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The Disturbing High Modernism of Silicon Valley

April 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?

51 thoughts on “The Disturbing High Modernism of Silicon Valley

  1. kaavah says:

    Dear Cal
    I have been reading and re-reading your books( too good to be ignored and deep work)
    I am currently working in management ( dead end deal) and have a masters degree in political science which for one reason or another has proved not very useful in current job market( I had initially followed passion hypothesis in going into it).
    hence after reading your books I have decided to go into data science ( where initially I though I am not made for[read: I have no passion for it] though it was much better in terms of job prospects.
    unlike what I expected by hard work I am starting to get grasp of it ( I got the best mark in my first course though I have no computer background)[ first course of series of 6 courses that offer certificate), I was wondering what do you think? any advice?

    1. Felipe Bormann says:

      I’m not Cal but I’m an intern of a data scientist position and what I can offer you is an advice I thought I’ve received: focus on the fundamentals, which are *basic statistics*, SQL and linear algebra. If you focus on those, you get the 20% that generates 80% of the outcome, the rest can come in a longer time.

      Another advice, grab public data and try making statistics and visualizations from it, it’ll help you if you have a portfolio available. congrats on the change.

      1. Study Hacks says:

        Felipe gives good advice. In general, when new to a field, your best bet is to talk to existing experts to find out what’s most valuable, then put your head down and master that craft as quickly as deliberately as possible.

    2. EA says:

      Best advice? Learn and do. Rinse and repeat.
      Also, use what you have. Your political science degree might not have a direct way to impact your day-to-day activities, but it might help you understand the intangible dynamics of group and employee relationships, making you a better candidate for management positions. A political science degree certainly teaches to understand the greater context of any operation, to see a bigger picture, which is something invaluable in most tech fields where employees often care of a tiny part of the grand design.

    3. kaavah says:

      thanks incredibly valuable advice.

  2. Dan O says:

    John Ralston Saul’s book, Voltaire’s Bastards, takes a large swipe at the issues James Scott targets.

    Early in his book Saul writes, “Thus, among the illusions which have invested our civilization is an absolute belief that the solution to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organized expertise. The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application.”

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Saul’s a smart guy. You’re right that his critique of unguided reason probably does apply in interesting ways to a general critique of high modernism. Saul both accepts and celebrates the messy and complicated parts of human nature, and worries about “expert” schemes that ignore them…

  3. Ryan says:

    Do you want to reverse course and go back to an agrarian society? If you start diabanding companies like a Luddite, that’s what you’re left with. Nobody said there wouldn’t be any risk of people using technology for evil, so how can you begin to suggest dismantling technology? Technology is (has always been) amoral, so it’s pretty foolish to try to attach your moral superiority to it.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      You seem to be confusing critiques of high modernism with some sort of odd, straw man critique of all industrial technology? I can’t follow your line of reasoning as written…

    2. EA says:

      Hold on, no one is advocating the elimination of technology or companies. This is about looking at the problems that new technologies (or any new discovery, endeavor, study etc.) inevitably carry with them. As an equivalent, if you’re pointing out that cars are dangerous since tens of thousands people die in car accidents it doesn’t mean that you want to go back to horse riding. It simply means that you see a problem and you want to fix that part of the problem.
      Also technology is not moral or amoral. Its the use that makes the difference.

    3. Mary Kochan says:

      I actually do advocate agrarianism. However this is not a “going back” at all but a going forward and it is our technology that makes it both possible right now and actually urgent.

      The technologies of medicine and pharmacy cannot solve our most urgent health issue, which is the depletion of our soils and hence our foods and hence our bodies of nutrients we need. The technologies of modern agriculture and food production are directly to blame for this problem. Modern monocrop farming and the separation of animals from land has become the mining of nutrients/minerals from one patch of earth and the shipping of them across the country where they are not even returned to the land there, but mostly flushed into the ocean. Replacement of a few macronutrients via artificial fertilizers degrades the nutrient profile of foods, while the fertilizers themselves wreck environmental havoc. The plants with their depleted nutrient profile are not healthy enough themselves to compete with weeds or ward off pests and so ever more chemically creative herbicides and pesticides are used, further degrading our environment and our health. On top of that, the current application of commercial farming techniques is energy heavy. Right now our society is spending/using 10 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. Who would even begin to argue that this is sustainable?

      Agriculture must be greatly decentralized and more people need to be involved in it. Urban and suburban farming as well as traditional large farms using permaculture principles can regenerate our environment and our health. This makes use of all kinds of technologies, from modern surveying and satellite imaging and computer modeling to using social communication to educate growers and link them to the market. Plus a decentralized, more human scale agriculture would provide an employment niche that gives a productive stake in society to people who simply lack the intellectual capacity to work at the kinds of technically sophisticated jobs that are proliferating in our society (another problem created by technology and one that technology cannot fix) which is nearly 10% of the population.

