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The Facebook Dilemma

Doing Good is no longer enough.

How do you know that what if what you're doing is good or not? We say we're doing good. Our institutions say they're doing good... but what are we really creating?

Using Facebook as the ultimate example, this article lets you check on whether your work will actually create the results you're committed to, or something else entirely!!

The Institution is Dead, Long-live the Institution

Finally, a new strategy is starting to cannibalise our institutions.

It's happening because they are so patently incapable of grappling effectively with the contemporary overlapping, multidimensional problem-set (think climate-change, run-away tech, global inequality, #metoo and the education of your child - all in one synaptic blink).

This new approach to 'doing good' has “come-in-from-the-shadows” where it was only available to institutional fringe-dwellers (the real forward thinkers). This is a great thing and can’t be lauded enough… AND, there’s still a critical piece that you can do to make sure it fulfils on its potential and doesn’t relapse into what I love calling the three deadly ‘C’s: the curse of Collaboration; Consultation Constipation, and Death by Focus Group (hah, got you… only 2 C’s!).

The Aggregator

We’ve been seeing this strategy develop at the margins of our institutions (in ngo’s and community groups) and in large-scale social media platforms (in which virtually unlimited multi-lateral communication is possible) for many years (in fact, this approach is embedded in the design of the internet itself). At the bleeding edges of institutional evolution there is a movement to address this with a new form of quasi-institution, I call it: The Aggregator (cue ‘Ominous Drum Roll’)[1].

Best represented in the Social Enterprise Movement, Social Impact Assessments, Collective Impact Initiatives and even the B-Corp movement but also increasingly recognisable (as an aspiration if nothing else) in our more traditional institutions, organisational aggregation is an attempt to bring together as-many-actors-as-possible in a given sector in the hope that, by leaping organisational and operational boundaries we can create solutions that also ignore organisational and operational boundaries (in global politics think the United Nations, the G8 and the European Union (in that order); in the environmental sector think the Green Building Council, the Forest Stewardship Council etc).

This insight is logical and the strategy essential if non-linear solutions are to be found to non-linear problems. I’ve personally led organisations with this kind of purview and as a futurist and trainer I’ve worked with literally hundreds of them. I love them! They are where the answers for tomorrow will be coming from. There is however one, desperately important fly in the ointment: what is the substantive future they are working towards?

Really, if you think about it, the answer to this question is not always obvious. We can often describe the issues these entities exist to solve, and we know it’s a better future they are committed to, but what does that mean? What are they mobilising us to create? Every human action creates and moves us collectively towards something. What that something is is a deeply critical question to start asking.

On the one hand, this is such an obvious statement it seems twee to even make it: “of course we’re creating something, we’re creating a better world”. However, as we know, the better world of a right-wing white supremacist or a smashed-avocado watermelon (green on the outside, socialist red on the inside) and every variation in between are quite different things.

The real reason it’s important to repose the question “what are you trying to create?” is because we expend so much time and effort arguing that we aren’t actually creating anything (we’re just facilitators for others to create stuff, makes you wonder who this invisible people are that are actually doing the creating!) Luckily (and finally), mass social-media is making this modern-furphy both stunningly clear and agonisingly acute. The recent data-breach issues with Facebook has ripped the band-aid off our collective attempts to argue that we can ever do anything, or create anything, that is values-free. The Facebook fracas is rubbing the last substantial veneer off the deep suspicion I suspect we’ve all been harbouring that There is no neutral, values-free space for others to communicate in (or collaborate in), and the attempt to claim a God-Like values-free position actually serves to entrench and replicate the very things we say we’re trying to end (oppressive hierarchies, controlling bureaucracies, mindless production/consumption and my personal bugbear, vapid optimism).

In fact, it’s likely that the more stridently you claim to be creating one (read: all of Silicon Valley, our global corporate culture en mass and often even our politicians, which is kinda weird) the more attached you are to a particular vision of the future[2]. So why does it look like they’re values-free? Well, they only look that way to the people because the values they’re based on are so obvious you don’t even see them. The vision of the future they are premised on is so clear it’s transparent and you look right through it.

In the Facebook context: the internal rallying cry in that enterprise has been (until now?): “Move fast and break things”. That’s a powerful positioning and mobilising statement (and the ultimate, and ultimately honest, crystallisation of our mid-twentieth century social, sexual and economic revolutions). The first-level questions is: “and what do you want to put in the space you’ve just created”, invariably answered with: “that’s not up me, I just create/manage the (values-free) platform” (something Mark Zuckerberg creatively rephrased maybe 100 times during his recent US Congressional Hearings)[3]. This is the wrong question. The deeper, more apposite and vastly more useful question (and the question that actually gives us a starting point for addressing the challenge that isn’t devolved into Mark’s core defence: “we’re in an IT Arms-Race and you need me…”) is: “what are you already putting in that space and is it what you are actually committed to?”

