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Before F8, a historian asks Facebook the big questisons

April 29 · Issue #323 · View online
The Interface
Most of the giant platforms have an easy pitch for developers. Apple developers make apps for iOS and Mac, then sell them for money. Google developers make Android apps and ChromeOS hardware, then sell them for money. Amazon developers launch businesses on AWS or Amazon’s storefront, and then sell goods and services for money.
Today Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference kicks off in San Jose, and it’s worth noting how complicated its pitch to developers has become. There once was a time when it was relatively straightforward — developers like Zynga once printed money selling virtual cows through Facebook’s popular gaming platform.
But that part of Facebook has withered to near-nothingness, and in the meantime developers became one of the company’s biggest headaches. Cambridge Analytica is, at its root, a developer story — one that Facebook responded to, out of necessity, by shutting down wide swathes of the platform to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.
So what should we expect from F8 this year? At Wired, Brian Barrett does a full walk-up, predicting announcements around privacy, encryption, AI, Oculus and augmented reality, Facebook Dating, and Facebook Watch, among other subjects.
A glance at the schedule for this year shows that Facebook’s developer story is now one that is largely about growth marketing and customer service. Sessions planned for after the keynote focus on using Messenger as a business tool, building better ads using the stories format, and “the value of VR for enterprise.”
(Incidentally, that last one is an area where Facebook’s developer story looks like a normal software business: Oculus developers can sell software for money.)
Facebook could have some big surprises in store. But given what we know so far, it looks like 2019 could be a year where the company announces more incremental developments. That might be fine — products announced at F8 often fail to ship.
But what if you hoped for a more searching discussion about the relationship between social networks and modern society? CEO Mark Zuckerberg released one of those on Friday: a discussion with the historian Yuval Noah Harari, whose book Sapiens has been required reading in Silicon Valley for the past few years.
Harari is whip-smart, and he does an admirable job here of honing in on some key issues. Does Facebook want to “connect” people for any particular purpose, or simply to keep them looking at a screen? How do you build a social network that improves cohesion among people around the world, rather than erodes it? How do you build artificial intelligence systems that don’t serve as tools of surveillance and control? Is the internet economy undermining human agency and democracy?
Any one of those questions could serve as the basis for a book-length thesis. And it’s easy to see how anyone working on these issues might be tripped up by a question when put on the spot. Still, I found myself unsettled by how weak Zuckerberg’s answers generally are here. Faced with the toughest questions he’s had yet during his year of challenging conversations, he defaults to a simple faith in the power of Facebook and democracy.
Here’s a representative sample:
Harari: The Soviet model just didn’t work well because of the difficulty of processing so much information quickly and with 1950s technology. And this is one of the main reasons why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War to the United States. But with the new technology, it’s suddenly, it might become, and it’s not certain, but one of my fears is that the new technology suddenly makes central information processing far more efficient than ever before and far more efficient than distributed data processing. Because the more data you have in one place, the better your algorithms and then so on and so forth. And this kind of tilts the balance between totalitarianism and democracy in favor of totalitarianism. And I wonder what are your thoughts on this issue.
Zuckerberg:​ Well, I’m more optimistic about —
Harari:​ Yeah, I guess so.
Zuckerberg:​ About democracy in this.
Harari:​ Mm-hmm.
Mark Zuckerberg:​ I think the way that the democratic process needs to work is people start talking about these problems and then even if it seems like it starts slowly in terms of people caring about data issues and technology policy, because it’s a lot harder to get everyone to care about it than it is just a small number of decision makers. So I think that the history of democracy versus more totalitarian systems is it always seems like the totalitarian systems are going to be more efficient and the democracies are just going to get left behind, but, you know, smart people, you know, people start discussing these issues and caring about them, and I do think we see that people do now care much more about their own privacy about data issues, about the technology industry. 
“Smart people care about these issues and are discussing them” is an argument about a positive future rooted in hope rather than empirical fact. I want to believe that the virtues of democracy are self-evident and capable of withstanding creeping authoritarianism around the world — but when a historian of Harari’s stature starts raising questions like these, I have reason to worry.
One reason why Zuckerberg’s arguments feel so thin here is that they generally lack a personal point of view. Zuckerberg would almost always rather describe the world as it is rather than opine about how he thinks it ought to be. His case for Facebook suffers for it: Optimism is an attitude, not a worldview.
I’m glad Zuckerberg offered a Harari a big platform on which to raise the questions he did. And while I don’t expect we’ll get any answers at a developer conference, I would like to see Facebook at least acknowledge the stakes. In past years F8 has cheerfully described a world coming together. In 2019 it feels more like a world hanging in the balance.

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