Time to imagine: Why it's up to the public to regulate Facebook's omnipresence
The film Ready Player One portrays a future when the real-world is so unpalatable, people prefer to live in a virtual reality created by the late, all-powerful founder James Halliday.
The story, set in 2045, came to mind while watching Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testify before US Congress on Wednesday.
As Senators asked questions about what exactly this platform - which gave Russia access to American hearts and minds - was doing to the country, Zuckerberg kept referencing the awesomely humble beginnings of the company.
Like in the film, questions of the platform’s merits were answered by the earnestness of the founder’s personality.
“I believe deeply in what we’re doing,” Zuckerberg assured. Facebook began in his dorm room at university, he said, a point he kept repeating.
Swap Halliday for Zuckerberg and the concept of the inventor-God ruling over his subjects has eerie parallels. In the film and the real world, any political question is subsumed by the personal.
The film is fun but the vision of one tech whiz lording over the imaginations of the masses is, from a political perspective, frightening and repulsive. It’s a world where users hand over their autonomy to a platform with no process for these people to come together and make their voices heard.
Ready Player One is just entertainment. But it’s telling that a depiction of a tech world is founded on such neo-feudalism.
Unfortunately, Facebook represents a kind of neo-feudalism built around Zuckerberg’s vision. And it appears to be running headlong into our shared reality, the one with rules, rights, and real-life consequences.
Zuckerberg’s privileged place was on display watching the senators unable to pursue a single line of inquiry that could be the basis of some future legislative action to rein in the uncontrolled power of Facebook.
The senators didn't even seem certain of the basic facts, which suggests that Facebook and social media in general represent such a new challenge to governance that political leaders are woefully unprepared for the legislative challenge ahead of them.
The sense that Zuckerberg, who can’t be fired from the company, held the upper hand (especially with the Senate) was unmistakable. After all, those politicians had profiles on his platform. They reached voters there.
Yet the real battle right now between government (that represents the public) and a tech behemoth is a battle of the imagination.
For 40 odd years, Silicon Valley has had this unique position where they can imagine new realities into existence and leave the governments to follow along behind them trying to make sense of it in every sense, from law enforcement, to taxation, to fair lending.
Zuckerberg’s wisdom was using his imagination to move into a new space, one the government cannot respond to yet. The government (and thus citizens) couldn’t protect themselves from Russian meddling. And now, in the accountability and reform phase, the government seems unprepared too.
The answer then is one of human imagination. People who support a reasoned, liberal, democratic government in the future should use their imagination and articulate the kind of future that they want to see.
They should guide the questions they pose to Zuckerberg using imagination to envision a reasonable, law-based world that rewards justice in society.
And they should be hard questions: What problem does your technology solve? What problems does it create? How can Facebook be profitable if users don’t pay? How does Facebook reward social radicalisation? Can it be profitable if it doesn’t antagonise differences?
Facebook is good for sifting people into groups. What will it do to bolster unity of the nation? How have you become the biggest vulnerability to our cherished democracies? How will our Western rule-of-law values thrive on your platform online? Which country is more important to you: China or the US?
In another exchange during testimony on Wednesday, Zuckerberg was asked whether the Facebook story was only possible in America. Setting aside whether the question was a trope of American politics, it was an easy way for Zuckerberg to signal his support for America and its laws in the context of congressional testimony.
Zuckerberg instead hesitated and offered praise for China’s technology companies.
This was an alarming moment, not just because of growing Chinese capabilities (Zuckerberg courts the Chinese Communist Party). It was alarming because it showed how shamelessly Western Big Technology and power was lining up together but the principles needed to maintain a liberal society were left behind.
And so Zuckerberg may see Washington as one more discrete stakeholder group that needs only some boilerplate assurances, donations and robust lobbying.
Worse, those charged with defending Western values - everyone from the senators, to their aides, to Facebook itself - may not fully understand what they’re up against.
What they need is a vision of the future, a vision of a vital, fair, open democracy that thrives in the future, even in the same networked world as Russian trolls and the Chinese propagandists.
Instead, what we have now are Halliday-like figures, all-powerful but accountable to no one.
And people like that aren’t good for democracy. Their values would be more at home in an authoritarian nation, a place like China, where an unelected but benevolent leader allegedly speaks for all, whether everyone agrees or not.
It’s a place where the government takes a heavy hand in what the public sees. Just this week, Ready Player One was No. 1 at China’s box offices.