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Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of human history

Can Facebook help humanity take its “next step”?

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Founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, speaks beneath a futuristic projection of something or other.
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg’s 6,000-word manifesto on the future of Facebook begins with a capsule narration of human achievement. “History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers,” Zuckerberg writes, “from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

The Facebook CEO does not explicitly add his social network to that list of social infrastructure, but the rest of the letter makes clear that he wants to see it on there, and soon. “Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community,” he argues, and “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community.”

There has been, in recent months, growing speculation about the role Zuckerberg wants to play in the world. Quartz, for instance, has published a 4,000-word story imagining Zuckerberg’s successful campaign for the presidency, as well as a checklist of things Zuckerberg would need to do to run for president in 2020. The Atlantic has suggested the groundwork is already being laid.

But with this manifesto, Zuckerberg is articulating an ambition that is in some ways grander than the US presidency: He wants to use Facebook as the platform on which to build a global civil society, creating a service that encourages communities and cooperation and political participation on a transnational scale. He frames national governments as merely one piece of “social infrastructure,” and suggests that the world might need something to push beyond their limits. He wants Facebook to help humanity take its “next step.”

But to do that, he’ll need to make some changes to Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg’s theory of human history

The beginning of Zuckerberg’s letter is less an argument about Facebook than it is an argument about the organizing principles of human progress. “History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers,” he writes. The theory reads as heavily informed by the book Sapiens, which Zuckerberg has recommended on, well, Facebook.

Sapiens, which is written by the Israeli historian Yuval Harari, is a mind-bending look at why and how Homo sapiens took over the earth. It begins by establishing our species’ lowly beginnings. “The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish,” Harari writes.

So what changed? Humans learned how to cooperate, and nothing else did. But cooperation, Harari emphasizes, is no easy task. The basic way humans form and sustain groups is by using language to tell common stories about their community — gossip, in other words. But he cites research suggesting that “the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals.” Harari continues:

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

The key word there is “common.” For the purpose of human cooperation, the issue isn’t whether people believe true things, or good things, but whether enough of them believe the same things. Human beings — through stories, through religion, and eventually through governments, laws, and political ideologies — create common understandings of reality that provide the basis for massive, evolutionarily unprecedented levels of cooperation. And that’s why humans dominate the earth.

Which brings us back to Zuckerberg.

Humanity’s “next step”: a “global community”

Zuckerberg believes it’s time for humanity to take its “next step,” and he thinks Facebook can play a crucial role in it. Here’s the crucial section:

Today we are close to taking our next step. Our greatest opportunities are now global -- like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses -- like ending terrorism, fighting climate change, and preventing pandemics. Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.

This is especially important right now. Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community. When we began, this idea was not controversial. Every year, the world got more connected and this was seen as a positive trend. Yet now, across the world there are people left behind by globalization, and movements for withdrawing from global connection. There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.

This is a time when many of us around the world are reflecting on how we can have the most positive impact. I am reminded of my favorite saying about technology: "We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years." We may not have the power to create the world we want immediately, but we can all start working on the long term today. In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.

Emphases mine.

As I understand it, Zuckerberg argues that the story of human history is the story of ever more cooperation on an ever-greater scale. We went, he writes, “from tribes to cities to nations.” The next step is to become a “global community.”

The same forces making the global community possible also imperil it. Our myths are becoming less common. Our governments are losing the trust of their citizens. We don’t just lack the institutions necessary to make global cooperation possible. We are watching the institutions that make national cooperation possible fail.

Facebook, to Zuckerberg’s dismay, is playing a part in that failure. “Giving everyone a voice has historically been a very positive force for public discourse because it increases the diversity of ideas shared,” he writes. “But the past year has also shown it may fragment our shared sense of reality.”

Mark Zuckerberg Attends Mobile World Congress Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

This is inimical to the driving force of human progress. It is a shared sense of reality that permits widespread cooperation. If Facebook, globalization, and other trends are leading to fragmented realities, then they are impeding that crucial cooperation — they are standing in the way of humanity’s next step.

