View From Somewhere

Thoughts on science, philosophy, pop culture, and religion.

Life and its Limits

1200 words—THE TREE OF LIFE is vast and ancient; its branches stretch far and its roots reach deep into the black soils and muddy waters of prehistory. But what is life? Investigation into the line of division between life and what comes before, what follows, and what never lived nor ever will has always required guesswork and comfort with ambiguity.

Among the thinkers of the past, Aristotle argued that all things have certain properties, like shape and color, and living things were alive by virtue of having an additional property—a soul—animating the material form. In this view, life is not simply a property that emerges from certain material configurations, or else there would be little to distinguish a living body from a dead one. As scientific fields like biology and chemistry developed and the liminal space between life and death became better understood, definitions like Aristotle’s grew largely irrelevant, though various theories relating to vitalism—most broadly defined as a belief that living things are animated through some kind of non-material life force or are governed by a different set of principles than non-living things—remained popular among some scientists into the nineteenth century and continue to influence proponents of alternative medicine today. The definitions of life offered by Aristotle or various vitalist theories do little to reveal the ambiguous boundaries between living and non-living, however.  

Contemporary definitions of life, although better informed by scientific experience, also have their own struggles finding the terminus between the living and the inanimate. An uncontroversial categorization of life today will include anything that grows in an organized fashion, reproduces itself, and evolves through natural selection: In a biological sense, living things respond to their environment and adapt accordingly (they learn, in other words) and grow and maintain themselves by taking in chemicals from their environment, this growth governed by a set of instructions written into them on a genetic level and passed on to the next generation through reproduction. Examples abound of natural phenomena that meet some but not all of these criteria, however, and at least some parts of this definition are circular—life is that which has a genetic code because only things with a genetic code are alive—and therefore still somewhat arbitrary. Can we not imagine forms of life whose sets of instructions are written in a different medium but still organize themselves, adapt to their environment, and reproduce?

Crystalline structures, for example, exhibit at least some of these properties, growing into complex shapes according to a set microscopic structure determined by their constituent atoms. Scientists have even begun to grow synthetic crystals that in some cases move, break apart, and reform when exposed to light and certain chemicals, and in other cases display an ability to “learn” and “forget” (in a basic sense, at least) by changing their electrical resistance depending on their environment and then progressively becoming habituated to the change or losing this resistance if the environment changes again. Though it may stretch the definition beyond usefulness to include crystals among the ranks of the living, clearly many of the qualities we have identified so far are not unique to things that are uncontroversially alive.

A more abstract definition sees living things as agents that reduce entropy in a system. Entropy, in the simplest sense, describes the tendency of a system of energy to move towards a disordered state, meaning that the energy will be distributed evenly throughout the system. Central to understanding entropy is the idea of irreversibility. Time is a river flowing in one direction; according to the second law of thermodynamics, the level of disorder in a closed system will tend to increase irreversibly over time. An ice cube in a glass of water will eventually melt, the temperature of the water becoming consistent throughout; without changing the system further, we would never expect the cube of ice to reform, for the system to move back towards a more orderly and complex state.

Life’s river seems to flow upstream, however. Whereas the rest of the physical world inclines towards disorder, living things tend to consolidate energy from their environment into well-ordered systems, both on a micro scale through the growth of each individual living thing and on a macro scale through an evolutionary process that has tended to produce increasingly complex organisms over time. If living and non-living things are made up of the same matter, what allows living things to seemingly break the rules that govern the rest of the universe?

Here, again, irreversibility may play a role. In the late twentieth century, a chemist named Gavin Crooks showed that certain groups of atoms could take an external input of energy and transform, and if the energy was dissipated after the transformation, the change could be irreversible. Depending on the energy source, some groups of atoms would be more likely to change irreversibly than others, a process that could compound over time. Jeremy England, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coined the term “dissipative adaptation” to refer to this phenomenon, writing,

While any given change in shape for the system is mostly random, the most durable and irreversible of these shifts in configuration occur when the system happens to be momentarily better at absorbing and dissipating work. With the passage of time, the “memory” of these less erasable changes accumulates preferentially, and the system increasingly adopts shapes that resemble those in its history where dissipation occurred. Looking backward at the likely history of a product of this non-equilibrium process, the structure will appear to us like it has self-organized into a state that is “well adapted” to the environmental conditions.

