On a recent Freakonomics Radio podcast, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had to confess that he has struggled with the platform’s effect on democracy, politics and citizenship:
“We’ve been focused on making the world more open and connected. And I always thought that that would be enough to solve a lot of problems by itself.”
Okay, to a point, that’s fair enough. There was a lot of excitement at the launch of various social media platforms. Political dysfunction seemed everywhere. Citizenship appeared on the rise. And the belief that we could solve our own problems was causing us to abandon institutions and history in favour of interaction, innovation and inclusion.
But the problem has become just as Zuckerberg stated it on the podcast: “The world today is more divided than I would have expected for the level of openness and connection that we have today.”
In other words, his ideology was more dosed with naïveté than was understood at the time. You can’t just make the world better by letting everyone vent their opinions on the important issues of the day like racism, poverty, climate change, politics, gender equality, or even democracy itself. In a world where everyone confuses opinion with fact or context, there is no end to supposition or doubt. The problem is that we require clarity and that is a rare commodity in today’s complex world.
While Zuckerberg claimed in the podcast that his intent was to bring people together across various divides through the use of information, the outcome has proved to be something far different, as he confessed that it can “cause people to lash out.”
The founder of Facebook would have done well to reflect on Albert Einstein’s observation, that “information is not knowledge.” In the Google age, information really isn’t a problem; in fact, we might have too much of it, leaving us with confusion as to how to proceed into the future.
Anyone can now post information through a multitude of social platforms, but in the end split the citizenry even more as a result. Just because someone possesses something doesn’t mean that they know it or have experienced it. Zuckerberg simply overlooked how the pursuit of information, and its various possibilities for monetization, rather than leading to enlightenment could instead result in ignorance. It ended up placing democracy itself in a position that threatens its future.
There was a time when Mark Zuckerberg pulled together a team to scope out a possible run for the president of the United States. His main qualifications? Money and owning a huge company. Sadly, the world has experienced far too much of both in high political places. The assumption that owning billions or running a vast enterprise is just the ticket for the Oval Office is to confuse wisdom with wealth. Both are possible in politics, though not often.
He has pronounced his feelings on basic income, the future of jobs, poverty, housing, transportation and education in preparation for a possible political run. But, really, politics is about people, on the ground, where they live. Just because one is rich doesn’t make him realistic; money doesn’t automatically translate to meaning. Rarely is this accomplished.
And now we understand how his leadership style might have put the country on the road to disaster. If he opts to violate the privacy of tens of millions of his citizens, and countless more worldwide, what will result for democracy? Citizenship, civil society, accountability, responsibility – none of these can seriously be reduced to algorithms without stripping learned humanity in the process.
Now the leader of a company with over two billion customers is being forced to face the elected representatives of democracy and we’ll have to see what the outcome will be. But this we now understand: an Information Age, followed by a Technology Age, could just as well result in a Dysfunctional Age as anything else. We are learning that anything that comes for free actually could cost us our future. Something to remember as we seek to incorporate some hard-hitting lessons.