Silicon Valley is the New Rome. And Zuck Wants to be Emperor.
Facebook’s pivot to privacy is just another grab for unchecked, ultimate power. Are we going to let it happen?
Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s pivot towards privacy last week. And it took no time for a host of commentators to observe that the so-called pivot is really nothing of the kind.
First, this move is simply about following Facebook users, who are spending less time on the open platform and more time inside private messaging apps. Facebook’s social platform has 15 million fewer users today than in 2017.
Second, it’s about outmaneuvering the regulators who are now circling the business. By tying the backend of Messenger, Whatsapp and Instagram together — and that’s central to the new plan announced last week — Zuckerberg hopes to frustrate any future attempts to break the company apart along those lines.
The key point is this — at heart, the Zuck’s obsession remains the same. He wants Facebook to the be universal layer via which all of us access the internet. For the open web, that meant trying to make Facebook a digital passport that followed you everywhere. Now that the action seems to be shifting towards closed messaging platforms, it means creating One Messaging App to Rule Them All, which will act as a gateway to other apps, platforms and services — as WeChat does for hundreds of millions of Chinese users.
Not a pivot; a power play. So the vast, unchecked power grab that is Facebook continues apace. And right now, we’re just letting it happen. Because make no mistake: no one should have — no one should even want — as much power as Mark Zuckerberg is trying to get.
Silicon Valley is the new Rome. Out of this small city-state has grown an empire with roads that reach to the furthest corners of the Earth.
An internal power struggle in the early 2000s saw a handful of dominant platforms emerge. Since then, they have insinuated themselves into our daily lives, and the machinery of our societies. Where once we thought ourselves active participants in their power, increasingly we see that we are now their supplicants. In the latter half of 2018, for example, Google received 57,868 requests for information from governments around the world. That’s governments, begging a massive business for information.
For three decades now, Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism has been the only serious competitor to neoliberalism in its quest to be the defining ideology of our times. In fact, although one wears a hoodie and the other a suit, the two are close cousins. Neoliberalism’s call to ‘let markets work’ and the techno-utopian idea that the challenges of our communal life are simply engineering problems to be solved stem from the same underlying idea. That is, the idea that enlightened humans can transcend politics, and turn governance into a project of technocratic management.
Meanwhile, power has drained endlessly towards the Silicon Valley elite — and they’ve hoarded it. Zuckerberg’s talk of a ‘more open and connected world’ was always a perfect, autotuned version of Valley utopianism. But the dark undertone was never hard to hear. Take the reported interest in the Emperor Augustus: ‘basically, through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace.’
Crush the opposition. Then reign with serene and uncontested authority. That’s the plan.
In 2019, the world has seen through the hoodie and the flip-flops. The new ‘privacy pivot’ is only further evidence — if any more were needed — that Zuck’s dream is of unlimited power. If Silicon Valley is the new Rome, he wants to be Emperor.
What’s more, the pivot makes clear who Zuckerberg sees as his principal antagonists. On the one hand WeChat, which is already the Chosen One among messaging apps in China, and could cause Facebook serious problems if its dominion spreads beyond those borders. On the other hand, there are the regulators.
For 30 years neoliberalism eroded our sense of the necessity and worthiness of government, institutions, and collective action. They were old-fashioned — unnecessary in the bright, shiny, market-oriented world we were building. But all that was a covertly self-serving lie, sold by the rich. Human beings cannot transcend the messy business of confronting and choosing between fundamentally different visions of our collective life. If we neglect that task, powerful interest groups will fill the void we’ve left. When we engage in it fully, we can make constructive change.
That truth should animate the response to the Facebook ‘pivot’ — and to the challenge posed by the new Silicon Valley empire.
If we are to take back the power that has drained away from our accountable representatives and towards Silicon Valley, we need to regain our faith in collective action, and reenergise the institutions of government and civil society.
And we need to do it fast. If regulation comes to a head three years from now and stalls because Messenger, Insta and Whatsapp are ‘too integrated’ to be broken up, that will represent a massive and wholly avoidable failure. US and European regulators should step in now and start prying Facebook apart. And we should create a new institution of global governance to help coordinate those efforts and others like them.
Right now, we here in the UK are deep in a political project to ‘take back control’ (you’ve probably read about it). It’s a mess, and a distraction. The real battle for control in the 21st-century lies elsewhere — against Silicon Valley and its project to encode and commodify every aspect of our existence.
Right now, we’re not winning. But it could be different, if we care enough.
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.