We’ve been Zucked!

I once wrote a Swamp Note entitled “Have you been Zucked?”. I’ve now tweaked the headline since the answer is clear. I know I’m not the only one who was utterly nauseated by Mark Zuckerberg’s insipid speech at Georgetown University in Washington last week (pictured below), in which the Facebook founder and chief executive posited himself as a protector of free speech, rather than a surveillance capitalist.

It’s hard to know who is more narcissistic and oblivious to reality — Zuck, or our president. And there, let me stop and ask Swampians to take note that I’m bashing both a liberal and a conservative here, so no need for any angry political notes (and thanks to those who’ve sent kind ones in the last couple of weeks after I complained about a deluge of hateful comments).

But back to Big Tech. The idea that a man who has become a billionaire by the industrial-scale monetisation of personal data is invoking Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war and the first amendment of the US constitution in his continuing efforts to avoid appropriate regulation is just beyond. If anyone wonders about the cognitive dangers of being in the Silicon Valley money and power bubble, this is a case in point of how it can truly addle your brain.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
© AP

The looming question is what the future of surveillance capitalism — as practised not only by Facebook, but an increasing number of corporations in and out of Silicon Valley — is going to be. Are we going to continue to allow people such as Mark and his deputy Sheryl Sandberg to tell us that either: a) they have no responsibility for any ramifications of their technologies; or b) they’ve added another 25,000 human content regulators and don’t worry, everything’s fine now (they seem to do both in turns)? Or are we going to say “enough is enough, this is our data that you are turning into a corporate input, and we are taking control of it now, and we will tell YOU what you can and can’t do with it — and how”?

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I’ve just written a new book (you can see the first excerpt here, on the cover of FT Weekend’s Life & Arts section) that argues for the latter. And as part of my book tour, I’ll be moderating a conversation tomorrow at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit with venture capitalist Alan Patricof and technologist Tristan Harris, one of the most important critical voices in the fight against our algorithmic overlords.

Harris, who alerted me to the dangers of 24-7 monitoring, is now running the Center for Humane Technology. He believes that the targeted advertising business model (which by definition requires surveillance) and liberal democracy could be incompatible because companies such as Facebook have facilitated so much disinformation and have so much control of our consumption habits and choices that truly free will on the part of the mass voting public is no longer possible.

If that’s true, then the only question is how to rein in the platforms, which now have more users than the world’s largest companies have people, a point drawn home by Zuck’s choice of Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall to make his speech. This is usually where heads of state hold forth. I find the symbolism there quite frightening, because I know that Zuck and many of his tech titan compatriots view themselves and their corporate creations as supranational, and truly above political control.

Then again, there may be interesting comparisons to be made between Zuck’s dangerous megalomania and that of the president.

Ed, you recently crafted a wonderful FT leader on the clear and present danger that Donald Trump poses to the republic. How do you think Zuck as an individual, and Facebook as a company, stacks up on that score?

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Recommended reading

  • Since we are talking surveillance, I must give a shout out to my colleague Gideon Rachman’s terrific piece on why the west needs to stand up to China on human rights.
  • I was intrigued by Bob Hockett’s piece on how digital currency could support poor neighbourhoods. See, I’m not a Luddite — I’d just like an entity aside from Facebook to be in charge of our e-wallets.
  • And just to stay with the tech theme, check out Charles Duhigg’s piece on whether Amazon is unstoppable. Answer: yes. In fact, I’ve come to see Jeff Bezos a bit like the gilded era railroad barons in the history of the west that my husband is writing about. We desperately need a new Louis Brandeis.

Edward Luce responds

That’s a good question Rana. I recently heard someone make the case that Trump and Zuckerberg have something in common that helps explain their respective megalomanias. Each has spent their whole life within a command and control structure of their own making — Trump in his property empire and Zuckerberg at Facebook. Indeed both were deep into their self-created worlds before they left college at varying stages of completion (Trump, of course, inherited most of his money but then built it entirely around his personal brand). At one level their achievements are spectacularly impressive. It landed one in the White House. The other was arguably the most powerful non-politician in the world before he turned thirty.

At another level it explains their inability to manage forces beyond their self-created bubbles. Trump is probably the most chaotic president in history. Zuckerberg is tone deaf to the fears that Facebook are legitimately generating. Every time he tries to assuage them he makes them worse, as he did last week. At any rate, now is not the time to offer my larger philosophy about surveillance capitalism — to the extent that I have a coherent one. I simply want to acknowledge your bipartisan invitation, Rana, and agree that they both pose big threats to liberal democracy as we know it. Trump is a clear and present danger — but a temporary one. Zuckerberg seems more like a clear and perpetual danger. His power grows every day.



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