Evgeny Morozov is the author of “To Save Everything, Click Here.”
In March 2011, Roger McNamee, a 50-ish psychedelic rocker with a quirky side career in private equity, gave a TED Talk in the hippie enclave of Santa Cruz, Calif. McNamee, an early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg and an investor in Facebook, argued that the next 15 years would be all about boosting “engagement” — tech speak for getting users trapped inside digital platforms. Facebook, with its infinite empire of social ties, was a natural ally in achieving that mission. “If you do a start-up today in the social world, build it on top of Facebook,” urged McNamee.
Eight years later, it seems McNamee has had a spiritual awakening. In those earlier days, had he been badly “zucked”? It’s plausible, judging by his book, “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” These days McNamee proffers markedly different advice. Engagement, it turns out, is just one of Facebook’s bland euphemisms for getting users addicted to its services; its sinister aim is to produce “behavior modification that makes advertising more valuable.” The McNamee of the 2019 vintage insists that no self-respecting start-up should get in bed with Facebook. While Twitter and Google also get a beating, McNamee mostly directs his rage at Facebook, the company he knows best, charging it with amplifiying tribalism, allowing “bad actors” to “harm democracy” and even “shirking civic responsibility.”
Anyone looking for a systematic treatment of Silicon Valley’s political and economic power will probably be disappointed. “Zucked” does dabble in the recent history of Silicon Valley and the country to explain how both have turned libertarian, substituting civic engagement at the heart of a vibrant democracy with user engagement at the heart of Facebook’s outsize balance sheet. Such analytical efforts, however, mostly stay on the surface. McNamee is much more convincing on the inner workings of Silicon Valley, pointing, for example, to the disproportionate role of the “PayPal Mafia” — including Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman and many others — in shaping the culture of start-ups that, like Facebook, blossomed in the 2000s.
“Zucked” arrives at a time when anti-Facebook sentiment, fueled in part by the never-ending controversy over the 2016 presidential election and its sprawling data scandals, is still riding high. The “techlash” — once of interest only to the nerd contingents of Washington and Brussels — has now engulfed many other parts of the world, with Sri Lanka even briefly banning Facebook for inciting mob violence.
The good old days when we worried about civic apathy and bowling alone are long gone; today, we hardly know how to stop the hyperactive, unruly parts of “civil society” from Facebooking together. From misinformation to psychological dependencies, from cyberbullying to ethnic cleansing, the occasional byproducts of connecting humanity by means of advertising can no longer be dismissed. The global village seemed like a most venerable destination — until we glanced at the cost of the trip.
McNamee played a minor role in Facebook’s early years; in addition to occasionally mentoring Zuckerberg, he helped hire the social network’s second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg. McNamee has spent the past three years ringing alarms on the company. “Zucked” is a culmination of these efforts. His advocacy has involved not only a stream of op-eds, essays and frequent media appearances, but also coaching Congress on grilling secretive tech executives about the data skeletons in their server closets.
“Zucked” is part memoir, part Facebook-bashing, part detailed, hour-by-hour account of congressional testimony — not your usual thriller material (“Early in the third hour, Zuck caught a lucky break . . .”). Not all of these parts are equally enjoyable. McNamee’s penchant for sharing the life stories of his latest associates and his constant name-dropping often get in the way. The book’s acknowledgements section, stretching over seven pages and featuring Bono, Bill Gates, George Soros and Tim Cook, reads like the guest list of an exclusive party in Davos.
McNamee offers a convincing portrait of Facebook’s disturbing organizational culture, revealing how the company keeps ignoring its critics even where a minor concession would settle the matter for good. “Zucked” explains such obstinacy by a combination of cultural and economic factors. On the one hand, Facebook’s youthful and supercilious executives are convinced that the barbarian world outside Menlo Park is ripe for their civilizing mission. On the other hand, the company’s advertising-based business model not only prods users to behave in metric-friendly ways, it also handily packages them as highly personalized audiences for its clients — including governments and their operatives — to appeal to and influence. The faster and more efficiently such packaging occurs, the more profitable Facebook’s operation. Growth, thus, triumphs over everything.
