Zuck can fix Facebook, but it must change him

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Mark Zuckerberg's 2018 personal challenge is to fix "important issues" about Facebook. It's a grand ambition to want to figure out how the platform is being used for bad purposes and causing harm either through malice or neglect. But -- while trying not to read too much into his declaration -- it's a curiously undirected project, in the sense that Zuckerberg really says only that "I'm looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics."

Experts can and should be consulted on issues like these. But the phrase "bringing groups of experts together" is really pretty empty. Lots of experts come together for lots of reasons in lots of places, and in many cases the only result is an empty box of doughnuts and a memo that nobody ever reads. There's no doubt that Zuckerberg himself is an intelligent person, but he's also fortunate to have lucked into being in the right place at the right time with a tool. That's all that Facebook is: A technological tool. And tools are almost always value-neutral; like Teddy Roosevelt once said, "A vote is like a rifle: Its usefulness depends upon the character of the user." A vote, too, is simply a tool. The question is really one of character. 

And that is the part of the story with the greatest promise -- but also the greatest risk that Zuckerberg's endeavor will end up accomplishing nothing. Ultimately, given the extraordinary control he maintains over Facebook -- the tool and the company -- it is an extension of himself to a degree that has few rivals in history, save a few rare examples like that of William Paley and CBS. So Zuckerberg's plan really doesn't reach far enough: He mostly seems interested in preventing harm, which is necessary...but not sufficient.

Being against something bad is not enough; much harm has been done by missions against other bad things. Anti-Communism is an epic example: It was right to be against Communism, but the incompleteness of that mission allowed ills like McCarthyism and the John Birch Society to fill the void. Anti-fascism may have brought together the USSR, the UK, and the United States as allies in World War II, but Soviet anti-fascism was hollow in the sense that it sought to fill the void with its own totalitarianism.

Zuckerberg is, in many ways, a techno-utopian: His professed belief is in the goodness of the tools themselves. And that means that an effort to purge the bad from Facebook will be incomplete -- just like anti-Communism or anti-fascism. And it's quite unlikely that any meeting of "groups of experts" will provide the right thing to fill the void. Ultimately, it hinges on Zuckerberg's conscience to decide that Facebook is actually for something -- not the ultimate triumph of technology over bad things, because that has never been and never will be the case. Great technology in bad hands is an awful thing.

For himself and for the tool that is such a pure extension of himself, Zuckerberg needs to find a normative philosophy in 2018: Something to strive to be. It will never be enough to be anti-bad, and it will never be adequate to think that perfecting technology will perfect humanity. In choosing something for it to strive to be, Zuckerberg would ultimately narrow the appeal of his tool -- since some people would decide that they object to the goal or conscientiously object. But he would do well to consider the way in which Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite, became the benefactor of the Nobel Peace Prize

Like Facebook, dynamite is a tool, used for purposes both good and evil. Nobel's legacy wasn't to convene experts to tell him how dynamite could be perfected. The tool itself wasn't the ultimate end: It was only a tool. But the goodness of humanity itself and the positive goal of peace? That was Nobel's choice. Whatever comes of Facebook in the years ahead, Mark Zuckerberg has to make a choice, too -- and it isn't about perfecting the "anti-bad" of his platform.

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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