[Note: the English is well below par, this time, I know. The reason is that what follows was not originally delivered as a post, but as episode 1×19 of my podcast in Italian, dataKnightmare. Hence the curious constructs and abundance of coordinate clauses. I chose timeliness over sophistication. -W]
A few days ago Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO and second richest man in the world, has bestowed his “vision” upon the world. Vision is a word used to indicate the thinking of the rich and powerful. You or I may have mere thoughts: Zuckerberg, Gates and their ilk no, they have visions. No pun intended.
If you’re pressed for conclusions let me tell you straight away: Zuckerberg’s manifesto is but a bombastic brag about how Facebook sees it as its mission to grant us the privilege to change the world:
- with the tools that Facebook provides us with
- according to the lines that Facebook, without any oversight or accountability, decided for us.
Zuckerberg’s vision comes in the form of a very long note (approximately 17 pages) in his own Facebook profile. This is interesting in itself. Any international media outlet would pay good money to host his “vision”, but Zuckerberg self-published it.
I do not know his reasons, but it is a fact that any media would accept an interview, not a statement. No one would let him rattle off 5741 words without at least an attempt at counterpoint. The media, for all their faults, still have a spoonful of dignity.
Instead, by self-publishing Zuckerberg made two statements:
- he needs no middlemen to speak to his subjects
- he is not expressing opinions, he is announcing his decisions.
The second point, if you will, is in line with his being a CEO (whose task is to reassure investors of the company’s profitability), but it is at odds with the portrait that Zuckerberg himself gives of Facebook as a political tool, even an enabler of the democratic process.
And maybe that’s the point: Zuckerberg is not speaking of our democracies, but of his own private empire. In the best tradition of capitalism where profit goes to capital and costs to society, Zuckerberg tells us what we can and can not do, what we should and should not do with Facebook to face the problems of our societies in our time. He, on the other hand, will simply extract a rent out of it all.
But first things first.
The word that Zuckerberg uses most frequently is “community”. Facebook users, in his view, are a supranational community united by the platform Zuckerberg graciously provides. The second key word in importance is “infrastructure”, used 24 times. Facebook wants to build the infrastructure for his global community. Put simply: he is telling us he wants to govern it. It goes without saying that, according to Zuck I, national laws are just a temporary hiccup. The Empire of Facebook sets its own rules and its objectives, and abidance by the law of a province is the gracious concession of the autocrat, not the recognition of another sovereign power.
The reference to national laws has probably more to do with the desire of Zuck I to enter the Chinese and Russian markets than to anything else. China and Russia dare demand for themselves, and for free, the same surveillance powers that the Emperor regards as his exclusive property to rent.
Let us not fool ourselves: when it comes to surveillance levels, China and Russia pale in comparison to Facebook and the other giant platforms.
With two differences:
- sovereign states still recognize a shared legal system that limits the freedom of action even of the central power
- states collect surveillance information and act on it; in Facebook, instead, surveillance is reserved to the Empire, while action is distributed and outsourced: anyone willing to pay a tribute can partake the social and political responsibility for acting on the surveillance the Empire exerts unchallenged.
Comedy Relief, Zuck-Style
Zuckerberg’s long rant also offers some light entertainment. Like when, after listing all the dewy-eyed ways Facebook allows us to keep in touch with those truly important in our lives even when far apart, his Majesty tells us that Facebook is also
“a way to pass time”
(Which, perhaps, is the only phrase in 17 pages that can be taken at face value.)
Or when Zuck I is surprised that startups do not focus on the clear and present issues of our times:
I have long expected more organizations and startups to build health and safety tools using technology, and I have been surprised by how little of what must be built has even been attempted.
That is to say, the Emperor is surprised that so many follow in his tracks. That the two most profitable industries today are online marketing and speculative finance is not the fault of Zuck I. On the other hand, as he says, he does not meddle with these details; he only looks to increase the weight and value of Facebook.
The speech of Zuck I is that of a CEO-emperor, but nonetheless a CEO.
