Humanist Trolling

Today I joined in for #24hourbooclub's distributed reading experiment to read Katherine Losse's The Boy Kings. It was a fun day, and I always enjoy the shared reading experience and the excuse to power through because I know others are there with me doing it to. Here are some immediate quick thoughts, post-run contemplation.

Reading Losse’s opening introduction to her discovery of Facebook, I was immediately taken back to my Freshman dorm room and the Dell desktop on which I first read about and signed up for Facebook, in early February 2004. Her descriptions of the social groups that flourished and reflected real social structures on campus reminded me how useful Facebook once was—it really did run parallel to my college social life (rather than an online/offline dualism). But it reiterated to me how little value Facebook, or rather, its active social network, now offers me.

I was shocked by a few insider details from the early days, like customer support actually having access to complete profiles through a shared master password (it’s not just machines collecting our data, it was legible to real, live humans popping in and out of our profiles when needed). And the fact that “dark profiles” existed for those who were pictured but not yet on Facebook was startling, but not exactly surprising.

Losse does a great job taking The Boy Kings metaphor through the book, illustrating in their own language the terms of war, of power, of creation, of “conquering” and the “bunker” offices that justify the modern Napoleon comparisons. And Losse acknowledges that she herself was part of a certain colonialism, taking Facebook world wide as internationalization manager.

The most telling piece for me was Losse’s recollection of Zuckerberg’s ideological manifesto blog post series that never came to fruition. The proposed topic list indicates the larger systemic ideological problem in the Valley:

“Revolutions and giving people the power to share; openness as a force in our generation; moving from countries to companies; everyone becoming developers and how we support that; net-native generation of companies; young people building companies; purpose-driven companies; starting Facebook as a small project and big theory.”

These unaccounted for positions, ways that our technological leaders see the world go unexplained, unarticulated, and therefore often unquestioned. But they remain in the background. This scene is breaking point for Losse, where she falls out with Zuckerberg, and perhaps out of Facebook’s spell. And she falls far enough to write this book. But not far enough to pick apart the problems inherent in these statements. It’s not enough to just acknowledge these philosophical stances as problematic, hinting at how “countries to companies” suggests a “nouveau totalitarianism.” She couldn’t write in favor of them, building their case as Zuckerberg’s ghost writer, but maybe she could have explored here at greater length what was so troubling to her about these stances. She kind of just told it like it was, as a personal account of an interaction, rather than a critique.

And that’s where Losse’s weakness is made clear. She’s a former English PhD, not a sociologist or an anthropologist, really. So she tells her story, and she observes from the inside, but she doesn’t tell us what it means. And while leaves open subtle interpretations for a sympathetic audience, it prevents her message from reaching those it could most influence, like Zuckerberg himself.

I read between the lines for hints of social theory material, and they are there, but they are subtle. And perhaps that’s a strength of a mass market approach, making her argument more relatable skating over references to Baudrillard, but talking about power in the context of The Wire, rather than political philosophy. But it’s not enough to just state that “You were like Peggy on Mad Men.” She’s a inside enough to hear Zuckerberg’s philosophy, outside enough to know there’s something fishy, but not outside enough to take it further.

I found myself wondering about the line between humanist and feminist concerns in the Silicon Valley culture critique. Sure, there’s misogyny to address in a corporate world run by brogrammers  and in talking about systems that support “looking for pictures of women,” but it seems like Losse’s issues were just as focused on the automation of human life, turning social problems into information problems: “In more ways than one, I was like the humanist troll to the company’s obsession with technologizing everything.” I wonder what is lost when feminist concerns and humanist concerns are conflated in silicon critiques. 

[Paragraph added after sleeping on this.] But perhaps it is not fair to demand more of Losse. Perhaps I ought to grant her more epistemic charity (as Sheila Jasanoff encourages). Her tale is a personal one, a memoir. And I do believe that personal narratives make the stakes of criticizing technological systems that are a part of our everyday lives that much more visceral, more human than an abstract, disembodied, academic critique.

I think this book is doing something very important, critiquing the assumptions and ideologies of the technologist who are shaping our world from the inside out.

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Switched from living room to bedroom mid-read because the Patriots took over.

I read the book on my iPad from 10 AM to roughly 3:30 PM on Sunday in a marathon reading for #24hourbookclub, eager to finish before the rest of my weekend plans took over. I tweeted a few key quotes, and checked in on the #24hourbookclub conversation between chapters.