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The custom of our times

September 18, 2015

Tired of what T.S. Eliot calls “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings,” Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to help its users slough off the very bonds of language:

We’ll have AR [augmented reality] and other devices that we can wear almost all the time to improve our experience and communication. One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full, rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too if you’d like. This would be the ultimate communication technology.

Of course, fond of words and meanings as I am, I don’t particularly like this idea; I retaliate by looking even more carefully at the words Zuckerberg uses.

On reading Zuckerberg’s comments—not just the above quote, but the entire Q&A from which it’s drawn—I’m struck by his resolute avoidance of any of the language of commerce. He never talks about “Facebook customers,” and rarely even says “you”; he talks about “we.” Avoiding the language of commerce like this is to be expected. That language is difficult for Facebook because their users are not “customers” in the usual sense. It wouldn’t make any sense for Facebook to talk about “customer service,” unless it was talking about keeping the advertisers happy.

On one reading, it’s a good thing that he avoids this language; he avoids the trap so many organizations fall into of considering the people they interact with to be “customers,” rather than “passengers,” or “students,” or “patients.” It’s a small thing, but the word “customer” suggests a particular paradigm: an interaction which is always (potentially, if not actually) customary, habitual; and which is in each instance voluntary, optional. In Aristotelian terms, it denotes a friendship of utility. If “neoliberalism” is a helpful term of opprobrium, it’s because of this kind of language, and what it signifies. This paradigm isn’t appropriate for public transit authorities, or for universities, or for hospitals (for reasons which I hope are obvious); when they adopt it, they lose sight of the difference between economic and ethical ventures; and they lose sight of the fact that being friends of utility is not the same as sharing membership in a community.

But I don’t think Zuckerberg avoids the language of “customer” because he sees Facebook users as “citizens,” or even as “users”—he’s equally adept at avoiding this sort of language. Like I said, he talks about “we.” Sometimes “we” means Facebook as a company, but often it means, well, all of us, us Facebook users, us humans—as if there were no distinction between the two. In the world his words draw for us, Facebook is not a company with something to sell; it’s not even a tool people use to navigate the world; Facebook is the world that we live in. Technology just is human nature: it determines what is possible, what is usual, what is necessary. When Facebook changes, our world changes. An alarming thought.

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