Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s declaration that he would fight foreign interference by nation states as a “personal challenge” for 2018 has elicited some groans.
But in publishing his short statement, Zuckerberg inadvertently points toward a bigger challenge for Western democracy today.
The loss of a sense of public duty.
To even somehow cast this fight against foreign influence as his own personal fight undermines the value of a democratic society.
It’s hard to imagine an American in another age casting this challenge to their nation in
such a personal way.
And yet the culture of Silicon Valley is one that saw personal computers first, then the
internet, as vehicles for personal liberation. So Zuckerberg’s declaration should not come
as a great surprise.
When did Silicon Valley acquire this view? At the end of the 1960s, when some seminal
figures migrated from the San Francisco-based counterculture movements into the nascent world of computing. They brought with them the communitarian ethos which eschewed the larger society they had failed to change – and focused instead on fulfillment through personal experience.
A similar abandonment of public culture occurred throughout the US in the 1970s, as the legacy of Watergate and Vietnam prevailed.
The difference between 1967 and 1977 is that all sense of duty had been obliterated: Duty to nation in the form of social protest had become duty to self in the form of having fun.
And not just the duty to nation in the form of social protest: duty in the form of public stewardship of the nation and its institutions, in the form of civic responsibility, in articulating our consistent values.
And so we find ourselves without the language to defend democracy from foreign interference in 2017. And so Zuckerberg’s statement is revealing.
It’s moments like these that make me think part of the nostalgia for the Kennedy era isn’t perceived glamour or nostalgia for bygone days. It is also, I believe, Kennedy’s call for Americans to be prepared to sacrifice for their nation – a concept that actually unifies society.
That is what has been missing since the 1960s.
The 1970s formed a kind of transitional period, a looking inward and away for society. And when Ronald Reagan was elected president, there was a crystallization of the values of individual less concerned about the drift of society as a whole.
One that extended for decades until now.
(Of course, the situation is worse in the US. In Australia, for example, they never fully bought the denial of society in the same way many in the US political class did – and this is a good thing. )
Nevertheless, if democracies want to regain some of the possibility of the Kennedy era, their citizens would do well to turn again – this time, away from the narcotic of a personal liberation, which is proving toxic in the time of Donald Trump.
While I don’t doubt Zuckerberg’s intentions, his statement shows the flaw of this personalized, over-atomized view of the shared good.
It’s simply not personal. It’s public.
Citizens in democracies everywhere should turn again to the sense of public duty to defend their values and system online in the 21st Century. They should speak this language again if they want to combat authoritarian meddling.