Facebook and Silicon Valley's hubris

Cal Newport has published an interesting post titled "The Disturbing High Modernism of Silicon Valley". It focuses on the recently leaked Facebook memo authored by Andrew “Boz” Bosworth (on a side-note, if you want a deeper look at this “Boz” character, I recommend Antonio Garcia Martinez’s Chaos Monkeys).

While everyone focuses on the memo’s disregard for Facebook’s potential to cause harm, Cal points out its dangerous techno-utopian mindset:

What scares me about the leaked Facebook memo is not the passage where Boz acknowledges the harm this platform can create, but instead what he says next: ’we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.’

He refers to what Political scientist James Scott calls High Modernism:

Scott blames the technocratic hubris of High Modernism for some of the great social engineering disasters of the 20th century, from Stalin’s famine-inducing farm collectivization, to our own country’s failed mid-century urban renewal projects, which, to quote Pinker, too often ’replaced vibrant neighborhoods with freeways, high-rises, windswept plazas, and brutalist architecture.’

Technology has undoubtedly created massive benefits for humanity. But it can cause problems — shifting into High Modernism territory — when it ignores, or even tries to replace our complex humanity instead of working with it.

The romantic idea that technology can fix everything is popular in many parts of Silicon Valley. They dream of a cloud-based future, free from geographical boundaries and state intervention. Even if, at this time, most of what the valley’s projection bias produces is assisted living for the privileged.

Facebook’s take on technological fixes is that human interaction is broken and that they will, of course, be the ones to come up with the fix.

I read these lines as arguing that the natural state of human interaction is hopelessly irrational and ineffective. Facebook hopes to replace this ’fragmented’ state of human sociality with something better; something that spans borders and languages; something that offers many more connections; something that can leverage big data and smart AI to direct our relationships in an optimal manner.

This vision is classic High Modernism — merely shifted from city cores and farm fields to the digital realm. It should, therefore, scare the hell out of us.

Cal’s conclusion, which I share, is a question: “Should these companies even exist at all?”.

Read the whole post, it’s worth your time away from social media.