Mark Zuckerberg

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I was critical last month of a line in a Nick Bilton article I otherwise liked. The Vanity Fair “Hive” writer offered this assessment of Mark Zuckerberg: “His skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” I don’t think that’s so, and even if it were, the Facebook co-founder, multi-billionaire and perhaps Presidential aspirant wouldn’t likely be suited for the role. Despite his stated goal to divest himself of nearly his entire fortune to causes bettering humanity, Zuck has been from the start a morally dubious person who knowingly rose to prominence on the back of a company dedicated to mass surveillance, surreptitious “social experiments” and profiting from neo-Nazi social networking. The dishonest narrative about Facebook being a means of improving the world makes the reality worse. The company has always been about the accumulation of money and power.

It’s not that there’s no hope for Zuckerberg. There have been few bigger assholes than Bill Gates during his Microsoft heyday, and now the sweater-clad 2.0 version is actually eradicating diseases. (Truth be told, however, several people I’ve met who work for the Gates Foundation still don’t have great things to say about him as a boss.) But the social network CEO’s nation-wide “listening tour” and photo-ops in cow pastures and on shrimp boats aren’t convincing evidence he’s learned from mistakes, nor was his recent “Building Global Community” manifesto, which essentially just promised more of the same. Like many Facebook users, Zuckerberg seems to be presenting an image of what he’d like people to see rather than what’s really there. 

In the two excerpts below, Bilton takes a more skeptical look at Facebook in wake of this week’s anti-Semitic advertising scandal, and Matt Haig of the Guardian argues that social media is an unhappiness-making machine.

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From Bilton:

Since the election (and even leading up to it), it’s become abundantly clear that social media presented itself as a profoundly useful tool for the Russians, extremists, and possiblyeven people within the Trump campaign, to potentially disfigure our electoral process. Before Trump co-opted the term “fake news” to describe entirely accurate, if unfavorable, stories about him, real fake news was being created and proliferated at scale. Algorithms on Facebook didn’t work to try to stop this from happening, but rather to ensure that these fake stories landed right on the digital doorsteps of the people who might find them most interesting, and who might change their votes as a result of that content. Twitter’s problem with political bots has existed for as long as I can remember. Earlier this year,a data researcher noticedthat there were hundreds of Twitter accounts ending with a string of eight numbers (like @DavidJo52951945) that only tweeted about hot-button political topics, all of which followed each other. This might seem harmless on some level, but these accounts had been disseminating incredibly divisive (and oftentimes fake) stories about Brexit, Ukraine, and Syria, plus anti-immigration articles from outlets like Breitbart and excessively schismatic articles from the Daily Mail. The researcher also found that these accounts only tweetedbetween 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Moscow time, and only during the week—almost as if it were someone’s job in Russia to do so. The accounts have tens of thousands of followers, and the suspected propagandists behind themstoked the flames of dissentby creating far-left bots which would go after Trump and his supporters.

I don’t actually see these issues as massive problems within themselves. Of course people are going to try to manipulate these technologies. The larger issue, however, is that these enormous, profoundly wealthy companies aren’t doing enough to stop them, and are not being held accountable. (Twitter andFacebookhave attempted to crackdown on trolls in some ways since the election.) Curiously, Wall Street, which still remains oddly buoyant in the Trump era (it’s amazing what the rich will sacrifice for tax reform) is not chastising Silicon Valley for the extensive role it played in the mess we find ourselves in today. Facebook is worth $491 billion, despite months’ worth of news stories indicating it allowed Russian accounts to buy and target pages and adson its network during the election, which estimates say could have reached 70 million Americans. Twitter’s stock, while bumpy, has barely moved since news definitively broke about all of the“fake Americans”that Russia created and operated on the social network during the election. (Here’s a fun game: go look at Donald Trump’s latest followers on Twitter and see how long it takes you to find a real human being who has recently joined and followed him. Most accounts have names like @N4wapWLVHmeYKAq and @Aiana37481266.)

Earlier this week, Sam Biddle argued on The Intercept that Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to go before Congress about the role Facebook played in Russia’s propaganda efforts. “Zuckerberg should publicly testify under oath before Congress on his company’s capabilities to influence the political process, be it Russian meddling or anything else,” Biddle wrote. “If the company is as powerful as it promises advertisers, it should be held accountable.” There are also reports that there is now a “red-hot” focus on social media by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. But in both of these instances, there needs to be real consequences. It doesn’t take 20,000 employees to see the apathy and neglect these platforms have played, and continue to play, in the attacks against democracy by the people who want to see it fall.•

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From Haig:

Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.

And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.

The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed.•

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There’s no doubt Mark Zuckerberg is a top-shelf CEO, even if the product he’s selling is dubious, an advertising scheme that connects hatemongers as surely as old lovers, can aid in toppling democracies as well as autocracies and is willing to quietly conduct “social experiments” on its customers, who are used as an endless source of free content to publish and private information to repurpose. No matter how much the Facebook founder claims to be repairing the ill effects of his company, he’s really just doubling down on its core tenets, which seem as likely as not to be antithetical to healthy societies.

In a Nick Bilton Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer analyzes Zuckerberg’s many recent moves which make it seem like he’s readying himself for a White House run. (My own thoughts on the same can be read here.) As with all Bilton pieces, there’s interesting insight, though I do think one line in his conclusion borders on ludicrous.

Bilton writes that Zuckerberg’s “skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” That would be a fairly ridiculous statement regardless of who we were talking about. Bill Gates is legitimately eradicating diseases and no one believes he can counteract “so much of what ails us.” No one would believe that about a President of the United States, even on those happy occasions when we have a sane and intelligent one who doesn’t believe he can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens.

It can’t be that Bilton believes Zuckerberg is capable of healing the country’s major problems just because he’s a bright and wealthy person because there are many far smarter and some modestly richer. It has to be the CEO’s management abilities and Facebook itself which elicited this judgement, but the former has been used to mixed results at best as far as civic life is concerned and the latter may permanently be more a negative than a positive. 

Considering Bilton acknowledges elsewhere in the article that Zuckerberg is clueless about his fellow citizens, his “remedy” line just sounds like more Silicon Valley idol worship, something best approached lightly in this moment of Theranos, Juicero, Kalanick, Damore and Thiel.

From Bilton:

I have my own theory as to what’s going on here. Over the years, I’ve spent some time with Zuckerberg, and I always got the feeling that he truly believed there wasn’t a problem that technology couldn’t solve. He felt deeply, and likely still does, that he was using Facebook to connect people, and that those connections were making the world a better place.

Lately, however, it appears that he has realized that there is another darker side to all of this technology. That the opioid epidemic has grown because of the Internet, that sites like Twitter enable people to spew hatred and lie without repercussions, and—most importantly—that his very own Web site was used by Russian hackers and idiot bros in the Midwest to share fake news stories that helped give us President Trump.

