Zuckerberg’s Blindness and Ours

There’s a 14,000-word profile of Mark Zuckerberg in the latest issue of the New Yorker. Don’t care to read 14,000 words on Zuckerberg? Not to worry, others have taken up the burden on your behalf (and mine, frankly) in order to distill for us what is worthy of note. Alexis Madrigal, for example, offers you what he thinks are the eight most revealing quotes from the interview.

In my Twitter feed, reactions were characterized chiefly by a general sense of fatigue. The piece was praised for its prose and tone, but readers who have been following Facebook and Zuckerberg for some time tended to agree on one thing: we really don’t learn anything new.

Casey Newton, who has followed Facebook as closely as any journalist for the last year or two, wonders whether at this juncture there is any point to these interviews. He commends the New Yorker profile, but finds that it tells us very little that is new or useful. Chiefly, it supplies quaint anecdotes that reveal Zuckerberg’s seemingly benign quirkiness. The strongest part of the very long profile was, in Newton’s view, two of the concluding paragraphs:

“The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve ‘problem after problem after problem,’ no matter the howling from the public it may cause.

At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing, and fix the mistakes later, is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.”

The mention of the Roman emperor Augustus is not random; in one of the interviews that fed into the profile, Zuckerberg had gone on at length about his admiration for Augustus.

I found the elegant enumeration of the trade-offs Zuckerberg chose to make especially useful. They sum up rather well what we need to know about Facebook’s ethos, so much of which derives from Zuckerberg himself, of course.

Newton goes on to say that he finds himself “less interested in reading tech CEOs perform their thoughtfulness.” What we ought to care about, in his view, is not what the tech CEO’s think but, rather, what they do. “Maybe tech platforms can be ‘fixed,'” Newton concludes, “or maybe they can’t. But either way, it’s not an oral exam. And we ought not to treat it like one.”

Others, of course, would argue, or at least assert, that we, in fact, find no thoughtfulness whatsoever in these Silicon Valley profiles, performed or otherwise. Very often this view is packaged as a defense of the humanities in higher ed. If only these tech CEO’s had received an education in the humanities, they would have been better equipped to steer their companies in a more ethical and just direction.

I tend to agree with Adam Elkus, who frequently lampoons these humanities oriented critiques of Zuckerberg, Dorsey, et al. The humanities will not save us. The problem is not stupidity or even ignorance per se. And a humanistic course of education, should we even be able to agree about what that ought to entail, is no guarantee of moral integrity (should we even be able to agree about what that entails).

Moreover, while I’m sympathetic to some degree with Newton’s counsel that we care more about what these tech CEO’s do than about what they think, the case of Zuckerberg suggests that what they think and what they do is in closer harmony than we might imagine. And, especially with Facebook, what Zuckerberg thinks and consequently does, sets the course for an immensely influential platform. The problem, I’d suggest is not that Zuckerberg doesn’t think, the problem is rather in the particular shape his thinking appears to take.

As per usual my understanding of Hannah Arendt’s work on thinking and moral responsibility informs my conclusions about these matters (read more here and here). Most useful, in my view, are the distinctions she makes among mental activities, most of which, in casual conversation, we tend to simply call thinking. But not all thinking is equal, and thought, as Arendt understands it, is not synonymous with intelligence. It is, however, deeply related to our capacity for judgment, which is yet another kind of mental activity.

Interestingly, Arendt tends to define what she calls thinking against what we might broadly label problem-solving, or the search answers and solutions. This mode of thinking, which is extremely valuable in its own right, tends to be the very kind of thinking that is generally prized in Silicon Valley and it is the kind of thinking at which  Zuckerberg himself tends to excel.

In one passage from the prologue to The Human Condition, a passage to which I’ve frequently returned, Arendt issues the following warning:

“If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”

As I read her, Arendt is here warning us about the danger of a reduction and an estrangement. The reduction is of knowledge to what she calls “know-how,” what we might gloss as the capacity to solve problems through technical ingenuity. The estrangement is that between this already impoverished form of knowledge on the one hand and thought on the other.

Reducing knowledge to know-how and doing away with thought leaves us trapped by an impulse to see the world merely as a field of problems to be solved by the application of the proper tool or technique, and this impulse is also compulsive because it cannot abide inaction. We can call this an ideology or we can simply call it a frame of mind, but either way it seems that this is closer to the truth about the mindset of Silicon Valley.

It is not a matter of stupidity or education, formally understood, or any kind of personal turpitude. Indeed, by most accounts, Zuckerberg is both earnest and, in his own way, thoughtful. Rather it is the case that one’s intelligence and one’s education, even if it were deeply humanistic, and one’s moral outlook, otherwise exemplary and decent, are framed by something more fundamental: a distinctive way of perceiving the world. This way of seeing the world, including the human being, as a field of problems to be solved by the application of tools and techniques, bends all of our faculties to its own ends. The solution is the truth, the solution is the good, the solution the beautiful. Nothing that is given is valued.

The trouble with this way of seeing the world is that it cannot quite imagine the possibility that some problems are not susceptible to merely technical solutions or, much less, that some problems are best abided. It is also plagued by hubris—often of the worst sort, the hubris of the powerful and well-intentioned—and, consequently, it is incapable of perceiving its own limits. As in the Greek tragedies, hubris generates blindness, a blindness born precisely out of one’s distinctive way of seeing. And that’s not the worst of it. That worst of it is that we are all, to some degree, now tempted and prone to see the world in just this way too.

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3 thoughts on “Zuckerberg’s Blindness and Ours

  1. I’m always drawn to Arendt in part because she makes a moving defense of political philosophy. To my engineering undergrads I show them a clip from Hannah Arendt the movie where she’s lecturing on Eichman and argues towards, the end, that “The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, the beautiful from the ugly.” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmBSIQ1lkOA ). I’m still trying to gauge how it’s received but I do hope that it at least restores some honor to the type of thinking that takes an abiding interest in moral questions. All this said, one should be somewhat suspicious of Arendt’s ways of dividing thinking, or at least as it’s popularly understood. It can be used to subordinate technical thinking and to dismiss people who focus on craft as unsuited for statecraft (to borrow language from Richard Sennett ). One should also consider, as Matthew Crawford does in Shop Class as Soulcraft, that there is real virtue in technical knowledge and that the caring for things that it engenders also engenders a caring for others. It’s true that Zuckerberg may have spent a whole heck of a lot of time in his 20s dwelling on technical things like PHP and SQL and HTML. But he’s a pretty articulate guy now who seems to be deliberating very carefully on how best to navigate through a complicated moral universe. And maybe he’s grown into this new persona as a result of his technical education. And not in spite of it. As Crawford might have put it (or rather Persig before him), the way to moral Zen might very well be through motorcycle maintenance.

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