Those arrangements of matter that most effectively gather and dissipate energy become even better at it over time—and self-replicating systems are excellent ways to gather and dissipate energy. According to England, the idea of natural selection in biology is simply an instantiation of the broader principle of dissipative adaptation in physics.

Life, in this sense, is a system that stores and reproduces information. The ability of living things to respond and adapt to their environments makes the information stored within them more resilient, and the process of evolution through natural selection and reproduction updates and duplicates this information. Viewed from this perspective, we can see how the paradigm of life that currently pervades earth—information stored as genetic code in DNA—could be just one possibility among many.

However, a definition of life this abstract casts a net wide enough to snare some unwanted catch, namely “artificial” life. A computer program simulate life by being written with a set of instructions that allows it to respond to outside inputs and adapt, change its base code, grow in complexity, and produce iterative copies of itself over time. Certainly, though we may not condone this as life proper, artificial life rests firmly within the framework of life even defined in a strictly biological sense—a translation of the base code from guanine and adenine to zeroes and ones. Perhaps precisely because it is an artifice, a conscious attempt to reproduce the patterns and properties we see in nature, we intuitively recoil at the thought of rewriting the tree of life to include the digital alongside the biological.

Perhaps life is not a binary switch; perhaps there is no vital spark that inhabits the living and is absent from the still. In this understanding, the quality of being alive is a mental concept we overlay onto a reality that admits no true division but exists as one continuity.

Sources and further reading:

  1. Why Nothing is Truly Alive”, Ferris Jabr. The New York Times.  
  2. Life”, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. Entropy and Life”, Wikipedia.
  4. How Do You Say ‘Life’ in Physics?”, Allison Eck. Nautilus Magazine.
  5. It’s (Almost) Alive! Scientists Create a Near-Living Crystal”, Brandon Keim. Wired Magazine.
  6. The March of the Strandbeests”, Ian Frazier. The New Yorker.



America’s Hero’s Quest: Superheroes and the War on Terror

3400 words—WHEN robotic bad-guy Ultron introduces himself to the Avengers in the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, he tells them, “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. There’s only one path to peace: your extinction.” Like most villains in these kinds of movies, Ultron is a visionary who will go to extremes to remake the world as he sees fit. His final plan is to kill all biological life on earth by lifting up a city and the ground beneath it on giant rockets, then crashing it down meteor-like, leaving only Ultron and his robotic copies left standing. Fortunately for all life on earth, the Avengers come together despite their differences and defeat Ultron before he carries out his wicked schemes.

The same pattern of conflict and violent resolution between superhuman opponents abounds in nearly every fantasy, science fiction, and comic book movie these days. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, the most powerful and evil wizard of his time, seeks to dominate or kill anyone who is not a pure-blooded wizard. In The Hunger Games, a totalitarian government and wealthy elite class rule over the oppressed masses, enforcing their subjugation by selecting individuals from around the country and forcing them to fight to the death on television. In the Terminator franchise, humans develop an artificial intelligence, “SkyNet”, that takes control of the military’s infrastructure and destroys the world in a nuclear holocaust, leaving a few survivors to battle skeletal machines in a nightmarish world of concrete and irradiated bones. In Star Wars, the ragtag Rebel Alliance fights the overwhelmingly larger and more organized Galactic Empire, led by the evil Emperor Palpatine and his dark enforcer, Darth Vader. Almost without exception, the denouement of each story sees the hero violently clash with, and ultimately vanquish, the villain, thus restoring balance to the city/world/galaxy.