Zuckerberg may have ascended to prominence as a brilliant technologist, but he has turned Facebook into a behemoth because he is also a generationally gifted chief executive, someone who tends to think 20 steps ahead. In fact, I’ve never met a C.E.O. who can do this with such adroitness. I’m sure that the possibility of public office has crossed Zuckerberg’s mind, but probably for a reason that none of us have thought of, and it may also be 19 steps down the line. I don’t think he’s going to be on the ballot for 2020, but I do think he has left the option open to run for office one day. Maybe it won’t be the highest office in the land, too, but rather mayor of Palo Alto, or governor of California. Or maybe Zuckerberg just wants to join the local community board near his house. But, nevertheless, I think he’s got a larger plan in mind that we mere mortals just don’t understand: there isn’t a world in which Zuckerberg would amend the S-1 with that update, fully aware that his every move is scrutinized by investors, with zero intention of ever using an ounce of latitude afforded by the amendment.

But there’s something else I’ve come to believe about Zuckerberg over the past several months. As his surrogates have said to me, he partially wants to do this tour of America to show he’s just like us, and in touch with how Facebook (and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) can affect people. Unfortunately, though, I think his expedition has had the opposite effect, and highlighted just how out of touch Zuckerberg really is with the rest of the country. While he can plan 20 moves ahead, he can’t seem to understand that cavorting around the country with a professional photographer, snapping disingenuous images of him milking cows, touring shrimp boats in the Bayou, and having dinner with a lovely family in Ohio, seems aloof or, worse, patronizing. I have some advice for Zuckerberg: fire your photographer. If you want to post a picture of yourself at dinner in Ohio, take a selfie like everyone else on the planet.•

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Prior to dropping out of Harvard to turn Facebook into the most populous “state” on Earth, one that dwarfs even China, Mark Zuckerberg was a double major. One of those areas of study, unsurprisingly, was computer science. As John Lanchester reminds in his excellent London Review of Books essay about the social network, the other concentration, psychology, is at least as vital in understanding how the entrepreneur was so successful in executing the McLuhan nightmare of a Global Village well beyond what anyone else had been able to accomplish.

Zuckerberg didn’t really invent anything, as Friendster was already on the map. But his predecessor quickly faded while he’s developed the fastest growing service in the global history of business. His corporation’s amazing boom was and is driven primarily by three factors: The entrepreneur was at the right age to understand the trajectory of the market, he used his copious venture capital money to attract brilliant engineers, and he willfully exploited a hole in our psyches. An Lanchester succinctly puts it: Zuckerberg had a keen understanding of the “social dynamics of popularity and status.”

That’s permitted the company to “hire” 2,000,000,000 people to create free content for the platform each month, which would make Facebook by far the largest sweatshop in the annals of humanity, except even those dodgy operations pay some small wage. All you get for your efforts from Zuckerberg are “friends” and “likes,” which may be an even more lopsided return than receiving some strings of shiny beads in exchange for Manhattan.

The company might not have gone anywhere, however, had it not be for early seed money from Peter Thiel, the immigrant “genius” who was sure there were WMDs in Iraq and that Donald Trump would be a great President. It seemed at one point that Thiel had a moral blind spot to rival the one exhibited by Hitler’s secretary, but it’s become increasingly clear that he’s actively a morally dubious figure. What attracted the investor to the peculiar product was his reading of René Girard ideas on “mimesis,” which asserted that all human desires are borrowed from other people and we have an innate need to copy one another. The philosopher viewed this tendency as a human failing with sometimes grave consequences. Thiel saw it as an opportunity. 

The blinding success of social media enriched Zuckerberg and Thiel, but is it good for individual users and society on a wider scale? This question is one that the Facebook founder has probably never even entertained. His offspring can’t be a bad seed because he’s too deeply invested in it. Instead, after Facebook was deluged with criticism for its non-response to those who used the platform as a repository for Fake News during the 2016 Presidential election, Zuckerberg proposed a “solution” in his “Building Global Community” manifesto, one that essentially doubled down on the elements of his brainchild (extending connectedness and building “communities”) that are among the very problems. Certainly it benefits the company to downplay rather than neutralize Fake News, since Facebook, an advertising company, profits handsomely from such bullshit content.

The still-young businessman might have another dubious plan to cure what ails America politically. Having publicly renounced atheism, embarked on a 50-states listening tour to pose for photo ops milking cows and hired Hillary Clinton’s pollster, Zuckerberg seems to have his eye on the White House. It’s a wonder why he would accept a demotion to leading a nation of such a relatively puny size. One thing is sure: If he does run, Zuckerberg will appear to be what he thinks we want him to be while promising to bring us together. That’s nothing new on the campaign trail, though it’s attended by a fresh ominousness considering the source.

An excerpt:

Zuckerberg’s news about Facebook’s size came with an announcement which may or may not prove to be significant. He said that the company was changing its ‘mission statement’, its version of the canting pieties beloved of corporate America. Facebook’s mission used to be ‘making the world more open and connected’. A non-Facebooker reading that is likely to ask: why? Connection is presented as an end in itself, an inherently and automatically good thing. Is it, though? Flaubert was sceptical about trains because he thought (in Julian Barnes’s paraphrase) that ‘the railway would merely permit more people to move about, meet and be stupid.’ You don’t have to be as misanthropic as Flaubert to wonder if something similar isn’t true about connecting people on Facebook. For instance, Facebook is generally agreed to have played a big, perhaps even a crucial, role in the election of Donald Trump. The benefit to humanity is not clear. This thought, or something like it, seems to have occurred to Zuckerberg, because the new mission statement spells out a reason for all this connectedness. It says that the new mission is to ‘give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’.

Hmm. Alphabet’s mission statement, ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’, came accompanied by the maxim ‘Don’t be evil,’ which has been the source of a lot of ridicule: Steve Jobs called it ‘bullshit’.​1 Which it is, but it isn’t only bullshit. Plenty of companies, indeed entire industries, base their business model on being evil. The insurance business, for instance, depends on the fact that insurers charge customers more than their insurance is worth; that’s fair enough, since if they didn’t do that they wouldn’t be viable as businesses. What isn’t fair is the panoply of cynical techniques that many insurers use to avoid, as far as possible, paying out when the insured-against event happens. Just ask anyone who has had a property suffer a major mishap. It’s worth saying ‘Don’t be evil,’ because lots of businesses are. This is especially an issue in the world of the internet. Internet companies are working in a field that is poorly understood (if understood at all) by customers and regulators. The stuff they’re doing, if they’re any good at all, is by definition new. In that overlapping area of novelty and ignorance and unregulation, it’s well worth reminding employees not to be evil, because if the company succeeds and grows, plenty of chances to be evil are going to come along.

Google and Facebook have both been walking this line from the beginning. Their styles of doing so are different. An internet entrepreneur I know has had dealings with both companies. ‘YouTube knows they have lots of dirty things going on and are keen to try and do some good to alleviate it,’ he told me. I asked what he meant by ‘dirty’. ‘Terrorist and extremist content, stolen content, copyright violations. That kind of thing. But Google in my experience knows that there are ambiguities, moral doubts, around some of what they do, and at least they try to think about it. Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’.

