Monday, November 8, 2021

 Zuckerberg:  At the End of His Tether

In the olden days in America, especially before the railroads, there were private highways, often called "turnpikes," under private control, and tolls were collected for the privilege of using them.  It was good to be Johnson when the Johnson Pike was the only practical route between, say, Culpepper and Paytonsville.  Thus there were natural monopolies on the movement of things from Point A to Point B.

There were no natural monopolies on the movement of information from place to place.  A city such as Boston, at its journalistic peak, might have been home to five or six daily newspapers, all vying for what we now call the "eyeballs" of the people.

When radio and television came into vogue in the 20th century, the government in the form of the Federal Communications Commission parsed out the bandwidth with the goal of protecting a marketplace of ideas.  The rules were more or less neutral as between Edward R. Murrow and "Mr. Ed," but with a nudging of the industry toward the coverage of "public affairs."   (Why was Eddie Fisher's affair with Elizabeth Taylor not considered "public" for such purposes?)

Then, decades later, came the young visionaries, who might be working out of a garage in Silicon Valley or, more formally, at a place like DARPA or the MIT Media Lab.  They could see beyond horizons both technical and cultural, and with respect to the latter they found their inspiration in Marshall McLuhan and the most imaginative of the Mad Men of the '50s and '60s.

Bill Gates foresaw that well-soldered "pizza boxes" would displace the US Mail as means of interpersonal communication, and challenge radio and TV as means for the distribution of Mass Content.  He knew that algorithms -- logic trees -- would have to be invented not just to perform specific tasks, like the typing of these words, but also to enable the general enabling of the machine.  He and his minions would invent a near-universal language that allowed the machines to wake up from their slumber, challenged only by a small bite at the apple in the form of the language of the Mac.  

Would the government bust up this natural monopoly?  Hell no.  It was in no one's interest that there be a Tower of Babel among the machines, and if someone was going to control their autonomous nervous systems, it might as well be an American company led by an American pioneer.  The money in untold amounts would follow.

More visionary even than Mr. Gates was Steve Jobs.  He could see that everyone in the world is feeling lonely and isolated most of the time.  But if they had the right little machine in their pockets, offering instant communication and instant access to all information, they could be distracted from their loneliness and isolation.  They would quickly become totally dependent on their little machines to fend off anxiety, to fend off death.  To satisfy this craving that he himself created, Jobs' enterprise would have to build a factory town in China (a single giant factory really, with many bunk beds attached), capable of assembling 500,000 such little machines per day.

What of the collateral consequences?  Mr. Jobs perhaps was wise to waste away before they were tallied up.  He must have single-handedly erased billions of hours of contemplation per year, among other things.  Is contemplation a good or a bad thing?

And now the new oligarchs.  Mark Zuckerberg will build out and control, we are told, an infrastructure that will allow us to live in an artificial universe, a ubiquitous 3D Zoom call from which there is no escape.  To others, we will be represented in this space by an idealized form of our own choosing.  The Elephant Man will be treated just like Fabio in this new world, because his "avatar" will be Fabio.  Accordingly he will be able to have virtual sex with Stacey Abrams whose avatar is Whitney Houston.  They will be able to share in the vapidness, the high heat and the flame-out, the ultimate pointlessness, of every Hollywood romance that has ever graced the cover of People magazine.

There will no longer be a need for football stadiums or ballparks; we will share our enthusiasms in the virtual space.

There will be a small underclass of people who are charged with upkeep of the infrastructure and, indeed, upkeep of the real world at large.  We will be able in the main, for example, to administer drugs to ourselves, but the surgeon's assistant will still have to cohabit our actual space if he or she is to timely remove an inflamed appendix.

Our cats and our dogs will miss us.

Zuckerberg will do all of this to enhance our lives, ca va sans dire, but as the creator and keeper of the new virtual world, he will be entitled to charge a small toll of his own.  Part of his challenge will be to measure in tiny increments -- not to say "bytes" -- the extent to which we are availing ourselves of his new world.  Then he can automatically, algorithmically, collect a hundredth of a cent per whatever.  The money will not change his life of course, except insofar as it gives him a mountain of cash to throw at the next cultural revolution, one that not even our nascent young visionaries can see from here.

The most significant thing perhaps -- just as at Fenway Park, just as at Disneyworld, there will be behavioral rules that all of us will have to follow in the virtual landscape.  We can call these rules social or cultural, but as we know there is only a faint smudge that separates the social and the cultural from the political, which is to say the rules by which we govern ourselves.  All of this will happen in baby steps, but Zuckerberg in due course will get to decide how much agency is left to the individual.

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