We’re all familiar with at least some of these movies, and though they wear different costumes, we recognize the heroes and villains in each as instances of the same archetypes, acting out the same broad themes of good versus evil. We find dastardly, plotting bad guys who seek to destroy or radically transform the world, and good guys who, though they really just want to go home and live a happy, peaceful, normal life, end up saving the day through sudden and decisive acts of bravery and tremendous violence. The stories share a quality of escapism and simplified conflict resolution that is necessary when there are only a few hours to introduce characters, put them in peril, and then conclude the action. Few of us would argue that problems play out so neatly in reality. It is troubling, then, how the way we view the American military and fight our battles in the age of the “War On Terror” is increasingly coming to resemble a summer blockbuster in both its myopic objectives and the near guarantee of sequels to come.

The story we see in these films is an old one, hewing closely to the pattern that Joseph Campbell, a mid-twentieth century writer and scholar of mythology and world religions, lays out in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. George Lucas himself admits the influence of Campbell’s work on Star Wars. In that book, Campbell defines the “monomyth”, the classic template of the hero’s journey that he argues has been around just about as long as people have told stories: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” From that format comes the farm boy who becomes a Jedi, the humble hobbits who return as conquering heroes, the mild-mannered student or meek scientist who is transformed into a mighty superhero.

Although the story is much the same each time, there are two different backgrounds against which the story unfolds. The first category is made up of those stories that take place in a reality roughly resembling ours, while the second comprises stories happening in a time other than now or a place far from here (sometimes both). For example, most superhero movies and arguably the Harry Potter franchise fall into the first group, while Star Wars, The Hunger Games, and the Terminator films fall into the second. Interestingly, the roles that the heroes and villains play are consistently opposite to each other in the two categories. In the first category, the heroes defend the way things are, while the villains act as usurpers. In the second, the heroes are almost invariably rebels fighting against an oppressive ruler who had already won and upset the balance sometime in the past.

By so neatly having the heroes and villains switch roles depending on whether the story is set in the now or somewhere (or when) different, films all implicitly argue that the world we have now is a good one and we should fight to keep things the same rather than look for too much change or dream of a better future. The world may seem imperfect, but it is the best of all possible ones—and the present-day, “good” world in these stories could be said to generally hew to Western liberal values (let’s generalize and say those typically include that democracy is the best form of government, individual freedoms should be maximized, and reality can be understood through a framework of scientific materialism, but there’s still a little space for some light spirituality or mysticism, so long as it doesn’t contradict any of the aforementioned ideas).

That we accept the necessity of our heroes’ actions, which would be morally indefensible in most other circumstances, rests on this foundation, because the second quality these movies all share is that the heroes succeed on their strength and will to commit terrific acts of violence in order to dispense justice. In the final battle of Man of Steel, Superman and his Kryptonian foe General Zod fight across the city of Metropolis, punching and kicking and heat-ray-blasting their way through countless buildings, before Superman is finally compelled to break Zod’s neck to stop him from roasting a few innocent bystanders with his laser-beam glare. Superman cries out in grief at having to take a life, and he is comforted by his love, Lois Lane—and we viewers are meant to be convinced by Superman’s remorse and Lane’s comforting that although murder is a terrible thing, this one was justified to stop more deaths, conveniently ignoring the hundreds or thousands of other civilians who probably died off screen in the skyscrapers that Superman and Zod destroyed five minutes before. Similar acts of destruction on a city-wide scale take place in most other superhero movies.

The threat of villainy is so great in many of these films that the heroes must go beyond the purview of whatever official law enforcement exists in that world, whose abilities and resources are usually too mundane and impotent to take on these otherworldly threats. Try as they might, the police and military in many movies simply can’t keep up, and so the heroes must go beyond the limits of law and conventional morality to save the day, often committing acts that are grossly immoral if we stop and think about them for one moment, but appear heroic because the soundtrack is uplifting and their actions resolve the plot, and, most simply, because they are the protagonists, and good guys do good things, right? In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for example, the protagonists cannot be called anything other than terrorists as they blow up the research facility of a computer corporation and maim numerous police officers in their efforts to stop a machine that hasn’t even been invented yet.

