Friday 20 January 2017

President Zuckerberg

A Vanity Fair piece by Nick Bilton asks, Will Mark Zuckerberg Be Our Next President?

According to Betteridge's Law of Headlines, the answer is no. But in his opening sentence Bilton insists this is a serious question, so let's play along. (The same question has been picked up by The Atlantic.)

Mark Zuckerberg.
Photo credit: By PresidĂȘncia do MĂ©xico - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Link

I think it's fair to say Bilton is somewhat in awe of Zuckerberg. He notes that, having conquered the world of social networking, Zuckerberg is taking an increasing interest in public policy.

Zuckerberg has launched a charitable foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative, and recruited Obama's former political strategist David Plouffe as a board member. He meets with world leaders, but has kept his distance from Trump. As a boy, his favourite computer game was Civilization, in which you control a nation and guide its growth over the centuries. (It was mine, too; no way do I want to lead a nation in the real world, but I digress.)

Bilton tells us:

“He wants to be emperor” is a phrase that has become common among people who have known [Zuckerberg] over the years.

I expect that's true; but there are a few things to unpack from that statement.

The President of the United States is not an emperor. In order to become President, one must win an election.

Traditionally, a would-be President had to build a following among elite politicians; gain experience of public office; and spend time trudging around Iowa before the party caucuses, attending town meetings and pretending to care about farming. Trump has shown that with enough money and notoriety, this is no longer necessary.

What Trump does have is showmanship. Loathsome though he is, the man has a talent for capturing attention. It's unclear whether Zuckerberg can do the same. Being the smartest person on the stage isn't enough to get elected; ask Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Walter Mondale. Having the most money isn't enough either; the Clinton campaign outspent Trump by more than five hundred million dollars, and little good it did them.

After inauguration, a President is still not an emperor, as Obama demonstrated and Trump is about to learn. Without a cooperative Congress, the President's powers to get things done are severely limited. At the best of times, Congress is awkward and obstreperous, and the skills required to steer it are very different from those needed to win office. At the worst of times, Congress will simply refuse to cooperate with anything the President asks for.

It is doubtful whether Zuckerberg could win election, or achieve all that much if he did. Of course, Zuckerberg is well aware of what elections and the Presidency involve. For this and other reasons, he probably won't run for office, but let's continue to play along.

One doesn't reach Zuckerberg's position without being a highly motivated and driven individual. He doesn't like to lose. If he runs for President, it will be because he has a plan to win -- not just to win office and stand around blinking in confusion, as Trump has, but to achieve mighty things.

What might that plan be? I have no idea; but being in control of a social network with a billion users, Zuckerberg has unique options. He is only 32 years old, and has all the time in the world to prepare. There are all sorts of creative, albeit ethically dubious, things he could do to gain a public following and bend elected officials to his will.

If that sounds sinister, it's because it is. As CEO of Facebook, Zuckerberg has power the press barons of old could scarcely dream of. The idea of him applying it to control the government of the United States is frankly terrifying. Personally, I'd be glad if Zuckerberg followed the example of Bill Gates, staying out of political office and spending his time and fortune on charitable good works.

As it happens, I recently went to a talk by a representative of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

CZI has grandiose ambitions and is exceedingly vague about its means. Its headline project is curing all known diseases within the next hundred years. How will they do this? How is it meaningful to extrapolate that far ahead? They didn't say.

The presentation was heavy on buzzwords and light on specifics. One of CZI's few concrete actions has been to found an interdisciplinary research institute in San Francisco, to foster collaboration between local scientists. This is a perfectly reasonable and worthy thing to do, but it doesn't really match up with the scale of CZI's ambitions.

As the speaker acknowledged, CZI's resources are limited; its budget, while large, is about 1% that of the US government's National Institutes of Health. Maybe being comparatively small, nimble, and creative will help it to achieve its ambitious goals; but the details are as yet unclear. Maybe Zuckerberg can apply the same magic which built Facebook; but in my view, magical leadership is greatly overrated.

Zuckerberg built his fortune through intelligence, creativity and ruthless ambition, but he was also lucky. In 2004, social networking was an idea whose time had come. If Zuckerberg had pursued another career, then a few months later someone else would have launched a similar concept. Maybe the market would have fragmented between two or more players; but more likely a single company would have won the race, become the dominant social media platform, and been the subject of a David Fincher film. It didn't have to be Facebook.

There are many intelligent, capable and ambitious people in the world. When it comes to solving our collective problems, Zuckerberg may have no more insight than the rest of them. It could be that his unformed, grandiose ambitions will turn out to be so much hot air, and he will settle down to quietly trying to make the planet a slightly better place.

I could be wrong, though. What if Bilton's scenario comes true, and Zuckerberg makes himself unquestioned ruler over the United States, able to enact his will as law? I have a feeling it would be clean, efficient, and technologically advanced, but also terrifying.

Citizens will be expected to fall into line, obey the rules, keep their gardens tidy, or face the consequences. The rules have been put in place for our own good, and deviation will not be tolerated. The transformation into Huxley's Brave New World would be complete.

Maybe I'm doing Zuckerberg a disservice; but Facebook is run as a not necessarily benign dictatorship. I do not want to see him running the United States in the same way.

I don't think it's going to happen, which is probably for the best. Terry Pratchett once wrote something to the effect that few societies can endure for long under strong and honest government, which is why they take care not to have one.

I do understand the longing for a hero to rescue us. Before his election, Obama looked like he might be such a hero, with his promises of hope and change. Now he's gone, with a lot less change than some of us hoped for, and today Trump is being inaugurated in his place. Zuckerberg is young, analytical, disciplined, modern, efficient, all things Trump is not; it's tempting to imagine he might rescue us. Tempting, but mistaken.

As I've recently noted, there are no more heroes. We will have to make progress together, by the long, slow, untidy grind of self-government, or not at all.

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