Media

Yuval Noah Harari on the future according to Facebook

Yuval Noah Harari on the future according to Facebook

First published in the Financial Times on March 25, 2017

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Mark Zuckerberg last month published an audacious manifesto on the need to build a global community, and on Facebook’s role in that project. His 5,700-word letter — on his Facebook page — was intended not just to allay concerns over social media’s role in spreading “fake news”. It also indicated that Facebook is no longer merely a business, or even a platform. It is on its way to becoming a worldwide ideological movement.

Of course words are cheaper than actions. To implement his manifesto, Zuckerberg might have to jump headlong into a political minefield, and even change his company’s entire business model. You can hardly lead a global community when you make your money from capturing people’s attention and selling it to advertisers. Despite this, his willingness to even formulate a political vision deserves praise.

Most corporations are faithful to the neoliberal dogma that says corporations should focus on making money, governments should do as little as possible, and humankind should trust market forces to take the really important decisions on our behalf. Tech giants such as Facebook have extra reason to distance themselves from any paternalistic political agenda and to present themselves as a transparent medium. With their immense power and hoard of personal data, they have been extremely wary of saying anything that might cause them to look even more like Big Brother.

There are certainly good reasons to fear Big Brother. In the 21st century, Big Data algorithms could be used to manipulate people in unprecedented ways. Take future election races, for example: in the 2020 race, Facebook could theoretically determine not only who are the 32,578 swing voters in Pennsylvania, but also what you need to tell each of them in order to swing them in your favour. But there is also much to fear from abdicating all responsibility to market forces. The market has proven itself woefully inadequate in confronting climate change and global inequality, and is even less likely to self-regulate the explosive powers of bioengineering and artificial intelligence. If Facebook intends to make a real ideological commitment, those who fear its power should not push it back into the neoliberal cocoon with cries of “Big Brother!”. Instead, we should urge other corporations, institutions and governments to contest its vision by making their own ideological commitments.

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Zuckerberg’s ideological gambit begins with some very convincing arguments for why, in his words, “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community”. In the past, human tribes coalesced to form nations because no tribe could deal effectively with vast trade networks and administrative structures. Take, for example, the ancient tribes that lived along the Yellow River. The river was their lifeblood, but every few years it brought disastrous floods and droughts. No tribe could solve this problem by itself. Only a common effort to build huge dams and dig hundreds of kilometres of canals could do so. Consequently the tribes gradually coalesced into a single Chinese nation that had the power to regulate the distribution of water and produce unprecedented prosperity.

In the 21st century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes along the Yellow River: they are no longer the right framework to deal with the most important challenges of the age. All nations now live along the same cyber-river, depending on it for their prosperity and exposed to its dangers. No nation can police cyberspace by itself. Similarly, no nation can single-handedly regulate disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence. If the US government forbids giving AI autonomous control of weapons, this won’t prevent North Korean scientists from doing so. And if the resulting developments confer on North Korea some crucial advantage, the US will be tempted to break its own ban. In a xenophobic dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, others will be forced to do the same, because nobody could afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

Zuckerberg correctly points out that any effort to build a global community must go hand-in-hand with protecting and strengthening local ones. For millions of years, humans have been adapted to living in intimate communities of no more than a few dozen people. Even today most humans find it impossible to really know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Facebook “friends” they boast. No nation, corporation or global network can replace communities of people who actually know each other intimately. Without these groups, humans feel lonely and alienated. Hence a global community can succeed only if it gives support to local communities. This is not impossible. You can be loyal to your family and your nation at the same time — so why can’t you be loyal to humankind, too? Handling multiple loyalties is not easy, because sometimes they make contradictory demands on us. But life is difficult. Handle it.

Facebook’s manifesto has blind-spots. It repeatedly refers to “our collective values”, which will supposedly underpin the global community, without specifying what these collective values are. Alas, as of 2017, humankind has no agreed set of collective values. This is what makes it so difficult to build a global community. Holding global democratic elections is not the answer. People feel bound by elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. The ancient tribes along the Yellow River lacked a common set of values, and consequently they were unable to unite through a peaceful democratic process. It took a lot of violence to hammer them together into a single empire. It doesn’t mean that Facebook needs to recruit an army. It does mean, though, that it will take more than sharing funny cat videos to create an effective global community. Talk of “collective values” is too easy. Will Facebook be willing to actually name these values, risk alienating many of its users, and face potential crackdown from hostile governments?

If Facebook really attempts to formulate a set of universal values, it will enjoy one big advantage over many previous institutions that attempted to do so. Unlike the early Christian church, or Lenin’s Communist party, Facebook is a truly global network with close to 2bn users. Yet Facebook also suffers from one big disadvantage. Unlike the Christian church and the Communist party, it is an online network.

Zuckerberg explains in his manifesto that online communities help foster offline ones. This is often true. Yet he never acknowledges that in some cases online comes at the expense of offline, and that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Physical communities have a depth that virtual communities cannot hope to match, at least not in the near future. If I lay sick at my home in Israel, my online friends from California can talk to me, but they cannot bring me soup or a nice cup of tea.

