Mark Zuckerberg
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Mark Zuckerberg has lived a lot of lives for someone who’s still only thirty-four. First, of course, he was simply the Facebook guy—some kid at Harvard who created a website in 2004 where college students could look up their classmates’ pictures and favorite movie quotes. The original site design featured the text “a Mark Zuckerberg production” at the bottom of each page and a cool blue-and-white Zuckerberg avatar (which, it turned out, didn’t really look like him) at the top.

Then came the Zuckerberg of The Social Network, a 2010 biopic. Written by Aaron Sorkin, the movie imagined Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, as a cocky computer genius with a sharp wit and relentless will to power. Eisenberg’s portrayal was wildly entertaining—and just as wildly off base. The real Zuck may be arrogant, but he’s no smooth talker; in fact, he’s painfully awkward and weirdly affectless, someone whose every utterance seems to have been mentally rehearsed and thus arrives after a perceptible lag.

Now Zuckerberg has entered the third phase of his public identity: soulless corporate supervillain. Lately, this chapter has settled into a familiar rhythm. First, someone, usually the New York Times, reveals that Facebook has been brazenly doing something they said they wouldn’t do (sharing your private data, tracking you when you’re not using the site). Next, Zuckerberg or Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg vaguely promises to do better in the future. A few weeks or months later, new revelations restart the cycle.

Roger McNamee has known Zuckerberg since nearly the beginning. A longtime tech investor, he first met a then 22-year-old Zuckerberg in 2006, when the CEO was seeking advice for how to respond to a billion-dollar offer from Yahoo to buy his company. McNamee advised him not to sell. Soon thereafter, McNamee became an investor in the company and a mentor to Zuckerberg—a relationship that would break down in 2016, as an increasingly frantic McNamee tried in vain to get Zuckerberg and Sandberg to take seriously the threat of Russian political manipulation on the platform.

McNamee recounts this experience in a story published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. The article is an excerpt from his book, Zucked, coming out next month, which itself grew out of a cover story he wrote for the Washington Monthly last year.

So, which version of Zuckerberg is closest to the truth? I suspect it’s the first: some kid at Harvard who happened to make a cool website. But what emerges from McNamee’s articles (I’m still making my way through the book) is that it doesn’t really matter. Our interest in Zuckerberg the individual is misplaced. The real issue is power. “At Facebook’s scale—or Google’s—there is no way to avoid influencing the lives of users and the future of nations,” McNamee writes in Time. (He might have included Amazon.) While the dominance of the internet juggernauts is a function of their exploitation of new technologies, the fundamental problem they pose is deeply old-school: monopoly power.

Google, Amazon and Facebook have followed the monopolist’s playbook and built “no go” zones around their core operations. Their success has raised the bar for startups, narrowing the opportunities for outsize success and forcing entrepreneurs to sell out early or pursue opportunities with less potential. They have built additional walls through the acquisition of startups that might have posed a competitive threat. These companies do not need to choke off startup activities to be successful, but they cannot help themselves. That is what monopolists do.

As a result, McNamee points out, an economy that “historically depended on startups far more than other economies, especially in technology” has now “begun a risky experiment in depending on monopolists for innovation, economic growth and job creation.” So far, the returns aren’t great: despite the radical changes wrought by internet technology, innovation across much of the economy, including the tech sector, is worryingly low. We shouldn’t be surprised. When you dominate the market as much as Facebook or Amazon, you don’t have to worry about innovating to stay ahead of the competition. You can just buy the competition or use its dependence on your platform to crush it. Better to spend your innovation budget on lobbying to make sure the government doesn’t take your monopoly away.

While Google and Amazon remain extremely popular among the American public, the string of Facebook-related scandals seems to finally be sparking the realization that some kind of government regulation of big tech is necessary. What’s amazing, in hindsight, is how long it took to get to this point—how long political, academic, and media elites were willing to entertain the notion that the new tech giants should be allowed to regulate themselves. This idea was appealing in no small part because it let everyone else off the hook for figuring out what to do about a new, fast-changing industry that’s hard to understand without a technical background. So when Google chose “Don’t be evil” as its motto, we wanted to believe in the company’s good intentions. Zuckerberg’s insistence on the unalloyed virtue of total transparency always seemed simplistic, but at least the man seemed to be motivated by some closely held principle.

Realizing our mistake doesn’t require concluding that Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos or Google’s Sergey Brin are bad people. It just requires concluding that they’re people. Zuckerberg’s wooden performance testifying before the Senate last year led to a wave of mocking suggestions that he’s actually a robot. But the problem is that he’s all too human. Letting any individual or small group amass so much power over so many aspects of our lives, and simply hoping they don’t misuse it, is insane. That’s not to say there’s no blame to go around or that business leaders are exempt from moral judgment. As McNamee writes in Zucked, while many of Facebook’s missteps are understandable—it’s hard to grow that fast while keeping everything under control—the company’s defensive, even hostile response to criticism is not. “They had an opportunity to be the hero in their own story by taking responsibility for their choices and the catastrophic outcomes those choices produced,” McNamee writes. “Instead, Zuck and Sheryl chose another path.”

But that’s just the thing. America’s hands-off policy toward regulating tech only makes sense if today’s monopolists happen to be heroes. If they’re anything less—if they’re simply human—we’re in deep trouble.

Gilad Edelman

Follow Gilad on Twitter @GiladEdelman . Gilad Edelman, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a politics writer for WIRED.