The Soul of Mark Zuckerberg: What DuBois can tell us about Facebook

It’s so easy to hate on facebook and its creator these days, contemptuous slimeball that his/its actions and words indicate him/it to be. Still, this quote is worth exploring:

“You have one identity…The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” – Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and enormous tool.

I’m going to start with what he categorically rules out, the notion that it might be a good thing to have more than one identity for yourself (which, by the way, Michael Zimmer and Henry Farrell also address). For example, when W.E.B. DuBois read Goethe’s “Two souls alas! are dwelling in my breast” in The Faust, he liked what he could make that idea say to the position of the American Negro, how the idea of “double consciousness” could so nicely describe the subjective position of being black in America. As he wrote in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,”

“the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

DuBois would vacillate for his entire career on whether this was a gift or a curse, but it may be that this ambiguity was what made it such a powerful analytic category, for it let him describe how power inflects identity by describing both the burden of being forced to occupy contradictory categories and the kinds of epistemic gift that this could actually impart. In other words, while DuBois tried to describe the psychic toil of being both white and black at the same time — since black people live in and conform to both a white world and a black world — he also argued that this gave black people a particular kind of insight into both worlds that white people lacked, a parallactic view through which reality became a three-dimensional Picasso painting instead of being defined by (and limited to) the single-perspectivism of whiteness.

Which is why I think the categorical disparagement of people who don’t fit into a single category by a callow white male of Harvardian privilege like Zuckerberg isn’t inadvertent or coincidental, and is worth lingering on. It’s the same sort of thing as when Christopher Hitchens freaks out at the sight of a Muslim woman hiding her face from him, even employing the same “you must be a bad person then” response as he does; an attempt to assert the cultural right to autonomy will send a radical interventionist like Hitchens into full combat mode. And by the same token, a man who monetizes information given value by its scarcity will have the same reaction, not only oblivious to the reasons we might have to hide that information (as he must be) but actively hostile to those efforts because overcoming the limits you set up is how he makes bank.

They see, in other words, what they have to see, only one side of the veil. For Hitchens, after all, “Muslim” is a cage, an identity that constrains, for if you are Muslim, the burden is on you to prove that you are not an evil terrorist. Yet when DuBois used the same word “veil” to describe the objective correlative to “double consciousness,” the kinds of real-world inequalities of power that caused blackness to signify while whiteness disappeared from view, he meant both sides of it, the power-inequalities you can only see if you see from both sides, if you are doubly conscious.

As he put it, ethnicity is a function not of birth but of juridical power; in the best definition I know, he wrote that “the black man is a person who must ride “Jim Crow” in Georgia.” Power is the ability to define others while not being, yourself, defined in turn: Hitchens, for example, gets to tell you about what you need to do, while you don’t get to tell him shit. Being normal to your different gives him the epistemic position from which to intervene, since — and this is the point of it — whiteness is the ethnicity that is not an ethnicity, the ethnic perspective that gets the privilege of imagining itself to be transparent and unlimited.

Non-white males, however, as DuBois was neither the first nor the last to point out, tend to come more easily to the realization that this is horseshit of a particularly green and runny character. Being a white male tends to constrain your perspective by making your own ignorance disappear from view because the privilege of being powerful is not having to know about or exert that power to enjoy it; such power exerts itself, and ignorance of the process is just one of the nice little perks. Hitchens, after all, doesn’t have to worry his pretty little head over the fact that he doesn’t have a clue what the fuck he’s talking about when it comes to Muslim women; white men don‘t have to have real knowledge about minorities in order to speak with authority about them. So when he looks at a veiled Muslim women, all he sees is what (he thinks) she can’t see, never having to think about all the ways he has no idea if this is true or not. His own ignorance is on the other side of his own veil, which he can then blithely project onto her.

However, that’s the kindest reading, the passive ignorance of being on the giving side of a power relation. Hitchens is also, quite flagrantly, someone who enjoys using the privilege of being powerful to do violent things on people who aren’t, be they the Muslim women whose sartorial choices he gets to dictate or the Iraqi people whose invasion he gets to enjoy. Which is where we get to Zuckerberg, whom this quote reveals to be not only oblivious to why people might choose to control how much the world gets to see of them but actively hostile to it (something facebook’s actions demonstrate as well). “Radical transparency,” as these people put it, means opening everyone up to everyone else’s surveillance, but that’s precisely the opposite of a democratizing move if the underlying power relations remain, as they certainly do.

After all, why is it that people want to control their privacy? It isn’t so much that people want to “hav[e] a different image for your work friends or co-workers,” as he sort of innocuously puts it; it’s not an issue of choice for people who need to have a different image for their boss than the one they have in real life. The less the people who sign your paycheck know about you, after all, the less they know that you’re not simply a simple worker-drone toiling away in their sugar fields, and that can be an urgent thing in a time where everyone who works for someone else could be replaced at any time. But even the less dire firewalls we try to build in our lives are fundamentally about asserting our ability to choose; we hide things from our friends and family to the extent we fear they’ll disapprove and make that disapproval meaningful by intervening. We compartmentalize not because we’re split between different notions of ourself, but because the multitudes of identities we each contain bump up against people’s expectations that we each be a particular way.

And here’s the thing: powerful people don’t have to worry about any of that. Just as Hitchens never has to worry about Muslim women telling him what not to wear, neither need the owner of facebook ever worry about being surveilled against his interest or will, or of it mattering much if he is. Knowledge is power not in a Friedman-esque globalization-will-democratize-the-world kind of way, where opening up barriers makes us all the same, but in a much more Foucaultian sense: when you have power, knowledge is the medium through which you exert it (including the ability to believe what you want and make it authoritative). Knowledge without power is forgotten, ignored, and impotent while power without knowledge just creates new “knowledge” (as in Hitchens’ ability to know whatever he needs to know about Muslim women). But since powerful white men can experience that power through their singular and unambiguous identity — and since white privilege is about enjoying the benefits of being the default category without having to do anything to claim it — the sight of people whose identities limit and subordinate them exerting control over those identities becomes a threat, a limit that has to be vaulted over. What Muslim women hid, Hitchens will demand his right to see. And what you make private, Facebook will monetize.