‘If you build it, they will come’, is a phrase I remember from pop culture, Wayne’s World, not its original Field of Dreams. Like all sayings, it is not wholly true, even false, but contains the scent of truth.
Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg posted on Facebook, what is being called a “manifesto” titled, ‘Building Global Community’. In it, he outlines his vision of Facebook reformed for a new era of turmoil, as the social media scaffolding of a global community. Asking the question, ‘are we building the world we want?’, his answer, he emphasizes in bold, is that:
In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.
He does not presume to know what a ‘global community that works for all of us’ means, or that Facebook can create it. He only details how the vast corporation can contribute.
There is an interesting ambiguity in the text, between Facebook as a global community of users, and as the infrastructure of the future global community. His language betrays his vision of a future union of the two. In a sense, a loose sense, Facebook has already established a global community, if we look at the Facebook Maps that Zuckerberg boasts in his presentations and Facebook profile cover photo.
The webs of connections in these maps are truly globe spanning, but the unconnected areas, lacking the light of Facebook, are just as interesting. What is interesting here are the global social imaginaries these images constitute, the ability to imagine the present and future in terms of the globally connected and unconnected, the more networked and less networked. The distinction I am getting at here, is that the global community is not the same thing as its global social media infrastructure.
For several years, in the form of a phd thesis at the London School of Economics, I have been working on the question of what it means for all humankind to form a global community. It is fascinating to see Mr. Zuckerberg is concerned so publicly and earnestly with the very questions I have been researching and ruminating over. He says, ‘There are questions about whether we can make a global community that works for everyone, and whether the path ahead is to connect more or reverse course.’ These are my questions too.
The critical point I am making is that the global community cannot be built by infrastructure. The architect and 1960’s ‘spaceship earth’ thinker, Buckminster Fuller, believed that if humankind were given the proper habitat it would be properly behaved. This is the Disneyland myth, the myth of a perfect space. Imagining the global community, the sense of a global ‘we’, endowing a global infrastructure with meaningful use, is a different task than building a global infrastructure. To press my point a little harder, I want to say that neither will the global community grow across the global lattice of social media, or any other globe ‘shrinking’ infrastructure, no matter how carefully designed, no matter how much big data and AI is applied to it. That is the Humean myth of a happy seamless coming together, the growth of shared sentiments in wider and wider circles. This belief that if you build it they will come is a misguided Humean assumption, the assumption that the more we get together, the happier we’ll be. It has the scent of truth, but is ultimately and, more than ever, spectacularly, false.
The positive claim is that the global community requires a global imaginary to fit, it requires a genuine sense of a global ‘we’ that contains a shared cosmopolitan self-conception. How can that be built? Collective-self-conceptions, social cosmologies, cannot be built with the internet, engines, big data, and AI. Global communities are social things, meaning they require social construction. Social constructions do not emerge like social vines. Their social architecture is hammered out by social action and social conflict, by the use of social power in discourse and practice. Mr. Zuckerberg professes a vision of human history:
History is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations. … Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.
Yet, if you build a global infrastructure, there is no real telling what will come of it if we do not know what social movements will make use of it. Building the global community, is not the same thing, nor is it as easy, as building a global infrastructure, as Mr. Zuckerberg recognizes.