Notes politics

Chapter 5: Community (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Chapter 5: Community

Humans have bodies

After the 2016 U.S elections, Silicon Valley’s assumptions had been disrupted. They were used to seeing themselves as part of the solution to bigotry, but now could not deny that they may be part of the problem. They immediately looked for an engineering solution. Facebook’s business model was in trouble. Zuckerberg published an audacious manifesto in 2017 as a response.

He explained that the cause of the recent social upheavals, from drug addiction to totalitarian regimes, was the disintegration of human communities. Group membership had declined by 25 percent. The large number of people looking for a new sense of purpose had to find a replacement. To Zuckerberg, the solution was technical, and he ended the manifesto by announcing that Facebook would be “rolling out some tools” soon, to make community building easier.

But months after this announcement, the story of Cambridge Analytica broke, and revealed that information that was entrusted to Facebook was sold to third parties, and used to manipulate elections around the world. Public trust in Facebook quickly eroded, a mockery was made of his previous comments. Facebook would have to protect the privacy and security of its users before undertaking more audacious projects.

While Zuckerberg’s intention was positive, in terms of building online communities to help foster offline ones, it wasn’t clear if this was always possible. Many online interactions come at the expense of offline ones. Physical communities have a depth that offline communities don’t. A close friend or relative can offer you a cup of tea when you’re sick – the intimacy of an offline interaction cannot be replaced online.

Humans have bodies. During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies. We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste. Instead we are absorbed in our smartphones and computers. We are more interested in what is happening in cyberspace than in what is happening down the street.

In the past, people could not afford to be this careless.

Ancient foragerfs were always alert and attentive. Wandering in the forest in search of mushrooms, they watched the ground for any telltale bulge. They listened to the slightest movement in the grass to learn whether a snake might be lurking there. When they found an edible mushroom, they ate it with the utmost attention to distinguish it from its poisonous cousins. Members of today’s affluent societies don’t need such keen awareness. We can wander between the supermarket aisles while texting messages, and we can buy any of a thousand dishes, all supervised by the health authorities. But whatever we choose, we might end up eating it in haste in front of a screen, checking emails or watching television, while hardly paying attention to the actual taste.

While it would be nice to hope for Facebook to change its business model, to be more attentive to the needs of the world over the need to profit, it is best to avoid having unrealistic expectations. Corporations have not been historically successful in maintaining revolutions.

A real revolution sooner or later demands sacrifices that corporations, their employees and their shareholders are not willing to make. That’s why revolutionaries establish churches, political parties and armies. The so-called Facebook and Twitter revolutions in the Arab world started in hopeful online communities, but once they emerged into the messy offline world, they were commandeered by religious fanatics and military juntas.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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