Purely on the level of physical appearance, Mark Zuckerberg is unprecedented; I doubt he’s ever once heard the phrase “you know who you look like?” unless the follow-up was “an unfinished police sketch left out in the rain.” But if we’re talking about Zuckerberg the man—or, more precisely, the nihilistically expansionist tech mogul—the historical record is rich with equivalents. There are other people who, like Zuck, inaugurated or sped along some paradigm shift in communications and in the process—or as an integral part of the process—wrecked this or that aspect of society. For this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of experts for their pick for the quintessential proto-Zuck.
Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at American University
Obviously, all metaphors between contemporary technology and moments in the past are going to be a little strained, because what we’re dealing with now—the data economy—is totally different from what’s come before. These kinds of comparisons can be instructive, but you’re not going to find a one-to-one correlation.
That said, when I think about Zuckerberg, a couple of characters come to mind.
George Westinghouse, for instance. He was an inventor and engineer, but he was primarily an entrepreneur—someone who recognized how to take other people’s inventions and fit them together into a business model, which he could then sell to governments and corporations. He did some of the work that led to the development of A/C electric power, but he also very famously acquired the rights to patents developed by Nikola Tesla, and hired a bunch of promising engineers, so that their inventions would be in-house, rather than competitors.
Zuckerberg may have coded Facebook himself back in 2004, but from a business standpoint, he does the same thing as Westinghouse: most of Facebook’s major innovations have involved either imitating or acquiring third parties, and integrating them into Facebook’s suite of services. This applies to consumer-facing stuff (Instagram, WhatsApp) as well as back-end stuff like its ad-targeting software. Tesla was an infinitely more brilliant engineer and inventor than Westinghouse was when it came to technology, and even to understanding the social consequences of that technology. But Westinghouse was much more business-savvy, and he knew how to package and sell it.
If you’re going to buy into the data-is-the-new-oil argument, then another precedent would be J. Paul Getty. This was someone who, initially, just kind of lucked into being a billionaire, because he happened to be in the right place at the right time. He bought up a bunch of properties that took advantage of the skyrocketing demand for petroleum, and he parlayed that into political power and social/cultural power. Getty was not just an industrialist. He was very much a public figure—an art collector, a philanthropist—whose core product was both transformative for society and fundamentally toxic, and who was definitely aware, long before anyone else, of that product’s deleterious consequences. Getty died in ‘76; we now know that by the early ‘70s, the oil industry was well aware that climate change was a direct result of their operations. And even before that, for decades, they’d been aware that air pollution from burning petroleum was a significant health hazard. They deep-sixed that information, and lied to the American public about it, and lobbied Congress to look the other way. He was conscious of his legacy, and wanted to shape it through these pro-social philanthropic activities, and at the same time he was sitting on this toxic gazillion-dollar empire.
Assistant Professor, Journalism, Seton Hall University
As a journalism historian, one name immediately comes to mind: James Gordon Bennett, who founded the New York Herald in 1835 and was its editor and publisher for the next three decades. The Herald, like Facebook, was a ground-breaking and disruptive new form of communication: the “penny paper,” which revolutionized news reporting and consumption. Like Zuckerberg, Bennett wasn’t the first—just as Friendster and MySpace predated Facebook, Benjamin Day’s New York Sun, launched in 1833, provided the template that Bennett’s Herald would perfect: a newspaper interesting and affordable enough to appeal to the average person. With its stories on crime, scandal, sports, and society, gathered by full-time reporters (a previously unknown occupation), the Herald and its ilk made the old 6-cent newspapers, full of stale political stories and ponderous commentary, obsolete. But as with Facebook, the stories that attracted the most eyeballs in the Herald were often sensationalized or misleading—and Bennett didn’t care. His primary concern was making gobs of money from advertising, which he did. Like Zuckerberg, Bennett claimed that his product was nonpartisan, but it quickly became a political vehicle. Whereas Facebook has been lenient in allowing noxious ideas to spread on its platform, Bennett injected his own racist, sexist, and nativist ideas into the pages of the Herald. But Bennett, at least, took responsibility for what his platform disseminated—and contributed original reporting to the public discourse.
Associate Professor of Media History and Area Director of Media Studies at the University of Oregon, and the author of Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917
Though several innovators and media entrepreneurs could be considered the Zuckerberg of their era, I want to focus on recent Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh, almost certainly the Zuck of the 1990s.
Rush and Zuck share some interesting similarities. Both men dropped out of college to pursue media careers, Rush in radio and Zuck in the nascent digital tech sector. In each case, the gamble paid off. Both achieved stratospheric success in their fields. However, their success did not arise in a vacuum. It was enabled by key pieces of U.S. media legislation that emboldened both men by protecting their actions and speech from legal consequences. Each stepped into a newly cleared entrepreneurial space that allowed them to wield commercial and political power in the name of free speech. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 created the conditions for Rush’s career in partisan talk radio to flourish. Likewise, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protected emerging social media platforms from lawsuits over user-generated content and third-party deeds. These new legal contexts allowed each figure to expand the influence of a developing or somewhat dormant (in Rush’s case) medium and reach a position of communications dominance.
After the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal, Rush became a powerful voice in the conservative field. By the early ‘90s, his syndicated Rush Limbaugh Show was the most popular talk radio program in the United States. Rush helped establish the authority of right-wing alternative news, laying the foundation for widespread skepticism of mainstream news and government in general. He reintroduced the power of radio, a medium that had been sidelined by television for three decades. Importantly, he made current affairs discussion feel intimate. Here was a personal buddy of yours, just a regular guy, sharing important information about the world with you. Sound familiar?
