February 19, 2021

Mark’s Zucker Punch: It’s Strictly Business

My twin brother put it well yesterday in light of Facebook’s decision to remove all Australian news content (including my blog?) from its feed.

Zuckerberg isn’t immoral – he’s amoral.

Which isn’t perhaps as much a moral declaration about Zuckerberg as much as it is an observation about him.

Ok, I know the brilliant The Social Network film is faction, not straight up and down doco, but what comes across in Zuckerberg as he grows up, goes to university, starts Facebook, becomes rich and in/famous, is how rootless he is foundationally.

Contrasted with the evil genuii of the Winklevoss twins, (Winklevii?) who claimed that Zuckerberg stole the idea of Facebook from them, the movie presents Zuck as a purveyor of Geek, rather than Greek philosophy.

The twins are the flipside of Zuckerberg (and of me and my twin!); successful WASPS, landed gentry, Olympian athletes who do indeed fit the Greek Olympian ideal. Their world is ordered, and deeply stratified, with a code that, while unspoken, runs deep. And it excludes the likes of Zuckerberg. They come from “Somewhere” and are going “Somewhere”. Still are as it happens, since they are bitcoin billionaires.

Zuckerberg, by contrast is from “Nowhere” and until the seismic shifts that the tech world has thrust upon us arrived, could be safely assumed to be going “Nowhere” – in relative terms at least. He was not – and never could be – one of the elite, despite what university he went to.

He is the suburban everywhere guy, the proof that anyone can make it anywhere, the post-faith everyman whose life revolves around getting up the next rung of the ladder. Where that ladders leads, and what is at the top when you get there, well that’s not really the point.

Which is noble and problematic at the same time. Whatever the twisted variances of the honour code of the likes of the Winklevoss twins, at least they had been grounded in a code. For the likes of Zuckerberg you make that up as you go along.

My brother is right – Zuckerberg is not immoral at all. He is no evil genius. He is blank slate upon which he will write whatever he sees fit. He now has the power to do so. At least with an immoral overlord we can expect a certain pattern of behaviour.

Watch the evil characters in Breaking Bad – and I don’t simply mean Walter White. There’s a twisted, frightful honour code. But at least you know there’s a line. Cross it, and boom! But when there is no line? The “amoral” have no such code, no such line to cross.

Which is why Google, in trying to show everyone it would be a responsible world citizen, at least made a pretence to throw us off the scent. What is their motto?:

Do no evil

That’s the same Google that allows a repressive totalitarian government such as the Chinese, tailor its Google set up to block anything that may be deemed unhelpful to the state. When you can’t even define evil, because you’ve grown up in the same rootless, post-faith world as Zuckerberg, how can you even know if you’re doing it?

But let’s not just blame Zuckerberg. The older liberal crowd, especially the likes of Ben Mezrich who wrote The Accidental Billionaires, the book upon which The Social Network is based, need to bear some responsibility for this.

So gleeful were there in their goal of tearing down the old honour codes of the establishment, and the story of progress, ethics, values etc that it at least paid homage to, even if it did not enact, that they supplanted it with no honour code at all.

The liberal establishment failed to realise, in its promotion of these post-liberal, post-everythings such as Zuckerberg, that their own liberal values didn’t spring from nowhere. But it’s too late to do anything about that now.

Not that they don’t try. In somewhat of a mea culpa two years ago, Mezrich wrote an article for the Boston Magazine entitled, Everything You’ve Read About Harvard’s Winklevoss Twins is Wrong.

Which is his way of presenting himself as the solution to the problem that he undoubtedly helped create. He states:

In my—and Aaron Sorkin’s, and David Fincher’s—telling, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss were the ultimate big men on campus: the cool kids at Harvard, jocks who showed up for classes wearing suits and ties, children of a self-made tycoon who were members of the Porcellian, the poshest of all the university’s semi-secret, all-male final clubs. Pitted against them, first in a dining hall at Kirkland House on the Harvard campus and then, eventually, in a mediation chamber surrounded by lawyers, Zuckerberg was their polar opposite—a rebellious computer geek trying to disrupt the social order for what he perceived to be the greater good.

When faced with traditional values the best thing is to do a Hollywood number on them. Caricature all the way to the soles of their expensive loafers. In his own words Mezrich pitched Zuck as the Karate Kid up against the skeleton-suited thugs who do him over in the locker-rooms of that culturally iconic movie.

Yet what did we get instead? Sneaker boy. And how did that end up? Let Mezrich tell you:

But now, 10 years later, that dynamic has suddenly reversed. Today, Zuckerberg is no longer the revolutionary; Facebook, the company that grew out of his dorm room, is now one of the most powerful businesses on earth. It is the establishment, one of the silos controlling much of the data that flows through the Internet. Zuckerberg—caught up in scandal after scandal involving everything from his platform misusing private data to helping spread political disinformation—seems more James Bond villain than plucky, awkward hero.

Maybe Zuckerberg is still wearing sneakers, but they are of a price that would make even the most garish expensive-sneakers-mega-pastor wince. Zuckerberg’s style didn’t change. And neither did he retrofit an ethical framework in there somewhere.

In other words we ended up, not with the youthful Karate Kid Danny laRusso, but the ageing Cobra Kai Daniel laRusso, a self-important, yet ever so brittle Boomer, who thinks the world owes him and that he owns the world – or at least the small part of it in which his footprint lands.

The fact that Mezrich says “in my telling” is itself telling! He and the Sorkin types “tell” – create and weave a narrative that leaves behind the old values-sodden world in which the young geeks can create the utopian individualistic, but oh so hyper-connected, world of the future.

And the twins? Well forget Cobra Kai. They are no mirror images of Johnny Lawrence, washed up and waking up in his own puke. Having done the hard work, they have now established themselves in the post-institutional bank age.

Mezrich grasps at redemption for himself – and for the twins – with his last paragraph in the Boston magazine:

Once again, to the twins, it wasn’t about the money; becoming billionaires was a byproduct of their battle for Bitcoin’s acceptance, not its goal. To them, Bitcoin truly seemed to be another revolution, on par with Facebook in how it might one day change the world. And as I followed them to document this new journey, I had no choice but to readjust my view of the two guys in skeleton costumes.

I don’t believe the twins’ second act is accidental, nor do I think Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss have been a part of two revolutions just by chance. In the end, as much as I believe that The Social Network and my book got Mark Zuckerberg exactly right, we just might have gotten the Winklevoss twins exactly wrong.

The Winklevoss twins, cultured, educated, privileged, WASPS, turned out to be the true revolutionaries here. The narrative around them was wrong.

And Zuckerberg? An establishment man to the very bottomless abyss of his soul. And more worryingly an amoral establishment man, aligned with those who proudly espouse “do no evil”, but who, on any given day, would not recognise “the good” that is necessary to know in order to avoid that evil.

What has happened in Australia with Facebook was a sucker punch indeed, but in a way we should never have been surprise. For as that most amoral of moral characters, Michael Corleone says to his old-mafia–values brother in The Godfather, as they discuss a hitherto unheard of hit on a corrupt cop:

“It’s not personal Sonny, it’s strictly business.”

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