The Disturbing High Modernism of Silicon ValleyApril 11th, 2018 · 51 comments
A Revealing Memo
A couple weeks ago, BuzzFeed leaked a memo written by Facebook VP Andrew “Boz” Bosworth in the summer of 2016. It contained the following controversial passage:
“[Connecting people] can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.
And still we connect people.
The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”
The reaction to this memo has been muted by the larger data privacy issues afflicting Facebook at the moment, but those who did object, did so mainly on the grounds that Boz was being callous about the potential for this platform to cause harm.
In my opinion, however, this memo contains hints of an even more insidious mindset…
The Disasters of High Modernism
In his new book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker lays out a 550-page argument supporting the core Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism and progress. Even Pinker, however, is quick to point out the danger of pushing these ideas too far.
Where we’ve gotten in trouble, he notes, is when we “[deny] the existence of human nature, with its messy needs for beauty, nature, tradition and social intimacy” — leading us to believe that we can radically reshape humans through technology and reason alone into a better, more efficient existence.
Political scientist James Scott (the source of Pinker’s comments) calls this movement “High Modernism.” He’s not a fan.
Scott blames the technocratic hubris of High Modernism for some of the great social engineering disasters of the 20th century, from Stalin’s famine-inducing farm collectivization, to our own country’s failed mid-century urban renewal projects, which, to quote Pinker, too often “replaced vibrant neighborhoods with freeways, high-rises, windswept plazas, and brutalist architecture.”
Technology has undoubtedly created massive benefits for humanity. But it can cause problems — shifting into High Modernism territory — when it ignores, or even tries to replace our complex humanity instead of working with it.
All of which brings me back to the Facebook memo…
From Utopia to Dystopia
What scares me about the leaked Facebook memo is not the passage where Boz acknowledges the harm this platform can create, but instead what he says next: “we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”
Why is this goal a “de facto good”? Boz elaborates:
“The natural state of the world is not connected. It is not unified. It is fragmented by borders, languages, and increasingly by different products.”
Facebook can fix this. As Boz explains, growing their reach is more important than their stock price and more important than creating great products. “[C]onnecting people. That’s our imperative.”
I read these lines as arguing that the natural state of human interaction is hopelessly irrational and ineffective. Facebook hopes to replace this “fragmented” state of human sociality with something better; something that spans borders and languages; something that offers many more connections; something that can leverage big data and smart AI to direct our relationships in an optimal manner.
This vision is classic High Modernism — merely shifted from city cores and farm fields to the digital realm. It should, therefore, scare the hell out of us.
If you went back in time 15 years, and showed James Scott a draft of Boz’s vision, Scott would almost certainly warn you that an attempt to reshape something as fundamental and messy as human sociality with a “better” technological solution would backfire in unexpected, dark, and painful ways.
This is, of course, exactly what happened. The shift from real to virtual connection paradoxically made people more lonely, depressed, and anxious, while simultaneously sparking unexpected increases in tribalism, authoritarianism, extremism, disinformation, and hyperbolic outrage.
Social media executives seem genuinely surprised by these outcomes, but at the same time, they’re not overly concerned. As Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated in yesterday’s congressional testimony, they see these issues as bugs in their master plan that can be patched with even smarter technology (Zuckerberg’s new hope is that clever AI will save the day).
The study of High Modernism, however, undermines this optimism. The problem with social media’s attempt to improve human sociality is not the details of its implementation, it’s instead the very fact that they’re pursuing such a utopian objective in the first place.
A Tale of Two Motives
This discussion of Silicon Valley’s High Modernist aspirations injects extra complexity into our current cultural conversation surrounding social media.
In writing on this topic, I tend to describe social media companies as cynically addicting users to maximize the data they can then extract, package, and sell. From this perspective, the user is merely a pawn in the game of revenue projections and market expectations. Much of the recent coverage of Facebook’s data privacy issues adopts this perspective.
The Boz memo, however, literally laughs at this notion: “[This] isn’t something we are doing for…our stock price (ha!),” he writes. High modernism is more about perfecting human society than making money.
I think the most accurate thing to say is that both factors are at play and that they combine in complex ways. For a true believer like Boz, who has been at Facebook for a long time, perhaps this vision of upgrading human interaction is his primary driver. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, probably tempers this bold vision with the more pragmatic necessity to please his board from quarter to quarter.
I’ve come to realize that when thinking about social media, it’s important to keep both motives in mind, as they spark different reactions.
When confronting the cynical side of the social media business model (as we’ve all being doing in recent weeks), the relevant follow-up question is pragmatic: How do we prevent these companies from abusing our private data?
When confronting the utopian side, by contrast, the relevant question becomes sharper: Should these companies even exist at all?