In turbulent times there is something emotionally powerful about reliability in and of itself. Facebook, for all its faults, is reliable. I can bet on Facebook being up and available more often than the Internet connection I rely on to access it. Hell, it works more reliably than my toilet. Changes to the site trigger cascades of stories and opinions about user experience which, really, goes to show how infrequently Facebook makes major alterations to core functions. You don’t have to like Facebook as a company or as a product to acknowledge that it is stable and works as intended more often that most other things. This transcendent reliability—a steadfast infrastructure of emotive communication and identity construction—has become Facebook’s core service. You may not like what you see in your timeline, but the timeline will be there.
Watching an organization embed itself into the lives of nearly a third of the global population is a strange thing. To be a common tread across all of those lives is to be as unthreatening or uncontroversial as possible. Conversely, it was only a matter of time before Facebook played host to something deeply disturbing like a murder, or even world-changing like a reactionary election. This tension between striving for unassuming background service and inevitable host to calamity goes a long way towards explaining why Mark Zuckerberg is traveling across the U.S and writing 6,000-word manifestos about community, despite the fact that most Facebook users aren’t Americans and Facebook is not a community. Shoring up good will in the most powerful nation on the planet is not only good business, it is tapping into a tradition of American progressivism that is so embedded in our daily lives we can’t recognize it when we see it enacted. It is the water we swim in and Mark Zuckerberg wants to tint it Facebook blue.
It is no secret that Facebook would like to be the mediator of most people’s everyday life, American or not. A video of an anti-immigration protest on Facebook Live is meant to sit next to a Pepe meme, just above a photo of a high school friend’s second baby, and a status update about your cousin’s new job. This is the ultimate goal of a platform: to be an essential enabling technology but not the star of the show. It is the stage, not the performer. The road, not the car. Reliability is necessary for such a technology but it also needs to project an air of objectivity or impartiality: a fading into the background and a foregrounding of everything else.
Such a move—being the mediator or affording mechanism for behavior rather than its explicit progenitor or advocate—is a familiar governing strategy with a good success rate. When the World Bank found itself beset on all sides by growing social movements they completely changed their strategy, acting less like a bank that was aggressively perusing international loan agreements, and started acting like a think tank. The sociologist Michael Goldman in his book Imperial Nature describes today’s World Bank as “the world’s main producer of concepts, data, analytic frameworks, and policies on the environment” and is actively cultivating an image as “the world’s most powerful environmentalist, teaming up with prominent NGOs, scientific institutions, borrowing states, and Northern aid agencies.”
Instead of being a political actor with its own identifiable sets of interests and goals, the World Bank rightly saw an easier path as a promoter (and subsequent beneficiary) of neoliberal ideas and policy. Why convince a single deposable dictator to take out a loan when you can be invited by a parliament to rewrite environmental protection laws? Facebook and its CEO-avatar Mark Zuckerberg are in the process of doing something very similar. Facebook is a monopolistic media agglomeration whose hunger for personal data is enough to swallow the world, but it would rather be seen as a cultural force for living publicly in a metropolitan world.
Back in 2010, before he wanted everyone to know he slaughtered his own meat, and well before Zuckerberg had hired a cadre of presidential campaign staffers, he told an audience at the Crunchie Awards that social norms were moving away from privacy and towards more open sharing. He was right that ideas of privacy and publicity are historically contingent and constantly changing, but he described Facebook’s role as “reflecting” rather than shaping those values. Predictably, few people outside of those that go to events with “Crunchie” in the title were convinced. Some pointed to the obvious fact that Facebook benefits from more promiscuous sharing while others like dana boyd reminded readers that notions of privacy and publicity not only change over time, but they are radically different for different kinds of people.
Regardless of whether you thought Zuckerberg was right, wrong, or thinking too simply about the subject, it was clear that commenting on sharing habits directly caused too many people to be cognizant of privacy in the first place. Just as Nixon’s “I am not a crook” made him seem guilty, Zuckerberg came off as someone who wanted to change your privacy habits, not passively respond to them. Conferences, blogs, news segments, and entire books about social media’s privacy invasion were being produced at a steady clip between 2010 and 2015. Still though, Facebook’s active user base ballooned from 600 million to over a billion.
Privacy concerns were obviously not enough to keep people off of Facebook, but it did take a toll on what got shared and individuals’ emotional relationship to the platform. There were stories and studies about why and how Facebook makes you unhappy and while causation is unclear, it was also about this time that it was revealed that, people were giving Facebook less personal data. (At least Facebook thought that news sharing habits weren’t a means of sharing personal feelings, and maybe still doesn’t, but that’s another story.) The company’s biggest challenge shifted from expanding territory, to governing the population it had amassed in 15 short years.
Facebook is so big that it actually makes sense to intervene in society to keep it compatible with the service. It is the same logic of powerful actors that Henry Kissinger was referring to when he infamously told the author Dinesh D’Souza that “America has no permanent friends, only interests.” Despite being constitutive of “friends” Facebook is animated by the interests of the platform. Those interests are less about material conditions necessary for its survival (though perhaps this is only the case because those conditions are not under threat) and more about the perception of its brand as a non-ideological container for life’s events. If Americans are divided, so are the 79 percent of them that use Facebook. And if Americans see Facebook as a partisan in any of our major debates, they stand to lose a great deal. Facebook wants to host happy people sharing likeable things, not waring factions pumping out propaganda. To be clear, it is good at doing both, but there is much more money to be made in polite, mediated conversation than political screeds. (The latter rarely divulges your favorite place to brunch.)
