Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Schmuck of the Year
Inevitably, the arrival of a new year ushers in a cover story for the winner of Time magazine's "Person of the Year." This year it is Mark Zuckerberg, the nerdy lad who invented Facebook while he was still a student at Harvard. Now, at age 26, he has become a multi-billionaire presiding over an online empire that currently boasts some 550 million members, 70% of whom live outside the U.S. This means that one out of every dozen people on the planet is a Facebook user. Personal disclosure: nearly half of all Americans have a Facebook account, but I am not among them. (I couldn't even stay the course when seeing "The Social Network.")
By wiring together one twelfth of humanity into a single network--a social entity, according to Time, almost twice as large as the U.S. itself--Mark Zuckerberg has earned the distinction of having changed the way human beings relate to one another on a species-wide scale; we have entered the Facebook age, and Zuckerberg is the one who brought us here. In his profile on Zuckerberg, Lev Grossman presents a likeable-enough guy, someone who doesn't publicly preen or reveal much about himself. He may be a billionaire, but he's not particularly into material things. He drives what Grossman calls "the automotive equivalent of a hair shirt," ie, a black Acura TSX, and he's already pledged to give away at least half of his wealth over the course of his lifetime to the campaign organized by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
"The thing that I really care about, Zuckerberg states, "is making the world more open and connected." Facebook encourages revealing your true self, not some anonymous, invented, or disguised virtual double. When you log on to Facebook, it is to meet up with your friends: a world of people voluntarily sharing things, staying in touch, having a voice in the world. All things considered, the enterprise is pretty benign in its intention. The idea of VOLUNTARY sharing is key.
Which is possibly why Time named Zuckerberg "Person of the Year" instead of Julian Assange, the orchestrator of WikiLeaks--even though Assange was the actual front winner in their online poll. Time describes Zuckerberg and Assange as two sides of the same coin, in that both of them express a desire for openness and transparency. As far as I am concerned, the similarities end there. Assange's transparency is totally involuntary, with the goal of incriminating and disempowering big institutions and governments. In his own words, Assange is fomenting "a world-wide movement of mass leaking"--dumping secret documents into the public domain on a scale without precedent--with the intention of bringing about (again in his own words) "total annihilation of the current U.S. regime."
Friends (which includes many of mine) and supporters of Julian Assange refer to him as "a breath of fresh air," someone who is performing an act of great public service. They like seeing government and corporations take a hit, and consider these transcriptions of tapes to be like sacred oracles, giving everyone access to the truth at last. Big exhale. The truth at last! Yeah, but... what they have failed to fathom, in my humble opinion, is that in reality Julian Assange is a malevolent wizard who, much like the sorcerer's apprentice, has built a machine that no one knows how to stop--and loosed it on the world. "If something happens to us," he has baldly declared, "the key parts will be released automatically." This year's breach of containment spilled nearly half a million documents that included classified military documents from Afghanistan and Iran, and a stream of diplomatic cables. The idea of a secure secret is over. Tech-savvy insurgents have unleashed an anonymous, ruthless monster that is seemingly resistant to attack. It could be the beginning of many missteps from which it turns out, we cannot recover.
Where Zuckerberg's world is filled with "potential friends," according to Time, Assange's is filled with "real and imagined enemies." Given that Assange's operative concept consists of anarchy, I personally applaud Time's decision to go with Zuckerberg instead. What is more, for his blood-curdling vein of hostility and nihilism, I relish the chance to designate Julian Assange as my personal "Schmuck of the Year."
This is NOT meant to be construed in any way as an implicit defense, or feigned ignorance, of the multiple war crimes and deceits perpetrated by the U.S. government around the globe over decades. When former Secretary of State Colin Powell made his trumped-up yellow-cake case for going to war in Iraq, I already knew, without WikiLeaks, that it was all lies. Because I happen to think that Julian Assange is a cyber-terrorist creep does not mean I am in support of U.S. foreign policy and its imperial wars. I am not. Nor do I mean to imply that Assange is the only deserving candidate out there for the title of Schmuck of the Year that I have bestowed on him. (Pace Michael Moore, who contributed to Assange's bail and defends him vigorously. I still love you.)