That might sound harsh. There have, however, been ethical problems and ambiguities about Facebook since the moment of its creation, a fact we know because its creator was live-blogging at the time.•

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That Mark Zuckerberg’s self-described religious conversion and his 50-states “listening tour” have been carefully managed, documented and publicized for public consumption is undeniable, but let’s not suppose that something so staged will be unsuccessful. After all, there’s never been a more obvious con man than Donald Trump, so let us never, ever again underestimate the propensity of Americans to be impressed by fabulously wealthy celebrities going through the motions. Enough of us assume they have to be brilliant and special. 

Maybe the founder of Facebook, the platform of choice for Alt-Reich enthusiasts, is really prepping for a 2020 Presidential run that will be aided by his media holdings–like Berlusconi minus all the fascinating bunga bunga?–or perhaps he’s just trying on a new style like when he was killing the animals he ate or being a proud Atheist or saying idiotic pseudo-philosophical about dying Africans. Sure, it’s possible he’s truly changed and grown, but real personal development is not usually connected to the end of a selfie stick.

Regardless, there are many Americans who’d be far better in the Oval Office and at least one who’s way worse.

From Mike Isaac of the New York Times:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In March, Mark Zuckerberg visited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the site of a mass murder by a white supremacist.

Last month, he went to Dayton, Ohio, to sit down with recovering opioid addicts at a rehabilitation center.

And he spent an afternoon in Blanchardville, Wis., with Jed Gant, whose family has owned a dairy and beef cattle farm for six generations.

These were all stops along a road trip by Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, across the United States this year. His goal: to visit every state in the union and learn more about a sliver of the nearly two billion people who regularly use the social network.

On Thursday, in a commencement speech at Harvard, from which he dropped out in 2005, Mr. Zuckerberg discussed how his views on how people live and work with one another had broadened, partly as a result of what he has seen on the tour. He said he had come to realize that churches, civic centers and other organized meeting places are integral to building and maintaining a strong sense of community.

“As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go,” said Mr. Zuckerberg, who also received an honorary doctoral degree at the ceremony. “I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.”

To his critics, Mr. Zuckerberg’s road trip is a stunt and has taken on the trappings of a political campaign. His every pit stop — eating with a farming family in Ohio; feeding a baby calf at a farm in Wisconsin — has been artfully photographed and managed, and then posted to Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

“He has all of the mechanics needed for a massive, well-staged media operation,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watchdog group. “Photographers, handlers, its size, scope and scale — all the ingredients are there. And he’s appearing in an environment where there’s no sole Democratic leader or counterbalance to Trump, who’s consuming all the oxygen in media.”

Mr. Zuckerberg has publicly denied that he is using the visits as a platform to run for public office.•

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When the idea of online personalization was first presented to me by an Web 1.0 entrepreneur, I was unimpressed and uninterested, saying I preferred newspapers and magazines introducing me to ideas I hadn’t been seeking. You could have your very own tailor-made newspaper or magazine, I was told, but I insisted that wasn’t what I would subscribe to. I naively believed others would feel the same way.

When the very young version of Mark Zuckerberg (who is still young) infamously said “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” he betrayed himself as stunningly callous at that point in his life but also demonstrated the myopia of personalization. Our new tools can enable us to live in a bubble, but that doesn’t mean they ennoble us.

Targeted information helps maximize online advertising revenue, but it’s lousy for democracy, paradoxically offering us greater freedom while simultaneously undermining it. Whether the Internet is inherently at odds with liberty is a valid question. And considering Fox News has been fake news for more than 20 years, the decentralized media in general has to similarly analyzed.


The opening of Tim Harford’s latest Financial Times column:

“Our goal is to build the perfect personalised newspaper for every person in the world,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2014. This newspaper would “show you the stuff that’s going to be most interesting to you.”

To many, that statement explains perfectly why Facebook is such a terrible source of news.

A “fake news” story proclaiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump was, according to an analysis from BuzzFeed, the single most successful item of news on Facebook in the three months before the US election. If that’s what the site’s algorithms decide is interesting, it’s far from being a “perfect newspaper.”

It’s no wonder that Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot after Trump’s election. Shortly after his victory, Zuckerberg declared: “I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way . . . is a pretty crazy idea.” His comment was greeted with a scornful response.

I should confess my own biases here. I despise Facebook for all the reasons people usually despise Facebook (privacy, market power, distraction, fake-smile social interactions and the rest). And, as a loyal FT columnist, I need hardly point out that the perfect newspaper is the one you’re reading right now.

But, despite this, I’m going to stand up for Zuckerberg, who recently posted a 5,700-word essay defending social media. What he says in the essay feels like it must be wrong. But the data suggest that he’s right. Fake news can stoke isolated incidents of hatred and violence. But neither fake news nor the algorithmically driven “filter bubble” is a major force in the overall media landscape. Not yet.•


From Eli Pariser in the New York Times in 2011:

Like the old gatekeepers, the engineers who write the new gatekeeping code have enormous power to determine what we know about the world. But unlike the best of the old gatekeepers, they don’t see themselves as keepers of the public trust. There is no algorithmic equivalent to journalistic ethics.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” At Facebook, “relevance” is virtually the sole criterion that determines what users see. Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy. But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution.

There’s no going back to the old system of gatekeepers, nor should there be. But if algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see, we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow “relevance.” They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.

Companies that make use of these algorithms must take this curative responsibility far more seriously than they have to date. They need to give us control over what we see — making it clear when they are personalizing, and allowing us to shape and adjust our own filters. We citizens need to uphold our end, too — developing the “filter literacy” needed to use these tools well and demanding content that broadens our horizons even when it’s uncomfortable.

It is in our collective interest to ensure that the Internet lives up to its potential as a revolutionary connective medium. This won’t happen if we’re all sealed off in our own personalized online worlds.•

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In America, quantity matters.

Peter Thiel’s billions has impressed all manner of serious people, economists and social scientists and politicos, dollar signs making them somehow ignore that this “genius” was sure that there were WMDs in Iraq and certain that an unqualified sociopath should lead the nation. He may be smart about business, but he’s stupid about life, and it’s the kind of stupid that can get people killed. Thiel’s a rich man and a poor one.

His fellow Silicon Valley billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is also sanctified for large numbers. Not only does he have oodles of money, but reportedly close to two billion people are active on Facebook, that quasi-nation, which is part surveillance state and also the world’s largest sweatshop. 

Despite years of dubious business moves, comments and “social experiments,” Zuckerberg may not be a bad person, but he also isn’t necessarily a wise one, despite what the shallowest of scoreboards may say. His recent religious revival and 50-state “listening tour” provoked speculation that he’d watched another (perhaps) billionaire celebrity snake his way into the Oval Office and decided he wanted to get into the game. He certainly would be better than Trump, but maybe we should actually elect someone who’s qualified?