Values-free spaces don’t exist.

To put it bluntly, THE FUTURE THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS is profoundly based on what your values are, on what you value (and what you reject), whether you are conscious of those values or not. You see, the really big ‘unintended problems’ (climate-change, inequality and resource/life-force depletion covers it for now) and the really small consequences (small in the grand-scheme but intensely personal: career, relationships, ‘success’ etc.) always come from not creating/discovering the future you are actually working towards. Unfortunately, when you are not clear (for yourself and others) on the future you are creating, when you keep it at the level of broadly ‘good’ or tie it to fixing specific problems (which is past, not future-based), you’re actually being covert and tricking people into backing a project they may not actually support (including tricking yourself, hopefully, otherwise you’re just being an asshole)[4]. Everybody has values they would like to see replicated in the world (it’s like the sexual ‘replicate-my-genes’ game, only with Mnemes instead). When yours aren’t overt (and preferably captured and reflected in some-kind-of vision) people can’t choose what they are spending their desperately limited life-energy/hours working on and, as we’ll see in a minute with what I’m calling Facebook MkII (the version overtly committed to doing proactive rather than passive good), you paradoxically perpetuate the very issues you are trying to resolve.

The days where work, any work, represents a value in itself (if they ever existed) are over. Whether we like it or not we’re ALL active conspirators (the politically acceptable word is ‘or co-creators’) now. This means that, if you want your work-life to serve your values you’d better get clear on what they are and what you’re actually creating in the world or you’ll be feverishly working to fulfil on a future you may not actually like (what’s interesting is that, in this environment, getting clear on what you’re committed to creating is also the single most important determinant of your success in life, love and work… but again, a discussion for another time).

The ($40 billion) Bleeding Edge

An excellent example of both the potential and the great risk (if you don’t do the ‘deep’ thinking) of the aggregation strategy is the ChanZuckerberg Initiative (Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Patricia Chan, the CZI). This is the largest and most lavishly funded philanthropic institution in history (US$40 billion and counting). It has bene created with the express purpose of fix problems on a grand scale (e.g. end ALL disease in Patricia Chan’s daughters’ life-time). Like the good aggregator it is, the initiative is bringing together organisations from across sectors and across the world with the express purpose of helping them work together better and faster (mostly faster). It sounds like a kind-of Facebook MkII: create a platform (or rather platforms) that will allow knowledge and information to go zipping around the eco-system to facilitate the creation of solutions to issues pertaining to education, justice, medicine etc. The foundational motivating statement of the initiative is that it exists to help unleashing the full human potential. Now, how can you argue with THAT!

The problem is that though these outcomes are inspiring, they don’t actually tell us what kind-of future they are asking people to come onboard with. They would probably say that they’re creating a space for the solutions to arise, and unlike Facebook MkI they have more control over who speaks and what they say so that’ll avoid the problem of Neo-Nazis and Russians. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

You see, if you don’t be overt about the future you are creating, you be covert about it. Whether they’re conscious of it or not (and I’m pretty sure they’re not), by not consciously creating and declaring the future their initiative exists to see fulfilled, they are creating their default, and unconscious future by stealth. You can’t just accelerate. You have to be going somewhere! You always have a future in mind (even when you’re going at a normal pace). You are always creating something.

On the basis of deep-seated insights garnered from watching a couple of YouTube videos of this new global power couple, it seems to this arm-chair prognosticator that the future the CZI is creating is some version of the Ian M Banks’ Culture series of Sci Fi novels: technology has essentially eliminated human ailments and material concerns (including risk) leaving us free to play, unfettered by material constraints (including gender and shape) across the universe forever. These books were intended as a utopia, but even reading these sentences you can probably sense the dystopia impregnated in them: everyone was bored-out-of-their-minds, there was no growth and life ceased to have meaning.

Fixing pressing social, medical and material inequities is (and should be) a valuable goal if you have a spare $40 billion, but is that really the future you want? I ask because, as I’ve been arguing, it is the future you’re creating! I contend that, if pressed, this is probably not the future Mark and Patricia ChanZuckerberg are committed to. They want to fix the problems because they are good people (and, as Patricia puts it, they just got lucky); they don’t actually want to stultify the growth of human potential (which is the self-declared foundational goal of their initiative).

These are the problems we get into if the future we are creating is not consciously explored. In the case of the CZI, though it will work for a while getting more kids into better schools, curing diseases etc, in the end their higher-order goal is existentially incompatible with what they are actually doing.


Aargh… Get me though the mind field… give me an ANSWER!

