When a public determine spends an excessive amount of time repeating a specific platitude, strenuously pledging to be for that which nobody might presumably be in opposition to, it’s an indication that the general public determine is being evasive, disingenuous, or worse. On Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg, the C.E.O. of Fb, gave a speech at Georgetown College. Fb’s official P.R. weblog posted Zuckerberg’s ready remarks below the headline “Mark Zuckerberg Stands for Voice and Free Expression”; a subtitle added that Zuckerberg endorsed “the significance of defending free expression.” That’s one repetition, even earlier than clicking via to learn.
Zuckerberg’s speech—streamed, naturally, on Fb Stay—was practically forty minutes lengthy. The situation, Georgetown’s Gaston Corridor, appeared supposed to evoke each Fb’s relatable roots (school!) and its subsequent ascent to gravitas (darkish wooden, stained glass, proximity to Capitol Hill). Zuckerberg wore a black long-sleeve shirt—the Hacker Approach equal of formalwear—and skim from two teleprompters, including studied pauses and hand gestures. His thesis was that free speech is nice. In fact, everybody other than Kim Jong Un agrees with this; the query is whether or not free speech is the one good value pursuing, and whether or not it leads inexorably to reality and progress. “The flexibility to talk freely has been central within the struggle for democracy worldwide,” Zuckerberg mentioned. “When individuals are lastly in a position to communicate, they usually name for change.”
As I argued in The New Yorker final month, this kind of blithe techno-utopian narrative “isn’t solely mistaken, nevertheless it leaves out rather a lot.” Zuckerberg alluded to Frederick Douglass’s “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston” however failed to say Douglass’s equally essential assertion, in “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” that freedom of speech is hardly the one sort of freedom that issues. (“To pull a person in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and name upon him to affix you in joyous anthems, had been inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony,” Douglass wrote.) Elsewhere in his speech, Zuckerberg made a passing reference to the printing press. As he at all times does, he used it as a metonym for the inevitable march of progress—made solely extra environment friendly by nice males of historical past, reminiscent of Johannes Gutenberg and Mark Zuckerberg. However the printing press didn’t solely result in progress. It additionally led to anti-Semitic violence, the unfold of medical misinformation, and a few century of spiritual wars. In my piece final month, I wrote that Zuckerberg has lengthy portrayed himself as a liberator, taking energy from gatekeepers and redistributing it to the folks. He has at all times emphasised the nice results of this redistribution, reminiscent of Egypt’s democratic rebellion in 2011, whereas ignoring the much less nice results, reminiscent of Egypt’s subsequent descent into theocracy and proto-autocracy. Now that the record of nations struggling below proto-autocratic management has grown to incorporate India, the Philippines, Brazil, and the US—and provided that that is no random quirk of historical past however one attributable, largely, to Fb itself—it’s gone time for Zuckerberg to give you a brand new ideology, or a minimum of a brand new branding technique.
I not too long ago printed a e book about how social media is wrecking our brains, our politics, our media, and our civic cloth. I insisted that the e book’s subtitle embody the time period “techno-utopians”—a wonky formulation, not one prone to drive gross sales—as a result of I’ve turn into satisfied that, if our Silicon Valley overlords are to assist remedy the informational disaster they’ve created, the very first thing they’ll have to lose is their blind religion that they’ll go on releasing new merchandise, and benefiting from them, and the online consequence will certainly, in the long term, have a tendency towards the great. This has at all times been a handy self-justification. There has by no means been any strong motive to consider it. “I believe we’ll make progress,” Zuckerberg mentioned at Georgetown. “It’ll take time, however we’ll work via this second.” (Watching the dwell stream on my own on my cellphone, I mentioned, out loud, “Properly, it’s good that he feels that manner.”) “Progress isn’t linear,” he continued. “Generally we take two steps ahead and one step again.” What if we take two steps again, or ten? Not one of the phrases on Zuckerberg’s teleprompter referred to such an eventuality, presumably as a result of it has by no means occurred to him.
In fact, it’s additionally attainable that it has occurred to him however that neither he nor his speechwriters can consider a convincing strategy to tackle it. Sadly, this will the best-case state of affairs. If Zuckerberg’s relentless optimism is solely a canny P.R. technique, then maybe a brand new mixture of incentives—a regulatory tweak right here, a mass boycott there—could be sufficient to make him change course. The extra alarming state of affairs is that Zuckerberg is definitely excessive on his personal provide—that, regardless of the whole lot, he stays an unreconstructed techno-utopian. If the previous few years haven’t been sufficient to puncture his religion, it’s laborious to think about what would.
This kind of ideological blind spot could be worrisome coming from anybody. Coming from essentially the most highly effective particular person on the Web, and thus one of the highly effective folks on the planet, it’s way more harmful. A really abbreviated record of latest “steps again,” every enabled to some extent by Fb, would come with Brexit, the Trump Presidency, the resurgence of unapologetic white nationalism within the U.S., a rash of mass killings in Sri Lanka, and the Rohingya genocide. For Zuckerberg to go on downplaying the downsides of his invention—what he referred to as, in his speech, the “messiness” on humanity’s “lengthy journey in direction of larger progress”—is, at greatest, shockingly tone-deaf. At worst, it’s a sign that regardless of what number of brick partitions our Silicon Valley overlords lead us into, they may go on considering of them as mere bumps within the street.