Before the Social Network came out, I went to Mark Zuckerberg’s personal Facebook profile, which he made publicly visible, and found under his “Interests” the phrase “Eliminating Desire.” This seemed a bit odd at first glance. What precisely could this mean?
If you are familiar with the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals by Kant, you’d paint Zuckerberg a Kantian. Kant argued that desire itself is to be eliminated because it stands in the way of reason. Outside of our natural desires for food and love, other desires (possession, materialism, etc) are linked to pathos, and in the creation of a free society, Kant argues we must place our actions on reason and reduce our motivation to follow our desires.
Under “Activities”, Zuckerberg had listed, “Trying to make the world a more open place.” At first glance this seems fairly benevolent, maybe just a bit idealistic. When combined, the elimination of desire, and the promotion of greater openness seem to express the core of the “Facebook generation.” We are tired of the old constrictors and divisions that create arbitrary walls amongst people (nationalisms, ideologies, languages, etc.).
I see these two ideas as complementary but also engaged in a dialectical relationship that undergirds Facebook’s creation of an open online community. This dialectic between the elimination of desire and an open online community also undergirds the entire “Facebook Generation” writ large.
Take the Arab revolutions into consideration and the role of Facebook. If you studied the genesis of Facebook in these movements, you would remember that the use of social media involved a series of training workshops delivered by expert mavens; the state department Twitter factory, or elite workshops from technologists? The hero of the Egyptian revolution was himself an employee of Google.
This dialectic of elimination of desire and the creation of a free society is closely akin to Hegel’s argument in the Philosophy of Right. He argues that the opening of society through the attempt to impose the conditions for organic communities to arise, ones based on reason alone, is always destined to failure. In the creation of any organic community, Hegel argued it is customs that must form the basis for the organization of social engineering and structuring, not reason. For example, the French revolution failed precisely because it sought to impose reason stripped from custom onto society. A rational society is thus always a constitutional monarchy, and not a representative democracy. Is Facebook caught in a constitutional monarchy – of course! But what of its hold and influence over free and openness for its users?
When I think of Facebook, the last thing that comes to mind is an unmediated free community. On the contrary, I see a continual merging with stealth commercial interests, and an increasing bubble effect of content. The very control of one’s news feed by an algorithm which Facebook refuses to share with users goes to show that the medium itself is not a system based on custom, but is actually a rather controlled environment. So what is the openness of Facebook that depends on the elimination of desire?
In order to make the conditions for any system in society to be based on reason, it requires the elimination of desires claims Kant. Kant claims that removing desires allows us to differentiate between actions informed by rationality and reason, and those informed by desire, which is the beginning point for understanding how our moral actions can be willed universally. This is the project of the Critique of Practical Reason. By basing actions on reason alone, Kant develops his theory of willing a maxim universally and the categorical imperative.
In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel anticipates Isiah Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, or the idea of freedom that is premised on the non-interference by others in one’s sphere of action. Leaving one free to do as they please. Berlin referred to this idea as negative freedom. Hegel took this sort of freedom to a radical new level. He argued that any such freedom is in actuality premised on what society deems to be of importance to the individual. In criticizing the system of needs, for which Adam Smith and Ricardo championed, Hegel argued that any system of needs is imposed upon the individual from society. More specifically, he remarks in the Philosophy of Right:
“the need for greater comfort does not arise within you directly, it is suggested by those who wish to make a profit from its creation.”
Instead of embracing negative liberty, Hegel refers to this type of freedom as abstract freedom, because it is always premised on social and historical forces.
The Facebook generation is caught in a false negative liberty, where the supposed “organic community” by which it supposedly has fostered the conditions for, actually consists of an invisibly controlled system where desires given highly mediated and pre-directed coordinates.
So Zuckerberg’s interest in eliminating desire isn’t precisely accurate. Facebook thrives off of desires, the desire to “Like”, to join, to share, to constantly express. What the elimination of desire actually means is not so much the elimination of desire, but its transformation into an imposed system that directs that desire.