In an IT age I suppose it is almost inevitable that a somewhat binary perspective on reality should suggest itself to Mark Zuckerberg, who has just published his Facebook manifesto, as a vision of a better world.
The “either or” or “1 and zero” underpinning of the software programmer’s language is almost bound to translate into a broader philosophical approach to world affairs for the secular priesthood of internet-based human globalism and, in particular, for Zuckerberg, the prophet of the new faith.
“It’s Trump or me” is the unspoken, binary subtext of Zuckerberg’s latest dissertation on the choices facing humanity.
What are we, poor mortals, to make of the latest “Book of Revelation”, this latter day gospel of Mark? Biblical scholars always knew that Mark’s Gospel was the oldest of the four gospels.
Are we now to believe that Mark is the most modern of the evangelists?
Zuckerberg’s hymn of praise to Facebook is striking in its simplicity and yet worrying in its shallowness.
We are somehow to be transformed by IT technology into members of a global community. Our neighbours are all mankind. That sounds familiar. Mutual awareness carries with it a call for mutual empathy. In turn, that call becomes the universal moral vocation. That all sounds good.
But there is a catch.
The global moral community simply does not exist. Internet culture is largely proprietary. It has become “monetised”. Its owners are becoming richer and richer while vast swathes of the envisaged global community are becoming poorer and poorer – at least in comparative terms. Our online behaviour is not merely observed by all-seeing digital deities; it is monitored, monetised and, increasingly, manipulated by disparate forces that are rapidly becoming cosmic.
Cyber morality is, alas, imaginary; cyber warfare has already arrived. The internet brings as much division and alienation as it brings unity and understanding.
I had the honour some months ago of launching Dr Mary Aiken’s ground-breaking work, “The Cyber Effect” here in Dublin. It was, I then commented, as challenging a book for this generation as Desmond Morris’s “The Naked Ape” was for that of the late 1960s. Morris invited us to re-imagine ourselves as we see other animals; Aiken now asks us to re-imagine ourselves as participants in an IT cosmos.
Zuckerberg’s vision of humanity as a web-based moral and philosophical community is, I think, offered to us as the binary alternative to Trump’s introspective and chaotic “America First” vision of how to “make America great again”. It is a new secular faith-system.
Many magazines and commentators are already majoring on the intriguing possibility that Mark Zuckerberg is positioning himself for a run at the US presidency in 2020. Is that less plausible in 2017 than a Trump presidency was in 2014?
Re-inventing the bedraggled Democrat party in the next couple of years and finding a candidate for the presidency is a formidable challenge for US political society. Is Zuckerberg the new messiah for the American Left?
He has all the credentials for this role. Poor and struggling Americans always seem drawn to supporting billionaires. He has a “new take” on community, solidarity and idealism. He embodies an entirely novel American exceptionalism. His vision is forward looking while Trump’s forlorn vision is a backward regression to fossil fuels, rust-belt re-industrialisation and corny moral atavism. He is a successful hi-tech innovator while Trump is an old-fashioned property speculator.
Zuckerberg has Obama’s detached air of intellectualism combined with entrepreneurial expertise. He is young and he will be understood by the young.
And yet we should hesitate. The world is not binary. History is not binary. The human imagination is not binary. Zuckerberg looks like a shallow, binary personality.
He preaches globalism but does not adequately address or value the diversity or complexity of the human experience or of the various human cultures. He aspires to simplify and to unify. His Facebook manifesto seems simplistic rather than just simple.
The great flaw with the Marxist mind-set was its binary juxtaposition of capital against labour and its binary historical theory of Hegelian action and reaction. It failed –and fails – to address the non-binary complexity of history, culture and identity.
Oddly, I suspect, we Europeans are loyal to our values precisely because they are unique to our various cultures – not because we see them as universal. Community, nationality, belief, culture and individuality are part of the warp and weft of what we are – and of what we cherish and aspire to be.
We are witnessing the chaos of Donald Trump’s politics in all their ugliness in these days. I keep feeling – and fearing -that his only way out of his Lewis Carroll world in the Washington swamp is to provoke a conflict somewhere in the world that is decisively winnable in his imagination. God help those who inhabit that coming battlefield as their homeland. It will probably be in the Middle East.
Trump’s recent press conference embodied all that was worst in his sad, dysfunctional personality – bouncing like a demented pinball machine from crassness to rudeness, from vanity to ignorance – and back again. Making America ashamed again – and again.
If the admittedly shallow Zuckerberg manifesto is the binary alternative to Trump, so be it. If that is what American greatness is all about, so be it. Zuckerberg has the resources, the self-belief, and the drive to counter Trumpism. That is not a bad place to start. The language of his Facebook manifesto is language is both political and aspirational.
If he could only avoid deifying the web and if he could only acknowledge – or at least accommodate – the diversity of the human experience, he could get something worthwhile going against an otherwise darkening skyline.