With the help of Newt Gingrich and others, Rush established a distinct, divisive tone in American political discourse, altering the meaning and function of partisanship. He sat at the right hand of a long string of political leaders, many of whom felt increasingly beholden to him and his audience, who came to be recognized as the conservative base. Along parallel lines, Zuckerberg allowed conspiratorial narratives to proliferate and command the terms of presidential politics. He allowed for outside interference in a U.S. election on an unprecedented scale.
There are some differences, of course. Rush is a voice, whereas Zuck gives voice (not to mention data). However, both altered the political field in similar ways. They intensified skepticism of authoritative sourcing. They changed the terms of political game playing, reestablishing media players as political power figures. They helped consolidate the rural/urban divide and introduced heightened levels of political polarity into politics. Neither can be held accountable for their actions. Both men have changes in U.S. media policy to thank for giving them the opportunity to reshape the political world.
Professor, Communications, Radford University, and the author of Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age
It’s not about who invented a new technology, but rather, who realized what the new technology enabled and how they developed it. In other words, who had the strongest visions and set them in motion?
My book, Revolutions in Communication, spans four overlapping eras of communication — printing, imaging, electronic and digital. So if I could pick one “Zuckerberg” from each:
—Aldus Manutius (1452-1515) founded the Aldine Press in 1494 Venice to print affordable books for the public. At the time, most printers were copying the formats of large elaborately illustrated manuscripts and selling them to wealthy people. Manutius used more readable fonts in smaller portable book formats with the idea that books could be the weapons of scholars. This idea essentially marks the end of the “incunabula” period of printing and the beginning of printing as an essential foundation of public life and culture.
—Auguste and Louis Lumiere (1862 – 1954 and 1864 – 1948, respectively) were already working in the family photo film manufacturing plant in Lyons, France, when they saw a Kinetograph (invented by Thomas Edison) in Paris in 1894. The kinetograph was a one-person viewing machine, and in family conversations, the Lumieres became determined to “get the picture out of the box” and projected onto large screens. They accomplished this by December, 1895 and showed a series of short films they had taken. The next year Edison patented his own system for projecting film and the world of cinema grew into the possibilities that Edison and others had not envisioned.
—Charles-Louis Havas (1783–1858) began to view information as an international commodity and in 1830, set up a bookstore and foreign newspaper translation bureau in Paris. It became Agence Havas, the world’s first news agency. In the beginning, Havas used carrier pigeons to bring news from the morning’s British newspapers to Paris by 3.00 p.m., in time for the evening editions. When the telegraph arrived in France in 1845, Havas was the first to use it. Havas also trained Bernhard Wolff and Paul Reuter founded wire services in Berlin and London. Reuters is the only surviving agency.
—Douglas Engelbart (1925 – 2013) found ways to use digital technology to enhance office work and communication. He and his team at SRI International created the graphical user interface, the computer mouse, hypertext links and networked personal computers. Before Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration at the Association for Computing Machinery (also known as the “Mother of all Demos”), computers were the creatures of banks, census bureaus and insurance companies. Afterwards, they became everyday office assistants and powerful systems of interpersonal global communications.
Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Program Director of Gender and Sexualities Studies at the University of San Francisco
What I find interesting about Zuckerberg is not necessarily his uniqueness as an individual or even his particular brand of Silicon Valley techno-optimism and libertarianism, but rather the conditions and social structures that enabled his rise to power. To be sure, Facebook has radically altered the way that people consume news, either from outside sources or from acquaintances, despite Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher. He has always pushed for sharing and transparency (from users, that is, not from Facebook itself) at all costs, but claimed in 2019 that Facebook was suddenly pivoting to a more privacy-oriented model. We’ve all witnessed his non-apology tours and public statements, including those made to Congress, and yet attempts at regulation fall short, despite the hefty fines and promised changes. The cycles of disinformation and privacy violations continue unabated.
One question is, what is it about the logic of the platform that allows this to go on? Where does Facebook, and with it, Zuckerberg’s power come from? I’ve spent a lot of time researching previous kinds of electronic villages and communities. Zuckerberg’s version of a social network couldn’t exist without Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant’s Whole ‘Lectronic Earth Link. People on The Well weren’t anonymous and many of the most avid users did know each other IRL—sometimes attending potluck dinners together in the Bay Area. Facebook started out as FaceMash, as a way for college students to rate the attractiveness of women at Harvard, and was limited to elite university students. Now, Facebook is a site for maintaining intimate relationships over time and tracing entire life cycles, including birth, marriage, divorce, death, and beyond. It also intervenes in political processes. It’s expanded in scale to reach two billion users, including millions of dead users’ profiles. How did a social network become the social network?
In the past, I’ve glibly compared Zuckerberg and other tech billionaires like Bezos with robber barons, particularly in the face of rising wealth inequality. Look at how Facebook contractors and content moderators, or janitors and food service workers on Facebook’s tech campus, are treated as opposed to executive employees. Henry Ford offers a particularly compelling comparison, especially when it comes to surveillance and inequality. Ford hired major insurance firms to track the hygiene and wellness of his automotive factory workers, ranking and essentially placing bets on their lives and value according to age, gender, race, and ethnicity. Ford was himself an anti-Semite, but the entire corporate culture at that time was controlled by eugenicists. The logics of tracking and surveillance that we see in places like Amazon warehouses or in Facebook’s facial recognition technology are inextricably linked to these older management techniques.
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