An argument that Mark Zuckerberg is, in fact, the most empathetic human being alive
It just might not be the type of empathy the world needs right now
What do we think of when we think of someone with great empathy?
You might think of a parental figure, or a kind teacher, or perhaps a popular Internet psychologist.
The philosopher Roman Krznaric has made his own list of the most empathetic people, and this list includes people like Hilary Swank, who in preparation for her portrayal as the hate-crime victim Brandon Teena, dressed up as a man for a month to see what it felt like.
Krznaric’s list of empathists also included Mahatma Gandhi, which of course needs no explanation.
My definition used to be counselor Deanna Troi.
Yes, I know she’s fictional, but she is an empath by definition, and that was my standard for a while, a fictional standard against which all other empathetic characters were judged.
But then I grew up a bit, and saw that empathy could manifest itself in vastly different forms.
I had a few coaches who gave me quite a bit of tough love, tough love that I needed — even though I mostly rode the bench for four years of high school sports.
I then grew to appreciate historical figures like John Snow — not the Game of Thrones Jon Snow, but John Snow with an h from 1800s England.
John Snow with an h was gruff, humorless — and might have gone his whole life without ever having made a friend.
But this gruff, friendless Doctor’s work helped invent the concept of anesthesia, and his cold, analytical calculations found a way to end cholera outbreaks.
He might not have cared for individuals, but John Snow cared about people a great deal, and saved millions from suffering under their surgeon’s scalpel, and saved millions more from one of the most savage diseases the world has ever known.
And now in the modern times of Social Media, the concept of empathy has taken on even more meanings.
To cut through the noise, I’m going to go with numbers — of which there are quite a bit nowadays.
When you quantify empathy for the human condition, who has the most?
Well if you define empathy data in a way that Big Tech understands it, the leader is Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook.
Before we dive into Zuckerberg, let’s look at the specific brand of empathy found in Big Tech
You heard me right — Big Tech is empathetic.
Big Tech does not care about you or even know who you are, but it is empathetic in a very specific sense of the term.
To understand what this term Big Tech empathy means, we must first take a step back and realize that Big Tech doesn’t control, so much as it listens.
Franklin Foer in his book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech exploded the myth of the top-down tyrannical Big Tech leader controlling us all with edicts:
It is assumed that libertarianism dominates Silicon Valley, which isn’t wholly wrong. High-profile devotees of Ayn Rand can be found there. But if you listen hard to the titans of tech, that’s not the worldview that emerges. In fact, it is something much closer to the opposite of a libertarian’s veneration of the heroic, solitary individual. The big tech companies believe we’re fundamentally social beings, born to collective existence. They invest their faith in the network, the wisdom of crowds, collaboration.
Big Tech doesn’t tell us what to do.
Big Tech listens to us.
It listens so well that critics call it surveillance or even privacy-theft, but Big Tech listens.
Silicon Valley listens so well in fact, that they often understand what the world wants before the world even does itself.
How does Big Tech listen? With data, constant data
A/B tests. Minutes spent engaged. Usage Statistics. Sign up rates. Projections.
No data is off limits when it comes to listening to what the world really wants, not even piracy statistics.
Netflix changed the game with House of Cards, a show born of massive amounts of play data, and HBO all but celebrated each season of Game of Thrones smashing pirating records.
It’s a cabal perhaps, but a public one who runs the world by listening to its users, and non-users as well.
That listening is a type of empathy, and when you define empathy in those terms, no one is more empathetic than Facebook, led by founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
When it comes to numbers, Facebook rules the Big Tech empathy roost
Again, I have to qualify this — we’re talking about a specific kind of empathy, and we’ll explore this later, but for now, when it comes to listening to what the users want, Facebook is at the top.
Obama’s campaign made waves in 2012 for running 500 A/B tests on their donation website, but those numbers are quaint compared to what we have today.
Consider this: at any given time there are 10,000 versions of Facebook running around the world.
Any of Mark Zuckerberg’s engineers are allowed to change elements of Facebook, and test how the world reacts.
10,000 versions of Facebook, all finding out what we really want, in real time.
This world of Social Media is what we want, and Mark Zuckerberg listens to our desires.
That, of course is a vastly oversimplified description of the current state of the world, but it gives us a better way to approach the problems in our future.
It’s not Mark Zuckerberg, or Sheryl Sandberg, or Reed Hastings, or whoever leads the next big thing.
It’s us that are the problem, and to solve for what comes next, we need rules to corral ourselves — not just punish those who listen to us.
We must recognized that at its worst, Big Tech is like Big Tobacco, and at its best it is like Johannes Gutenberg — and we must prepare for both
Facebook is more than just nicotine, but at its worst, that’s what it is.
But at its best, it still presents problems.
Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe in 1439, and as Marshall McLuhan noted, an entity known as the public was introduced along with it.
The world adapted over the centuries, making copyright and libel laws, and though Social Media grows and operates at a scale never seen before, it is still but one more sea change in new modes of human communication, and we need to treat it like that.
No one went after Johannes Gutenberg for his device. They managed it through laws and regulation, and with that, the world was able to manage itself.
And we must recognize that Mark Zuckerberg is going to keep listening to our desires, and keep empathizing with them.
No amount of scolding, or hashtagging #DeleteFacebook is going to change that.
If we want change, we need to regulate the industry, which in turn will regulate ourselves.
This is tricky of course, but Estonia provides a model
Regulating the Internet isn’t like regulating Big Tobacco, which was done to great success through laws and tariffs.
The world has even found a way to fight the growing epidemic of obesity, by taxing sugared soda beverages, to an at least somewhat positive result.
But the Internet isn’t like the powerful, but monolithic desires for drugs and food.
The Internet and Social Media both move and evolve fast, and the deliberately slow pace of government can’t keep up with them.
Or can it?
After Estonia became free of the Soviet Union in 1991, it adopted a series of reforms to modernize its economy, including its digital portion.
By the year 2000, it had an online computer in every classroom, and Wired magazine recently named it the most advanced digital society in the world.
e-Estonia threads the needle of openness and privacy, simultaneously encouraging fast Internet and a global citizenry, while most importantly — guaranteeing privacy.
Again, this is an oversimplification — Estonia is a country of 1.3 million people, and in an odd sense, they had the benefit of being able to reinvent themselves after breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
And yes, over half of Estonians are on Facebook, perhaps even more than the rest of the world.
But they found a way to open the world up while being able to control their worst instincts — mainly by finding a way to make Internet privacy a right.
And that is a start.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Tech empathy is going to adapt to the world whether we like it or not — it’s up to us to adapt ourselves to it in response
Facebook is going to adapt no matter what. Any company that puts out 10,000 User Tests each and every day is going to understand the world in ways that will ensure that it sees the future.
And of course, this yields unexpected results, not all of them good.
The good results? We are actually living through the most peaceful time in human history, and many attribute that to the ease of broadcasting information through Social Media.
What once took an army of war journalists, photographers and editors now just takes a single citizen with a Smartphone and a Live Stream.
The bad results?
We’ve got those as well. Facebook use is linked to depression, and the 2016 U.S. Presidential results didn’t exactly suggest a cohesive global community.
So we’ve got to cherish the good parts, and adapt to the bad parts.
We need to do this through regulation, regulation that adapts and persists over time, even if it always seems a step behind.
Because Mark Zuckerberg and Big Tech are going to listen. They are going to be empathetic.
It’s up to us to bring our own brand of empathy back to ourselves, not the Big Tech empathy, but the original empathy — the one that the world needs, and has always needed.