September 17, 2019

Our Better Angels

Let’s give Mark Zuckerberg the benefit of the doubt and assume that when he created Facebook, he intended to contribute to the progress of humankind.

In the years since its 2004 launch, the imperturbable Zuck stuck to Facebook’s raison d’etre like President Donald Trump to Twitter: Facebook’s mission is to “make the world more open and connected”; “give the most voice to the most people”; and confer “the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

I’d sing “Kumbaya,” but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to square Facebook’s ideal with Facebook’s reality.

Zuckerberg’s stubborn aversion to criticism is troubling enough. But his company’s total capitulation to capitalism has punished the very people he intended to elevate — compromising user privacy and turning attention spans into ad revenue, even if the advertiser is a Russian hacker selling fake news. Last week, things got even darker in Zuckerberg’s open, connected world when we learned that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited user data to create “psychographic” profiles of Americans in order to manipulate them.

Facebook shares plummeted, sending the company’s valuation down by nearly $50 billion, proving how easy it is to plunge a utopian vision into a dystopian beast. And it’s a cautionary tale of how even the best intentions can be compromised by sinister forces. Pharaohs, we’re reminded, are still out there.

Even if trends suggest reduced violence, the human inclination toward evil — what the Torah calls yetzer harah— remains.

How ironic that Silicon Valley’s arbiter of human progress — who built a community of more than 2 billion “friends” — is so naïve about human nature. Because anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows: The more open and connected, the more vulnerable you are.

Still, by some measures, humankind is better off than it was a few hundred years ago. Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” that the world today is demonstrably less violent and more peaceful than at any other time in human history. Science and medicine have eradicated diseases that once amounted to a death sentence; and extreme poverty has declined at unprecedented levels in recent decades, from afflicting 80 percent of the world population in 1820 to not more than 10 percent in 2013.

Today, we have great art, we can send Teslas beyond the stratosphere, and if you’re as wealthy and weird as Barbra Streisand, you can clone your dog.

But I’m not sure that we’re kinder, more tolerant of difference, or less selfish. Even if trends suggest reduced violence, the human inclination toward evil — what the Torah calls yetzer harah — remains.

Because here’s what I see:

Journalist Peter Maass fretting over “how to make people remember or care that 15 years ago the United States invaded Iraq, setting off a war that continues to this day, with several hundred thousand Iraqis dead, millions turned into refugees.”

And yet, onto the scene walks our new national security adviser, John Bolton, who has built his career on bellicosity. Bolton has made the case for military action against Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khamenei and, most recently, Kim Jong Un, asserting in a Wall Street Journal editorial that a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program is “perfectly legitimate.” To agree with this position is to accept that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people could die, and that Pinker’s promising argument would be rendered obsolete with the touch of a button.

It’s enough to prove that although human progress has made us healthier, wealthier and smarter, it hasn’t made us less cruel. Just look to Syria or South Sudan for proof that some people can only solve problems with war.

And let us not discount the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which persists because too many people on both sides think intransigence and intolerance is preferable to flexibility and friendship.

Every year Pesach comes along to remind us that we do not live in an ideal world. God gave us Torah because even a chosen people need laws to keep their good nature in check; because even a slave people, once liberated, can repeat the destructive patterns of their Pharaoh.

In Facebook’s world, it’s called regulation.

Moderating forces are necessary because no person — and no technology — is immune to the corrosive nature of power.

This is the blessing and the curse of human agency: Power is necessary for survival and progress, but we must guard against wielding it as a triumph over others. From the Exodus to the State of Israel, the Torah’s lesson is this: Power, once vested, is something to wrestle with, but never rest or revel in.

Chag sameach.