But why settle for a petty bureaucrat’s position like President when you can lord over a multi-national empire?

In Zuckerberg’s recent 5,700-word position paper, “Building Global Community,” he asserts that his company must lead the way in building an Earth-sized social fabric, something that doesn’t take into consideration that a) many of us want no part of Facebook, b) many of the users possess bigoted and anti-social views, c) having for-profit companies play such a role is huge potential for abuses and d) there’s no substitute for good government or actual (rather than virtual) political movements. Moreover, social media is as much a bane to democracy as a boon–and that may be a hopeful reading of its effects–so such an initiative may be akin to treating a poisoning victim with more poison.

The opening of Nicholas Carr’s outstanding Rough Type post about the Facebook founder’s massive missive, which eviscerates its “self-serving fantasy about social relations”:

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.•

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Which one of you geniuses broke Mark Zuckerberg? We can’t have anything nice because of you people!

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. Every day hundreds of millions of citizens around the world create content for the corporation for free, which would make it by far history’s largest sweatshop except even those toiling in airless factories are paid a pittance. Not only do “friends” contribute this work, they’re also tracked relentlessly and occasionally serve as lab rats for social experiments.

Even beyond the corrosive nature of surveillance capitalism, the whole enterprise just seems unhealthy psychologically. I don’t think every day should be a high school reunion. Maybe we should leave some things behind, move on, grow up. Facebook just seems like an unhappiness machine to me.

None of my peeves seem to bother the communications wunderkind, but perhaps the recent fake news outrage has driven him over the edge? Two recent stories about Zuckerberg make it clear he’s had a come-to-Jesus moment and also a come-to-Jarvis one. He’s searching for guidance or God or AI or some entity with intelligence. Zuck may be the sort of billionaire hippie we haven’t seen since Gerald Levin. Hopefully, it works out better for him.

Two excerpts follow.

The opening of “Mark Zuckerberg Builds an AI Assistant to Run His House — and Entertain His Toddler,” a WaPo piece by Abha Bhattarai:

Mark Zuckerberg has a new housemate: Jarvis, an artificial intelligence assistant he created this year that can control appliances, play music, recognize faces and, perhaps most impressively, entertain his toddler.

The Facebook founder spent 100 hours putting together the virtual assistant — named after the artificial intelligence system in “Iron Man” — which understands spoken commands as well as text messages, he wrote in a 3,000-word Facebook post Monday.

Among Jarvis’s skills: adjusting the home thermostat, turning on lights and operating the toaster. The virtual assistant texts Zuckerberg images of visitors who stop by during the day and opens the front door for those it recognizes. It can also tell when Zuckerberg’s 1-year-old daughter, Max, wakes up “so it can start playing music or a Mandarin lesson,” he wrote.

In a tongue-in-cheek video he posted Tuesday on Facebook, Zuckerberg offers an example of Jarvis at work: “Max woke up a few minutes ago. I’m entertaining her,” the virtual assistant (voiced by Morgan Freeman) tells Zuckerberg, before turning his attention to the toddler. “Good morning Max, let’s practice our Mandarin.”

The year-long project was part of an effort to learn about the state of artificial intelligence, Zuckerberg wrote.•


The opening of April Siese’s Quartz post “Mark Zuckerberg Says He’s No Longer an Atheist“:

For years, Mark Zuckerberg identified as an atheist—at least on his profile page. But in a holiday message posted on Dec. 25, the Facebook CEO nods at a potential return to religion.

Zuck wished his friends a “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah from Priscilla, Max, Beast and me!,” to which one user replied “Aren’t you an atheist?”

“No,” Zuckerberg responded. “I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

The Facebook founder has alluded to his spirituality in the past. During a trip to China in 2015, Zuckerberg “offered a prayer for peace and health for the world and for my family” in front of Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. “Buddhism is an amazing religion and philosophy, and I have been learning more about it over time,” he wrote on Facebook at the time. “I hope to continue understanding the faith more deeply.”•

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It’s not likely that Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are spoken to honestly very often, certainly not by those who work for them. What good could come of that for an employee? Perhaps, then, no one has been brazen enough to directly point out that their defense of Trump supporter and emotional homunculus Peter Thiel, if not his politics, is utter horseshit. 

“There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault,” Zuckerberg wrote in defense of maintaining Thiel as a Facebook board member. Bezos added at a Vanity Fair event that “it’s way too divisive to say if you have an opinion, you can’t sit on my board…that makes no sense.”

What really makes no sense is Thiel being treated as if he just so happens to be supporting a fellow conservative, a right-of-center politician who earned the Republican nomination. But Trump isn’t that. He’s someone who’s called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, used anti-Semitic memes online, labeled Mexicans rapists and African-Americans inherently lazy, threatened to jail his political opponent who’s been found guilty of no crime, promised to change libel laws to diminish journalistic freedom and boasted about sexually assaulting women.

Thiel, who’s spoken out against multiculturalism, made puzzling comments about suffrage and had a checkbook ready when racists like Hulk Hogan or Trump needed an assist, wants people to accept that he loathes his candidate’s overt bigotry–his “personal characteristics,” as Thiel terms it–and only supports the GOP nominee because he somehow possesses the magical talents to “fix America,” or some such thing, despite having demonstrated not even a basic understanding of foreign or domestic policy. As I’ve said before, Thiel is the single best argument for a return to the draconian progressive tax rates of the Eisenhower Administration. 

The venture capitalist has the absolute right to support financially and otherwise this Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, but sitting on the board of Facebook and working for the Y Combinator is a privilege, not a right. Zuckerberg and the rest can’t pretend this is politics as usual. Il Duce and his fellow 1930s Fascist Adolf Hitler also were popular with millions of their citizens. That wasn’t “diversity,” but tyranny. So it is, perhaps, again.

From David Streitfeld at the New York Times:

Two weeks ago, Mr. Thiel revealed that he was donating $1.25 million to support the election of Donald J. Trump. As these things go, it was a small gift. Dustin Moskovitz, a founder of Facebook, is giving tens of millions to support Hillary Clinton. But the news made Mr. Thiel a pariah in much of the tech community.

He was accused of promoting racism and intolerance. There were demands that Facebook drop him from its board of directors and that Silicon Valley’s leading start-up incubator, Y Combinator, sever ties with him. Emotions and accusations raged on Twitter. …

“I was surprised by the intensity,” Mr. Thiel said. “This is one of the few times I was involved in something that was not a fringe effort but was mainstream. Millions of people are backing Trump. I did not appreciate quite how polarizing the election would be in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.”

“By lending his image, his voice, his influence and substantial capital to Trump, Thiel isn’t simply exercising his legal right to vote: He is fueling and enabling racism, sexism, sexual assault, violence and tyranny,” Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, a Los Angeles venture firm, wrote in a blog post.

