, the Facebook CEO published an extensive open letter titled “Building a global community”, offering a few hints (reading time according to Instapaper: 23 minutes).

In what certainly must be called a “manifesto”, Zuckerberg offers his view on why globalization is experiencing a backlash and outlines on which principles Facebook will attempt to help tackling these issues.

Significant self-criticism is (unsurprisingly) missing. The text lacks any sincere acknowledgements of possible direct causations between certain unfortunate global trends and the rise of Facebook – which grew from 0 to almost 2 billion active members within only a bit more than 10 years.

Continue Reading

Zuckerberg’s Lock-in Effect

What’s keeping Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg up at night? Is it imaginable that he, despite public denials, feels at least some kind of worry about Facebook’s prominent role in the dramatic reshaping of the political landscape and the increasing polarization that can be witnessed in many countries? Does he ever have doubts about whether the company lives up to its promise to “make the world more open and connected” in the long run? Could the 32-year-old at least occasionally ponder the possibility that the sweeping changes that are shaking the foundations and structures of modern societies, might be much more sever due to Facebook?

Only Mark Zuckerberg himself knows the honest answer. But let’s for hypothetical reasons entertain the idea that the creator and head of history’s probably most influential company at least wouldn’t totally rule out negative effects that his platform’s dominance has on trust in democracy and on the ability of public consensus-building – it tragically would not matter. Zuckerberg wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. And that despite him having managed to retain so many voting rights that he technically can do whatever he wants – as long as it serves the company goals, of course. Continue Reading

Facebook’s strength is Mark Zuckerberg’s foresight

This article is also available in German.

To me, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the most impressive person of the past 10 years. Stating that does not mean that I have no critical thoughts on Facebook. I do. But looking at achievements in both professional and private life, on personal growth and on having a vision and sticking to it in the short and long-term, I am not aware of any other contemporary public person with a similar track record.

There is one thing which I am especially amazed about when it comes to Zuckerberg: His bold acquisition decisions which are repeatedly characterized by the following pattern: First they seem insane, but over time, they look smarter and smarter. Continue Reading