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Asher Kessler

May 29th, 2024

Big Tech wants us to believe in their vision of the future

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Asher Kessler

May 29th, 2024

Big Tech wants us to believe in their vision of the future

0 comments | 8 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

With their visions of the future, Big Tech pushes people to not only buy certain products and learn certain skills, but to always view the future as the same thing: technological development. Asher Kessler explores the history of how Facebook/Meta has imagined the future so that we might think about it in a different way today.


Asher Kessler’s research is being exhibited as part of LSE Festival.

Our perspective of the future, of what lies ahead of us, has historically been shaped by an array of actors. For millennia, religious thinkers have offered vivid descriptions of an afterlife while certain Christian leaders have imagined that the end of the world is imminent. Marxist philosophers also, through their analysis of history and class struggle, have argued that the future was inevitable: revolution and socialism.

Yet, over the past few decades, alongside our preachers and philosophers, it is our technological leaders who have radically shaped what we anticipate as ahead of us. For many, the future does not appear to lie in revolution, let alone heaven or hell, but in some sort of science fiction. Whether it is the promise of artificial general intelligence (AGI), Elon Musk’s vision of colonising Mars, or the radical extension of human life spans, we are continuously confronted with visions of radically transformed techno-futures.

We can often overlook how our sense of what lies ahead, of what is imagined as possible or probable, has tremendous power over how we interact with the world. How we anticipate the future has the power to reorient our sense of the present. But it also can reshape our memory of the past, inviting us to re-tell history so that it better fits into the future’s slipstream. Because of this, I follow Jenny Andersson in thinking of the future as “a field of struggle” in which different actors compete over the boundaries of what is considered imaginable.

In my PhD research on the intellectual history of Facebook/Meta, I explore how actors in the company have imagined the future in different ways over the past two decades. Over the last three years, I have analysed thousands of documents produced by the company, interviewed different high-level employees and read dozens of blogs to explore Facebook’s different futures. This research is being exhibited as part of LSE Festival.

In its early years, actors in Facebook began disseminating a future in which all people would be connected. This was a vision of a global communication network that would, for the first time in human history, it was claimed, connect all humans on the planet. Such a world, Facebook imagined, would be one in which hierarchies were flattened, people would have greater direct access to each other without institutional intermediaries, and one could find their ‘community’ beyond national or geographical boundaries. It was also a world in which “Big Tech” companies would push forward progress by enabling “developing” countries to “modernise” and catch up with the “developed” world. In exchange, Big Tech companies would produce and have access to huge future markets.

If the first vision of “a world connected” was communicated to broad audiences of Facebook users and journalists, the company’s second big vision of the future was articulated forcefully to a separate community: shareholders. Here Facebook envisioned a different, although not contradictory future in which human intention and behaviour becomes increasingly knowable, predictable and responsive to controllable signals. With its business model based upon the extraction and analysis of user data, and the selling of the opportunity to shape that behaviour, actors in Facebook depicted a future in which human behaviour become ever-more rationalised, manageable and commercialised.

Most recently, after a spate of scandals, Facebook disseminated a vision of a new social reality, blending together the physical world with virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence. The metaverse, Zuckerberg announced, would allow people to “be together with anyone, to be able to teleport anywhere, and to create and experience anything”. In this quasi-utopian vision, people would be radically freed from the laws of nature. Geography, distance, and gravity would no longer be a limitation for humanity. Space would collapse as individuals entered the embodied internet, affording them presence in an infinite variety of places with people from across the world.

Instilled with norms of inevitability and directionality, these futures are intended to shape how people act in their present. To not be left behind, they convince us that we need to buy certain products or reskill for a different career. Today, as Meta, alongside other Big Tech companies, work to embed artificial intelligence in our sense of the future, how many times have you considered whether your need to act now to prepare for what you believe is ahead?

How Big Tech companies express their visions for the future have shaped how their products are received and imagined both by their audience and users, as well as politicians and regulators. For example, Facebook’s depiction of a future world connected moulded the boundaries of what regulations were imagined as possible and impossible. Just as Facebook worked hard to shape our understanding of the future of technology and regulation in the 2000s, they too have been at the forefront of conditioning the norms, rules and ways of imagining emerging and future technologies today.

These attempts to shape what we anticipate as ahead of us also remould how we come to remember the past, so that it better fits with particular future-oriented narratives. To give one example, in countless interviews, Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly depicted history as one long journey in which humans came together in bigger and bigger scales: from hunter-gatherer tribes to Facebook’s global community. Influenced by popular historical book Sapiens, Zuckerberg placed his vision of the future within a particularly progressive narrative of the past. Yet, to accept this progressive historical story is to re-tell the past in a way that ignores the peoples and events that don’t fit neatly into this narrative of ever-betterment.

Underlying all three of Facebook’s futures is the same logic: that the future emerges from the next imagined technological breakthrough. Whether it was the proliferation of smartphones, Virtual Reality headsets, or AI, these visions of the future close the future around the same thing: technological development. This norm blinds us from recognising that the future is actually indeterminate – the future remains radically open.

While these visions of the future emphasise certain lines of possibility, they close others; seducing us to look one way and distracting us from alternative considerations. The next time you encounter a techno-future, the next time you are promised to be on the verge of unprecedented change, I want you to ask why it is that some company or person is trying to convince you to believe in this. More than this, I want us to consider how we might imagine a future away from the visions and norms of “Big Tech”? If the future is radically open, what can we do with it?

 


  • This blog post represents the views of the author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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About the author

Asher Kessler

Asher Kessler is a PhD Researcher at LSE's Department of Media and Communications.

Posted In: LSE Authors | Technology