Mark Zuckerberg’s Knowledge Economy: Utopia or Prisoner’s Dilemma?

The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief, James Bennett, posed a typical question at a typical Washington, DC event this week when he asked Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg where he fell along the political spectrum: liberal, conservative, or independent. Not surprisingly, atypical Zuckerberg gave an atypical answer.

Zuckerberg answered none of the above. Instead, he stated that he is pro-knowledge economy.  A knowledge economy, according to Zuckerberg, is a world where access to information is uninhibited. This is what economists consider a fundamental necessity to making optimal decisions – having access to perfect information. This makes sense if you think about the conundrum that Zuckerberg was originally intent on solving with Thefacebook – the ability to know whether someone was single or in a relationship before wasting ten minutes on fruitless conversation. Perfect information allows individuals to make efficient choices and maximize their utility.

Consider the example that economists often use to illustrate the danger of imperfect information, known to game theorists as “the prisoner’s dilemma.” In this story, two prisoners are held separately and asked to confess to a crime they are suspected to have committed together. If neither confesses, both serve a short sentence. If one or the other confesses, the one that confesses goes free but the other is given a long sentence. If both confess, both are jailed for a medium sentence. In this situation, both prisoners are incentivized to confess. Why? Because by confessing, the prisoner is risking only a medium sentence. By not confessing, the prisoner faces a chance at the long sentence. The point is, having to make a decision in a vacuum of information often leads to the least beneficial outcome for all. If only each prisoner could have knowledge of the others choice, in other words, live in a world with perfect information, the best result (in this case neither confessing) would be achieved.

For Zuckerberg the entrepreneur, for any entrepreneur for that matter, the desire to create a new product or service to solve a societal dilemma and deliver overall good to all is a key driver. When Zuckerberg says he stands behind a knowledge economy, what he is really saying is that he promotes policies that allow citizens of the world to share and use as much information as possible. He believes the core mission of Facebook is to provide a forum in an open society where we all receive perfect information and that social media, transparency, and internet access each play a major role.

Here is the dilemma. In order to monetize Facebook (especially now that there are shareholders), the site has to sell ads and keep people on the site. Facebook strives to do this by continuously shaping algorithms that decide what content to show each user. Facebook wants to show you only the posts in your News Feed and the ads alongside them that you will like best. If you think about the core of this idea, it is at best paternalistic and at worst manipulative. If you think of the concept in reverse, Facebook attempts to hide content from you that it doesn’t think you need.

How can we possibly be receiving perfect information in this context? If we are being served only what we most covet or what our self-selected friends covet in language written by advertisers (confession: I am one of them), how can this be a society where the goal is unbarred access to all information? Without access to unfiltered information, we are all prisoners serving the medium sentence—a far cry from information utopia.

At some point, Zuckerberg will have to choose between an open exchange of information in a utopian knowledge economy or a world where unwanted information is screened from our view before we can even pucker a brow.

Which is the Brave New World of his dreams? Only time (and open, transparent knowledge of how our News Feeds are being populated), will tell.