She said she turned down an investment of $500,000 — a huge sum for a small firm like Backstage — because of the investor’s ties to Mr. Thiel. Ms. Hamilton did not identify the investor or respond to an email.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, defended the company’s association with Mr. Thiel, emphasizing that it did not endorse his views — and much less Mr. Trump’s — but was striving to be inclusive toward those whose values differed from its own. Critics noted that if diversity was such a cherished value in Silicon Valley, why wasn’t there more of it?•

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The introduction to Nicholas Carr’s soon-to-be published essay collection, Utopia Is Creepy, has been excerpted at Aeon, and it’s a beauty. The writer argues (powerfully) that we’ve defined “progress as essentially technological,” even though the Digital Age quickly became corrupted by commercial interests, and the initial thrill of the Internet faded as it became “civilized” in the most derogatory, Twain-ish use of that word. To Carr, the something gained (access to an avalanche of information) is overwhelmed by what’s lost (withdrawal from reality). The critic applies John Kenneth Galbraith’s term “innocent fraud” to the Silicon Valley marketing of techno-utopianism. 

You could extrapolate this thinking to much of our contemporary culture: binge-watching endless content, Pokémon Go, Comic-Con, fake Reality TV shows, reality-altering cable news, etc. Carr suggests we use the tools of Silicon Valley while refusing the ethos. Perhaps that’s possible, but I doubt you can separate such things.

An excerpt:

The greatest of the United States’ homegrown religions – greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology – is the religion of technology. John Adolphus Etzler, a Pittsburgher, sounded the trumpet in his testament The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (1833). By fulfilling its ‘mechanical purposes’, he wrote, the US would turn itself into a new Eden, a ‘state of superabundance’ where ‘there will be a continual feast, parties of pleasures, novelties, delights and instructive occupations’, not to mention ‘vegetables of infinite variety and appearance’.

Similar predictions proliferated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in their visions of ‘technological majesty’, as the critic and historian Perry Miller wrote, we find the true American sublime. We might blow kisses to agrarians such as Jefferson and tree-huggers such as Thoreau, but we put our faith in Edison and Ford, Gates and Zuckerberg. It is the technologists who shall lead us.

Cyberspace, with its disembodied voices and ethereal avatars, seemed mystical from the start, its unearthly vastness a receptacle for the spiritual yearnings and tropes of the US. ‘What better way,’ wrote the philosopher Michael Heim inThe Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace’ (1991), ‘to emulate God’s knowledge than to generate a virtual world constituted by bits of information?’ In 1999, the year Google moved from a Menlo Park garage to a Palo Alto office, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto predicting ‘the second coming of the computer’, replete with gauzy images of ‘cyberbodies drift[ing] in the computational cosmos’ and ‘beautifully laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens’.

The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. ‘Behold,’ proclaimed Wired in an August 2005 cover story: we are entering a ‘new world’, powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s ‘electricity of participation’. It would be a paradise of our own making, ‘manufactured by users’. History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. ‘You and I are alive at this moment.’

The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’. Echoing Etzler (and Karl Marx), he declared that ‘for the first time in history’ humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: ‘we will be whoever we want to be.’ And: ‘The main fields of human endeavour will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.’ The only thing he left out was the vegetables.•

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Facebook doesn’t likely give a frig about journalism and cares even less for journalists. Excellent reportage may as well be Angry Birds or emoticons or some other empty calories. If Zuckerberg’s nation-state could make more money by offering absolutely no journalism, by erasing every last bit of it from the social network, it likely wouldn’t hesitate to do so. The company has absolutely no commitment to journalism, because that’s not the business Facebook is in. It’s in the money business. The company’s so-called mutually beneficial arrangement with traditional news publishers may ultimately play out like a zero-sum game.

The opening of a Gizmodo piece by Michael Nuñez about the unpleasantness of the social network’s trending-news department:

Depending on whom you ask, Facebook is either the savior or destroyer of journalism in our time. An estimated 600 million people see a news story on Facebook every week, and the social network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has been transparent about his goal to monopolize digital news distribution. “When news is as fast as everything else on Facebook, people will naturally read a lot more news,” he said in a Q&A last year, adding that he wants Facebook Instant Articles to be the “primary news experience people have.”

Facebook’s stranglehold over the traffic pipe has pushed digital publishers into an uneasy alliance with the $350 billion behemoth, and the news business has been caught up in a jittery debate about what, precisely, the company’s intentions are. Will it swallow the business whole, or does it really just want publishers to put neat things in users’ news feeds? For its part, Facebook—which has recently begun paying publishers including Buzzfeed and the New York Times to post a quota of Facebook Live videos every week—bills its relationship with the media as a mutually beneficial landlord-tenant partnership.

But if you really want to know what Facebook thinks of journalists and their craft, all you need to do is look at what happened when the company quietly assembled some to work on its secretive “trending news” project. The results aren’t pretty: According to five former members of Facebook’s trending news team—“news curators” as they’re known internally—Zuckerberg & Co. take a downright dim view of the industry and its talent. In interviews with Gizmodo, these former curators described grueling work conditions, humiliating treatment, and a secretive, imperious culture in which they were treated as disposable outsiders. After doing a tour in Facebook’s news trenches, almost all of them came to believe that they were there not to work, but to serve as training modules for Facebook’s algorithm.•

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More than a billion people work for free for Mark Zuckerberg. The log in to Facebook–although they actually never really log out–and get to work creating content. Sure, they receive some utility and sense of belonging in return for their efforts and data and willingness to be social experiments, but they’re essentially serfs in a virtual world where they have little voice in how their information is repurposed. Everything in this virtual society may be virtual, but it seems a new kind of nation-state by most  measurements. 

It’s clear from his investments and comments that Zuckerberg wants VR to be a key part of this new parallel universe. A recent photo of the Facebook founder striding to the stage at the Mobile World Congress in Spain, scores of journalists in VR headsets unaware of his entrance, has been widely circulated. I bet a lot of people even took time to post it on Facebook. How nice of them to volunteer their services! In the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey offers a sharp analysis of the off-putting picture. An excerpt:

Zuckerberg has said that, in his vision for the future, these virtual experiences will be fundamentally social. But the photo suggests something quite different: Hundreds of people share a physical space, but no perception, no experience, no phenomenological anchor. The communality of a conference (literally from conferre, “to bring together”) is thrown over for a series of hyper-individualized bubbles. And you’re reminded, from Zuckerberg’s awkward semi-smile, that the man who owns the bubbles also owns what’s in them. That controlling virtual reality, in other words, is only a step from controlling reality itself.

Then again, Zuckerberg arguably does that already.•

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Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, members of the 1% club no matter how you work out the door policy, have pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook stock. It’s a wonderfully generous thing, but not an easy one to pull off well, and of course the process will be heavily influenced by the worldview of the Facebook founder.