Welcome to the Empire
In Zuckerberg’s view, social life must migrate into Facebook, so as to make it even more profitable, and the solution to society’s problems is, needless to say, technological. Governments and laws do not matter anymore, Facebook will solve everything with Artificial Intelligence. Hear the Emperor’s words:
One of our greatest opportunities to keep people safe is building artificial intelligence to understand quickly and accurately what is happening across our community.
This approach raises immense problems: even assuming that such an approach can ever be effective (and there are strong indications to the contrary), we are talking about a proprietary, and therefore secret, algorithm with the power to decide if what we say is true, false or even if it is terrorist propaganda (Zuck makes this very example). And this from the company that removed as offensive the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a child running naked because napalm had burned her clothes (and, incidentally, her village) and pictures of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna (that, too, as most classical and neoclassical statues, naked).
But all this is fair for Zuck I, because Artificial Intelligence means that he won’t spend on wages (thus containing costs) but in technological development, from which investors can expect juicy returns.
And here we come to the real heart of the message: Facebook is bigger than governments and it is now time for the world to become a part of Facebook, no longer the converse. Zuck I issues specific warnings to all interested parties: politicians, businessmen, society at large. Everyone must know that only invisibility and irrelevance await those who dare venture outside of Facebook’s gates.
Let’s hear it from the Emperor:
we helped more than 2 million people register to vote and then go vote. This was among the largest voter turnout efforts in history, and larger than those of both major parties combined
So, political parties and candidates now know that only Facebook can let them reach their constituents. Zuckerberg again, I quote:
[Facebook is] the world’s largest social infrastructure for collective action
[In Nepal a few years ago we] crowdfunded the largest relief effort in history
We are strong advocates of encryption and have built it into the largest messaging platform in the world [WhatsApp]
End quotes. So, governments and assorted powers interested in a backdoor know where to go. And again:
From India and Indonesia across Europe to the United States – we’ve seen that the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins.
End quote. Once again, parties and candidates should know where to bring their campaign contributions.
We can help establish direct dialogue and accountability between people and our elected leaders.
Parliaments of the world, get used to it: elected officials must respond on Facebook. This idea is already yesterday’s news in Italy, but we must admit that Zuckerberg leaves poor Grillo and his long-awaited “Five Star Operating System” in the dust.
Given all this, one would expect a claim of responsibility. As a matter of fact, Zuck I does recognize that things have recently gotten a bit out of hand:
In the last year, the complexity of the issues we’ve seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community
Here the Emperor seems to recognize the limits of his power. Any other businessman would at this point probably say that perhaps certain issues are not part of the business plan. But Zuck I thinks big:
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year reflecting on how we can improve our community governance
How reassuring to know that the Emperor has spent “a lot of time in the last year reflecting” on centuries of study. He must mean, in the time he had left from family obligations, a newborn daughter, a business to run and from the numerous “pastoral” trips he took around the world.
Irony aside, there is no room for anyone: only Facebook will have a say in how to deal with the social and political problems of Facebook. The “community of Facebook” has the same weight and the same autonomy as the herd of the faithful in a speech of the Pope: it can follow the path indicated by the Good Shepherd.
There will be those who say “Facebook is a private company, if you do not like it, you are free to leave”. True, but Zuck is explicitly acknowledging Facebook’s role as both a publisher and a manager of a public space; these are activities that, because of their social importance, even when privately run private, come with quite a few duties and obligations; duties and obligations that Zuck I, when he does not vocally refuse them, carefully fails to mention.
As further evidence that Facebook recognizes users but not their governments or their laws, his solution for settling disputes is
to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them
And before anyone imagines otherwise, “democracy” in the empire of data means choosing among the options made available to us.
…give everyone in the community options for how they would like to set the content policy for themselves … the Default will be whatever the majority of people in your region selected, like a referendum.
So, we are free to see what the majority chooses or thinks is safe to choose, or to enter the limelight, because all our choices inside facebook are recorded and auctioned off to whomever is willing to pay for them. Secret police included.
