Facebook’s septem horribilis, mirror of 21st century American leadership
Hubris, deflection, techno-libertarianism and a-historicity are a recipe for disaster — there’s still time to make things right
Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the “leaders” of Facebook have capped off their very own septem horribilis (horrible week) with reports leaked from their own executives on how tone deaf and removed they really are. The New York Times article is tough on Zuckerberg but perhaps even tougher on Sandberg, criticized by leakers as being much too focused on her own supposed “brand” vs the one she is responsible for in front of shareholders. The combination of hubris and tone deafness is staggering and destroys any hope Sandberg could still harbor of a future in politics, where she is now 100% radioactive. In a way Sandberg is the 21st century version of Margaret Thatcher: a ruthless operator not afraid to use a softer touch when it serves her needs, but at the core, tough as nails as any of her male counterparts.
Meanwhile, the narrative of Sheryl Sandberg — brilliant executive, proud feminist, personal champion of loss and love, transcendent figure — appeared to suffer an irreversible blow. Sandberg’s potential political career seems toast. As Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway noted on a recent episode of their excellent new podcast, Pivot, she may soon find herself being delicately ostracized from the standard left in-crowd — a rarified ecosystem of which she was not only part of the firmament, but perhaps the mayor.
Since 2016 I’ve written several essays on Zuckerberg and Facebook’s corrosive role in our societies (links below), this one serves as a cathartic exercise to take a longer view on how Facebook is a mirror to our own faults and fissures.
David Fincher’s The Social Network could end up, like Wall Street, being the most misunderstood film about an era and its subject. Michael Douglas has regaled audiences with tales of drunken finance types who told him his Gordon Gekko had been their inspiration. It’s conceivable that future techno-libertarian CEOs will salute Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film as the spark that got them to become founder-CEOs. 1980s “greed is good” era was replaced by faux progressive Silicon Valley bubble groupthink and Zuckerberg is the ultimate poster child of this “prêt à penser” non ideology. He has always been a proud asshole, a proven fact from the minute his IMs insulting his first users as “dumb fucks” leaked.
Facebook is the product of a specific era, the era of jerks, and as such, social networks serve as a good proxy for Western society in the early 21st century, where self-assured elites pass the time counting their fiat currencies while prepping for a dystopian future they see as inevitable. The strongest strand of Silicon Valley ideology is a mix of hubris, constant deflection and techno-libertarianism where the public realm is mocked as unworthy, all the while the very tools these supposed Masters of Universe use daily were created, 100%, by public financing. It’s quite significant and not out of character for Silicon Valley to refuse to own up to its military-financed roots, even down to the Venture Capital model.
a mix of hubris, constant deflection and techno-libertarianism where the public realm is mocked as unworthy, all the while the very tools these supposed Masters of Universe use daily, were created, 100%, with public financing.
Facebook’s septem horribilis is an accelerated version of the challenges faced by American, and by extension, Western leadership as we embark on the second decade of this new century. These challenges are legion but the core ones are:
1- the ability to create coalitions to pass legislation and undertake massive, society-level projects;
2- create a win/win virtuous circle as technology fundamentally reworks the fabric of societies, including the political layers;
3- rethink progressive politics in an inclusive model.
Diving into these challenges:
1- the ability to create coalitions to pass legislation and undertake massive, society-level projects: Facebook is blamed by governments and their opposition for its distortion and amplification of extreme political debate, in effect neutering centrist middle of the road politicians. This has been true in America and Europe and more worrisome, in Latin America and Asia, where populist regimes are often composed with military and paramilitary types. Facebook and its social network competitors significantly hurt a key element of democracies and proto-democracies, a free media. Social networks merely accelerated what the internet had started in the 1990s, the demise of so-called traditional media. Now that media has been thoroughly challenged governments are figuring out that a free press is a necessary element of their day-to-day. The upcoming decades will need to see a fundamental reworking of the tense relationship between these two power clusters.
2- create a win/win virtuous circle as technology fundamentally reworks the fabric of societies, including the political layers: Social media is blamed for all of society’s ills in the same way as television, radio and cinema were in their heydays. Humans have a need to deflect and to blame technologies when in effect they are to blame. The challenge is steep as societies forged by a common set of values taught to each generation through mediated means (stories, books, etc) are reverting back to tribal allegiances. Technology is a means, not the end goal, and it needs to serve human interests first and foremost: the ability to lead fulfilling lives, in a connected way. This can happen if everyone pitches in and politicians, tech leaders and others work TOGETHER to rebuild trust in each other and in the ability to create win/win virtuous circles. This ability is what makes us humans.
3- rethink progressive politics in an inclusive model: Decades of deconstruction brought about by Derrida and his clique have sapped the basics of Western societies. Century strong institutions, while flawed, have been weakened by an insistence to deconstruct without bothering to RECONSTRUCT. This flaw has been the key to understanding the failure of social democrats in Europe and America, whose Third Ways courtesy of Blair and Clinton are resounding defeats, intellectual and political, in the face of 2008 and the Great Recession. Power hungry plutocrats and oligarchs seized upon this defeat and pummelled progressives with Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Acts in America and various similar feats in Europe. It’s therefore high time to rethink on a root level what progressive politics means as we embark on preparing the 22nd century. I come from the conservative world but am now a political orphan as my conservative forebears have compromised themselves with populists that I cannot support.
I’m what you could refer to as an extreme centrist (h/t to Caroline McCarthy who is a fellow “traveler”) and I aim to connect with other like-minded centrists, interested in politics for a noble reason and sick and tired of the “horse race” coverage by the 24/7 media. I therefore call for a Centrists of All Nations Unite movement !
note: this post is cross-published on Storify, where I’m curating a number of links and twitter conversations on the…medium.com