In this post-ideological desert — where there is no difference between the right and the left, and where politics is reduced to administration and policies to tweets — Silicon Valley is the new Athens. It is the homeland of the technological giants that dominate our hyperconnected era and, we must say, the place where the West is making a last ditch effort against the raging barbarity of nationalism. From Trump to Le Pen, nationalism seems to be imposing what Antonio Gramsci would have called a “cultural hegemony,” and today what we could define as “uncultivated hegemony.”* Silicon Valley is the place where the world tries to imagine itself in terms of decades, not instants. The place where thoughts and vision are generated. While traditional parties scoff at the word “program,” which was replaced by the complete supremacy of communication, the billionaires leading Microsoft, Tesla and Facebook are the ones talking about ideas and, in some cases, embodying actual ideologies.
Hundreds of tech companies have opposed the immigration ban. Apple, IBM and Airbnb have led the protest against the Trump administration’s discrimination of transgender people. Bill Gates has called for taxes on robots to curb unemployment from automation. Elon Musk has suggested also providing a universal basic income in order to fill the competition gap between humans and technology, not to mention his work on turning Mars travel into reality.
These are all examples of an engagement that is intensely political in the truest sense of the term: It occupies a space of public discussion and does so with long-term social projects. Nobody is occupying that space as much as Mark Zuckerberg. He is the one who wrote an actual 6,000-word “manifesto” which is, according to the simplification of many journalists, a project “to save the world.”
However, the reality of Zuckerberg’s plans is slightly less ambitious. In this manifesto, the social network founder hypothesizes that Facebook, his creation, will no longer be a mere social network, but rather a real “social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community.” Or translated from the political jargon that has now infected Silicon Valley as well, this means turning Facebook into the substratum of the new “connected” democracy. This is why Zuckerberg has attempted for years—with some success, according to statistics—to muddle common perceptions of the internet and Facebook. This is why he has been repeating, ad nauseam, in the style of every good political propaganda campaign, that he wants to connect the billions of citizens still stuck offline, especially in Africa and Asia, through a project appropriately named “internet.org,” now renamed “Free Basics.”
Handling both the public and intimate lives of 1.8 billion people around the globe is not enough; everyone must be connected to the net, i.e. Facebook, because Facebook is the new democratic agora, the basic condition for belonging to a civilization that communicates. Many observers think, not without reason, that Zuckerberg may be concealing presidential ambitions. Several facts support this hypothesis. The intention of visiting every U.S. state by 2017 in order to understand how the average American is “living, working and thinking about the future” is right out of the good politician’s handbook. The same goes for the posts that fill his personal profile, edited by a staff dedicated to his image and full of stories of individuals and communities in which the sixth richest man in the world is suddenly very interested. This is the same man who was accused of starting a $45 billion fortune by invading the privacy of U.S. university students.
However, that is not the point. The point is that the political ambitions in Zuckerberg’s words, words that are more and more explicitly programmatic, go even further. With his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he has resolved to do no less than “cure, prevent or manage” all existing illnesses“ by the end of this century.” While state-funded research languishes, the research in his labs moves forward at a pace even harder to compute.
Facebook has taken in some of the best university researchers in the fast-growing field of artificial intelligence, so the 32-year-old founder is now more credible than any lawmaker as he resolves to tackle the problem of “fake news” through algorithms instead of new legislation. While public opinion and institutions are struggling to digest the digital transition, Zuckerberg has obtained the geniuses behind Oculus VR** so he can be at the forefront of the next step in social networking; one in which your friends’ posts are not only read and watched, not even in 360-degree vision, but rather experienced in virtual reality, giving the concept of “sharing” empathetic connotations that would open new scenarios for the human collective.
Sure, the Facebook monarch still has a lot to learn in terms of political philosophy. However, he is learning fast, as demonstrated by the reading material he periodically recommends. Texts that range from geopolitics to world poverty, from the issues of prisons to the philosophy of religion and of science. A mark of interdisciplinary curiosity that, according to what Sandro Modeo writes in the newspaper Corriere della Sera, has always set Zuckerberg apart. Sure, the philanthropist and the theorist do not cancel out the neoliberalist who exploits every possible tax shortcut to avoid taxation everywhere he can, nor the champion of a completely data- and quantification-based world that produces automatic discrimination and “bubbles” that encase us even more into what we already think.
People thus risk becoming machines for self-propaganda or even unknowing test subjects, just as it occurs in the endless tests that are carried out without transparency, manipulating Facebook’s sorting algorithms and even manipulating our emotions and political preferences along with them. But there is a feeling that the present, and above all, the future, will travel along the tracks imposed by Silicon Valley rather than by political parties and their theoretical mainstays. And yes, it is frightening.
*Editor’s note: Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist theorist and politician who died in 1937.