Rays of Hope

Michael Metzger

Critics claim time spent on Facebook is harmful. Mark Zuckerberg takes this seriously. He’s changed Facebook’s mission to promote “time well spent.” That’s a ray of hope.

Taking critics seriously is not a strong suit of institutions. In the 1950s, when scientists started linking cigarettes to cancer, the tobacco industry ignored them—only acknowledging the truth decades later, under legal duress. In 1967, Jacques Ellul suggested modern technologies do not yield human flourishing. They’re generally about what is “most efficient.”[1] For 50 years, the tech industry generally ignored him.

In 1993, Neil Postman warned that we live in a technopoly. Questions are limited to what sells more products or enrolls more students. Postman wrote, “such questions have an immediate, practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary.” They direct our attention away from “serious crises,” including altering “what is meant by religion, by church, even by God.”[2] For 25 years, Postman has been largely ignored.

For centuries, technology included a techne (meaning “skill or craft”) and an ethos (meaning “a pattern of behavior bonding individuals in a society). Techne aims at efficiency, ethos is concerned with effectiveness. In a technopoly, we ignore effectiveness. The result is we see what technologies can do, overlooking what they undo.

Now we’re seeing a shift. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams thought his platform would improve the world by giving people a voice. Now he thinks otherwise: “I was wrong about that.” Williams says “the internet is broken.” He feels it’s undoing democracy.

Prominent investors in Apple have recently voiced concerns about the social consequences of the iPhone. It fosters social isolation rather than involvement. Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive involved in the iPhone’s creation said, “Just like we need a scale for our weight we need a scale for our digital lives.”

Tristan Harris acknowledges Google’s algorithms foster addictive behaviors in users. He should know. He helped design them. Harris now runs Time Well Spent to reverse “the digital attention crisis” and realign “technology with humanity’s best interests.” The Atlantic magazine calls Harris the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.”

Facebook investors and former executives have publicly stated that Facebook is both psychologically addictive and harmful to democracy. In response, Mark Zuckerberg is pledging to “fix” Facebook, including changing the company’s mission from “connecting” the world to “bringing the world closer together.” He said he used to think giving people a voice would make the world better, “but our society is still divided.”

Facebook’s new mission will prove disruptive, for its algorithms are built to keep you glued to the site. That’s how advertisers make money. But experts say these codes are detrimental to humans thriving. Unlike tech leaders in the past who ignored the potential the harms of their products, Zuckerberg at least acknowledges them. But will he forgo some of Facebook’s profitability in order to promote human flourishing?

We’ll see. Zuckerberg says Facebook’s aim is no longer to get you to spend time on the site but to “make sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.” Spending time wisely requires the “outside view” that sees the big picture.[3] In the past, rabbis, priests, and prophets filled this role—what neuroscientists call a right-brain function. The right is good at discerning the technologies that promote human flourishing The left-brain isn’t. It’s narrowly focused. The left is good at “figuring out” markets, money, algorithms, organizing—all good and necessary. It’ll be interesting to see whether Zuckerberg includes right-brain outsiders to ensure Facebook’s revised mission is taken seriously.

He might. Zuckerberg once identified himself as an atheist, questioning his Jewish upbringing. He now believes that “religion is very important.” Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, practices Buddhism. The couple met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in the summer of 2016. These are rays of hope. Perhaps Zuckerberg will include rabbis, priests, and prophets to help keep Facebook’s new mission on track. Of course, they’d have to be familiar with Ellul, Postman, and what scripture says about technology. But this is all doable. And it’d be a great way to undo the algorithms that don’t foster flourishing.


[1] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1967), p. 21.

[2] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 19.

[3] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011)


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