Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe
By Roger McNamee
Penguin Press, 2019
Roger McNamee, a thirty-five-year Silicon Valley insider and the guiding hand behind a slate of successful Internet ventures, is ideally placed to write a definitive Jungle-style clarion call about the history, inner workings, and enormous dangers of a social media monster-company like Facebook. He’s known most of the principals since they were little more than children; he’s followed and often predicted the evolution of the technologies involved, and he knows in intimate detail what he calls Silicon Valley’s combination of “relentlessness and hubris.”
All of that expertise is brought to a boiling pitch in McNamee’s new book Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (an unfortunate choice of title, since sophomoric wordplay ill serves this profoundly serious subject), which traces first the author’s personal history and then the well-known origin story of Facebook, which sprang from Zuckerberg’s undergraduate days at Harvard and began its life as “Facemash” and “The Facebook” before blossoming into the behemoth that today defies - and subverts - governments, flouts international law, keeps nearly 2 billion users hooked on its platform, and touches the lives of nearly every human on Earth in one way or another. In only a handful of years, Facebook has become in effect one of the most powerful countries in the history of the world, a country without borders, without any fixed laws, and with a vast slave force at its disposal.
McNamee retails all of Facebook’s more egregious public failings (always in the book small, terrifying words like “public” crop up to remind readers of Facebook’s near-infinite ability to conceal its worst actions), draws connections that even sharp tech-watchers may have missed, and comes to conclusions that are scarcely softened by the author’s penchant for referring to Zuckerberg as “Zuck” and Facebook’s repellant chief officer Sheryl Sandberg as “Sheryl.” The nomenclature might be classic Silicon Valley egalitarianism, but it’s only window dressing: this is a brutal, almost oppressive exposé. If mega-corporations like Google or Amazon didn’t in fact rule the world, a book as damning Zucked would spell the end of Facebook.
Instead, McNamee is mostly resigned, even in his outrage. The impression in these pages is that although the harm that Facebook can inflict on the world - on the workings of governments, on the nature of privacy and free speech, on individual contentment - is only beginning, that harm is also more or less here to stay:
The sad truth is that even if Facebook can limit overt political manipulation on its platforms, it would still pose a threat to democracy. Filter and preference bubbles will continue to undermine basic democratic processes like deliberation and compromise until something comes along to break users out of them. In addition, behavioral addiction, bullying, and other public health issues would remain.
Given all this, it’s remarkable that McNamee stops short of holding Zuckerberg and Sandberg fully responsible, even though their country is a dictatorship and all of their decisions were entirely uncoerced. One of the book’s concluding notes along these lines is downright bizarre:
When historians finish with this corner of history, I suspect that they will cut Facebook some slack about the poor choices that Zuck, Sheryl Sandberg, and their team made as the company grew. I do. Making mistakes is part of life, and growing a startup to global scale is immensely challenging. Where I fault Facebook - and where I believe history will too - is for the company’s response to criticism and evidence. They had an opportunity to be the hero in their own story by taking responsibility for their choices and the catastrophic outcomes those choices produced. Instead, Zuck and Sheryl chose another path.
Our author might cut “Zuck” and “Sheryl” some slack for stealing the ideas of other people and using them to create a hydra that continues to despoil the world almost completely unchecked, but readers of Zucked won’t be inclined to such mercies. McNamee has done his work too well.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.