Star Wars provides many great examples of dissonance: The protagonists commit so many egregious acts of violence in the original trilogy alone that it’s hard to see why anybody would like the Jedi in the first place. In an early scene in A New Hope, Luke and Obi-Wan go to a bar, where Luke is confronted by another patron, who I’m pretty sure goes unnamed in the movie, but apparently is called “Dr. Evazan” in the script. Let’s look at the encounter between the two heroes and this bar patron:

Dr. Evazan: He doesn’t like you.

Luke Skywalker: Sorry.

Dr. Evazan: I don’t like you either! You just watch yourself! We’re wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems.

Luke Skywalker: I’ll be careful.

Dr. Evazan: You’ll be dead!

Obi-Wan Kenobi: This little one’s not worth the effort. Now let me get you something.

The patron then pushes Luke and makes a move at Obi-Wan, who responds by immediately pulling out his lightsaber and cutting off the man’s entire arm before looking calmly around the room as though to say, “step up, I’ll kill you all,” and sheathing his lightsaber. Certainly this is a seedy bar in a rough part of town, but Obi-Wan is a Jedi, who we’re told time and again are paragons of peace and justice throughout the galaxy and are gifted with superhuman strength and other abilities that help them achieve these ends. Dismembering a stranger at the slightest provocation clashes badly with these values, unless we believe that the actions done by a good guy are good simply by virtue of their having been done by the good guy.

Later in the movie, Luke and the Rebels destroy the Death Star, saving the battered Rebel Alliance from annihilation and freeing the galaxy from the threat of a weapon so powerful it can destroy whole planets—and killing the millions of Imperial soldiers and personnel stationed on board in the process. Were they all evil? Or were some just doing their jobs, perhaps conscripted against their will? Such ambiguities are not important in a movie like this.

Examples like these are common in these films, and they teach us that those who would do violence to us deserve to be punished in like terms, that killing and destroying them will end the cycle of violence rather than perpetuating it. Perhaps these movies are so popular because they are pure escapism, because we can easily tell who’s who and we know from the start that good will prevail, because the real world is vast and exhausting, meaning is hard to come by, good and evil seem obfuscated by countless shades of gray, and victories seem hollow or too hard won to give us solace. We know these movies are not truth but reality simplified, a wish fulfillment where strong characters do what we can only dream of doing. Things would be simpler, after all, if evil-doers would simply stand up and identify themselves, distinguish themselves as figures whose values diametrically oppose ours now and forever, with no chance of reconciliation, and we could just punch, crush, explode, or shoot them into oblivion. At the end, we’re told that the heroes live happily ever after, and as the credits roll and the lights go up, the illusion is broken and we go back to reality. It is nice to play make-believe sometimes, imagine that our problems could be so easily solved, but almost nobody thinks that this is really true. Right?

On 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush gave his “War On Terror” speech to a joint session of Congress, shaping US foreign policy for the twenty-first century. “Who attacked our country?” Bush said. “Al-Qaeda.” A group whose goal is “remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere. …These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life. …They stand against us because we stand in their way.”

He went on, “every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” In the penultimate scene of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan confronts Anakin Skywalker, who we the viewers know has already turned to the Dark Side. “You’re either with me, or you’re my enemy,” Anakin says. “Only a Sith speaks in absolutes,” Obi-Wan responds. (This, of course, is itself an absolute statement.)

In his speech, Bush said, “Now, this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion. …Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” This is presented as a battle of ideologies, with the rise of extremist groups like ISIS representing a threat to our very civilization, an assault on our culture. But we wage war against corporeal targets first. Our bullets and bombs shatter bones and tear flesh, and we seek out individuals to punish. We show our cultural dominance through overwhelming force and precision drone strikes. Their effects on such intangibles as culture, religion, belief is less easy to discern, but we must believe that they nevertheless do have one.