Humans have bodies. During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies. We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed by our smartphones and computers. We are more interested in what is happening in cyberspace than in what is happening right here. It is easier than ever to talk to my cousin in Switzerland, but it is harder to talk to my husband over breakfast, because he constantly looks at his smartphone instead of at me.

In the past, humans could not afford such carelessness. Ancient foragers were always alert and attentive. Wandering in the forest in search of mushrooms, they watched the ground for any tell-tale bulge, they listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. When they found a mushroom, they ate it with the utmost attention to distinguish it from its poisonous cousins. Members of today’s affluent societies don’t need such keen awareness. We can wander between the supermarket aisles while texting messages, and we can buy any of a thousand dishes, all supervised by the health authorities. But whatever we choose — Italian pizza or Thai noodles — we are likely to eat it in haste in front of the screen, checking emails or watching television, while hardly paying attention to the actual taste.

Zuckerberg says that Facebook is committed “to continue improving our tools to give you the power to share your experience”. Yet what people might really need are the tools to connect to their own experiences. In the name of “sharing experiences”, people are encouraged to understand what happens to them in terms of how others see it. If something exciting happens, the gut instinct of Facebook true-believers is to draw their smartphones, take a picture, post it online, and wait for the “likes”. In the process they hardly pay attention to what they actually feel. Indeed, what they feel is increasingly determined by the online reactions rather than by the actual experience.

People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented. Pundits often blame such feelings of alienation on the decline of religion and of nationalism, but losing touch with your body is probably more important. Humans lived for millions of years without religions and without nations — they can probably live happily without them in the 21st century, too. Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.

Up till now, Facebook’s own business model encouraged people to spend more and more time online even if that meant having less time and energy to devote to offline activities. Zuckerberg says, “We can look at many activities through the lens of building community. Watching video of our favourite sports team or TV show, reading our favourite newspaper, or playing our favourite game are not just entertainment or information but a shared experience and opportunity to bring together people who care about the same things. We can design these experiences not for passive consumption but for strengthening social connections.” That may sound promising, but it is alarming that (assuming that “favourite game” refers to computer games) the only concrete examples given are disembodied online activities. What about encouraging people to actually play football or stage a drama show, even if that means going offline for a few hours? The current Facebook business model values time spent online over time spent offline. Can it adopt a new model that encourages people to go online only when it is really necessary, and to devote more attention to their physical communities and to their own bodies and senses? What would the shareholders think about this model? (A blueprint of such an alternative model has actually been suggested recently by Tristan Harris, an ex-Googler and tech-philosopher who came up with a new metric of “time well spent”.)

The limitations of online relationships also undermine Zuckerberg’s solution to social polarisation. He points out that just connecting people together and exposing them to different opinions will not solve social polarisation because “showing people an article from the opposite perspective, actually deepens polarisation by framing other perspectives as foreign”. Instead, Zuckerberg suggests that “the best solutions for improving discourse may come from getting to know each other as whole people instead of just opinions — something Facebook may be uniquely suited to do. If we connect with people about what we have in common — sports teams, TV shows, interests — it is easier to have dialogue about what we disagree on.”

Yet it is extremely difficult to know each other as “whole” people. It takes so much time and direct physical interaction. As I noted earlier, the average Homo sapiens is probably incapable of intimately knowing more than 150 individuals. Ideally, building communities should not be a zero-sum game. Humans can feel loyal to different groups at the same time. Unfortunately, intimate relations probably are a zero-sum game. Beyond a certain point, the time and energy you spend on getting to know your online friends from Iran or Nigeria will come at the expense of your ability to know your next-door neighbours.

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It is a good sign that the social media leviathan is leading the call for a global community. It is more difficult to see how far Facebook is willing to change its own business model to match its ideology. You cannot unite humanity by selling advertisements. Suppose a Facebook engineer invents a new tool that causes people to spend less time buying stuff online and more time in meaningful offline activities with friends. Will Facebook adopt or suppress such a tool? Will Facebook take a true leap of faith, and privilege social concerns over its financial interests? If it does so — and manages to avoid bankruptcy — that will be a momentous revolution. The original gurus of Silicon Valley saw the internet as a tool for social revolution rather than for making money. In recent years, their vision seemed to be hijacked and distorted. Will Zuckerberg make the internet great again?

I hold my fingers crossed. If a business generates profits by providing a beneficial social service — be it building communities, recycling garbage or manufacturing medicines — why should we grudge its success? Yet we should not cultivate unrealistic expectations. Historically, corporations were not the ideal vehicle for undertaking social and political revolutions. A real revolution sooner or later demands sacrifices that corporations, their employees and their shareholders are not willing to make. That’s why revolutionaries establish churches, political parties and armies. The so-called Facebook and Twitter revolutions in the Arab world started in hopeful online communities, but once they emerged into the messy offline world, they were commandeered by religious fanatics and military juntas. If Facebook now aims to instigate a global revolution, it will have to do a much better job in bridging the gap between online and offline. It and the other online giants tend to view humans as audiovisual animals — a pair of eyes and a pair of ears connected to 10 fingers, a screen and a credit card. A crucial step towards uniting humankind is to appreciate that humans have bodies.