Communication breakdown

Analyzing Mark Zuckerberg’s optimistic hopes for Facebook, Nicholas Carr notes that the idea that more and more communication will bring people together stretches back more than a century. But the dream has not been realized in history or social science studies.

Carr concludes:

Still, the yearning to see communications technology as a remedy for social ills remains strong, as Zuckerberg’s February missive underscores. Despite Facebook’s well-publicized recent struggle to control hate speech, propaganda, and fake news, Zuckerberg seems more confident than ever that a “global community” can be constructed out of software. The centerpiece of his new project is a computerized “social infrastructure” that will use artificial-intelligence routines to manage information flows in a way that makes everyone happy. The system will promote universal self-expression while at the same time shielding individuals from “objectionable content.”

The problem with such geeky grandiosity goes beyond its denial of human nature. It reinforces the idea, long prevalent in American culture, that technological progress is sufficient to ensure social progress. If we get the engineering right, our better angels will triumph. It’s a pleasant thought, but it’s a fantasy. Progress toward a more amicable world will require not technological magic but concrete, painstaking, and altogether human measures: negotiation and compromise, a renewed emphasis on civics and reasoned debate, a citizenry able to appreciate contrary perspectives. At a personal level, we may need less self-expression and more self-examination.

Technology is an amplifier. It magnifies our best traits, and it magnifies our worst.

What it doesn’t do is make us better people. That’s a job we can’t offload on machines.