Bingeing On Mark Zuckerberg

Intelligence that isn’t artificial.

Posted Apr 18, 2018

White Walker Taylor Herring
Source: White Walker Taylor Herring

Whether it’s trying to save the abbey, create advertising campaigns to sell more cigarettes, or defend the world from the White Walkers, I find myself completely engrossed in streaming narratives that run for hours and hours.

But binge TV is not simply a guilty pleasure for me. I work with corporate leaders to create and communicate narratives. Neuroscience has established that narratives are the way our minds process our experience, so a well-crafted narrative is the most direct way to drive the behavior and decision-making of customers and employees.

As a trained literary critic, I binge watch to learn (and liberally borrow) techniques to make stories effective. So how could I pass up “Zuckerberg Agonisties,” the drama of Facebook’s CEO testifying in front of Congress?

The theme of the story is of sufficient gravitas—the use and protection of the huge amount of personal information Facebook has gathered on each one of us. The exposure or manipulation of that information has potentially dire consequences for both the state and its citizens.

But the drama that grabbed my attention was Zuckerberg versus the 42 senators. We heard a lot about his preparation in the run-up to the confrontation. We were told that he wasn’t comfortable with public speaking and that he had practiced mock hearings with his team. The suspense for me was whether he could pull it off.

He entered the hearing room girded for battle in the appropriate suit, white shirt, and necktie, and as the questions started coming, his answers were virtually flawless. He calmly apologized, patiently explained how Facebook collects and uses data, and repeatedly offered to follow-up with the senators (sixty times in all.) He had the techniques one learns in media training down pat—he would buy time to consider his response with “that’s a great question,” and deflect difficult questions with tangential explanations.

I had to admire aplomb. In fact, when offered a break, he smiled and insisted the hearing continue.

But as the meeting entered its third and then the fourth hour, he became visibly less comfortable. His eyes would dart about, and his motions, whether the way he reached for a drink of water or smoothed his tie, was anything but fluid. Then he started prefacing his answers with the phrase, “in general.”

Sure it could have been just a nervous tic, but a literary critic is trained to notice details and ask what they mean. As patterns become recognizable, hypotheses are formed just like in scientific method.

There was almost a complete lack of effect when he spoke, and he frequently referenced how more advanced machine learning would solve the problems the senators raised. The hypothesis that formed in my mind was that Zuckerberg was not a human, but a machine.

But I really didn’t need science to reach that conclusion. All I needed to do was go to Facebook and look at the trending meme: “Steal his look: Gucci suit jacket $2500, Dior shirt $570.24, Brooks Brother’s tie $79.95, Human skin & hair $587,000.69.”

Neuroscientists know that the stories we tell ourselves or others are cumulative. In Zuckerberg’s case, we already had a previous episode, “The Social Network.” We learned that Facebook started with a site that allowed voting on whether Harvard coeds were “hot, or not.” We watched his dealings with his roommate and the Winklevoss twins. This is not a story about a man that is comfortable with emotions or capable of the empathy they enable.

“In general,” he’s better with aggregate data than the effect on individual people of its misuse. So of course, one of his most trusted executives, Andrew Bosworth could say, “So we connect more people. That can be bad if they make it negative. Maybe it costs someone a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.”

Leaving aside the scientific evidence, in my three decades of working with executives in high technology, I have found those best with logical/mathematical thinking are often not quite so good with relationships. Twenty years ago, Bill Gates performed robotically in front of a congressional hearing at great cost to the company.

One of the misconceptions about emotional intelligence is that it’s a faculty we can develop and call upon in addition to our logical/mathematical intelligence. But we’re better served if we think about human intelligence as the integration of the two. Any technology we create should have both utility and a positive effect on individual human beings.

Narratives are an integration of the two, and our experience of them enhances our ability to empathize. It’s a pity that both Gates and Zuckerberg dropped out of college and didn’t fulfill those key humanities requirements necessary for a degree.

Thankfully, John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen will defend civilization against the White Walkers. But who will defend us against Mark Zuckerberg with his $60 billion and control of 60% of the voting shares of Facebook?

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