We’re not talking about car brands or favorite sports here, but of choices that expose our views on politics, sex and religion.
Incidentally, it is precisely these details that the European General Regulation on Data Protection identifies as “sensitive data.” Facebook is telling us that if we do not want join the majority, we can tell Facebook our political, sexual and religious preferences, so that our feed can reflect them. And so that marketers, politicians and police all over the world can analyze them for the right price, and possibly use them against us at their own leisure.
Zuck I goes as far as to admit that Facebook will comply with the local laws of a country; it’s when, for the only time in 5741 words, he does mention the word “law”:
Although We will still block content based on standards and local laws, our hope is that this system of personal controls and democratic referenda should minimize restrictions on what we can share.
And from this it is clear that the law, according to Zuck I, is but a temporary obstacle in the way to centralized and automatic Imperial control.
It is worth repeating that choosing from the options Zuck I provides is the only degree of autonomy granted to subjects.
With his speech the Emperor is telling us that our states and our laws are superseded to his exclusive benefit. Everything we thought of as acquired and inalienable rights are now gracious concessions of this enlightened ruler.
If until now we had the right to hold and express a political opinion, and to make it count in a secret vote, soon we will notify it to Facebook, which will sell the information exclusively to whomever is willing to pay for it, in exchange for the privilege of our own, personalised, content feed.
Not once in 5741 words is the fundamental assumption of the Empire ever questioned, that Facebook reserves an absolute right to record and resell all our personal information, whether direct or inferred from the mythological “artificial intelligence” that will solve all problems.
Not once we are proposed an alternative to being analysed up to the smallest details: Facebook is and will always remain a personal information extraction platform from which Facebook alone is entitled to profit.
We might expect these objections from a thinker, a scholar or simply by a person who asks real questions looking for real answers. But Zuck I is just a CEO.
And it is precisely the misery of his vision that makes the Emperor’s speech a trivial statement to shareholders. There is no vision for Facebook that goes beyond its existence as a rentable hunting reserve for marketers and thought police.
The obsessive repetition of the word “community” (108 times, once every 50 words) and the use of the plural majestatis can not hide the fact that Facebook exists and will continue to exist to extract free resources from many for the profit of a few (and especially of one).
Not only that, but in the name of this profit and of its extension to the entire planet, the Empire: * imposes on all subjects a level of surveillance equal to or higher than that of China and Russia * resells the private information it gathers, ever more detailed, ever more personal, to anyone willing to pay * and does all this without any accountability or oversight, without any accuracy check on the information it trades or any possibility of correction or deletion.
Nations, while handling far less information, take on themselves a large amount of obligations and, of course, are eventually accountable to citizens through parliaments.
The Empire, on the other hand, operates with impunity, without recognising any responsibility, and even has the nerve to come and tell us that our laws and our states are too limited to handle the problems that the Empire faces.
The Empire has collected 10 billion dollars in profits in 2016 reselling the smallest details, real or inferred, of our online activities to anyone willing to buy. Of these profits the Empire expects to pay as much as 18% in taxes, unless some tropical island comes to help.
Facebook, with over one and a half billion users, thus makes $7 per year per active user. A negligible figure, often used to signify that free use of the platform is fair pay for users. This is false. If data are only profitable in large amounts, then it must be society as a whole to profit from them, rather than individuals. Data is a commons that belongs to the entire society, not to the guy in the lucky position to collect them.
Zuck can try and speak as if he were Alexander the Great, he can even quote Abraham Lincoln, but his vision stops at the bottom line.
Speaking as an emperor, Zuck just makes his job as CEO, seeking his interest and that of his investors.
Granted, we can not expect a broader perspective from him or from a culture that until recently blithered about the “end of history”. We must be the ones to remind this man spoiled by the Gods, that of larger Empires than his only dust remains today. History is no User Agreement, no matter how much money one can leverage.
The network society may still be in its infancy, but still, anyone who cares to look can see that it is not even remotely like the Empire of Zuck I.