New Yorker Profile Warns: When It Comes to Mark Zuckerberg, Be Careful!

Evan Osnos’s extraordinary profile of Mark Zuckerberg, published in the September 17, New Yorker, wouldn’t seem a fitting topic for coverage in this blog about public education. Osnos hardly touches on Mark Zuckerberg’s ventures thus far into education philanthropy—the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, which has made education-based philanthropy one of its primary foci, or the $100,000,000 gift to help Chris Christie and Cory Booker charterize the public schools in Newark, New Jersey, a controversial and poorly conceived initiative that did not improve the education of children in Newark.

Osnos’s profile explores the question of who has the power,”to pull the lever of what we see, hear, and experience.” Osnos is, of course, examining the role of Facebook and whether and how it functions as an arbiter of free speech. The central subject of the profile, however, is Mark Zuckerberg himself and how he thinks and operates.  Continuing to explore the issue of free speech, Osnos explains: “Zuckerberg is hoping to erect a scalable system, an orderly decision tree that accounts for every eventuality and exception, but the boundaries of speech are a bedevilling problem that defies mechanistic fixes.”

Last spring when Zuckerberg testified before Congress, the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank described Zuckerberg as “the boy billionaire,” a caricature that precisely captures the Mark Zuckerberg Osnos depicts: a naif who knows coding and tech systems but who cannot comprehend his own and his company’s power.  Unfortunately, Zuckerberg also seems unable to grasp what he doesn’t know.

How the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative will affect public education remains unclear. Writing for Chalkbeat, Matt Barnum explains: “In late 2015, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan promised to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares to their philanthropy, which would focus part of its work on improving American education… But the organization remains one of the least transparent funders in education.  Unlike a number of other philanthropies, CZI does not publicly list its grants, instead announcing only certain awards on Facebook or in press releases…  As a limited liability company, CZI is not required to list donations on its tax forms, unlike private foundations… The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s recent giving vaults CZI into the top echelon of education funders, though it remains behind the Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation for now.  Whereas CZI averaged a bit over $100 million in grants each of the last three years, Walton spent $191 million on U.S. education programs in 2016 and Gates spent about $367 million. That kind of funding is dwarfed by the public dollars spent on education. But philanthropic money can have an outsized influence on policy: think the rapid spread of teacher evaluation changes, the Common Core standards, and charter schools, all catalyzed by funding from major philanthropies in the last decade.”

Barnum summarizes a broad range of CZI’s grants that have been announced since 2016, including grants to promote what appears Mark Zuckerberg’s primary interest: personalized learning, defined in Zuckerberg’s thinking as the development of programs to help students learn independently via computer “CZI has funded personalized learning efforts directly in a variety of places: statewide in Rhode Island ($1.5 million), in more than 100 Chicago-area schools ($14 million), and in a small district in California, Lindsay Unified ($775,000).  It has supported personalized learning-focused work by leadership groups: Chiefs for Change ($3 million) and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers (nearly $400,000).  CZI has backed efforts to infuse the concept into teacher training, including through the Woodrow Wilson Teaching and Learning Academy ($3 million), the New Teacher Center ($1.7 million), and the Harvard Graduate School of Education ($1.1 million).”

Just as “personalized learning” for Mark Zuckerberg is defined as designing programs and apps that shape the way children can learn on their own in front of a screen, “community” also has a specialized definition in the world of Zuckerberg and Facebook.  Osnos explains what Zuckerberg means when he talks about building the Facebook community: “Over time, Facebook devoted ever-greater focus to what is known in Silicon Valley as ‘growth hacking,’ the constant pursuit of scale.  Whenever the company talked about ‘connecting people’ that was, in effect, code for user growth.”

Not only does Zuckerberg conflate company growth (and profit) with the kind of human relationships that most of us think of when we define “community,” he is also comfortable with encouraging his company to manipulate human psychology to grow his “community”: “Facebook engineers became a new breed of behaviorists, tweaking levers of vanity and passion and susceptibility.  The real world effects were striking… These powers of social engineering could be put to dubious purposes.” When the company’s design ethicist shared “his concern that social media was contributing to alienation… Zuckerberg and his executives adopted a core belief: even if people criticized your decisions, they would eventually come around.”