In the announcement of his intentions, Zuckerberg asked this question: “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?” Listen, I want the world to be 100 times smarter (or even 2 times smarter), but that sounds like he’s investing money in brain chips and VR gear, which is fascinating, sure, but not quite the Gates-ian antimalarial efforts some might have anticipated. In all fairness, the technologist also mentions disease prevention and eradication, but there’s an awful lot of sci-fi-esque wording about radical life extension and the like. A lot of progress may ultimately come from future-forward neuro- and bioengineering, or maybe it will be money spent poorly. Good intentions and good execution are not the same thing.

In a similar vein, a Daily Beast piece by Charlotte Lytton notes that 2015 was the year that Silicon Valley became something of an Immortality Industrial Complex, with the well-compensated wanting to live forever, or at least until their stock options run out. An excerpt:

Might it be more charitable, then, to use the billions being funneled through avoidance schemes into abiding by the law and helping to reverse the problems created by a deficit-laden economy you’ve willfully avoided paying money to for an extended period of time?

“It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way,” explained bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. “But I also want to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying, and I’m worried that our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in.” 

Her sentiments were echoed by Bill Gates, the world’s second greatest philanthropist (after Warren Buffet), who expressed that “it seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer” in a Reddit AMA earlier this year.

In any case, whether significant progress of the ilk [Peter] Thiel and co. are searching for will ever be made remains a big “if.” But should one of these projects yield a major discovery, who will benefit? As we’ve gleaned from the plethora of “free” services made flesh (or screen) by these businessmen, there’s no such thing as something for nothing—and that something has largely been handing over our personal data.•

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A few days ago, Mark Zuckerberg took a break from collecting your personal information and allowing you to create content for him for free, to answer some questions in a Facebook Q&A. Like most Silicon Valley successes, he likes meditating on the big questions. Stephen Hawking and Jeff Jarvis are among the questioners.

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Stephen Hawking:

I would like to know a unified theory of gravity and the other forces. Which of the big questions in science would you like to know the answer to and why?

Mark Zuckerberg:

That’s a pretty good one!

I’m most interested in questions about people. What will enable us to live forever? How do we cure all diseases? How does the brain work? How does learning work and how we can empower humans to learn a million times more?

I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is.

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Jeff Jarvis:

Mark: What do you think Facebook’s role is in news? I’m delighted to see Instant Articles and that it includes a business model to help support good journalism. What’s next?

Mark Zuckerberg:

People discover and read a lot of news content on Facebook, so we spend a lot of time making this experience as good as possible.

One of the biggest issues today is just that reading news is slow. If you’re using our mobile app and you tap on a photo, it typically loads immediately. But if you tap on a news link, since that content isn’t stored on Facebook and you have to download it from elsewhere, it can take 10+ seconds to load. People don’t want to wait that long, so a lot of people abandon news before it has loaded or just don’t even bother tapping on things in the first place, even if they wanted to read them.

That’s easy to solve, and we’re working on it with Instant Articles. When news is as fast as everything else on Facebook, people will naturally read a lot more news. That will be good for helping people be more informed about the world, and it will be good for the news ecosystem because it will deliver more traffic.

It’s important to keep in mind that Instant Articles isn’t a change we make by ourselves. We can release the format, but it will take a while for most publishers to adopt it. So when you ask about the “next thing”, it really is getting Instant Articles fully rolled out and making it the primary news experience people have.

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Ben Romberg:

Hi Mark, tell us more about the AI initiatives that Facebook are involved in.

Mark Zuckerberg:

Most of our AI research is focused on understanding the meaning of what people share.

For example, if you take a photo that has a friend in it, then we should make sure that friend sees it. If you take a photo of a dog or write a post about politics, we should understand that so we can show that post and help you connect to people who like dogs and politics.

In order to do this really well, our goal is to build AI systems that are better than humans at our primary senses: vision, listening, etc.

For vision, we’re building systems that can recognize everything that’s in an image or a video. This includes people, objects, scenes, etc. These systems need to understand the context of the images and videos as well as whatever is in them.

For listening and language, we’re focusing on translating speech to text, text between any languages, and also being able to answer any natural language question you ask.

This is a pretty basic overview. There’s a lot more we’re doing and I’m looking forward to sharing more soon.

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Jenni Moore:

Also in 10 years time what’s your view on the world where do you think we all will be from a technology perspective and social media?

Mark Zuckerberg:

In 10 years, I hope we’ve improved a lot of how the world connects. We’re doing a few big things:

First, we’re working on spreading internet access around the world through Internet.org. This is the most basic tool people need to get the benefits of the internet — jobs, education, communication, etc. Today, almost 2/3 of the world has no internet access. In the next 10 years, Internet.org has the potential to help connect hundreds of millions or billions of people who do not have access to the internet today.

As a side point, research has found that for every 10 people who gain access to the internet, about 1 person is raised out of poverty. So if we can connect the 4 billion people in the world who are unconnected, we can potentially raise 400 million people out of poverty. That’s perhaps one of the greatest things we can do in the world.

Second, we’re working on AI because we think more intelligent services will be much more useful for you to use. For example, if we had computers that could understand the meaning of the posts in News Feed and show you more things you’re interested in, that would be pretty amazing. Similarly, if we could build computers that could understand what’s in an image and could tell a blind person who otherwise couldn’t see that image, that would be pretty amazing as well. This is all within our reach and I hope we can deliver it in the next 10 years.

Third, we’re working on VR because I think it’s the next major computing and communication platform after phones. In the future we’ll probably still carry phones in our pockets, but I think we’ll also have glasses on our faces that can help us out throughout the day and give us the ability to share our experiences with those we love in completely immersive and new ways that aren’t possible today.

Those are just three of the things we’re working on for the next 10 years. I’m pretty excited about the future.•

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Oculus Rift, the VR firm acquired by Facebook, may end up being an educational tool, but its value will depend on if we learn lessons good or bad. Of course, we’ve managed to perpetrate genocide, slavery and other atrocities without any aid from virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke to the efficacy of his new toy, though his words unintentionally came out sounding as much like a threat as a promise, not a first for him. From Kerry Flynn at International Business Times:

Facebook Inc. spent $2 billion to buy Oculus VR, a maker of virtual reality wearables, in March 2014. Over a year later, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is still trying to justify the deal. With the Oculus Rift headset, which has yet to hit the consumer market, Facebook wants togive people the power to experience anything,” Zuckerberg said during a public Q&A held on his Facebook page Tuesday.

“Even if you don’t have the ability to travel somewhere or to be with someone in person, or even if something is physically impossible to build in our analog world, the goal is to help build a medium that will give you the ability to do all of these things you might not otherwise be able to do,” Zuckerberg wrote.•

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If any of the current big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple) exists 50 years from now, would we even recognize it? Google seems especially anxious to remake itself in grand ways, knowing that answering queries might not always pay the bills. With focus on driverless-car software and other moonshots, it has a chance to be that very successful company that used to be a search giant. Remember when? No?!?