Reading “Zucked,” it’s hard to decide what is more worrisome: the fact that Facebook, with its clever but ruthless tactics of initially handing its advertising customers free promotional tools, only to withdraw and charge for them later, resembles a drug syndicate; or that big-name investors like McNamee can profess so much naivete — and for so long — about their proteges.
That the McNamee of 2011 — a private-equity guy with a Dartmouth MBA, not just your average aging hippie — didn’t know that engagement meant getting users addicted seems implausible. His anti-Facebook coalition did incorporate concerns about the effects of social media on public health, but the true sources of his recent anxiety seem to lie elsewhere. One gets the feeling that, had Donald Trump’s election not put Facebook’s operations under closer scrutiny, McNamee would now be prepping for another TED Talk, perhaps, on “engagement 2.0.”
Nonetheless, McNamee does furnish several proposals for fixing big tech, not just Facebook. Some of them, such as restoring the power of antitrust and applying it more vigorously to break up digital platforms, are not so original, even if urgent. Others, such as turning data portability into a right so that we can take the “social graph” of all our friends if we move away from Facebook, are more innovative.
McNamee also proposes that digital platforms ditch advertising for subscription-based models (think Netflix). This, he hopes, would tame political microtargeting and end the click race among digital platforms. Funded by subscriptions, the platforms would not need to worry about selling their users’ “headspace” to advertisers.
But would McNamee’s subscription-based models reduce addiction? Probably not. As long as user choices (and the data they leave behind) help “curate” digital platforms, subscription-based alternatives will still have incentives to extract user data, deploying it to personalize their offerings and ensure that users do not leave the site. Companies with inferior curation systems would simply be eaten away by their competitors.
Another of McNamee’s controversial proposals is to let users own data as if it were private property. Once a price tag was attached to their data, users would see through deceptive assymetries that currently allow digital platforms to squeeze far more value from this data than what they deliver in return as services. Once their data has been liberated and appropriately priced, McNamee reasons, users would be free to seek salvation in the competitive marketplace — including, perhaps, by selling their data to advertisers themselves, bypassing the platform intermediaries. This option might be technically feasible, and it would certainly fit the American entrepreneurial zeal. The real question is whether it’s bold enough, given the scale of the problem.
When the likes of Steve Bannon say that the data of big tech belongs in a “public trust,” it’s odd to watch Davos progressives like McNamee champion data as private property. McNamee, like many others, compares today’s cause of fighting big tech to that of breaking up John D. Rockefeller’s big oil. This, however, might not be ambitious enough. Unprecedented changes triggered by our turbulent transition to the platform society also demand new social and political institutions, New Deal style, not just the perpetual rediscovery of the trust-busting tool kit, with some property rights for data thrown in as a bonus.
What might those future institutions look like? For a start, one might think of Google’s search index or of Facebook’s social graph not just as disparate bits and pieces held together by proprietary algorithms and cloud servers, but as crucial parts of the virtual infrastructure on which so much of today’s commercial and noncommercial activity occurs. Facebook and Google have exploited such infrastructure effectively but, as “Zucked” points out, at a very high, and mostly invisible, cost to society.
Could there be a safer and more effective arrangement? Perhaps data itself could become a platform on which all the others, from a town hall to a small local start-up, build new services. Perhaps, but “Zucked,” alas, pulls in the opposite direction. Treating data as private property is akin to turning this virtual infrastructure into a labyrinth of toll roads, and in such a world the only actors able to innovate on top of it — and do it at scale — are the very big companies that McNamee would like to break up.
The challenge facing progressive forces in the face of big tech is to think in bolder, more strategic terms. Perhaps what’s needed is not a byzantine patchwork of overpriced data toll roads but, rather, the data equivalent of an interstate highway system: open to all, backed by public resources, and rolled out with a good degree of planning and coordination.
Too bad that those who preached the virtues of the “information superhighway” in the early 1990s never bothered to tell us where it was leading — and who was going to pay for it. McNamee doesn’t quite provide answers, either, but we can hope that “Zucked” will trigger just the kind of debate needed to find them.
By Roger McNamee
Penguin Press. 335 pp. $28