The way the United States has gone to war recently, with an increased focus on special operations involving smaller groups of soldiers and precision strikes, seems to focus almost entirely on the enemy as a physical manifestation that must be fought on physical terms, no matter how much rhetoric we hear about a cultural war between the West and Islam. In 1980, the United States created the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an organization meant to track and kill terrorists worldwide. This article from The Atlantic gives great insight into the JSOC’s history, purpose, and methodology. Much of the military’s philosophizing about how to defeat terrorist organizations around the world following 9/11 was concerned with, as one officer noted, “cutting the head off the snake”, destroying a terrorist network by eliminating its leadership, and JSOC now excels in manhunts—SEAL Team Six, the men who killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, comprises the U.S. Navy component of JSOC, and bin Laden is only the most infamous of the targets JSOC has killed.

We can see many parallels between this kind of action and the action that unfolds in heroic narratives. A small group of highly-trained, physically mighty fighters, who stand up for truth, justice, and the American way, confront and destroy individual villains who seek to radically transform the world. Battles ignore traditional lines of division, like country lines or rules of combat that protect civilians, and traditional institutions seem ineffectual to protect us against this great evil. Increasingly wondrous technologies are employed, proving our intellectual and material superiority, but such weapons are also desperately needed against an unconscionable foe willing to unleash horrors against innocent populations if given the chance. Bold, decisive, and murderous action is rewarded.

The perceived neatness and efficiency of this kind of combat instead of widescale war holds great appeal as a new, less destructive form of warfare, but despite many successful missions, the persistence of terrorism in the Middle East and its effluence into the Western world has proven that, as stated in the article, “the so-called decapitation approach to counterterrorism was no silver bullet”. That the good guys have dragged dictators like Muammar Ghaddafi and Saddam Hussein out of their dens, that we tracked down and killed men like Osama bin Laden and “Jihadi John”, is not lamentable, but it is insufficient. The rotten ideologies of terrorists and other baddies do not live and die by the breath in their lungs, but get passed on to others who see us as oppressors with every intent of doing violence to them as we have already done to their families and friends.

This is not to forgive terrorists and extremists or say they are undeserving of their fates, but merely to humanize them. Humans can be sinful, reprehensible, wrong, ignorant, and misguided, but they are still human, and to cast them as the other is to deny them their humanity and make it easier to ignore the beliefs that motivate them. In our movies, the villains are often defined by their otherness through the hideous forms they are given: they are the alien invaders of The Avengers, who speak in subhuman snarls; the twisted cyborg Darth Vader, whose severed limbs and coffin-like suit make him less than a whole man; the mutated and scarred forms of Emperor Palpatine or Voldemort; or robots, non-human impersonators, like Ultron or the Terminator.

Their twisted otherness signals to us that they are the manifestation of the evil they spread, both its cause and terminus. It bloats and distorts them, taking away any humanity they may have once had. It is through the destruction of their bodies, then, that the world will be freed of their blight. Evil is not argued or reconciled with, nor is it absolved through diplomacy or consultation. It is smashed, stabbed, shot, bombed, and obliterated. The good guys, on the other hand, are specimens of physical perfection. Think of the sculpted bodies of Captain America, Superman, Batman, Wolverine, the unimaginable wealth and intelligence of Iron Man, Batman, Doctor Strange, their tenacity, discipline, and moral virtue, which most often manifests as a willingness to do what others won’t, to trust their own consciences instead of relying on the guidance of institutions.

Evil takes a form that is easy to identify and therefore rout. In the final movie of the Hunger Games series, the hero, Katniss Everdeen, says “We all have one enemy, and that’s President Snow. He corrupts everyone and everything. He turns the best of us against each other. Stop killing for him! Tonight, turn your weapons to the Capitol. Turn your weapons to Snow!” After the Emperor’s death at the end of Return of the Jedi, we see scenes of celebration from around the galaxy, as though the death of one man instantly freed a myriad of planets from the shackles of oppression, as though the Emperor personally enforced their subjugation each and every one. Evil displayed this way makes it impossible to fathom that our enemies might want the same things as us, like peace, love, and stable communities, and yet disagree about the best way to achieve them.