While Facebook’s interests clearly lie in a globalized society of happy people sharing their lives with one another in a machine-readable format purchasable to advertisers, they cannot say that or openly advocate for such a world. That is probably why Zuckerberg, as Obama and Hilary Clinton speech writer Joe Lovett observed in a recent Buzzfeed article, “sounds like a senator in his fourth term.” His comments are anodyne, crafted to not offend nor arouse anyone. Zuckerberg cannot effectively advocate for a progressive society or he’ll run into the same problems he had in 2010. Instead, he must enact his politics thereby making it seem as though you are buying into a calm, happy life when using Facebook, without all of the globalist baggage. Zuckerberg must, paradoxically, campaign for an ideology so as to keep his company seeming non-ideological. To date no ideology is as good at denying its own existence than good old fashioned liberalism forged in the Progressive Era.
If you took a history course in an American high school you probably read about the Progressive Era. For about a generation, beginning in 1890 America saw massive changes in civil society, among them the brief prohibition of alcohol, women’s suffrage, antitrust laws, the rise of labor unions, and public health initiatives. It was a moment, not unlike this one, where data and the scientific method were being applied to brand new sectors of society. Economics, political science, and sociology vied for top posts in advising government officials, businesses were seeking out new means of organization through scientific management (aka Taylorism), and governments would list eugenics along with vaccines and public baths as means of making their populations healthier and more productive.
By far the least exciting but perhaps longest-lasting reform of the Progressive Era was a push toward the professionalization and bureaucratization of government. Today, it is near-impossible to imagine anyone getting excited about managers. It is even harder to conceive of a political movement centered on the idea that the world needs more management, credentialing, and certification. Quite often we see the opposite: a talking head on TV or someone at the end of the bar complaining about the stifling restrictions brought on by bureaucracy, regulation, and paper-pushers. It is notable then, that in America, with all its pretentions of individuality and ruggedness we would find a social movement dedicated to installing managers in all aspects of our lives.
If your local government has a city manager or if your city council members run without endorsement from a political party, you are living in a community that was deeply influenced by the Progressive Era. Managers and professionals were seen as the antidote to corrupt party bosses that played favorites and took bribes. If your job needed a credential, and the office you held had clearly defined rules that were written down, you could be objectively evaluated and conceivably be fired if you did not perform your duties. “The ‘objective’ discharge of business” wrote Max Weber in his Politics as a Vocation “primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’”
Weber, writing in Germany at the very beginning of the bureaucratization of western governments, also knew that the shift from overtly political governance to professionalized administration could create power centers. Bureaucracies’ tendency toward secrecy and consolation of power were a part of their “material nature.” To carry out their missions, whether that is to issue drivers’ licenses or keep Facebook’s uptime at 99.9%, means amassing as much resources to carry out that mission while in competition with other organizations within a state system or market. Their most prized possession and only leverage in this competition is the accumulated skill and information they possess. Weber even went so far as to say that ‘The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the bureaucratic expert.”
Thinking of Zuckerberg as the head of a functioning bureaucratic system, indeed the only one that seems to be working at the moment, makes a lot of inexplicable things fall into place. Is he running for President? Conducting a PR campaign for his company? Nothing quite seems to explain all of his actions because, as Nitasha Tiku wrote in the same Buzzfeed article that compares him to a seasoned senator, “There are easier ways to appear woke than traveling across the country to talk about Facebook’s weak spots.” Tiku puts her money on a third option: “He wants to win over the world to help his philanthropic interests.” This makes sense since it requires exactly what he is doing on his trip around the U.S.: appeals to the material interests of the rich and the sentiments of everyone else.
What exactly those philanthropic interests are though, seem vague. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (named after Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan) is an LLC, not a non-profit, and has been acquiring companies as it seeks to “advance human potential and promote equality.” It is certainly possible that Zuckerberg could run for president in 2020 on a platform of creative destruction making way for reliable technocratic systems like Facebook, but if the history of the Progressive Era has taught us anything, it is that the big winners stay out of politics all-together and make fiefdoms of bureaucratic control. No one exemplifies that lesson like the brash believer in meritocracy that built modern New York City: Robert Moses.
Mark Zuckerberg will be our generation’s Robert Moses. Fueled by a deep belief in rational systems’ ability to reward the best with power over the rest, Moses commanded massive budgets, built enormous public works projects, and never ran for a single elected office. Instead, he was able to amass funds through the authority to levy tolls on his many bridges and gained populist appeal through the hundreds of parks he had built across New York State. A child of the Progressive Era who lived long enough to become its antithesis—a powerful bureaucrat accountable to no one who championed the white well-off families of Long Island over the poor immigrant families in the city—Moses wielded bureaucracy and technocratic authority the way Obama could use rhetorical flourish and moral authority. He was a master of the craft and changed what it meant to use it.
Zuckerberg could carve out a similar role for himself on a bigger scale. CZI could morph into a dual power organization: something as powerful as a government and capable of providing similar services using a parallel set of bureaucratic tools and procedures. Through the acquisition of companies in different sectors and the establishment of public-private partnerships, Zuckerberg could rival the power of a president with the added benefit of choosing his jurisdiction. If protracted war in the Middle East has no foreseeable benefit to CZI’s social mission, then it simply opts out of the discussion.
What is less speculative and more likely though, is that CZI and Zuckerberg himself are deployed by existing political actors as the last best example of what the Progressive Era promised and what today’s Democratic Party wants to be seen as: stewards of a rational, meritocratic society capable of administrating grand projects for large populations. The danger in either scenario is that Zuckerberg follows Moses’ career trajectory too closely. If that happens he would be someone that, as Jane Jacobs wrote in Fortune Magazine, “loves the public but hates the people.”
David is on Twitter: @da_banks.