Facebook is a dicier proposition. In a category infamous for faddishness, it snaked its way into the American conversation, before constricting into a choke hold. It’s not foundational, though it often feels as if it is. Ello, the social-network phenomenon of the last five minutes, isn’t likely to reach Facebook status because nothing is likely to. But it’s all the rage right now due to the distrust users have for Zuckenberg as a social director. The wariness is warranted. From Ruby J. Murray at the Guardian:

“This year marks a decade since Mark Zuckerberg and his motley crew of 20 year old programmers moved to Palo Alto, California, and defined a new phase in the internet’s infant history with their soothing blue sans-serif. Facebook has succeeded by providing us with a mirror during our early development. It’s inevitable demise will stem from a problem that only starts to hit you as you grow up: the complicated nature of time.

Facebook’s core identity management strategy is its photo albums. They’re the only part of ourselves that it lets us store, search and catalogue in any meaningful way. Narcissus-like, we can organise thousands upon thousands of images of our selves down through the years. There is no similar organizing function for the identities we create as we change: our thoughts, books, links, articles and music.

Considering that Facebook claims American users spend 40 minutes a day on the site – a whopping 243 hours a year – it’s no surprise that our past selves are starting to seem oppressive and unwieldy in their muumuus.

Facebook’s most important social function, the flipside to the photograph, used to be that it truly did give you a place to connect. A shared hive mind with people you would otherwise drift away from. Then Facebook began using a News Feed algorithms and default filters to choose whose posts you saw, they were trying to slow down the wall – and boost the likelihood you’d see Britney Spears’ updates over your friends. Its overall effect was infantalising. When Facebook acts like an overbearing parent, it’s only natural that the adults will want to move out.

The constant data-collection and streams of personalized advertising added injury to the insult of what was already feeling like a tight, airless social space. The internet can seem like so much light and pulses, but its effects are real. Visually and emotionally, the self you inhabit on Facebook is still a child.”

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Trusting Facebook or Google or any large data-mining tech corporation with our information, let alone our emotions, is a mistake. And is many cases, it’s not a matter of a poor choice by us–there’s no choice at all. We’re inside that matrix now. The opening of Robert Booth’s Guardian report on Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth executing large-scale psychological experiments on unsuspecting users:

“It already knows whether you are single or dating, the first school you went to and whether you like or loathe Justin Bieber. But now Facebook, the world’s biggest social networking site, is facing a storm of protest after it revealed it had discovered how to make users feel happier or sadder with a few computer key strokes.

It has published details of a vast experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process of ’emotional contagion.’

In a study with academics from Cornell and the University of California, Facebook filtered users’ news feeds – the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network. One test reduced users’ exposure to their friends’ ‘positive emotional content,’ resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to ‘negative emotional content’ and the opposite happened.

The study concluded: ‘Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks.’

Lawyers, internet activists and politicians said this weekend that the mass experiment in emotional manipulation was ‘scandalous,’ ‘spooky’ and ‘disturbing.'”

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The Bay Area, home of Moneyball, seems to have created a market inefficiency waiting to be exploited: tech workers who’ve reached their thirtieth birthdays. A strong bias in favor of not just young employees but very young ones, a culture with values akin to Logan’s Run, has left talented people fearing their first wrinkle or gray hair. Where will these “olds” go? The opening of Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article “The Brutal Ageism of Tech“:

“I have more botox in me than any ten people,’ Dr. Seth Matarasso told me in an exam room this February.

He is a reality-show producer’s idea of a cosmetic surgeon—his demeanor brash, his bone structure preposterous. Over the course of our hour-long conversation, he would periodically fire questions at me, apropos of nothing, in the manner of my young daughter. ‘What gym do you go to?’ ‘What’s your back look like?’ ‘Who did your nose?’ In lieu of bidding me goodbye, he called out, ‘Love me, mean it,’ as he walked away.

Twenty years ago, when Matarasso first opened shop in San Francisco, he found that he was mostly helping patients in late middle age: former homecoming queens, spouses who’d been cheated on, spouses looking to cheat. Today, his practice is far larger and more lucrative than he could have ever imagined. He sees clients across a range of ages. He says he’s the world’s second-biggest dispenser of Botox. But this growth has nothing to do with his endearingly nebbishy mien. It is, rather, the result of a cultural revolution that has taken place all around him in the Bay Area.

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. ‘Young people are just smarter,’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its ‘careers’ page: ‘We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.’

And that’s just what gets said in public.”

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“There’s just one catch…”:

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I admire Google for its Bell Labs-sized ambitions, but Larry Page telling us to trust his company with our private information is only slightly less ludicrous than Mark Zuckerberg lecturing the President about the NSA. It’s just a ruse to try to convince the more gullible among us that Silicon Valley isn’t Big Brother-ish. That’s a lie, of course. The government and Google and Facebook and, to a good extent, the rest of us, are all working in the same direction: to gather as much data we can to survive in the Information Age. Page and Zuckerberg want what’s inside your head; they even want to implant information there. I don’t doubt that Page has plenty of noble intentions, but a publicly traded behemoth’s largesse only goes so far. The beast must be fed.

From a WSJ report of a conversation between Page and Charlie Rose, a handsome robot who once had an epiphany on a tennis court:

In what has become a Silicon Valley ritual, Page criticized electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, based on leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

‘We need to know the parameters of what the government is doing and why,’ Page said. ‘The government has done itself a disservice. I’m sad that Google is in the position of protecting you from what the government is doing.’

When it comes to individuals trying to shield themselves from private companies, however, Page said people shouldn’t be ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’

Page suggested sharing information with the ‘right’ companies is important for technology to advance, and that Google is among those companies. ‘We spend a lot of time thinking about these issues,’ he said. ‘The main thing we need to do is provide (users) choice” and show them what data will be used.'”

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Facebook, that thing that helps you pretend, turns ten today, which seems an appropriate age for the site’s maturity level. The opening of the first article written about the social network, a piece by Alan J. Tabak published in the February 9, 2004 Harvard Crimson:

“When Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06 grew impatient with the creation of an official universal Harvard facebook, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

After about a week of coding, Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com last Wednesday afternoon. The website combines elements of a standard House face book with extensive profile features that allow students to search for others in their courses, social organizations and Houses.

‘Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,’ Zuckerberg said. ‘I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.’

As of yesterday afternoon, Zuckerberg said over 650 students had registered use thefacebook.com. He said that he anticipated that 900 students would have joined the site by this morning.

‘I’m pretty happy with the amount of people that have been to it so far,’ he said. ‘The nature of the site is that each user’s experience improves if they can get their friends to join it.'”

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I have major philosophical differences with Facebook, but I seriously doubt it will be a virtual ghost town by 2017. But Princeton researchers, acting as social-media epidemiologists, disagree. So on the day that Sheryl Sandberg became a billionaire (was so pulling for her), some are predicting that the plague will soon be over. From Juliette Garside in the Guardian:

“Facebook has spread like an infectious disease but we are slowly becoming immune to its attractions, and the platform will be largely abandoned by 2017, say researchers at Princeton University.