      1. TED says:

        Wonderful post Mary!
        I agree that us humans are living out of balance with our home, planet Earth. Although I view mankind’s leap to agrarian life as one of the most drastic technological changes that we have undergone. One in which we haven’t recovered from or adapted to and probably never will. It will just have to run its course and sputter out. There will be a period of time of mass die off and vast stretches of barren wastelands which were once fertile lands. But slowly the Earth will heal itself from millennia of agriculture and especially industrial agriculture ravaging it. And once it does, the earth will blossom and overflow with wild plants and animals and world human population will get down to more sustainable levels (~100 million). 250,000 years from now, our descendants will look back at this 10,000 year period in human history as a strange blip. An anomaly. Caused by a couple of freak accidents.

      2. Rebecca says:

        Thank you for your comment, Mary.

  4. What disturbs me almost more than the data collected from millions of unsuspecting FB users, is how easily manipulated either we are, or are seen to be. Isn’t this a big problem? That we’re so easily swayed by the media, or what is presented as the media?

    1. Carey says:

      How are FB users “unsuspecting”; even if they neglected to read the data policy, are people really surprised that their data is being used for marketers? When I log in to FB, I see advertisements for t-shirts for “men born in October”….

      Who was manipulated, and what were they manipulated to do? The media has opted not to really drill down on this yet from what I have seen.

  5. Leandro says:

    The current moment of Facebook and social media in general totally connects with what you have been writing about since I started reading your blog Cal, that was just after your latest book “Deep Work “

  6. Brian C says:

    Hi Cal,
    Have you heard of John Robb? He runs the Global Guerrilas Blog which deals with the future of warfare. He has a technology background and he’s been writing about the concept of weaponized social networks lately and how they can be used for political repression (China) and to effect social change (Using social networks to shun gun owners). His articles are interesting reads and are food for thought. Here is the website: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas

  7. Doug says:

    The type of social engineering implied by the notion of Facebook “fixing” human interaction brings to mind Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley, of course, described a future where the tinkering with people’s lives was taken to extremes, but as they say, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step (even if the destination is truly horrible).

    1. Dan Wood says:

      The best step to take is ending a facebook account. By doing this anyone can watch their immediate and most important relationships grow without one. And also become way less distracted.

  8. Mary K says:

    DARPA started the internet with the best of intentions—making it anonymous, believing everyone would be their best selves. We can see how that turned out.

    I just think what happened the last time someone attempted to connect everyone—the Tower of Babel.

  9. Roy Savion says:

    >High modernism is more about perfecting human society than making money.

    Maybe human society isn’t meant to be perfect.

  10. Another great article Cal. I like the last question. Should Facebook exist? You might like Ben Thompson’s article: regulate or dismantle the monopoly?
    https://stratechery.com/2018/the-facebook-current/

    1. Dan wood says:

      I chopped Facebook 4 months ago and havent looked back. I’m seeing results! I’m sad about the amount of time I’ve wasted with all forms of social media. It doesn’t help anyone succeed and it disconnects us as people way more than it connects.

  11. Todd says:

    “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.”

    How do we separate causation from correlation here?

  12. Dan wood says:

    I’m only one chapter in, but wondering how does one go about lessening the distraction in their mind of the fact that they have other tasks that they need to complete? I have trouble dealing with one task as I worry about other tasks that will have to be dealt with. How can I shut those nagging thoughts out?

  13. U. Peiris says:

    My company does a lot of work on Google Drive. I recently got a notification stating that now any editor of any document would be be able to see if I viewed it, and when I viewed it, i.e. my entire viewing history. It’s just so surreal that Google is introducing this at a time like this. I don’t understand why it’s so useful to know when someone viewed a document – edited yes – but viewed?! It’s such an invasion of privacy. Like you said, it’s just data gathering for the sake of it – because it can be done, they think it’s a good idea to do so.

    It’s scary. It’s definitely scary.

  14. Sean says:

    I am part way through Steven Pinker’s new book now and he makes a compelling case that is at odds with your post: In the long view, human flourishing has been improved in all aspects of life partly because we keep solving the problems that come with every new solution to a previous problem.

    When grappling with the stated utopian ideals of Facebook, “Should these companies even exist at all?” is the wrong question. It suggests these ideals are not worth the effort of trying to solve the problems that come from the solution they offer. I think Pinker would say this approach works against the progressive ideals of the enlightenment that have brought us so far already.

    As someone who stopped using Facebook and Twitter after reading Deep Work, I appreciate your generally excellent and unique arguments and observations. In this case, however, your approach comes off as reactionary.

    1. Geoff says:

      A good comment. I’m interested in this part:

      “It suggests these ideals are not worth the effort of trying to solve the problems that come from the solution they offer”

      A few thoughts come to mind.

