The Baffler
Gary Greenberg,  March 23, 2018

Dr. Zuckerstein’s Monster

A mental health professional offers some advice to the Facebook CEO

The Baffler
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Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: I’m a mental health professional, so I’m not supposed to diagnose from a distance, but I’ve seen you on TV recently, and let’s just say you’re looking a little peaked under that hoodie. In fact, you’re reminding me of another public figure to whom I’d also always wanted to give some unsolicited advice: Victor Frankenstein.

I’m sure that name has crossed your mind lately as you watch your monster rampage, but have you actually read Frankenstein recently? If so, you’ll remember that, unlike the movie, the book doesn’t end with pitchforks and torches. It ends on a boat in the frozen North, on which lies the corpse of the grief-stricken Dr. Frankenstein, who has pursued his creation to the ends of the earth only to die before he could eliminate him.

Victor Frankenstein wasn’t cut out to be an avenging hero. He’d sensibly fled the laboratory when the body he cobbled together first stirred; he’d allowed a servant to be executed for a murder (of Frankenstein’s own brother) committed by the monster; he’d even agreed, knowing all this, to create a lady monster to keep the original model company. But when the monster killed his inventor’s bride on their wedding night, his creator finally overcame cowardice and pride and set out to rid the world of the danger he’d inadvertently unleashed. That was the right thing to do, and Victor Frankenstein was arguably the right, if not the only, guy to do it. Too bad he died trying.

But as luck would have it, the monster had spent his short life trying to become human—which meant, among other things, developing a conscience. And by the time he beheld his creator’s dead body, he’d successfully acquired one. “I am a wretch,” he said. “I have murdered the lovely and the helpless.” He climbed off the boat and onto a raft made of ice, and headed for “the most northern extremity of the globe,” where, he said, “I shall die.”

As luck would have it, the monster had spent his short life trying to become human—which meant, among other things, developing a conscience.

Sadly, we can’t count on Facebook to be as good as the monster, not even when confronted with its lapses. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you didn’t build your creation with the intent of endowing it with a conscience. But that was a bug in his invention, while in Facebook—which, if I remember right, started as a way to crowd source sexual harassment—it was a feature.

Come to think of it, an invention whose genius lies in its programmed inability to sort the true from the false, opinion from fact, evil from good—in short, its stupidity—is bound to be a remorseless, lumbering beast, one that does nothing other than what you designed it to do: to aggregate and distribute, and then to stand back and collect the fees.

Here’s another way you’re different from Dr. Frankenstein: your monster didn’t have to come to you demanding a mate. Data-driven politics was already in place, desperate for exactly the kind of dowry Facebook offers: a trove of intimate detail about billions of people, digitized and ready to be monetized. Neither side of this power couple is about to feel a moment of remorse, especially not when the monster itself has done such a good job of convincing the villagers that it is a force for good. If for any reason they should come to doubt that, your monster has taken the further precaution of ensuring that their pitchforks and torches will take the form of emojis and keywords that you can sell.

So it’s unrealistic to think Facebook is going to self-deport, to the Arctic or anywhere else. But if I’m reading you right—and I may not be—you at least have a conscience, and it is mightily troubled right about now, as it dawns on you that your creation has done some wretched things, and that you have no control over what it does next. You must know that even if you try as hard as you want, and come up with the safeguards you are promising, you won’t ever be able to make your billions of users abide by them.

But unlike Dr. Frankenstein, you’re still alive; indeed, you’re young and rich enough to start over, and to take care of your employees while they find other work. Actually, given that your business model amounts to theft, subsidizing the repatriation of your workforce would be a nice start in making reparations. So think about it, dude. No charge for the advice: put that monster on an ice floe and shove him off to the Arctic while it’s still frozen. It’s the least you could do. It might even make you feel better.

Gary Greenberg is the author of four books, most recently The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. He is a contributing editor at Harper's. He lives in Connecticut.

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