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Why Machiavelli could feel at home in Silicon Valley

Why Machiavelli could feel at home in Silicon Valley

by Michael Kirke | April 13, 2018

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Floundering might be the word which springs to mind as we look at the spectacle of poor Mark Zuckerberg trying to cope with – or, depending on your point of view, making excuses for – the failure of Facebook to protect us from predators of one kind or another.

For Mr Zuckerberg, the search for a solution seemed to be in the same territory from which came the very creature that has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world – technology. Totally absent from his horizon was the one feature in the landscape where the solution ultimately must lie. We suspect that it may be AWOL for the same reason that it was also absent from all the imagination and energy which went into Dr Frankenstein’s creation more than two centuries ago. There are, indeed, those who see Dr Zuckerberg’s – I’m hazarding a guess that he has picked up a few honorary doctorates – creation as something of a mirror image of Mary Shelly’s.

Sadly, unlike Mary Shelly’s monster, which was embodied only in fiction -- a wise and salutary tale about the folly of a man who gave life to a powerful man-like instrument he could not control -- Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a real nuts and bolts, now apparently out-of-control creation.

There seems to exist a multiplicity of black holes in the universe of modern technology. As the Netflix series, “Black Mirror”, worryingly illustrates for us, our lives can be sucked into these holes in any number of ways, with the most dire personal and social consequences.

The unifying element which should offer us protection from such a fate is embodied in a single phrase, “moral sense.” The failure to integrate a moral perspective in the myriad pursuits of modern man is the source of many woeful unintended consequences. “Unintended” may reduce culpability for those consequences, but if poverty of intention stems from neglect of serious and responsible reflection, then culpability is present as darkness is present with night.

Beyond Zuckerberg and Facebook: the need for internal control

But let us not be personal about this. Mark Zuckerberg is a child of his time and if we can learn anything from his predicament it will be by looking beyond his and his company’s problem to the bigger picture.

Zuckerberg has now apologised to Facebook’s users for the “breach of trust”. What “trust” really means in the world of big tech is anyone’s guess. This breach allowed University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest the details of about 270,000 people who took part in something as seemingly innocuous as an online quiz. A former Facebook manager has warned now that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in ways that they know nothing about.

But all the talk is now about control: technical control, regulation and more regulation. Does anyone really understand any more why we regulate? If the moral sense which the modern world  now lacks were a real force in society our need for regulation would be much less. If all we have are external controls we are lost souls.

A “reckoning is coming” for Facebook and its fellow tech giants, said The Sunday Times – and “not before time”. The issue in this scandal, The Times continued, is not whether harvested Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election -- “It did not – however much liberals would love to overturn the result.” Rather, it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users.  The company has been “unforgivably lax” about third-party use of this information. It has arrogantly shirked “the responsibilities that come with power”, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction until problems have reached the headlines.

However, the black hole into which the private information of “hundreds of millions of users” has plummeted may be the least of the threats to the common good emanating from Facebook’s army of busy bees. Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest moral voices of our time, back in 2005, just a year after Facebook moved from being a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye to its launch in 2004, gave a prescient address at Subiaco in Italy.

In that address Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks later – spoke of  the

disquieting… possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.

As we know, there are plenty of people who are concerned about the manipulative characteristics built into modern technology – from the colour coding of iPhone screens to the subtle designs of homepages across the internet. Others are concerned about what Facebook contributes, for example, to the cancer of gender confusion sweeping across our culture with its amoral subscribing to a bewildering plethora of genders.

If our civilization suffers from a moral malaise, it did not begin – nor will it end – with technology and the power it places in the hands of men. Its roots are immemorial and the struggle it demands of us is endemic in our nature. But in recorded history we can also see a turning point at which Western civilization fell deeper into the mire of confusion of which Facebook’s amorality is just another modern manifestation.

The modern era’s Machiavellian spirit

The turning point which occurred at the dawn of the modern age – and the falsehood at its heart – led Machiavelli to offer his advice to those who exercise power in this world. The spirit of this advice is also responsible for the destructive elements at work in forces of modern technology. This is not to deny any of the good elements. I use Facebook and will continue to do so.

Dr. Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, his masterful study of how our civilization has reached the point where it now stands, explains that Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature influenced the rejection of the Christian (and Aristotelian, and Platonic) claim about the inseparability of morality and politics. In the Florentine’s view, efforts expended in trying to live virtuously could only seem quixotically futile, and aspirations to create a correlative moral community unrealistic. In his views about human nature, Machiavelli would find successors in Hobbes, Hume, and many other thinkers.

If, in the following quote from Gregory’s book, we substitute in our mind the wielders of technological power for the wielders of political power, we will see how Machiavelli is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

In theory, at least, Machiavelli’s practical distinction between the demands of political life and moral norms severed the exercise of power from teleological virtue ethics in public affairs; the “realism” of the former contrasted with the “idealism” of the latter. Successful and therefore good politics was unavoidably immoral, and immoral politics was the norm.“ No longer aspiring to encompass traditional morality, politics becomes instead “the art of the possible”—and as people grow accustomed to new human realities, their views change concerning what is and is not possible. What his contemporaries and Reformation-era successors who offered advice to princes continued to regard as the telos of human nature within an inherited Christian worldview, Machiavelli consequentially disdained as the “imaginary world.” Human beings are what they are; the world is as it is; the effective exercise of power requires the abrogation of morality; successful rulers override the virtues with virtu. One could exercise power or be moral, but not both.

But while “successful rulers override the virtues with virtu,” Silicon Valley overrides all morality with science and technology.

Ratzinger, who like Tiresias, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—explained in his Subiaco address, how in the modern world 

the principle is now valid, according to which, man’s capacity is measured by his action. What one knows how to do, may also be done. There no longer exists a knowing how to do separated from a being able to do, because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. But man knows how to do many things, and knows increasingly how to do more things; and if this knowing how to do does not find its measure in a moral norm, it becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction.

Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it. Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be an exigency of his freedom. Man knows how to construct atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, in line of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.

Until we escape from the delusion that we are masters of this universe, moral orphans in this world and therefore answerable to no one but ourselves, we will be at the mercy of inept regulations -- even while we weave our way around them and wriggle our way out of them. This is the miserable human condition to which we condemn ourselves to by our arrogance.

Michael Kirke writes from Dublin and blogs at Garvan Hill, where this article first appeared. It is republished with permission.

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