As the so-called Techlash gains pace and polemics on the downsides of the internet flood the book market, one omission seems to recur time and again. Facebook, Google, Amazon and the rest are too often written about as if their arrival in our lives started a new phase of history, rather than as corporations that have prospered thanks to an economic and cultural environment established in the days when platforms were things used by trains. To truly understand the revolutions in politics, culture and human behaviour these giants have accelerated, you need to start not some time in the last 15 or so years, but in the 1980s.
Early in that decade, the first arrival of digital technology in everyday life was marked by the brief microcomputer boom, which was followed by the marketing of more powerful personal computers. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were embedding the idea that government should keep its interference in industry and the economy to a minimum. In the US, a new way of thinking replaced the bipartisan belief that monopolies should always be resisted: concentrations of economic power were not a problem as long as they led to lower prices for consumers. And at the same time as old-school class politics was overshadowed, the lingering influence of the 60s counterculture gave the wealthy a new means of smoothing over their power and privilege: talking in vague terms about healing the world, and enthusiastically participating in acts of spectacular philanthropy.
If there was one period when all this cohered, it was between 1984 to 1985: the time of Band Aid and Live Aid, the launch of both Bill Gates’s Microsoft Windows operating system and the Apple Macintosh, and the advent of Reagan’s second term as president. And in 1984 Mark Zuckerberg, who would grow up in a country and culture defined by these events and forces, was born; he invented Facebook while he was at Harvard, and made his fortune via an intrusive, seemingly uncontrollable kind of capitalism, sold with the promise of “bringing the world closer together”.
Roger McNamee is a little longer in the tooth. Aged 62, he is old enough to know that the US beat the depression and won the second world war when “we subordinated the individual to the collective good, and it worked really well”. He knows that the anti-state, libertarian mores that define what we now know as Big Tech were born in the 1980s, and that by the early 21st century, “hardly anyone in Silicon Valley knew there had once been a different way of doing things”. Laissez-faire ideas, he says, joined with a bombastic arrogance in the minds of the “bros” who flocked to northern California to make their fortune from the mid 1990s onwards. What they did was founded on cutting-edge technology – but in terms of its underlying economic ideas, their business represented recently established nostrums being taken to their logical conclusion.
This may suggest the perspective of an outsider, but McNamee does not quite fit that description. As a high-profile investor in tech businesses, he was co-founder of Elevation Partners, a private equity firm established with U2 frontman Paul “Bono” Hewson, the very embodiment of the 80s’ uneasy mixture of profit and philanthropy. In 2010, the firm acquired 1% of Facebook for $90m, but McNamee had already put money into the company, become a source of occasional advice for its founder, and been key in the appointment as chief operating officer of Sheryl Sandberg, the former Bill Clinton administration insider who brought business acumen and political connections to Zuckerberg’s inner circle. But now McNamee has come to the conclusion that what he helped bring about is a blend of hubris and dysfunction: Zucked is partly the story of his early enthusiasm giving way to mounting alarm at Facebook’s failure to match its power with responsibility, and what he has tried to do about it.
It is an unevenly told tale. McNamee wants readers to think of him as a player in the events he describes, but the text regularly has a sense of things viewed from too great a distance. That said, he knows enough about Facebook and its contexts to get to the heart of what its presence in our lives means for the world, and is bracingly blunt about the company’s threat to the basic tenets of democracy, and his own awakening to its dangers. In early passages about the initial occasions when he met Zuckerberg, he writes of a man then aged 22 appearing “consistently mature and responsible”, and “remarkably grown-up for his age”. He goes on: “I liked Zuck. I liked his team. I liked Facebook.” But by the time of the 2016 presidential election, everything had changed. In a memo to Zuckerberg and Sandberg, McNamee was blunt: “I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed.” And he had a keen sense of what had gone wrong, summarised here in the kind of aphoristic phrase for which he clearly has a talent: “Facebook has managed to connect 2.2 billion people and drive them apart at the same time.”
The account of how this played out is now familiar, and ends with the election and subsequent revelation that 126 million Facebook users were exposed to messages authored in Russia. McNamee deals with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and how it highlighted Facebook’s blithe attitude to its users’ personal data (though he really should have mentioned the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, whose curiosity and resilience ensured that the story broke, and Facebook was called to account). But some of his best material is about the elements of Facebook’s organisation and culture that created the mess, and the work he has done trying to alert powerful people to the need for action.
Once Zuckerberg realised his creation was eating the world, he and his colleagues did what “bros” do, and embraced a mindset known as “growth hacking”, whereby what mattered was “increasing user count, time on site, and revenue”: unrestrained capitalism, in other words. And as all these things endlessly increased, the company simply sped on. “In the world of growth hacking, users are a metric, not people,” McNamee writes. As Facebook expanded, he says, “it is highly unlikely that civic responsibility ever came up.”
If Facebook looks like a borderline autocracy (Zuckerberg controls around 60% of the company’s voting shares, because his stock has a “class B” status that gives him unchallengeable power), that is partly because it is different from comparable companies in one crucial sense: the simplicity of its business model. “The core platform consists of a product and a monetisation scheme,” McNamee points out, which “enables Facebook to centralise its decision making. There is a core team of roughly ten people who manage the company, but two people – Zuck and Sheryl Sandberg – are the arbiters of everything.” In the final analysis, Zuckerberg “is the undisputed boss”, both “rock star and cult leader”. It was always going to be a dangerous combination: global reach, a vast influence on events across the world, and a command structure too often reducible to the strengths and weaknesses of one man.
McNamee has worked hard to hold Facebook to account. His key ally is Tristan Harris, a former Google insider who is now an expert critic of Big Tech and its apparent ethical vacuum. As the most compelling passages here recount, while anxiety about the company began to spread, the pair lobbied members of Congress, and were not surprised to find that Washington “remained comfortably in the embrace of the major tech platforms” – but did their best to educate them on a subject many US legislators still seem to barely understand. Their efforts led to two hearings in late 2017, attended only by the big tech companies’ lawyers. Six months later, Zuckerberg finally went to Capitol Hill to testify over two days, but was initially confronted with some of the moronic questions imaginable (“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” asked Utah’s 84 year-old Senator, Orrin Hatch). His second session, in front of the House Of Representatives’ Committee on Energy And Commerce, was much better, full of biting criticism. But, as McNamee sighingly acknowledges, his former friend “caught a break”: TV news was suddenly consumed by fallout from the FBI raiding the home and office of Donald Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen, and Zuckerberg went back to northern California looking remarkably untroubled.
Should political will and public alarm eventually combine to finally break Silicon Valley’s remarkable power, McNamee knows roughly what ought to happen. He points to giving people control and ownership of their data, and the need to push through years of free-market dogma and convince the US authorities to reinvent anti-monopoly rules, and to take some action. What exactly this might entail remains frustratingly unclear, but he wants his readers to know he has made the ideological leap required. “Normally, I would approach regulation with extreme reluctance, but the ongoing damage to democracy, public health, privacy and competition justifies extraordinary measures,” he says. Unwittingly, the way he frames his point speaks volumes about how much we lost in the laissez-faire revolutions of the 1980s: what, after all, is so extraordinary about democratically elected governments taking action against corporations that are out of control?
• Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe is published by HarperCollins (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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