Mark Zuckerberg is my friend.
It’s true; when I opened a facebook account eight years ago (because my publisher asked me to, in case you’re wondering), Mark was one of the first people to claim me as a friend. That was kind of him, I thought, for, like most children of the baby-boom, I was suspicious of this new interweb wheeze, which my student issue had grasped so eagerly. Naturally, to have a fresh-faced, if sharp-eyed, young alumnus of Harvard University single me out for friendship was reassuring in an alien world….. until one of the issue told me disdainfully that young Mark was friends with every single one of the millions of users of his clever invention. Suddenly I felt less special. There are now 1.5 billion users – three times more subjects than HM the Q – even counting the inhabitants of former dominions who call her queen – although she has yet to send me a ‘friend request’.
However, having just checked, I find that for no reason, I have been un-friended by Mark. That’s fair enough; I can’t claim to have been much of a friend to him either. I haven’t contributed a penny to the huge heap of dosh he has accumulated from his clever wheeze. I’ve never paid for a service, nor could any serious advertiser have identified me as an appropriate target for the promotion of their wares.
And I’m about to become still less of a friend, first by questioning the inherent worth of this social gizmo that he has sold to the world, and then by querying the value of his pledge to donate $3bn (of the $54bn he has amassed) to fund research into the ultimate control of all diseases known to man by the end of this century.
Meanwhile, the world at large is just beginning to understand that the net change in quality of life produced by the use of facebook is negative. There is a plus side, certainly, in people’s enjoyment of mutually propagating and catching up on the minutiae of their personal lives, and sporadic items of real and otherwise unreported news. On the minus side, though, it spawns envy, a sense of exclusion and a resulting increase in loneliness, anxiety and depression from bullying, abuse from trolls and revenge porn, as well as a potentially dangerous lack of privacy. It has discouraged truly personal communication, as formerly achieved by letter or more recently by email (an excellent and immediate means of communications, albeit susceptible to invasion by the boys from Wapping.) In my own case, I will concede that I enjoy reading a little gossip among people I know as facebook friends, many of whom are not, by any standard, friends at all. From time to time, I have discovered important events that I may otherwise not have done. Just this week, for instance, I have seen a picture of friend’s one-year-old grandchild reading The Times; another friend is pictured drinking a bottle of Greek beer; and I have viewed a video of a ‘homeless’ man playing the piano quite badly, and another (along with 28mn other time-wasters) of an Indian runner duck chasing a dog around a rock; I have received an advertisement for a product describing itself as Liquid Joint Replacement (presumably as a result of an algorithm relating to my DoB.) I haven’t posted much – a few jolly shots of my wedding to Nina three years ago, and a couple of grumbles about the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the EU referendum, which prompted a few unexpectedly Brexit friends to creep from the undergrowth.
There’s no doubt that, for some, it is a highly addictive activity that leaves one with the same sensation as that experienced in wolfing down a Big Mac – a short rush of fulfilment followed rapidly by a sense of vacuousness. There must be few whose life would have been significantly worse if they’d never signed up to facebook while the rest of us, if we hadn’t, would have retained more privacy, and saved a huge amount of time.
It feels, too, as if a new stage might have been reached in the public’s relationship with Mr & Mrs Zuckerberg (and, by extension, facebook), triggered by this golden couple’s recent extraordinary display of hubris. It isn’t only the cynics among us that will have observed that Zuckerberg is not an especially lovable guy; that there is an understandable resentment towards any young fellow who has made so much money, apparently so easily, and that he has been for the last few years attracting increasing opprobrium over the lack of taxes his corporation pays in any of the communities where it operates. The US Inland Revenue Service claim that facebook owes them between $3bn and $5bn in unpaid taxes. In the UK last year they paid just £4,327 in corporation tax while handing out bonuses of £35m to its 362 staff here.
As a PR tool to counter these negative aspects of his public image, Zuckerberg’s pledge of a $3bn to fund health research looks like a caveman’s club – the kind of ploy that might have oozed from the unsubtle mind of Mr D Trump. It has been noted that this pledge represents less than 1% of the US government health research budget while in 2014 alone millions of ordinary Americans (excluding people like Bill Gates) gave $258bn to charities in general. Zuckerberg’s claim that his contribution is going to eliminate all infectious diseases by 2100 shows clearly that he doesn’t, in fact, know his bottom from his funny bone. That he evidently didn’t foresee the negative reaction it has provoked is evidence of the disconnect that makes him such an unpopular figure.
The scale of self-belief that is key to the proposal that he and his wife, Chan, have the knowledge and experience to run a research programme on this scale is gasp-making in a way which will surely discourage significant numbers of facebook users to continue being part of this global exercise in mutual ego-grooming.
Parallel to all that is the far bigger question about where this planned elimination of disease, and subsequent increase in human longevity would leave the human race, and our Great1bn Grandmother Earth. It is bizarre that a man of Mark Z’s presumed intelligence hasn’t worked out yet that deferring death on the vast scale he promises is overwhelmingly undesirable both for individual human beings, and for the well being of the planet.