Robots are Better People than Mark Zuckerberg
When Mark Zuckerberg began his testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on Monday, the memes began flying. They compared Zuckerberg to Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, to a child in a booster seat, and to Myspace Tom. But the overwhelming favorite comparison wasn’t to a human being at all. All over the internet, people gleefully joked that Zuckerberg resembled no one so much as a robot.
Comparing Zuckerberg to a robot isn’t new to this week. After he began making stilted and exocitizing Facebook posts documenting his 2017 New Years’ resolution to meet people from all over America, the internet responded with an ongoing series of mock posts exaggerating Zuckerberg’s inability to understand human customs. (“Like most normal human males, I enjoy charring meat inside of an unpressurized vessel behind my domicile.”)
This week, this meme metastasized into a set of images that compare Mark Zuckerberg to one robot in particular: Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But while this situation has an undeniable allure for making a million puns about data, this comparison is both outrageous and a little dangerous.
It is the defining characteristic of Data’s character that he desires not just to know and understand humanity, but also to enact humanity’s value to the best of his abilities. For Data, who understands humanity primarily in terms of emotional labor, that largely means caring for others. Even when those others are inscrutable, capricious, or destructive, Data defines his own personhood not in terms of who he is or what he knows, but in terms of how he cares. For a TV show that was largely procedural, and in which character development happened glacially or not at all, Data’s commitment to developing his humanity was a rare arc of learning, making mistakes, accepting responsibility, and making change. Caring is an action, not an emotion, and it is one for which Data builds up an impressive service record.
Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has never publicly demonstrated the same. He has never exhibited any ethic of care with respect to his business, and he has never shown that he meaningfully values the caring labor performed by Facebook’s users for one another. Instead, at every moment where he has been called to take responsibility for harming his users, Zuckerberg has offered nothing but vague apologies and promises that go unfulfilled. What’s more, Zuckerberg’s public responses to criticism almost always contain a studied ignorance, as if one of the richest and most powerful businessmen alive can’t possibly be expected to understand his business and its effects.
Equally galling, Zuckerberg has long history of using the rhetoric of care — and specifically, the rhetoric of community — to wave away criticism, as if drawing a circle around a family is the same thing as being one. Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, described this pattern in an article headlined “Why Zuckerberg’s 14-Year Apology Tour Hasn’t Fixed Facebook.” Tufekci writes:
"As far as I can tell, not once in his apology tour was Zuckerberg asked what on earth he means when he refers to Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users as ‘a community’ or ‘the Facebook community.’ A community is a set of people with reciprocal rights, powers, and responsibilities. …[But Facebook] isn’t a community; this is a regime of one-sided, highly profitable surveillance, carried out on a scale that has made Facebook one of the largest companies in the world by market capitalization."
Without reciprocity, without care, there can be no human community. Without it (his protestations notwithstanding) Zuckerberg treats Facebook’s users not as fellow travelers to learn with and care for, but as a resource. As E. B. Drago pointed out on Twitter, “If anything, he is the opposite of Data; he is closer to Bruce Maddox, the arrogant tech bro who felt entitled to strip-mine Data for information despite Data's obvious sentience.”
When we allow Zuckerberg to be depicted as a well-meaning but still-learning robot, it’s a problem, because we see the world through the lens that these kinds of fiction provide for us. When we joke that Zuckerberg doesn’t understand our human ways, we filter that joke through our knowledge not just of Commander Data, but also of WALL-E, Sonny, Baymax, Number Six, C-3PO and R2-D2, K2-SO and BB-8. We’re pushed to grant Zuckerberg the same compassion that we have for these fictional characters who we know to be struggling to learn, struggling to be better, struggling to do right. Struggling to care for one another.
A metaphor is an argument. When people view Zuckerberg as a robot it’s a tactical win for him and for the company he runs: an excuse for the ignorance he claims of his business model, and cover for his disinterest in the Facebook “community” from whom he takes without consent. Ironically, casting a man as a robot humanizes him. But comparing Mark Zuckerberg to Data unfairly grants to Zuckerberg the credit that Data’s service to his fellows has earned. If Zuckerberg wants to be seen as a robot, he has to earn it with his actions, first.