PHARAOH, MOSES AND FACEBOOK’S DEMISE
Five years since it became one of the world’s 10 most valuable public companies, what was launched as a social gospel has apparently produced a machinery of intrusion, lies and possibly also treason.
The story we will celebrate Friday night is about clashes – between power and dissidence, physics and magic, nature and miracle, idolatry and God. But before these, it is about a voyage; a geographic voyage from Africa to Asia, a political voyage from slavery to liberty, and an alien people’s voyage to its home.
That is what Winston Churchill meant when he saluted Moses as “the national hero who led the Chosen People out of the land of bondage through the perils of the wilderness, and brought them to the threshold of the Promised Land” (“Moses: The Leader of a People,” 1931).
The Pharaonic voyage deserves our attention no less than the Exodus it spawned, because it foreshadowed human invention’s frequent journey from promise to corruption – the pattern that now repeats itself as millions of Facebook’s pawns turn their backs at its cybernetic pyramid.
THE PHARAOH who embraced Joseph was a paragon of humanism, tolerance and humility, the perfect antithesis of the Pharaoh who would enslave a nation and criminalize a state.
Unlike the Pharaoh who ordered babies drowned, this one fed millions; unlike the pagan Pharaoh, who asked scornfully, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him?” This one welcomed immigrants and respected their faith. Unlike ordinary politicians, who would fear a genius’s potential threat, this Pharaoh was so meritocratic that he appointed as his viceroy a stranger who hours earlier was still an inmate in jail. And unlike Joseph, who dreamed at night of others bowing to him, this Pharaoh dreamed at night about government’s burden and famine’s approach.
It was in this setting that Egypt produced the harbinger of the welfare state and the planned economy; a polity that embarked on a titanic effort to feed the people; a state that taxed, leased and expropriated so the rich would support the poor, and so that one year’s bounty would offset another’s dearth.
Such was the nobility of Egypt’s political invention, before it morphed from an engine of compassion, equality and prosperity into a monstrosity of megalomania, racism, slavery and murder.
Invention would travel down this Pharaonic path repeatedly.
The locomotive, which originally carried workers to factories, soon carried troops to battlefields where they were butchered; the motor vehicle quickly became a tank; the airplane, celebrated in 1906 by Scientific American as “an epoch-making invention,” soon leveled cities; and the conveyor belt, which originally gave Ford’s Model T to the masses, soon led millions from train stations to gas chambers.
That is why after a computer defeated chess master Gary Kasparov, this column wondered “who can promise us that the symbiosis between despotism and hi-tech is not lurking around the corner?” (“Beyond Deep Blue,” 23 May 1997).
Well 21 years on, that symbiosis is here.
Our age, the cyber era, has completed the journey from the first Pharaoh’s innocence to the latter’s nefariousness, cynicism and nihilism.
LIKE PREVIOUS inventions, the cyber era’s many fixtures revolutionized our lives at breakneck speed while seeming morally innocent.
Email elbowed the telex, the fax and most phone calls, not to mention the letter and its stamp. The Web disposed of the newspaper, the travel agent and the record store, and is now beginning to depopulate the shopping mall. Google and Wikipedia enabled anyone to read anything anytime, thus humbling libraries and driving Encyclopedia Britannica out of business at age 232. The smartphone undid yesteryear’s cameras – first the stills, then the videos. GPS made any first-year driver navigate like Vasco da Gama. And social networks enabled millions to track down ancient acquaintances, while connecting buyers, sellers, employers, employees, alumni, hobbyists, party-goers, and lonely hearts.
Yet the gospel was corrupted almost from the outset, as drug dealers, money launderers, financial forgers, human traffickers, loan sharks, pimps, pedophiles and practically every type of bad guy found ways to abuse every cybernetic invention and turn it into a tool of crime.
Even so, in its first years the new era’s corruption sprang from below, personified by the small-time felon behind the misspelled email about a Chinese venture, a Ukrainian woman or a Nigerian estate.
Now the cyber era’s corruption has climbed to entirely different domains, as Facebook, a pillar and compass of the new information industry, emerged at the heart of its corruption.
Now yesterday’s little fraudsters were joined by a social media giant which allegedly exposed 50 million unsuspecting users’ personal data to a firm that reportedly helped Russia spread fake news designed to ruin the navigation system of the free world’s democratic locomotive.
And in a more systematic context, it then turned out that Facebook is collecting, through Facebook Messenger, data about its users’ personal communications, evidently as a way to service commercial interests by misleading users and violating their privacy.
In other words, less than 15 years into its birth, and five years since it became one of the world’s 10 most valuable public companies, what was launched as a social gospel has apparently produced a machinery of intrusion, lies and possibly also treason, a golden calf that fused big business, Big Brother and Mother Russia’s spooks.
The cyber era’s three pillars – hardware, software, and content – produced three heroes: Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Jobs died at 56 and Gates retired at 53. Zuckerberg has yet to turn 34, which may explain why the cybernetic Pharaoh still refuses to admit his outfit’s contamination of the era’s public sphere; the way the biblical Pharaoh galloped into rising waters, still thinking he would repossess his steadily departing slaves.
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