The dystopia George Orwell conjured up in 1984 wasn’t a prediction. It was, instead, a reflection. Newspeak, the Ministry of Truth, the Inner Party, the Outer Party — that novel sampled and remixed a reality that Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism had made apparent. Scary stuff, certainly, but maybe the more frightening dystopia is the one no one warned you about, the one you wake up one morning to realise you’re living inside.
Roger McNamee, an esteemed venture capitalist, would appear to agree. “A dystopian technology future overran our lives before we were ready,” he writes in Zucked. Think that sounds like overstatement? Let’s examine the evidence. At its peak the planet’s fourth most valuable company, and arguably its most influential, is controlled almost entirely by a young man with the charisma of a geometry TA. The totality of this man’s professional life has been running this company, which calls itself “a platform”. Company, platform — whatever it is, it provides a curious service wherein billions of people fill it with content: baby photos, birthday wishes, concert promotions, psychotic premonitions of Jewish lizard-men. No one is paid by the company for this labour; users are rewarded by being tracked across the web, even when logged out, and strip-mined by a complicated artificial intelligence trained to sort surveilled information into approximately 29,000 predictive data points, which are then made available to advertisers and other third parties, who now know everything that can be known about a person without trepanning her skull. Amazingly, none of this is secret, despite the firm’s best efforts to keep it so. Somehow, people still use and love this platform.
Hostile foreign intelligence services also love this platform, if only because its users have proved shockingly vulnerable to social manipulation — a dark art the company itself has admitted to dabbling in. In 2014, the company set out to learn if it could make its users sad and angry on purpose. It learned it could. When this astonishing breach of user trust became public, the company claimed it wasn’t a big deal, that many did similar things. It was, and they don’t.
A tech company founded on creating human connection is now ripping American society apart and compromising our civic foundation, though not because it has overtly wicked intent. As McNamee elucidates, our “democracy has been undermined because of design choices”. Choices including the platform’s pleasurable, frictionless interface, which encourages users to stay and return. It’s no stretch to posit that because human neurotransmitters respond to the platform’s iconic use of a certain shade of blue, and spark with dopamine upon receiving a “like” or “tag” notification, desperate children are now living in cages and a raving madman occupies the Oval Office. Not even Orwell, after a feast of psilocybin, could have predicted this dystopia.
The company in question is Facebook, and its young leader Mark Zuckerberg, with whom McNamee has such a long and familiar relationship so as to refer to him throughout by his diminutive, Zuck. In 2006, McNamee writes, he counselled the 22-year-old CEO against selling Facebook to Yahoo for a billion dollars. “I don’t want to disappoint everyone,” Zuckerberg said. McNamee urged him to look beyond that and “keep Facebook independent”.
McNamee also profited from this mentorship. Along with his venture capital firm, Elevation Partners, the author made a fortune off an early investment in Zuckerberg’s company, a subject about which he is now suitably circumspect, given his belief that Facebook, along with Google and other tech giants, represents “the greatest threat to the global order in my lifetime”. A self-identified “capitalist”, McNamee advocates breaking up Facebook’s data monopoly by force, and heavily regulating its appalling business practices. Zucked is thus a candid and highly entertaining explanation of how and why a man who spent decades picking tech winners and cheering his industry on has been carried to the shore of social activism.
McNamee saves his most conspicuous outrage for Facebook’s amoral leadership at the hands of not just Zuckerberg but also his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, whom McNamee recommended Zuck hire before she could take a job at The Washington Post. He describes their grip as “the most centralised decision-making structure I have ever encountered in a large company”.
The story of Facebook has been told many times before, but McNamee does a superb job of contextualising its rise within the proper technological history. The most stirring parts of the book are those in which McNamee makes the angry but measured argument that “social media has enabled personal views that had previously been kept in check by social pressure”. McNamee’s book is not merely the cri de coeur of a forsworn tech optimist zinged by moral conscience. It’s also a robust and helpful itemisation of the ways Facebook could be brought to heel. McNamee clearly believes the company can be made into something more benign, and perhaps even socially beneficial.
Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe
Author: Roger McNamee
Publisher: Penguin Press
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