Mark Zuckerberg cares deeply about the voice of the people, so this year, he invited a bunch of white dudes to discuss that and other Big Stuff in six pre-recorded conversations. This was Zuckerberg’s 2019 “personal challenge”: A series of “public discussions” aimed, in his words, to “engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go.”
The uneventful snooze (six videos running about an hour posted over a period of months) might have gone unnoticed had folks like journalist Kurt Wagner not pointed out that 8 out of 9 interviewees are men, and nearly all are white. Wagner draws a clear parallel between Facebook’s makeup, which is only 9 per cent black or Latinx and 36.9 per cent women.
One of the interviewees is an advisor to Facebook; the others include the CEO of Axel Springer, the CEO of Stripe, and several academics.
What did we learn from this?
A quick overview reveals that Zuckerberg read Sapiens (and we watched, begrudgingly). He mulls over how Facebook could prioritise higher-quality journalism by adding trusted news sources to the news feed (still working on it; “big questions”). He expresses an interest in how tech can further health research, a big priority for The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Primarily, Zuck served up a lot of self-congratulatory white guy hubris that doesn’t bear any meaningful insight for the rest of us. In a freewheeling conversation on “progress” (broadly) with Stripe CEO Patrick Collison and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, Cowen compares the Bay Area to the rich cultural wellspring of 19th-century Vienna. They then put their heads together to think about low-income-people-problems like the cost of healthcare, student debt, and housing, which they personally feel well-positioned to fix. (“And when I think about, you know, our work over the next decade, and it’s like what are we gonna do that’s gonna fundamentally make people’s lives better?” Zuckerberg wonders. “There’s a lot that we can do.”)
We’ll just give you a couple of crazy-arse examples we easily found at random.
Zuckerberg proceeded to offer an absolutely batshit solution to gentrification:
On housing, I don’t know. You know, there’s always the question of what—which forces in technology end up being stronger than—it’s like which trends end up being stronger? So, you know, on the one have, you have this giant mismatch of opportunity where people feel compelled to move to cities because that’s kind of where a lot of the jobs are. But then there’s not enough building of supply of housing, so rent just increases. And then that means that even though people are going and doing higher-value things, their lives actually aren’t benefiting as much from that because so much of their costs are just of the value that they’re generating is just going to housing because rent is getting so high.
So historically, what have people done? I mean, we invented cars, right, and freeways. That way people could live further out. Maybe something like the hyperloop could extend suburbs like five times as far, so that could make it so someone could live quite further away. And that would be good, right, if you can increase the effective radius of a city—that’s one way to alleviate constraints, political constraints or concerns about people building things, so that way you can get more supply, bring the cost down. But I happen to have a more—I happen to think a different thing is probably the right solution.
You know, in 2019, it’s a lot easier to move bits around than it is atoms. So rather than people moving—inventing a new hyperloop or cars, I tend to think the set of technologies around—whether it’s augmented reality or virtual reality or video presence that just lets people be where they wanna be physically and feel present with other people wherever they need to be to do their job, to connect with the people they care about—that feels to me the better long-term solution. Don’t make everyone move to cities. Make it so people can choose where they wanna be and can get access to all the opportunities they want.
I think he’s suggesting that we all start freelancing from crumbling WeWorks with VR headsets? This is a mind-boggling departure from reality, given that the people who must work on the premises are exactly the low-income people who suffer from rents driven up by Facebook; it flies in the face of people like Facebook’s longtime contracted security guards, some of whom were homeless and had to fight tooth and nail with Facebook to establish a union.
Also in the public interest is a conversation about “giving people a voice,” in which Zuckerberg discusses Facebook’s role in self-governance with Stanford Law School Dean Jenny Martinez Harvard and professor Noah Feldman, an advisor to Facebook’s planned Oversight Board for content decisions. They muddle through a winding deliberation about how Facebook ought to best proceed to wade through the depth of shit it’s in. Here’s a taste of that convo:
Feldman: …You know, in the end, Facebook is a company, not a country, and so it doesn’t have a democratic base of citizens who could vote for elected representatives in some obvious way and then pass laws that would then be enforced, you know, by a government apparatus. And so it’s hard, therefore, to say, “Let’s draft out some, you know, new rules for governance using this.”
Feldman: But the second reason has to do with the fact that actually even among democracies, no democracy thinks that it should use its elected representatives to make the ultimate decisions on their freedom of speech. You know, no government says, “Let’s not have a constitutional court nowadays. Let’s just vote on what speech should be allowed or what shouldn’t be allowed.” Because the experience that most countries have had with that is a bad one. You know, the public can very happily shut down speech when it seems useful. The majority will try to silence the minority. It’s just sort of- it’s good common sense. And so it seemed to me that logically, similarly, Facebook, if it’s interested in protecting voice, which it seems to like you have to be since—
Zuckerberg: Yes, yeah, that’s what we stand for is giving people a voice.
Feldman: Yeah, no voice, no Facebook, right? People have to be able to express themselves. Would similarly want to take advantage of an approach that says, “Let’s have an independent decision-making body that will stand for the principle of voice.” And when there are circumstances where we have to balance voice against people’s safety or against people’s equality, that body can make those judgments and can do it in an open way, transparently, explaining the trade-offs, and ultimately defensibly to the world. And that’s where public legitimacy comes in. If a court explains why it’s doing what it’s doing, if it says, “This is why we’re doing it this way,” if it says, “Here’s the balance,” then people can say, “We agree,” or, “We don’t agree,” and people can engage in their own judgment.”
Mark: Yeah. Well, so you raise up this question around legitimacy, which I think is one of the core questions in designing this kind of a system. And, you know, for those who have questions, rightfully, about, you know, why should a private company be making all of these decisions, that then begs the question of, any system that you set up that’s independent, how does it derive its legitimacy? And in a democratic process, that’s through voting…
These are legitimately big questions. When you’re posing abstract hypotheticals about how and whether to model yourself as a nation, your company has gotten way too big, and a small handful of sit-downs with dudes in palatial Silicon Valley offices doesn’t look very democratic.
In 2018, Zuckerberg’s personal challenge for the year was fixing Facebook. However pointless and unenlightening this conversation project ended up being, he deserves credit for accomplishing his goal this time around.