Who Watches the Watchers?

Near the end of his new book, After the Fall, Obama White House adviser Ben Rhodes writes of a meeting between Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Rhodes describes their brief conversation and ends with an observation:

This reflexively defensive guy was a thirty-four-year-old worth $44 billion, the world’s fastest-growing billionaire and CEO of a company that was remaking the global economy, media, and politics for the worse, and he was accountable only on the basis of the wealth his company accumulated. There’s something wrong with a society that produces that.

People with far more insight than I can claim have written about Facebook and its contribution to a culture of division and disinformation, as well as its enduring popularity — 2.8 billion users worldwide — even as it continues to collect more and more data on everyone who’s ever used it or has ever been in digital contact with anyone who’s ever used it.

From what I can tell, Mark Zuckerberg seems a little unclear on the notion of responsibility for the behavior of the beast he sits astride, but that puts him in the good company of every capitalist who’s ever ignored the externalities of their business model, or insisted that the overall benefits of their super-duper product outweigh whatever costs get offloaded onto the public. I’m from the Rust Belt, land of the Superfund Site. I know a self-serving argument when I hear one.

But self-serving is the name of the game, all of us forced into participation even when we’d really rather not. I can choose to ignore Facebook, but that doesn’t mean Facebook ignores me. It hardly matters that the company’s founders met cute in college. It is and always has been a tool of surveillance, as useful to authoritarians as it is to advertisers and all those in positions of power who act in opposition to the public they claim to serve.

There’s something wrong with a society that produces that.

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