Silicon Valley Falls to Earth

As Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before Congress, the cultural attitude toward technology is dramatically shifting.

Mark Zuckerberg wears a pair of virtual-reality goggles.
Kay Nietfeld / AFP / Getty

When Mark Zuckerberg rehearsed the manic routine of a presidential candidate last year, he was of sound mind. Electoral success may have ultimately been beyond his talent set. But the culture accorded him the sort of profound respect that two-term senators and technocratic governors never receive. Zuckerberg sat on the cover of glossy magazines and reaped plaudits: for teaching himself Chinese (Wired: “Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin, Blows Everyone’s Mind”); for making bold, not-quite-charitable pledges (Bloomberg: “Mark Zuckerberg Philanthropy Sets New Giving Standard”). Vanity Fair announced him the “new establishment king,” and it blared: “He changed the world once. He says he’ll do it again.”

Everyone who doesn’t have their retirement savings stashed in Facebook stock will watch his Capitol Hill comeuppance while sipping a glass of chilled schadenfreude. Yet, this is a far bigger moment than that. For its entire history, Silicon Valley has deflected skepticism, building itself a filter bubble that largely protected it from tough questions about its grand plans for remaking humanity and capitalism, about its bulldozing of privacy and media. Tomorrow will be the day Zuckerberg raises his hand before Congress, and it will be the day Silicon Valley no longer floats above the world.

When America’s founders designed our system, they created a model where power was meant to be constrained by power: Congress checks the president; the courts check the Congress. This ethos of balancing has extended beyond constitutional schemes, with the later advent of robust, objectively minded newspapers and labor unions, each theoretically serving as a countervailing center of power. Silicon Valley was born into a culture that had no interest in constraint. In the past, Zuckerberg has boasted that he had created a platform as powerful as a nation-state—but it is a nation-state as imagined by Milton Friedman or Sam Brownback. There were essentially no regulators that aimed to curb its abuses. And certainly, there were no politicians attempting to win attention for themselves by interrogating him or the executives of other technology companies, with the sort of vigor sometimes applied to banks and airlines.

The culture of Silicon Valley has exacerbated the sense of impunity. Facebook, with its hacker shtick, came to resemble a cult. (Google, to its credit, has created an atmosphere that places greater value on dissent, despite James Damore’s protestations to the contrary. Witness the staff protest against the company’s Pentagon work. And at least Google had the self-awareness to drop its “don’t be evil” motto.) I’ve watched many hours of Zuckerberg’s vaunted town-hall meetings, full of seemingly canned questions from staff and the tightly wound founder responding to them with feigned surprise. There’s a reason we’re not suddenly reading news reports about the thwarted warnings that Facebook employees attempted to take to management. The engineers, it seems, blindly followed their leader. One of the salutary benefits of this backlash is that it stands to dent the culture of the company. It creates a new expectation that its employees should be more questioning, less thoughtless about human beings. The congressional flaying will show that there’s, at the very least, a social price to be paid for creating such a careless product.

What makes these hearings so consequential is that politicians can now finally see the self-interested reasons for thrashing big tech. Recent polling shows a loss of faith in Facebook, but the public conversation suggests a much larger shift in consciousness. The coverage of the Cambridge Analytica story has provided a belated and harsh education for the public, illustrating the extent to which it has unwittingly submitted to the manipulation and surveillance of Silicon Valley companies. It’s always stunning to hear otherwise media-savvy friends profess shock at how much information they had handed over to Facebook, and how little sensitivity the company showed to its precious cargo. Equally stunning is the fact that many of those who understood Facebook’s transactional relationship with its users’ private information couldn’t seem to muster enough energy to actually care. The surrender of privacy, which had only theoretically bothered consumers, finally seems to have elicited genuine anger. It’s a backlash that has been stoked by media, making noises about extracting itself from its own dependence on Facebook.

This makes for a stunning reversal. In the face of Silicon Valley’s power, there’s a widely shared sense that the public has has no agency. Even if people weren’t thrilled with the terms-of-service agreements offered by the companies, they accepted them as the natural course of life on the internet. Media, regulators, and engineers all knew perfectly well that Facebook had created a pernicious system, yet they assumed there was no way to blunt it. This reflected a broader attitude toward both technology and the market.

In this environment, radical proposals suddenly become plausible. Regulation, which conventional wisdom held would never materialize in the United States, is suddenly theoretically accepted by Mark Zuckerberg as the cost of his failures. (His porous half-promise to abide by the principles of forthcoming European privacy rules, however, belie the sincerity of his contrition.) The spirit of the movement has even caught the fancy of Republicans, as well as centrists. Plummeting stock prices reflect a growing sentiment that constraints are inevitable. To lambaste Zuckerberg at these hearings is a necessary precondition for the development of robust policy, an important moment in the reordering of political economy—power brought to bear against power.