There is also Zuckerberg’s ethical naiveté—the assumption that people in “community” will pursue good and honorable ends and use his online system for the right reasons.  Osnos describes Zuckerberg dismissing the possibility that someone would use Facebook to try to manipulate the 2016 election: “(H)e still bristles at the implication that Facebook may have distorted voter behavior. ‘I find the notion that people would only vote some way because they were tricked to be almost viscerally offensive… Because it goes against the whole notion that you should trust people and that individuals are smart and can understand their own experience and can make their own assessments about what direction they want their community to go in.'”

Finally, Zuckerberg embraces the idea of disruptive innovation at all costs: “Facebook had adopted a buccaneering motto: ‘Move fast and break things,’ which celebrated the idea that it was better to be flawed and first than careful and perfect… In Zuckerberg’s view, skeptics were often just fogies and scolds. ‘There’s always someone who wants to slow you down,’ he said… ‘In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing.  The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.’ ”

Evan Osnos’s profile of Mark Zuckerberg hoists one red flag after another to warn anyone who might embrace Zuckerberg (and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative) as arbiters of public education policy. For very good reasons, public schools have been the domain of the kind of people Zuckerberg calls “fogies and scolds.”  In so many ways public education as an American institution represents the very definition of a set of principles that starkly contrast with the values Mark Zukerberg and Facebook represent.  The evolution of our society’s public schools over time has demanded the creation of programs to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the obligation to serve all children.  And we have recognized the urgent need for laws to protect children’s equal access to schooling in a society where some with evil motives would deny quality education for children they dismiss as unimportant or undeserving.

  • Zuckerberg seems to lack a real understanding of community—the kind of community made up of educators and children together in a school learning to trust each other, to communicate with one another and to collaborate.  Public schools also serve as neighborhood anchors and the source of real live community pride.
  • Zuckerberg has tolerated a business culture of manipulating human psychology to make his product more addictive to children as well as adults. Public school educators and researchers continue to strive instead to make education more supportive of normal child and adolescent development. Another primary goal is to help children and adolescents discern occasions when they are being manipulated and to develop good judgement.
  • Zuckerberg prefers to reject the idea that someone might misuse his system for an evil purpose—to throw an election or incite a genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. The history of activism for justice in public schools demonstrates our society’s recognition of the need for laws banning racism and other kinds of institutional oppression in schools. Laws now protect the rights of racial and ethnic minorities; protect services for the disabled, and protect the rights of LBGT students at school. State school funding formulas are intended to protect equity in the distribution of tax dollars invested across jurisdictions. When students’ rights are denied, students and their families have a right to petition under law for protection.
  • Zuckerberg promotes the motto, “Move fast and break things. ” Inside the company, if his strategies fail and Facebook ceases to grow, Facebook may see its stock price drop. When education “reforms” fail, the victims are innocent children. In fact in almost every case the children hurt worst are the poorest children in the poorest communities. Core community institutions are also wrecked. We watched the Gates Foundation move fast to break up comprehensive high schools, and to announce the failure of that experiment a few years later.  Then the Gates Foundation experimented with financial incentives and penalties to make teachers work harder to raise students’ test scores.  When that experiment failed, the public school district in Hillsborough County, Florida was left covering millions of dollars in costs when the Foundation walked away.

In a 2013 NY Times column, tech-reform critic Evgeny Morozov describes the kind of thinker Mark Zuckerberg represents: “They are driven by a pervasive and dangerous ideology that I call ‘solutionism’: an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal… Such predisposition makes it harder to notice that not all problems are problems, and that those problems that do prove genuine might require long and protracted institutional responses, not just quick technological fixes produced at ‘hackathons’… ‘In the future,’ says Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, ‘people will spend less time trying to get technology to work… If we get this right, I believe we can fix all the world’s problems.’ ”

Morozov quotes Mark Zuckerberg: “There are a lot of really big issues for the world that need to be solved and, as a company, what we are trying to do is to build an infrastructure on top of which to solve some of these problems.” Morozov examines what is really underneath Zuckerberg’s thinking:  “Such digital humanitarianism aims to generate good will on the outside and boost morale on the inside. After all, saving the world might be a price worth paying for destroying everyone’s privacy, while a larger-than-life mission might convince young and idealistic employees that they are not wasting their lives tricking gullible consumers to click on ads for pointless products. Silicon Valley and Wall Street are competing for the same talent pool, and by claiming to solve the world’s problems, technology companies can offer what Wall Street cannot: a sense of social mission.”

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