Don’t think this applies only to people on incomes in the billions. It applies to your life and it applies to your job and it really applies to the institutional environment you work in.

If you want to maintain effectiveness, relevance and focus, you simply can’t engage with complex problems (and they are all complex problems now) without being willing to nail-you-colours-to-the-mast and declare something about the future you are committed to. Whatever their PD says, everyone you are working with has a vision of the future inside them that they are working towards. If they see something happening that doesn’t align with that vision, they will try to slow it down or stop it. If they feel that what is happening aligns with that internal compass, they will give everything they have to see it fulfilled. This applies to you too!

The more conscious you can get these visions, the more alignment, power and productivity you can accomplish and the more ‘non-linear’ your results will become (i.e. better outcomes with fewer resources). To do that you need to be transparent and give people a choice. There are two parts to this:

  1. Do they want to play with you because they are aligned with what you are creating?
  2. Do they know what they are actually committed to (something I contend Mark and Patricia are still figuring out)?

If you really want to engage effectively with complex-problems, you need to do this work and help others do it too.

So, let’s get personal. What is the future you are creating? Is it overt or covert, conscious or unconscious? What are you asking people to come onboard with? Have you really giving them the opportunity to choose? Is it a future that inspires you, terrifies you (which can be the same thing) or leaves you indifferent or numb?

Sound like big questions? Well, they are, and they can also be so easy to answer you will wonder why you didn’t spend the time it takes to drink a coffee doing it years ago (could have saved a whole bunch of angst if nothing else).

It might only take 5 minutes (if you are a deeply conscious, generous and courageous human being). It might take a whole internal voyage. I don’t know…. YOU probably don’t know. Why not start?

How? Just write! Write on the napkin next to you or the margins of the report you reading or a computer if you must. Just write anything about it and keep going until it makes sense. It’s like journaling. It’s a look inside, but the power it unleashes in teams and in the ability to create real and lasting results is disproportionate to the effort.

This little ‘hack’ could be one of the most profound pieces of work you do all year (more on it in future articles)! The future you live for will shift as you get conscious of what it really is (and what it’s not). More importantly, YOU will shift as you create it so that you quite literally become the kind of person who would see that future come to fulfilment.

It’s a pretty nifty feedback loop you can harness not only for your own life, but for the ‘life’ and purpose of your team, unit, department, company, organisation etc. and etc. up-to-and-including the future of consciousness on this little blue jewel we live on. This is the ‘magic bullet’ that tethers ‘culture’, corporate ‘values’ and strategies to something real. This is the first step we consistently ignore: where are you (we) actually trying to get to?

From there all the rest follows. Without that thinking, all the rest is… well, let’s be polite and just say “incomplete”.

You are awesome. You are on the cutting-edge of what it means to be a human-being. Keep hijacking those institutions for the global good.

Stay in-touch (get in-touch?)!

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[1] This is a catch-all phrase based on what these groups actually do. Other, more distinguished and specific terms are included in the next paragraph.

[2] Given we’re talking Facebook and social media, Free Speech is an excellent example to play with. In politics the veil between the espousal of universal values and the reality of particularistic values is at its thinnest and most of us can all see through it. It’s obvious that the most vocal advocates for Free Speech in the political realm (including politicians on both the Left and the Right) have a very clear vision of the future they would prefer and they are using Free Speech as a tool to protect/promote that vision. The fig-leaf is more obvious in politics than it is in business, but it’s the same leaf: they are attempting to hide their values-laden vision behind the contention they are just defending a free space for others to create/implement their own versions of the future. I contend some of them know they are doing this (especially on the Right), but many are quite sincere.

[3] It’s probably quite disconcerting for Mark Zuckerberg to be pressed by US Senators and Congressmen/women to impose his personal values-framework onto discussions in Facebook. If it occurs weird to me it must be doubly so for him, but where else are we to go? This highlights the fact that there are already values embedded in social media, not the least of which is ‘free-speech’. The really interesting question is what happens when he completes the progressive sale of his shares he has undertake and the company becomes a truly, disaggregated corporate entity? It will presumably continue (with substantial help from bots and AI) to bureaucratically (and inanely) press a set of values onto public discussions (and into people’s minds). If the distribution of material wealth was captured by corporations at the end of the Industrial Revolution, does that mean that values creation and dissemination will be captured by the same bureaucratic institutions at the end of the information age? Yikes! My wife tells me I must expand on this in another article, so I suppose I must 😊

[4] We all talk about corporate culture and the profound influence the ceo/leader has on it, just by being who they are. I would direct your attention to the contemporary head of the US (or closer-to-home, the Prime Minister of New Zealand) or the current head of the Catholic Church. These people are creating ‘values-full’ communication spaces and what shows up in them is fascinating, and qualitatively very different.