In short, these narratives tell us that life is good, and whatever social problems we might have are a small price to pay, because any conceivable alternative that does not align with our values would be immeasurably worse. There is some flexibility in our society—after all, we value individual freedoms above all else—but people who think truly differently from us represent an existential threat that must be not understood, but eradicated.

Evil is a useful concept because those we call evil deserve no further attempt at understanding or reconciliation. They are the other, they threaten our way of life, and not only are we free to destroy them but in fact are morally obligated to do so. So long as we continue to settle for the label of ‘evil’ and seek no further understanding, there will always spring up a new foe to be labelled as such, just as we can rest confidently at the end of every film knowing that however totally the villain was destroyed, another will rise to take his place. In his 20 September speech, President Bush said, “…Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” The war will not end until each and every foe is defeated.

This is war as Zeno’s Paradox. Each defeated foe, each successful manhunt or precision bombing, brings us halfway to victory, only to have another group spring up in their place. The target keeps moving back. Violence undoes, divides, destroys, in a primal manner that supersedes ideologies and is indifferent to country lines, ethnicities, religions, or cultures. Violence begets violence.

At the end of each film, evil is, if not routed outright, at least banished back to its shadowy haunts for a while. We leave the theater unambiguous about the world’s fate. Soon, we will return to watch it all play out again. Our movies mirror this truth: no matter what costumes our heroes and villains wear as they seek to destroy each other, they will always return to the screen next summer.

For more reading on this topic, I recommend the essay “The Tragedy of the American Military” by James Fallows. His thesis is essentially that the American people have become so distanced from the realities of the military that it has become almost an object of fantasy rather than composed of real people, with all their flaws and susceptibilities. He calls the United States a “Chickenhawk nation”, meaning the American people are “willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously”. In the story, he notes that our military is considered “the finest fighting force in the world”, and politicians and the press talk about it with “overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money”.

Like any good team of superheroes, it has the best weapons and technology, the most rigorous training, the deepest treasure chest—and, of course, the moral high ground. A retired admiral quoted in the story says that the military is professional and capable, but he “would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.”

Our culture, with its pervasive use of violence as entertainment in its movies, shows, and video games, glamorizes this narrative. The article also provides a good description of how the modern military-industrial complex unfolds, particularly the way in which politicians are heavily inclined to support the military because of the money that the research and production of new military technology brings to state economies.

EDIT 10 March: Here is another good article on this theme, written by a bomb disposal technician who has done tours in Iraq. He writes that “our country has created a self-selected and battle-hardened cohort of frequent fliers, one that is almost entirely separate from mainstream civilian culture”, and refers to the conflict in the Middle East as the “Forever War”, the longest conflict in American history, and one with no end in sight.

The Widening Gyre: Building Community in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

2400 words—FACEBOOK founder Mark Zuckerberg recently published an open letter titled “Building Global Community”, where he asks, “Are we building the world we all want?” In the letter, Zuckerberg gives a hopeful vision of history, calling it the story of how people have learned how to come together in “ever greater numbers”. Zuckerberg notes that we have reached a significant milestone in history where we must come together as a global community, because the opportunities and threats that face us occur on a global scale.

I believe the solutions that he offers—namely, using artificial intelligence to improve Facebook as a communication service that builds community—will make its users into not better citizens, but better consumers. Further, I believe that his trust in AI as the solution reveals an underlying assumption that the problems we are faced with as a society are not structural ones, but essentially matters of efficiency: to make the world a better place, we don’t need to change the way we do things now so much as simply do them better. This veneration of technology as a panacea (Build more efficient cars and faster trains! Drink Soylent instead of wasting time with real food! Earth is dying? Let’s start over on Mars!) is part of the problem, not the solution, because it envisions humans as merely material beings, ignoring the moral and spiritual principles that are essential to the healthy functioning of any community.

Building Communities

Communities, Zuckerberg says,

provide all of us with a sense of purpose and hope; moral validation that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves; comfort that we are not alone and a community is looking out for us; mentorship, guidance and personal development; a safety net; values, cultural norms and accountability; social gatherings, rituals and a way to meet new people; and a way to pass time.