This puts Facebook, and Zuckerberg, at a crossroads. Merely making the world “more open and connected” turns out to be insufficient, and in some contexts dangerous. An open and connected world can become an angry, fractured world. For the global community Zuckerberg sees as humanity’s next step to manifest, all that openness and connectivity need to be guided toward common understandings and cooperation.

Can Facebook reinvent itself as a platform for global community?

The task Zuckerberg is setting for Facebook is nothing less than building a platform atop which a truly global civil society can flourish. In a section that could have been lifted from Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s famed look at the decline of civic society in America, Zuckerberg writes:

In our society, we have personal relationships with friends and family, and then we have institutional relationships with the governments that set the rules. A healthy society also has many layers of communities between us and government that take care of our needs. When we refer to our "social fabric", we usually mean the many mediating groups that bring us together and reinforce our values.

However, there has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades. Since the 1970s, membership in some local groups has declined by as much as one-quarter, cutting across all segments of the population.

For all the talk of whether Zuckerberg aspires to make Facebook a quasi-governmental entity, or whether he hopes to use it to launch himself into leadership of an actual government, what he’s outlining here is a vision that would make Facebook the primary platform mediating those “many layers of communities between us and government” — but on a global scale.

There’s no perfect analog for what Zuckerberg is proposing, but it’s closest to the role that major religions have played throughout history. Facebook is to become an organizing space where you meet people, engage with your neighbors and your world, organize to make changes in your community, relax with people like yourself, and receive information that helps you participate in government. And like religions — but unlike virtually any other organizing force in human history — Facebook is truly, intrinsically, global.

But if Facebook is to play that role, then, like a religion, it will have to develop views on what it means to live well and responsibly. And in this document, Zuckerberg begins to do that.

“Going forward, we will measure Facebook's progress with groups based on meaningful groups, not groups overall,” he writes. He promises that Facebook will begin pulling away from “passive consumption” and toward “strengthening social connections.” He doesn’t give much guidance on what this will mean, but the signal is clear: Facebook wants to start making more distinctions between worthy ways of spending time on the platform — ways that create real social bonds and cooperation — and less worthy ones.

Zuckerberg worries about fake news, but professes even more concern that the media is overly sensationalized, that it “rewards simplicity and discourages nuance,” and he promises that Facebook is working to surface more “good in-depth content” as well as “additional perspectives and information.”

Then he goes further than that, suggesting that Facebook will become crucial not just to learning about politics but participating in it. He says that in the 2016 US election, Facebook’s voter registration program “was larger than those of both major parties combined,” and suggests that Facebook could “enable hundreds of millions of more people to vote in elections than do today, in every democratic country around the world.”

Will Zuckerberg succeed in all, or any, of this? I have no idea. Skepticism is surely in order. Leaning hard into these ambitions might prove dangerous to Facebook’s advertising business, or create room for a competitor that gives people what they want rather than what they should want. The harder Facebook pushes to curate media content, or to generate political participation, the greater the threat certain governments will perceive from its presence.

On the other hand, just making gentle tweaks in service of these ambitions probably won’t achieve them. In that case, this document will just be words, and Facebook will continue on its current path — a wildly profitable one, yes, but one that will often make it a force for division and confusion, and that will frequently put it crosswise with its founder’s hopes for humanity.

Which is all to say, Zuckerberg harbors awesome ambitions — much grander than merely making the world “more open and connected.” He wants Facebook to be the platform for much broader swaths of human life than governments typically drive, and he is thinking far beyond the borders of any single country.

But to do that, he has to move Facebook beyond being a neutral platform and tie it to an idea of where humanity can and should go next. Religions do this. Political parties do this. National governments do this. And now Facebook is doing it too. What Zuckerberg is offering here isn’t a business plan so much as it’s a philosophy or an ideology. But philosophies and ideologies are harder and more dangerous to follow than business plans.

Zuckerberg ends with a quote from Abraham Lincoln — a leader who governed in a time of division that makes this era seem a model of comity and calm. “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, act anew."