The forecast of Facebook’s impending doom was made by comparing the growth curve of epidemics to those of online social networks. Scientists argue that, like bubonic plague, Facebook will eventually die out.

The social network, which celebrates its 10th birthday on 4 February, has survived longer than rivals such as Myspace and Bebo, but the Princeton forecast says it will lose 80% of its peak user base within the next three years.

John Cannarella and Joshua Spechler, from the US university’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, have based their prediction on the number of times Facebook is typed into Google as a search term. The charts produced by the Google Trends service show Facebook searches peaked in December 2012 and have since begun to trail off.

‘Ideas, like diseases, have been shown to spread infectiously between people before eventually dying out, and have been successfully described with epidemiological models,’ the authors claim in a paper entitled Epidemiological modelling of online social network dynamics.”

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I think one of the sadder aspects of American culture is ageism. If you haven’t accomplished a certain thing by a certain age it seems like you’red disqualified. Just when you’re actually at a point when you can pretty much handle anything. It makes no sense. It comes as no surprise that age discrimination is particularly acute in Silicon Valley. From Andrew S. Ross at the SFGate:

“In fact, tech executives claim to have tens of thousands of jobs going begging, so much so that they need to bring in educated workers from overseas to fill them.

But if demand is outstripping supply, how come so many skilled IT professionals in the Bay Area are out of work? In a nutshell, job experience in the tech industry matters far less than it once did. In fact, it can work against you.

‘It’s been quite a shock, coming out of my last job, which I had for 11 years,’ said Robert Honma, 49, of Sunnyvale, his resume filled with senior tech positions in multinational companies and small startups. He’s been out of work for 10 months. ‘The Facebooks, the Googles are driven by the young.’

Mark Zuckerberg agrees.

‘I want to stress the importance of being young and technical,” Facebook’s CEO (now 28) told a Y Combinator Startup event at Stanford University in 2007.”

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Are you concerned that one person and an ethically dubious one, Mark Zuckerberg, is setting the course for the new connectivity? You should be, because it is concerning. But the modern ways will not be unlearned, even if Zuckerberg himself should fall by the wayside. From “Facebook: Like?” by Robert Lane Greene at Intelligent Life, an essay which analyzes fears about the social networking giant but gives equal attention to the positives it provides:

“So for all the capricious decor and talk of breaking things, Facebook is very well aware that the eyes of the world are on it as an incumbent giant, not an insurgent. Besides ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ there are signs telling employees to ‘Stay Focused and Keep Shipping.’ Visitors are greeted warmly, but also presented with the standard Silicon Valley non-disclosure agreement before they can proceed past security. A billion people connected as never before in history. But Facebook also engenders anxiety on levels from the personal to the political, worries about a world in which private lives are always on display. What is 24-hour social networking doing to our self-expression, our self-image, our sense of decorum? Have we finally landed in the ‘global village’ coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s? What if you don’t like it there? Is there anywhere else to live?

And what is Facebook, anyway? The most obvious point of historical comparison is the social networks that preceded it. First there was Friendster, the flirt-and-forget site of the first half of the 2000s. Then everyone dumped Friendster for MySpace, and MySpace was bought by News Corp for $580m. Its value soared to $12 billion, and the received wisdom was that MySpace would take over the world. Then it didn’t, and News Corp sold it for $35m, because someone else had finally got social networking right. Started by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, Facebook went from a Harvard dorm room to the rest of teenage America’s bedrooms to hundreds of millions of people all around the world—even parents and grandparents. Along the way, Facebook has fuelled revolutions in the Middle East, and inspired an Oscar-winning movie. Other social networks can only try to build out from the few niches it hasn’t already filled. Facebook is the undisputed champion of the world.

But the real comparison is not with other social networks. To give real credit to its achievement today and its ambitions for the future, it can only be said that Facebook’s true competitor is the rest of the entire internet.” (Thanks Browser.)

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Just as the cash register is being placed in our pockets more and more, we are also increasingly products ourselves, handing over what’s in our hearts and minds in exchange for “free” products. From a Daily Beast piece by Dan Lyons, the erstwhile Fake Steve Jobs, about the true cost of doing business today:

“The truth is, we have no interest in protecting your privacy, and if you still believe that we do, then you are stupider than we thought, and believe me, we already thought you were pretty stupid. Think about it. The only way our business works is if we can track what you do and sell that information to advertisers. Did you honestly not realize that?

You are not our customer. You are the product that we sell. For us to say we’re going to protect you is like the poultry industry promising to create more humane living conditions for chickens. Sure, they say that. But you know they don’t mean it.”

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Maggie gets scanned, quantified:

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Have you noticed that Google searches done from two different locations or on two different computers will return markedly different results? Or that Facebook will feed you what its algortihms have decided you want to the exclusion of all else? Personalization is all the rage, as targeted information can maximize online advertising revenue. But is there a danger in algorithms fragmenting the news we receive based solely on potential profits? Are we getting what we want rather than what we need? Because of the diversity of material online, I’m not so sure this is as huge an issue as it might seem. But Internet advocate Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, believes it’s a critical flaw in Web 2.0 and took on the issue in his recent TED Talk.

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"He NEVER friended me on Facebook." (Image by Raphaël Labbé.)

The opening scene of The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant takedown of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, features a momentous scene in which the aspiring tech titan is dumped by his girlfriend, Erica Albright, which leads him to begin experimenting with interactivty on the Internet. In the scene, Zuckerberg is presented as a prick and Albright as wronged, but the site Albright has started (it would seem to be real) isn’t exactly short on hubris. On the site, she describes herself as “Yes the Erica Albright who was dating Mark Zuckerberg the founder of the Social Networking website Facebook.” She mentions her long-ago beau and Facebook repeatedly. Well, milk it for all you can, Erica.

One interesting aspect of her posts is that she confirms that plenty of what happens in the movie is fiction, created wholecloth by Sorkin for his remarkably airtight script. The narrative arc of a movie has its demands, and fealty to facts has to be sacrificed. But is it ethical to fictionalize aspects of real people’s lives, especially when those people are alive and young and have most of their futures ahead of them? Zuckerberg took great liberties to achieve what he wanted, but Fincher and Sorkin also took some in making what is the best American film of the year. An excerpt from Albright’s blog:

“I went and saw the movie last night. Kind of crazy that someone is actually playing me in a movie! The movie definitely brought back some great memories….it made me miss my college years that’s for sure! (I feel soooo old) lol (: — I guess you could say the movie is ‘based on a true story’ but there are many scenarios that were soooo made up by Hollywood! As far as the two scenes I’m in, the first one is fairly accurate, we did ‘break-up’ over dinner, I do remember him ripping on my school (that wasn’t the first time)…but the second scene of me at dinner with my friends blowing Mark off never happened. (also he NEVER friended me on Facebook) lol! (:”

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