Saturday 1 June 2019

From Tolkien to Zuckerberg – Beware what you wishes for, my Precioussss!

It can safely be said that things haven’t been going exactly swimmingly for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, given the continual scandals and revelations about the way that the organisation uses its subscribers’ data and treats them as amorphous, anonymous cash cows, much as, in the eponymous film, the Matrix is shown as treating humans as sources of unlimited electrical power. How is it that, despite all Zuckerberg’s fine words about connecting people and bringing the world together, his organisation is perceived as ruthlessly and relentlessly exploiting its clientele? It seems that he is incapable of turning this perception round, no matter how hard he tries, and many think that he doesn’t really want to turn the situation round in reality. It may well be that he is impervious to the realisation of what Facebook is doing and is therefore incapable of changing. And that may well be the reason. It struck me, as an inveterate addict of all things Middle Earth, that JRR Tolkien may well have foreseen just this in one of the key aspects of the Lord of the Rings universe: it all depends on how you start out. For this, we need to examine this central theme (plot spoilers from Tolkien’s books follow).

At the centre of all things in the world of Lord of the Rings is Sauron’s ring of power. We can pick up the story in Middle Earth in the the Second Age with Celebrimbor, the most skilful surviving elf. He forged the three elven rings, later given to Galadriel, Gandalf and Cirdan. Sauron, who could still appear in human form, learnt his ring-making skills from Celebrimbor, but when the Elven ring-maker perceived the dark lord’s evil intent, he hid the rings from Sauron, who then went to Mount Doom and forged the One Ring to Rule Them All, passing much of his evil power into his supreme creation. At the Last Battle of the Second Age, Isildur cut the ring from Sauron’s hand and claimed it for his own, refusing to cast it into the fire and destroy it, as Elrond had urged him to do. He decided to keep it for himself, but on the way back to his fortress, he was ambushed by orcs and tried to escape by swimming across a river, rendered invisible by the ring on his finger. The ring slipped off, and he was revealed to the pursuing orcs and shot. Tolkien makes it clear that he was lucky to die early in his possession of the ring, because the ring had a mind of its own and corrupted its possessor in its attempts to find its way back to its master.

Hundreds of years later, two simple hobbit-like people, Smeagol and Deagol, are fishing on the river over the place where the ring lies. Deagol is dragged into the water by a big fish and pulled to the bottom, where he finds the ring in the mud. As he gets back into the boat, Smeagol asks him what he’s got, but Deagol won’t let him see or touch it, so they fight and Smeagol kills Deagol, stealing the ring and justifying it by the fact that it’s his birthday and the ring is his present. Of course, we know what happens to Smeagol – he becomes Gollum, living for 500 years, his life stretched out in misery by his possession of the Precious, hating and loving it at the same time. The point Tolkien makes here is that he starts his ownership of the ring with murder – a heinous act ensuring that he will never be able to shake free of the ring’s evil influence.

Contrast this with the way Bilbo Baggins begins his possession of the ring. He finds it by chance in the caves where Gollum hides, and manages to stay invisible while Gollum is looking for him and cursing him as a thief. At one point, Bilbo stands right by Gollum, invisible to him and holding a sword, ready to strike Gollum dead and escape, but he doesn’t, because pity stays his hand, even though Gollum surely deserves death. For this reason, for starting his ownership of the ring with an act of pity, Bilbo is spared its evil influence. Although he is affected by it to a certain extent, especially through his extended lifespan, he remains essentially good, as does Frodo when he takes charge of the ring. One other key episode is when Sam thinks Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, Shelob, and takes the ring from him to continue the quest. As he is about to cross into Mordor, the ring tempts him, presenting visions of him becoming a great gardener, planting trees and flowers everywhere in Middle Earth and being celebrated by all the inhabitants of all lands as the greatest gardener ever. All he has to do is slip on the ring - but Sam resists; he’s just a simple, down-to-earth hobbit, not cut out for all this greatness. His own common sense saves him from these delusions of grandeur and inevitable betrayal to the Dark Lord.

In this way, we can clearly see the message that Tolkien is trying to give – the way that you start your seemingly great project, in this case the possession and custodianship of the great ring of power, determines how you will continue. The intentions, desires, attitudes and mindset that you start out with will set in stone the future development of the project. If you have good intentions from the start, you will ultimately accomplish good, but if you start with bad intentions, it’s all downhill from there and there’s virtually no chance of redemption.

All this now brings us to Facebook. First, let me make it abundantly clear that I don’t regard Mark Zuckerberg as a servant of Sauron, or even Sauron himself in disguise, let alone Gollum. I don’t believe he has a ring of power hidden away anywhere, or that he has an army of orcs ready to destroy humanity. However, I do think, with regard to initial intentions, we can validly contrast him with another famous citizen of the wired world, Tim Berners-Lee. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the physics research installation and particle accelerator, which straddles the border of Switzerland and France. CERN was generating huge amounts of data and wanted to share the data with other researchers, but in the time before the world wide web, this wasn’t a straightforward process. Berners-Lee took an existing computer language, Standard General Mark-up Language (SGML) and repurposed it into Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) so that information could be transmitted quickly and easily by clicking on links to pages written in the language. This was effectively the start of the web in 1991. CERN initially wanted to license the technology for others to pay to use, but Berners-Lee insisted that the technology should be made freely available, thereby ensuring that the web could develop without any encumbrance into the ubiquitous network that we use today. Berners-Lee had good intentions for his technology from the start, to ensure that it would be freely available for anyone who wanted to use it and for the benefit of everyone, a principle that he has been committed to ever since. He was never seduced by the temptation, emanating from the dark side, to possess his creation.

Let’s now turn to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Over two billion people are said to be active users of Facebook today. The company has grown to be a massive devourer of data, harvesting it and using it in ever greater proportions and methods in its incessant search for profit. Of course, this has brought onto it immense opprobrium and constant criticism, as well as the unwelcome attentions of national governments and international organisations. On the face of it, Facebook purports to be bringing the world together and promoting communication and connections between people around the globe, but many people feel that this conceals a darker and more sinister intention at its heart. And this is what beings us back to Tolkien – the intent at the initial stages of ownership; the purpose at inception, which determines the future growth and development of the project.

At Harvard, Zuckerberg started a project called Facemash, which aimed to compare the university’s female students on screen and invite users to decide which was hotter. The Harvard authorities shut down the site as Zuckerberg had not obtained permission to use the data and the university’s systems for his project; not only that, but he had also promised fellow students, the Winklevoss brothers, that he would develop a project for them called Harvard Connection. While constantly excusing his lack of progress on their project, he instead developed the prototype for the current Facebook, launching it while effectively abandoning the brothers’ project. Later, they sued him for stealing their ideas and code, and using them to create Facebook.

Clearly, Facebook has been embroiled in controversy from its beginnings. Court cases have come and gone, followed by controversy and criticism lasting up to the present, but still we are mesmerised by its glittering, glinting sheen and seized and held by its magnetic embrace. It has become Zuckerberg’s Precious, and also our precious. We loves it and we hates it, don’t we, Preciousssss, but it hurts, it hurts and we can’t break free. Conceived and created in obscurity, deception and controversy, its true intent of world domination concealed from the start; it twists everything. But now revealed in its naked hunger and obsession, and its blindness and wilful denial of its true nature, it will ruin us if we don’t tame it. However, it may be too late for that. If Tolkien were still alive, I feel he would have said, “I warned you, but you didn’t listen!” And now, Facebook is rising and taking over the world, with the Precious at its heart, bending all else to its will – one site to rule them all, one site to find them, one site to bring them into the data mine and bind them, in the land of Facebook, where the shadows lie…