For the most part, Facebook’s big show this week was a snoozer.
The company’s main product announcement, its attempt to turn Messenger into a hub little programs for businesses to chat with customers, was greeted by puzzlement from users and scepticism from the developers who were the main audience for the show. Some of the demos, like a virtual reality selfie stick, drew oohs and ahhs, but they aren’t actually things that you can buy today.
But there was one big exception: Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech.
With that speech, Zuckerberg took his place as Silicon Valley’s ambassador to the rest of the world. Like him or hate him, there’s nobody else as qualified for the job. And he just took it.
Speeches like this are usually cheerleading sessions for a company and its products, interspersed with moments of weird entertainment, like the time in 2012 when Google cofounder Sergey Brin interrupted a speech with a live video of skydivers wearing Google Glass.
Even the master of the form, Steve Jobs, stuck mostly to Apple’s new products and how great they were, with occasional diversions into Apple’s broader philosophy, like the time in 2011 when he said Apple was at the intersection of technology and liberal arts.
Zuckerberg started out in a completely different way, by sketching out his vision of where Facebook and technology as a whole were going to go over the next decade.
As part of this, he reiterated Facebook’s mission:
We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. And this idea of connecting the world has gotten stronger over the last century. You can now travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. Countries trade more openly and cooperate more easily than ever. And the Internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before. We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.
Zuckerberg then expressed concern at forces pushing the opposite direction. A lot of Americans thought he was referring specifically to Donald Trump, but these forces are present in a lot of countries.
I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others. For blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, reducing trade, and in some cases around the world even cutting access to the Internet.
Then came the key part:
It takes courage to choose hope over fear. To say that we can build something and make it better than it has ever been before. You have to be optimistic to think you can change the world. And people will always call you naive, but it’s this hope, and this optimism, that is behind every important step forward.
If Silicon Valley has a belief system, this is it.
Technology as progress
In this view, the expansion of computers and information technology to average users over the last 40 years is part of a global historical trend toward greater freedom and greater understanding.
You hear talk like this all the time from tech workers, executives, and investors.
The belief system isn’t exactly libertarian, although government is often portrayed as out of touch and interfering, working more on behalf of old-fashioned rent-seeking businesses than new innovators. (If anything, Silicon Valley skews heavily Democratic in elections.)
With this speech, Mark Zuckerberg established himself as the leading ambassador of Silicon Valley’s belief system.
Who else is there?
The Google cofounders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, hardly ever speak in public anymore, and the new CEO Sundar Pichai is more of an engineer than a philosopher.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has taken some strong public stands against discrimination and in favour of the environment, but he lacks Zuckerberg’s youth and his predecessor Steve Jobs’ charisma.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos writes a great letter to shareholders every year, but his philosophy is more about great business than society at large.
Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is too new on the scene, and Bill Gates is an elder statesman who has largely moved on from tech.
And VCs, for all their power in the valley, are not famous international names like the guy who runs the service that reaches more than 1 billion people every month.
Zuckerberg also seems serious about it. In a post on his own Facebook page, he wrote “This speech was personally important to me and I spent a lot of time writing it….It’s different from any other speech I’ve given.”
If you haven’t followed the company closely, this may seem like a sudden attempt to seek attention, but it’s perfectly in line with the philosophy Zuck stated in his letter to investors in Facebook’s 2012 IPO filing, where he listed goals like “we hope to change how people relate to their governments and social institutions,” and warned investors as clearly as possible that Facebook would not be the kind of company to focus on quarterly profits: “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”
Facebook is not above reproach. It collects a ton of information about users and sells advertising against that information. It played fast and loose with user privacy in its early years, and has conducted some ethically questionable experiments on its users more recently. Its plans to bring Internet access to the world certainly serve Facebook’s business interests, regardless of whatever extra social good they may or may not bring.
You may also disagree with the Silicon Valley philosophy, and mourn the fact that technology often serves as a barrier to personal interactions rather than a facilitator. I hate it when people whip their phones out during a conversation, and sometimes text them as they do it.
But whatever you think of Zuckerberg or Silicon Valley, he’s it. Now let’s see what he does with that power.
Here’s the video of his speech, along with his comments about it on Facebook: