Mad Mark

Mark Zuckerberg just unveiled Facebook's new mission statement and, in a nutshell, he wants his advertising platform to play the role of churches. Grandiose, messianic statements from Silicon Valley nerds are a dime a dozen. The difference here is that this dude has access to the data (and minds) of 2 billion monthly users. So, when analyzed through the framework of "thought communities" and the history of people who have gone cuckoo, it makes for a chilling read.

As we discussed in the previous post, the problem of consciousness has for ages proven a hard one to crack. Human senses perceive things and which circuits go on and off in the brain are increasingly well mapped. However, there is nothing more than speculation when it comes to the what, how and why of the feelings caused by those perceptions and, furthermore, the awareness that something is being felt as a consequence. This is something that has kept generation after generation of phenomenological philosophers well fed and pampered through the payroll of higher education institutions. Many different professionals and through several methods continue trying to grasp consciousness, but the phenomenologists in the traditional sense don't go around placing cables and suction cups on people's heads, instead opting to reflect on the essential properties and structures of experience from the perspective of the subject. So, for example, when one is looking at a table, the key issue with the conscious experiencing of that table is that I am intentionally directing my consciousness towards that table. And the same goes for intangible things like love or hatred, even when it is directed at imaginary objects such as a movie hero or a politician. First person perspective is the only one that matters for the purpose of obtaining meaning off the conscious act of experiencing. Once we do that, the next step is to isolate the object from the natural world by searching for the similarities in one's conscious experience of the table (or the love for the hero or the hatred towards the politician) from the perspective of the experiencing subject, e.g. will my conscious experience of the table be the same if I am hungry while holding a plate of beans than if I am carrying my laptop in the search for a place to sit down and write? This opens the door for the third stage of the phenomenological method, which is to describe the meanings obtained from the conscious experiencing of the object rather than a mere listing of facts, e.g. the material of the table, my thoughts, distance to the object, heartbeat when seeing it, etc. Doing this leaves front and center the subjective perception of the world, with the existing world in the back, all fuzzy and irrelevant. Mental life abstracted from the real world. Get it?

What phenomenological praxis does is, basically, to do away with the objective world and to prioritize how one experiences that world. Honestly, I never fully digested Husserlian solipsism and how anti-scientific it sounds, but in a way I get that it is extremely hard to say that the objective world is there, as is, and the subjective experience of it does not play a role in how it is portrayed. I mean, come on, there is a subjective element in perception no matter how hard the most balanced, neutral and cold the observer tries to be. But this is where phenomenology gets interesting. If all there is is the subjective experience, then we have a problem: is only one's mind existing or are there other minds out there but they don't connect and we're all like in little bubbles bumping at each other? In other words: is consciousness rabidly personal or is there a universal consciousness? This is intersubjectivity comes into play. By placing oneself in others' shoes while retaining the subjective consciousness (as there is no closer experience that the own conscious one), meaning is born from the interaction of two subjectivities, creating thought communities. The existence of different thought communities is, for phenomenologists, the moment when conscious experience transcends a single subjectivity and shared world views are birthed. This is where churches come in, as do political parties, professions, tribes, football fan clubs, etc.

The issue here is that, just like suppositories or cars, not all thought communities are created alike. The subjective, conscious experience of following a football club can be as profound, passionate, and life defining as reaching the top operating thetan level in the church of scientology, but no matter how much I love Arsenal the truth is that qualifying for the champions league non-stop for 2 decades won't create between me and my fellow Gooners the variety of intersubjective concepts as a faithful church membership will. The two defining life questions are "what is?" and "how should I act?", and the same way the former is daunting, varied, and has spawned dozens and dozens of scientific disciplines, the boundaries of the latter are blurrier, more malleable and challenging. There are no certainties in human existence other than the self-awareness that darkness is creeping towards you, whether you like it or not, until death arrives. The age of reason and objectivity, the Enlightenment, corroded the comfort of the age of faith, leaving humanity with a void that Nietzsche described quite well when writing God's obituary. For some time the inebriating might of science filled up that void, intoxicating millions of eager minds with the noble promise of infinite progress, wealth, and knowledge. But it wasn't meant to last. That's the opportunity which postmodernism seized to creep in with its nihilism, relativism, and tribal resentment, sending our living generations into a blandness which is as pathetic as it is cancerous for the human longing for meaning.

When Zuckerberg talks about Facebook being the new church, there are several levels in which that can be analyzed. If he is referring to its Frankenstein as a platform for the same old communities to get together in the same old way and find meaning through the same old means, then there's nothing new under the sun. You see, there are limited ways of "innovating" proper: discover a new product, find a new market for an old product, or to figure out a new way of selling an existing product to an existing audience. In that level of analysis, Facebook is just a new way for the same old gang to do the same old thing, and it will be eventually replaced by the next big thing. It would be naïve to stay at that level of analysis, though, as the circumstances are quite different than when horse carriages were replaced by cars, or the postal service gave way to the telephone, and so on and so forth. The brain melting effects of postmodernism have created wider gaps between humans, and technology has facilitated tremendously the victory of laziness over the need to engage with real human beings in the flesh. Such a dominant platform as Facebook can, thus, frame what is said, how it is said, and to whom. We can see that in the efforts to crack on political expression considered against the mainstream.

So, here is where it gets creepy. If we continue with the train of thought of phenomenology, then the subjective experience of the world is what is out there and thought communities define the communal conscious perception of the world, hence the framing of that perception and the channels through which the problem of "other minds" is solved determines how the subject experiences the world, feels, and reacts, both at an individual and group level. Being the new church of the world is akin to controlling hearts and minds, forget about just the pockets. Do you want it creepier? Senor Zuckerberg has a biohub and, as harmless as that may sound, those dudes are acquiring the latest machines to do whole-genome sequencing. Imagine the New Church of Facebook having not only access to your deepest thoughts, habits, and preferences (plus photos), but also to your genetic information and bits of the genetic information of your relatives (by definition). What do you think the church of scientology would do with that? Can you trust that Facebookism won't go that path?

Well, that's at cuckoo, conspiracy and power hungry level of analysis still, but going back to the philosophical aspect, wanting to play the role of a church is some big, big words. There is only one step between that and those who claimed it, though without having the powerful tool of owning the most popular social and advertising network (a.k.a. data mining) in the history of humankind. Think about it. Jim Jones? The dude organized a mass suicide in Guyana. Shoko Asahara, perhaps? Pretty resourceful guy when it comes to sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. Or how about everybody's favourite lunatic, David Koresh? The corpses of 54 adults and 21 children can testify of his handy skills negotiating with the FBI. You get the idea. Nutjobs are everywhere, it comes with the territory. But nutjobs who want to be the head of a world church to bring redemption to the poor old masses and have the firepower to bring about mayhem at a world scale? Dude, those appear every century or two. And this may be one.