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Mark Zuckerberg's ring of power

Dec 27,2021 - Last updated at Dec 27,2021

ATHENS — Once upon a time, in the ancient kingdom of Lydia, a shepherd called Gyges found a magic ring, which, when rotated on his finger, made him invisible. So, Gyges walked unseen into the royal palace, seduced the queen, murdered the king, and installed himself as ruler. If you were to discover such a ring or another device that granted you exorbitant power, Socrates asked, would it be wise to use it to do or get whatever you want?

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement of some fabulous digital metaverse awaiting humanity gives new pertinence to Socrates’ answer: People should renounce excessive power and, in particular, any device capable of granting too many of our wishes.

Was Socrates right? Would reasonable people renounce the ring? Should they?

Socrates’ own disciples were not convinced. Plato reports that they expected almost everyone to succumb to the temptation, pretty much as Gyges had. But could this be because Gyges’ ring was not powerful, and thus not scary, enough? Might a device far more powerful than a ring that merely makes us invisible cause us to shudder at the thought of using it, as Socrates recommended? If so, what would such a device do?

The ring allowed Gyges to overcome rivals physically, thus removing several constraints impeding his desires. But, while invisibility allowed Gyges to murder the King’s guards, it went nowhere near removing all of Gyges’ constraints. What if there were a gadget, let’s call it the Freedom Device, that removed every constraint stopping us from doing whatever we want? What would a constraint-free existence be like once this Freedom Device was activated?

We would be able to fly like birds, travel to other galaxies in an instant, and perform feats experienced within the universes designed by talented video game developers. But that would not be enough. One of the harshest constraints is time: It forces us to forego reading a book while swimming in the sea or watching a play. So, to remove all constraints, our theoretical Freedom Device should also allow for infinite, concurrent experience. Still, one final constraint, perhaps the most perplexing, would remain: Other people.

When Jill wants to go mountaineering with Jack, but Jack craves a romantic stroll along the beach, Jack is Jill’s constraint and vice versa. To liberate them from constraints, the Freedom Device should allow Jill to go mountaineering with a willing Jack while he is strolling with a version of her contented self along the beach. It would let us all inhabit the same virtual world but experience our mutual interactions differently. It would fashion not merely a universe of bliss but, in fact, a multiverse of infinite, simultaneous, overlapping pleasures. It would grant us, in other words, freedom not only from scarcity but also from what other people do to us, expect of us, or want from us. With all constraints gone, all dilemmas dissolved, all trade-offs eradicated, boundless satisfaction would be at our fingertips.

It is not hard to imagine Zuckerberg salivating at the thought of such a device. It would be the ultimate version of the “metaverse” into which he has said he wants to immerse Facebook’s 2 billion-plus users. I can imagine him letting us sample a cornucopia of pleasures for an instant, free of charge, just enough to crave more, at which point he would charge users accordingly. Every nanosecond of immersion in this multiverse would produce enormous multiple pleasures — for which he would charge us again and again. Before long, the capitalisation of Meta, the company that now owns Facebook, would dwarf that of all other corporations put together.

The fact that our technologists are far from inventing the Freedom Device is irrelevant, as was the fact that Gyges’ ring was mythical. Socrates’ question, resting on these two science-fiction devices, one ancient and one modern, remains central: Is it wise to deploy exorbitant power over others and over nature, in pursuit of our desires?

Big Tech and free marketeers think nothing of it: What’s wrong with joy? Why would anyone resist simultaneous experiences that satisfy one’s strongest desires? How is it wrong for Zuckerberg to make money from people who want to pay him for liberation from all constraints?

Socrates’ answer remains as apt today as it was 2,500 years ago: The price you pay for deploying excessive power is a disordered soul — that is, radical unhappiness. Whether you are a client seeking absolute control of your senses within a multiverse created by some device, or Zuckerberg striving to own the digital realm into which billions will soon be immersed, your misery is guaranteed. A successful life requires the capacity to overcome our hunger for power. It presupposes an understanding that power, in the hands of contradictory beings like us, is a dangerous double-edged sword.

Excessive power is counterproductive, even self-defeating, because we crave interaction with other minds that we cannot control, even while craving to control them. When others do what we do not want them to do, we feel disappointed, angry, or sad. But the moment we controlled them fully, their consent would give us no pleasure, and their approval would not boost our self-esteem.

Learning to appreciate that control is an illusion is hard, especially when we are prepared to sacrifice almost everything, to pay any price, to control others. But if we are to stop others — Zuckerberg, for example — from controlling us, it is a lesson we must learn.

Socrates was keen to warn us against yielding to the temptation of the magical ring, pointing to Gyges’ unhappiness. Today, with techno-feudalism and various immersive metaverses in the pipeline, his warning is more relevant than ever. As in ancient Athens, our tricky task is to empower the demos without succumbing to the lure of power.

 

Yanis Varoufakis, a former finance minister of Greece, is leader of the MeRA25 Party and Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.  Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.  www.project-syndicate.org

 

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