Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has put forward his vision for a connected world. If you’re on Facebook, and we’re guessing most of our readers are, you can read his full 5000-word article here.
The story of how people envisaged the future can be a bit of a fun study, in fact, and Zuckerberg’s contribution may end up looking most notable in its historical context rather than in the sense of looking forward. In the 1960s and 1970s we were all supposed to have flying cars by now, and clothing was going to be made of recycled vinyl records (there was a feature on “Tomorrow’s World” saying so, so we all assumed it would happen) and with a bit of luck we’d develop telepathy. A little earlier someone from what would eventually become British Telecom said that we may one day need as many as four computers in the world.
Fast forward to the 1990s and things were getting a little more serious. By the middle of the decade, Bill Gates had published his book, “The Way Ahead”. This covered how we would be working remotely (true to an extent by now) and how everything would be connected very shortly.
Zuckerberg and infrastructure
Gates and Microsoft, however, were faced with a world without broadband at that stage, and the connected population was never going to happen without it. Zuckerberg had the good fortune to be born at exactly the time at which the infrastructure would be in place to make the new vision work. Early promises of the Internet and World Wide Web making ultimate democratisation happen looked as though they could be fulfilled.
All of which makes it ironic that in his new essay, Zuckerberg starts by asking whether we are actually building the world we want, or whether we’re retreating from the globalisation on which, arguably, he depends?
He talks about “safe community” and also “informed community” – he doesn’t mention Donald Trump, Brexit (and the Remain campaign), Marine Le Pen or any of the other movements in the world which have harnessed technology to communicate powerful messages whether sticking strictly to the truth or not. But like our guest blogger this week, he’s clearly aware of fake news and the damage it can cause. He’s also aware of the role his own network played in this, and outlines some of the steps about to be taken to try to reduce it. Social media is having its effect on governments and their selection, and it’s reasonable and honourable that Zuckerberg wants to curate its content responsibly.
The question is going to be whether this is actually possible. With a US president calling out everything he doesn’t like as “fake”, and Zuckerberg’s honest admission that you can’t always tell satire and opinion from fake news at a glance, there are muddied areas.
He also acknowledges that not everybody is enamoured of globalisation. Many politicians have spoken of “the left behind” and similar concepts and groups; for the first time in recent history people aren’t taking the idea of an increasingly interconnected world as a desirable end in and of itself, and it’s plausible to say part of the aim of the Zuckerberg piece is to restate the case for it.
Zuckerberg’s piece will take its place in the history books alongside that of every other prominent figure in the Internet’s development. It will be entertaining – you’d hope – to look at it again in half a decade and see how prescient it was. The difference this time is that he hasn’t forecast or predicted the connected world as his predecessors did, it’s here. This is the first time someone has written a vision of the future that’s partly a defence against the effect of their own business to date.