The Chaos Machine

By Max Fisher

Though you may find yourself being called a cynic, it’s always a good idea to suspect the motives of powerful elites.

We need more of such cynicism. I find few things as depressing as the spectacle of downtrodden, ordinary people hoping that the rich and famous might somehow come to their rescue, believing that billionaires and celebrities are their friends or (I have to shake my head as I write this recent favourite) “allies.” Such misguided souls think that the people at the very top, people in charge, have their best interests at heart and are only prevented from joining forces with the little guy by corrupt courtiers and a perfidious establishment. Protesters in St. Petersburg on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, 1905 carried images of Nicholas II and sang patriotic hymns (“God Save the Tsar!”), certain that if Nicholas only heard their pleas for better working conditions he would do the right thing. In the Third Reich it was felt that everything bad being done by the Nazis was due to freelancing party bigwigs. “If only the Führer knew” became a kind of mantra. More recently, Donald Trump became the latest head of state whose populist mission was undone by the dark forces of the deep state.

Max Fisher begins this disturbing account of the takeover of our minds and our politics by social media by telling the story of “Jacob” (a pseudonym), “a contractor with one of the vast outsourcing firms to which Silicon Valley sends its dirty work.” Jacob grew up a techie at heart, with a love of computers and an admiration for web moguls like Mark Zuckerberg. When Jacob, in due course, starts to learn about the evil that Facebook is responsible for he has an idea.

It would mean cracking the security system at work, secreting confidential files abroad, and convincing the media to broadcast his warning for him – all in the hope of delivering them to the screen of one person: Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook. Distance and bureaucracy, he was sure, kept him from reaching the people in charge. If only he could get word to them then they would want to fix things.

Oh, if only Mark Zuckerberg knew!

Of course, Zuckerberg was well aware of what was happening, and indeed was much better informed than Jacob. But he had no intention of “fixing things.” No, he was too busy styling himself a “wartime CEO,” meaning he wasn’t going to listen to anyone telling him what to do. And what he wanted was for Facebook to grow, no matter what the human cost.

It’s pathetic, and I don’t mean that in the modern sense of being merely weak and contemptible, that so much faith is still placed in celebrities, political leaders, and CEOs, hoping that they will somehow save us from the breakdown in our democracy, climate change, and runaway economic inequality. But how can anyone, even the most starry-eyes of cybertopians, still believe that tech billionaires just want to create a better world for all of us? Do people really see the likes of Zuckerberg and Elon Musk as pioneers breaking a trail to an egalitarian utopia rather than just as run-of-the-mill, greedy sociopaths who want to make as much money as possible while the world burns?

This is a point Fisher himself seems a bit wobbly on. He bends as far as he can (too far, in my opinion) in giving the benefit of the doubt to tech titans who mouth platitudes about how increasing engagement on social media brings everyone together, with free speech (however loosely defined) being an ineluctable force for good. So when one critic says that Facebook’s biggest test is “whether it will ever truly put society and democracy ahead of profit and ideology,” I guess we’re supposed to think that the “ideology” part means something.

But I have no idea what. Zuckerberg and Musk, for example, have shown a flexible and situational attitude toward free speech online, to put it mildly. My own sense is that profit (or growth) is their only ideology. Similarly, when Fisher concludes by saying that “Some combination of ideology, greed, and the technological opacity of complex machine-learning blinds executives from seeing their creations in their entirety” I don’t know what blindness he’s talking about. If anything, his book exposes in some detail how, at the executive level, everyone is fully cognizant of what “their creations” are doing. Perhaps not initially, but certainly for the past fifteen or so years. It’s head-scratching then to end on the same old note of wanting to let the guys in charge know what’s happening. If only we could somehow get word to them and let them know what’s really going on!

This caveat entered, I think Fisher’s book provides an excellent primer on a subject that has, deservedly, been getting an increasing amount of attention. Traveling from Sri Lanka and Myanmar to Paris, Berlin, and Washington D.C., he outlines what has become a truly global threat. Drawing on research from evolutionary biology and social psychology that’s now been backed up by acres of big data, you’ll learn about concepts like status threat, the tyranny of the cousins, deindividuation, ampliganda, and irony poisoning. And you should be taking notes, because this stuff is important.