      What are the solutions that FaceBook and other social media platforms offer?
      I’ve read somewhere (Cal’s blog I think actually) of the need to be vigilant about products and services that become popular by solving a problem that doesn’t really exist, but they convince you that it does.

      To what extent was the world suffering from lack of connectivity before FaceBook?

      What solutions does FaceBook offer? As Cal pointed out, social media has not brought people together, it has created an illusion of connectivity, but has actually made us lonelier.

      I would argue that FaceBook is simply not worth the effort.

  15. James Roloff says:

    Interesting read. I agree that there is this false sense of high modernism being a goal by many.

    I see it outside of Silicon Valley too though. I think many people, young and old, are desperately trying to seek purpose in life, as well as validate their consumption-heavy lifestyle. High Modernism answers that call.

  16. Ayrat says:

    “ It should, therefore, scare the hell out of us.”
    I don’t see the connection (maybe because I missed what is high modernism). Farms are not bad, highways are not bad. Facebook is not bad. Privacy problems exist though.

    “The shift from real to virtual connection paradoxically made people more lonely”
    No, it is our incorrect use of virtual connections that made this. Maybe learn how to use it?

    “as arguing that the natural state of human interaction is hopelessly irrational and ineffective.”
    No, it is the media (face to face in one place) that is ineffective?

    Btw, did you research what is efficient use of Facebook? You mention some things in your deep work book, but I wonder if you interviewed some efficient and happy(!) users of Facebook.

  17. Brian J says:

    I can’t resist a nerd moment to swipe at the ignorant language of Andrew Bosworth. He says “de facto good” when surely he means a “per se good”. When something is treated as intrinsically good, or good in itself, we can call it a “per se good” (per se is from Latin: in itself).

    Now, it is true that “de facto” means “in fact” but its origin is from a contrast with “de jure” (meaning “according to law”). We use it to say things like, “Russia has become a de facto oligarchy whereas England remains a monarchy de jure.”

  18. Raymond says:

    How long does it usually take you to write an article like this? Do you ever get writer’s block? Do you only write when you absolutely know what you want to say?

  19. bhart says:

    I say leave FB alone. Don’t use it or pony up a monthly fee if you don’t want your information shared. I was incredulous that free social networks ever came into being. But people don’t appreciate that creating apps and SAAS takes programming and IT resources. It isn’t free. People that provide tech services need to earn a living just like other professions. Programming has been cheapened and degraded by the naive generally non-tech public.

  20. Viliami says:

    I know this isn’t related, but I was wondering, would productive meditation be useful in school? If so, how could I implement it. Just trying to train my concentration to do better.

    If not, what would you suggest?

    1. EA says:

      Non-directive meditation. Get the 100% free 1 Giant Mind app, and follow it 15 minutes a day. Works wonders (I am not affiliated with the app or any non-directive meditation movement/group/whatever).

      1. Viliami says:

        Hey EA

        Is this something that can provide the intense concentration from Cal’s book Deep Work? If so, I’m guessing it requires a week or a certain amount of time of practice before experiencing benefits right?

        1. EA says:

          Viliami – I would say yes. It really takes some mental willpower to sit for 10 to 20 minutes, focusing on a mantra without having your thoughts going crazy. The 1 Giant Mind app will explain everything as the first 12 meditations are all guided (15 minutes). I now try to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. At times it’s incredible. I might also suggest to take up some “thinking” hobby, like chess (even if just online) as it trains your brain to focus for a length of time.

  21. Dave says:

    As far as I know I think we are the once exposing our self to social media. We need to be careful what information we will give and how we respond to advertisements given by Social Media sites.

  22. Preston T says:

    The Bay Area is really a great area to be around so many like minded individuals.

  23. Dave Boyce says:

    Imagine how much better high technology would be if it was deeply thought through so as to accommodate human ways and habits rather than forcing humans to adjust to it.

    As human interaction design expert and Silicon Valley iconoclast Alan Cooper put it in titling his 2004 book, the inmates are running the asylum.

  24. JamesClerk Maxwell says:

    A lot is happening. Unexpected effects like narrowing of acceptable opinions by AI. Trying to centrally control acceptable thoughts from a central source for idealistic reasons seems like it might go badly astray. Many social engineering efforts have had all sorts of unexpected side effects. Ive seen a high control group (cult) run off social media. Should I create an app for budding cult leaders, can AI be helpful in social control?

    Religions have a matryoshka like complexity that is beyond any single individual. Building religions from scratch always ends in spectacular disaster, it is simply too complex to make work right. Silicon Valley is taking the role of religion by stepping up too an ambitious thought police role.

  25. Jhon says:

    society growing so fast but there are side effects too.

  26. Jhon says:

    such an amazing blog. I agree that there is this false sense of high modernism being a goal by many. I see it outside of Silicon Valley too though. I think many people, young and old, are desperately trying to seek purpose in life

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