But the old models of community seem to be failing. Zuckerberg mentions a pastor who told him, “People feel unsettled. A lot of what was settling in the past doesn’t exist anymore.” The physical infrastructure of communities has been declining, with fewer and fewer people engaging meaningfully in traditional institutions like religion and the democratic process. Further, “today’s threats are increasingly global,” he says, “but the infrastructure to protect us is not.”

It is not until about a third of the way into the letter that Zuckerberg presents artificial intelligence as a solution. AI “can help provide a better approach”, he says, explaining that “right now [Facebook is] starting to explore ways to use AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda so we can quickly remove anyone trying to use our service to recruit for a terrorist organization.” After that, he only mentions AI a few more times: first, stating that the discussion around AI in the tech community “has been oversimplified to existential fear-mongering” (a subtle push for normalizing more widespread use of AI); second, saying that the best way to create effective community content standards on Facebook is “to combine creating a large-scale democratic process to determine standards with AI to help enforce them”; and third, noting that “major advances in AI are required to understand text, photos and videos to judge whether they contain hate speech, graphic violence, sexually explicit content, and more”.

Although those are the only times he mentions AI in the whole letter, and it may seem that I am overemphasizing things when I say that he offers it as the “primary” solution, every example he provides of how Facebook can encourage its users to build more effective and just communities ultimately relies on AI to filter and prioritize content in order to present “better” content to users.

This is a troubling solution, particularly within the context of this letter’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” tone, because it will take away any moral calculus from the decision-making process of what content is promoted and what is removed and replace it with decision-making based on profitability. Further, there are some questionable underlying assumptions about ethics and civic engagement that lead to a solution like this seeming reasonable—namely, that we can determine what is good and what is bad solely by collecting and analyzing data, and therefore the contemporary failure of communities is simply because we haven’t yet gathered enough data to optimize their functioning.

Facebook is a Company, Not a Community

Like any company, Facebook’s purpose is to generate wealth. Whatever particular services it provides are ultimately only a vehicle towards this goal. Therefore, any change that Facebook makes to its service will be oriented towards making it more robust, more desirable, and more profitable.

I do not mean to suggest that Facebook as an organization or Mark Zuckerberg himself have malicious intent—certainly, providing a genuinely meaningful service that improves communities, and being profitable, are not goals that are inherently in opposition to each other. But any moral compass that Facebook might rely on to guide their decisions will always be secondary to their bottom line. The success of any system of artificial intelligence that Facebook employs will therefore first be measured by whether its use increases or decreases user engagement before any considerations of building a “better” community, in a moral sense, are considered.

There’s a saying: If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. This idea is particularly worth keeping in mind when talking about Facebook, a service that describes itself as “free and always will be”, has around 1.86 billion active users, and generated over $10 billion in profit in 2016. Again, I want to emphasize that I do not believe this necessarily means that Facebook is tricking us or acting against our best interests by treating us as products—it simply means that their main goal will be to make their service as desirable as possible so that we use it more in order to become exposed to more advertising, the primary way that Facebook generates revenue.

I want to turn now to a story published in The New York Times Magazine all the way back in 2012 that explores how companies like Target increasingly rely upon algorithms and statistics to increase brand loyalty. This story might help us better understand why Facebook might want us to both view it as an essential service—a part of the “social infrastructure”, as Zuckerberg calls it—for the functioning of modern communities and also feel less apprehensive about its use of AI. Even now, the article reads like science-fiction, with companies surreptitiously gathering enough information on their customers that they are able to predict personal events, like pregnancies, before even other family members are aware, and then using that information to manipulate buying habits. And this was five years ago, before any meaningful AI programs were in use. As Zuckerberg notes, at the start of his letter, about the progress of technology, “We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years.”

For now, let me just quote extensively from the story:

For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. …

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. …

Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. …

There is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subconscious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.