But while there are a lot of new kinks to trace, at heart this is an old story, and not a terribly complicated one either. Perhaps the biggest key to success in a capitalist system is finding a way to externalize costs. This has been most dramatically the case with the fossil fuel industry, not coincidentally one of the most profitable, if not the most profitable, business in history. For these companies the environment – the global environment, including everything from pollution to species extinction to climate change – is all one big externality. It’s a cost, but not one that fossil fuel companies have to worry about. They couldn’t pay the bill even if they wanted to (and they certainly don’t want to).

The tech giants don’t have to worry about any of the damage they cause either. Gutting democracy, creating a mental health crisis, broadcasting vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, even promoting violence that scales up from mass shootings to genocide . . . the companies that profit don’t have to take responsibility for any of this. They are all externalized costs. And, just as with the fossil fuel industry, by this point there’s little the companies who profit from the system could do to actually change it. If they did, it wouldn’t just be the end of business as usual but the end of their business. Take the call for increased moderation of content posted on Facebook. “On some level,” Fisher writes,

moderation was, they knew, a doomed mission. No rulebook could possibly stem the hate and misinformation that Facebook’s systems were engineered, however unintentionally, to mass-produce. It was like putting more and more air fresheners on the outside of a toxic-waste factory while production simultaneously ramped up inside.

Not to mention the way “moderation” has now been cast as political censorship by lefties, or more properly the “reality-based community,” in a transparent attempt to conceal its identity (more pronounced than ever under the chairmanship of Musk) as right-wing media. And so that waste Fisher describes is going to keep on being mass produced, while the companies that pump it out continue to make money. There is “little incentive for the social media giants to confront the human cost to their empires – a cost borne by everyone else, like a town downstream from a factory pumping toxic sludge into its communal well.” “After all, it’s only the users who suffer.”

None of this leads to a healthy polity, or planet. But we’ve been speaking of our economy’s addiction to oil for a lot longer than we have of our addiction to our phones and social media, with even less progress to be shown in breaking the habit. Indeed, our dependency has, if anything, been worsening: tracking a downhill slide from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter.

It’s hard to imagine the next stop being any improvement. That’s not the way addiction works. The best we can hope for is some realization on the part of the pushers that they may in fact be killing their client. Though I’m not sure even that would lead them to change their behaviour. They’re as hooked on profit as we are on their junk. “The business model is what got us into trouble,” one computer scientist opines. Which, in turn, sounds awfully close to what was said about the subprime mortgage crisis: “The incentives were wrong.” One hopes the tech crash won’t be as bad, but I don’t see any grounds for optimism.

The Chaos Machine isn’t unique in its point of view. In fact, there were moments when I thought Fisher slipped into some social-justice language that seemed a little too pat. Is it true that social media was designed by engineers to re-create humanity in their own image, the “rigid archetype” being “ruthless, logical, misanthropic, white, male geeks”? If women or BIPOC had been in charge from the beginning would things be any different? I thought what was happening was being driven by a wedding of the logic of cancer-stage capitalism with our deepest evolutionary instincts. Do we need to beat up on white men for everything?

The simple solution to all of this “comes down to some version of turning it off,” a bit of advice that echoes the environmentalist message to “leave it in the ground,” and which is almost as likely to be followed. Still, I guess we can hope. Though more fruitful ground, I think, would be taking the blinkers away from people like Jacob, who, when we meet him again near the end of the book, is still a believer.

despite his concerns, he still had faith in the company that had promised the world so much; surely this was nothing more than a low-level failure to fulfill Zuckerberg’s grand vision. Even as I sat in his home, poring over documents whose publication he knew would embarrass Facebook, he saw himself as its ally. By revealing the bureaucratic failures he feared were holding the company back, he would help it to achieve the technological revolution in which he’d placed his hopes.

Facebook an “ally” and Zuckerberg’s “grand vision” only undone by “bureaucratic failures.” I began this review by saying I found few things as depressing as this sort of thinking. I’ll end by saying that if anything is going to change, it has to begin here.

Review first published online May 24, 2023.

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