Beware the political ambition of tech billionaires

Politics is played out over social media. Imagine a White House Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: what would the world look like if, armed with all his internet data on us, he was president of the United States? Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: what would the world look like if, armed with all his internet data on us, he was president of the United States? Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

 

You know the anecdotes politicians use to appear relatable? Enda Kenny meeting a man with two pints in his hands discussing the financial impact of water charges? David Cameron happening to bump into someone on the street whose question fits his policy proposals perfectly? Trump talking about all the people who whoop and holler in agreement with his lunacy? That.

Now imagine if a future politician did actually know people individually and intimately. The political posturing Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is making should leave us all reaching for the emoji that most signifies concerned. Having handed over our privacy and personalities to Zuckerberg and co, we are now at their mercy.

Zuckerberg published a lengthy manifesto last week that veered between corporate-speak spoofery and actual nuggets about how he views Facebook’s role in society. Zuckerberg has swapped his flip-flops for shoes that look conspicuously like ones whose soles will be worn out canvassing. His hoodies have been replaced by suits. The dude looks like he’s about to shake your hand and ask you for his vote. This kite-flying has lead many to wonder whether Zuckerberg is gearing up for a presidential pitch.

If Trump can do it, then why not another billionaire? Such political ambitions almost feel obvious. But perhaps there’s something bigger than the American presidency. Why aspire to control the governance of country when you in fact already control a population bigger than any other on Earth? We know the story with the lads of Silicon Valley. Libertarian, pseudo-altruistic, ruthless capitalists fronting like boy scouts.

Politics and PowerPoint

“History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in even greater numbers,” Zuckerberg writes, mistaking history for the first slide in a PowerPoint presentation about Facebook’s growth. While we might wonder what would happen if a guy like Zuckerberg wielded large political power as an American president, what that daydream does is attempt to put his existing power into a context we understand. Zuckerberg is post-president, post-politics, but not post-profit.

Don’t worry about the power a tech billionaire would have in the conventional political system. Worry about his power now. While America as a nation is in the midst of “disruption” as the tech lads would put in, the population is residing in a different, virtual land. Initially, American public and community space was taken over by the mall, with shops becoming the new town square. First there was the privatisation of public space, then came the digitisation of it.

Now, Americans and the rest of us gather, socialise and communicate in spaces owned by a few billionaires. Zuckerberg speaks of “community” as if it never existed before a Facebook group. But that is the essence of tech evangelism, the false conceit that it created something that was actually already in existence. Friends, spaces, connections, groups, communities, communication. And like the political establishment, you rarely hear a complimentary word spoken about Facebook from punters.

Like politicians and public transport, it’s just “there”, used and tolerated, necessary and derided. Some people think self-made billionaires would be good politicians. But politics is about serving, not servers. No matter how lofty Zuckerberg talks, his goal is profit. Whether the collateral damage of that profit and growth happens to be changing human behaviour is ancillary. But we should worry about that control, that change. Previously politicians could only gauge the sentiment of those who voted for or against them. If the tech boys start seizing power within the political establishment (like Peter Thiel, Paypal founder and political activist), then what will their unchecked, overwhelming power lead to?

Digital demographics

These guys already preside over the greatest surveillance systems ever made. Zuckerberg’s manifesto was essentially about him trying to get in front of an issue that has finally snapped people’s vision into focus: when good Facebook goes bad. This data we hand over has serious consequences. Cambridge Analytica, a company that may or may not be overplaying its role in both the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, claims to have the type of data gleaned from our online behaviour that has given them a psychological profile of every voter in America.

We have gone so far down this rabbit hole that what Zuckerberg and co know about us is not just about what we like and who we talk to, but about how we think and how we feel, predicting our behaviour and therefore having the capacity to manipulate it. Were Zuckerberg to run for election tomorrow, he would be a shoo-in.

If a bunch of teenagers spreading fake news on Facebook could contribute to the election of Trump, then how helpless would we be in the face of the guy who controls that platform? Facebook’s genius is that it relies on all of us to create its content. Zuckerberg’s musings about AI in his manifesto should terrify us all; the prospect of so-called “intelligence” making judgment calls on our private communication.

Trump may seem like a ruler for the internet age; a human meme, trolling, spreading misinformation, a viral fascist, something that started out as irony, then a knowing joke, and then became embedded in social lexicon, like how “LOL” entered your vocabulary.

But what Trump doesn’t have (despite the National Security Agency’s access to online communication) is a deep understanding of the migration of society to the online space and the controls to manipulate it.

Trump has eradicated the potential of “traditional” political candidates and opened up the possibilities for anti-traditional politicians to come to the fore. Political office will be another toy for tech billionaires. Power is fun to them. Watch them take it.

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