Much of the article focuses on the work of a mathematician who was hired by Target to “analyze all the cue-routine-reward loops among shoppers and help the company figure out how to exploit them”. One of his most effective efforts was to assign female shoppers a “pregnancy score”, which determined how likely it was that they were having a baby soon based on their buying habits in order to more effectively market certain products to them. It had been found that major life events, particularly the birth of a child, marked a point when an individual’s brand loyalties—which in general are extremely difficult to change—were weakened.

But the company soon realized that such an invasion of personal space as predicting a woman’s pregnancy without her sharing that information could be a public-relations disaster. As noted in the story, “how could they get their advertisements into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them? How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying their lives?”

What this story makes painfully clear is that many of our decisions, from what necessities we buy, what art and media we consume, to what spaces (both physical and digital) we choose to spend time in, are greatly determined by subconscious habits and subtle cue-routine-reward loops that are sometimes extremely difficult to identify and change. Companies do not want just one-time shoppers, but habitual, lifetime users.

Artificial Values

Target was able to achieve their goals quite effectively by analyzing the shopping habits of their customers. What, then, can be accomplished by an organization like Facebook, which has information on not only our shopping habits, but our personal lives, our political views, what our favorite books and shows and bands are, who we love and who we hate, our hopes and dreams and most banal desires? What can be accomplished by an organization that seeks to analyze this information, not with people, but with artificial minds a thousand times more efficient, tireless, and lacking any hesitation or compunction? What sort of community will be built when these decisions are being made by a machine designed to maximize a user’s experience?

When we walk into a grocery store and buy Coke instead of Pepsi, we may believe that we have made this choice purely by free will in that moment—perhaps we simply like Coke better than Pepsi. But countless advertisements have influenced even that inconsequential preference. What will happen as decisions that actually matter—like what policies we should implement and actions we should take to protect the environment, educate our children, or eliminate racism—become increasingly influenced by advertising?

Zuckerberg states in his letter that “it is our responsibility to amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad — to continue increasing diversity while strengthening our common understanding so our community can create the greatest positive impact on the world.” He goes on to say, “In a free society, it’s important that people have the power to share their opinion, even if others think they’re wrong. Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item’s accuracy”.

In short, people will see more of what they want to see, and less of what they don’t. The artificial intelligence that Facebook uses to determine this will judge based on user feedback and engagement—the more people like what they see on Facebook and continue to use it, the more prominent that kind of content will be.

Many people believed that the widespread adoption of the internet heralded a great democratization of the world. Created with the most cynical of purposes during the Cold War—it was meant to be a hardened network that would allow the military leadership of the United States to continue to communicate in the event of massive nuclear destruction—the internet has the potential to be the great equalizer of knowledge: no one person or group controls it, and everyone is free to share and create content on it. And although this has come true to some extent, with the modern internet massively increasing the amount of information available to the average person and uniting the world in an unprecedented way, it has also enabled a great fracturing of societies, resulting in what Zuckerberg refers to as “ideological bubbles”, a landscape of countless political tribes occupying innumerable hinterlands of isolated thought and belief.

If Facebook is serious about encouraging good journalism and removing “fake news”, maybe relying on artificial intelligence to filter content will be effective. But I suspect it will have the opposite effect on these ideological bubbles. People will become even more sequestered, exposed to fewer viewpoints that differ from their own. According to any reasonable moral narrative, things will probably get worse, because Facebook and AI, like all technologies, are only as good as the people who use them, and no real effort is being made here to address a wider culture that treats the independent investigation of truth with such flippancy. A man is not any more a murderer because he holds a gun instead of a knife; one simply makes him more efficient.

On Facebook, we are consumers first and citizens second. If you disagree, if you think this letter shows that Mark Zuckerberg has transcended his role as the owner of a company and transformed into an altruistic public servant, that he only values the longevity of his product insofar as it creates better citizens, try this thought experiment: imagine that it has been conclusively determined that Facebook, by its very nature, has a negative impact on its users’ sense of civic duty and desire to build community in the real world. Do you think Mark would shut down Facebook?