Can Zuckerberg Shape Humanity?

Sufficiently vague, there are many ways to read the vision for Facebook’s future that Mark Zuckerberg laid out on Thursday.

But, one thing is clear: the young mogul feels that facilitating the spread of ideas and information among people needs to be engineered.

Yes, from “promoting peace and understanding” to “ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics,” Zuckerberg believes that Facebook should be steering humankind in a particular direction.    

And, that’s the way it’s always been, Zuckerberg insists.

“History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers -- from tribes to cities to nations,” he explained. “At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

This all sounds great, and I for one am thankful that the guy in charge of such a lofty endeavor shares my personal values.

The problem, of course, is that Facebook’s ability to shape our world puts too much power in too few hands, and any system that attempts to mold our minds is bound to face resistance.

We see this everywhere, today. In part, it’s what gave rise to the “alternative right,” which has been largely fueled by their pushback against politically-correct culture, and a news media that -- rightly or wrongly -- seems to share a similar worldview.

As John Herrman writes in this week’s New York Times Magazine, it was the order that YouTube tried to create among its vast community that transformed Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a., PewDiePie, from a zany vlogger into an anti-Semitic “populist reactionary.”

Zuckerberg is certainly aware of this phenomenon, and suggests that Facebook can devise systems to mollify the loudest dissenters. 

As he noted in his nearly 6,000-word manifesto, Zuck said this will increasingly include tools that expose users to new ideas, and “builds common understanding in a world where every person has a voice.”

And, Facebook isn’t the only tech company thinking along these lines. BuzzFeed News this week began rolling out “Outside Your Bubble” -- a feature that shows users what folks outside of their social-media spheres are saying about the news.

This all makes perfect sense. Tech’s brightest minds think they can engineer anything. From a perfect social network to a perfect world, it’s only a matter of sufficient brainpower.    

What Zuck and his peers may not fully appreciate, however, is that humanity’s drive to build is rivaled only by its impulse to tear down. If order is what he's hoping for, some degree of disorder he will surely get.

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