Everyone is glad not to be Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s CEO testified before the US Congress this week on a growing scandal linking his company to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm with ties to the Trump campaign. The hearing, deemed “extraordinary,” by senator John Thune, was as much a referendum on Facebook as the erosion of America’s digital privacy. It was also the ultimate non-apology.
Pale and visibly uncomfortable in a dark suit instead of his regular hoodie, Zuckerberg stuck closely to company talking points. “Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company,” he told lawmakers. “For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can do… It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm, as well.”
You see, Facebook didn’t have bad intentions or deliberately ignore the warnings and critics. It was simply too idealistic and too optimistic to imagine the platform being used for anything other than good.
The technology industry is fond of framing failure as success. The cult of the entrepreneur is built on rulebreakers and college dropouts. Founders trade battle tales at global conference series FailCon. In Silicon Valley, failure is never really failure, but rather a stepping stone to success. Fail fast, fail often, fail everywhere.
Uber and its pugnacious co-founder, Travis Kalanick, also loved the non-apology. Uber engaged in questionable labor practices, bulldozed politicians and regulators, skimped on consumer privacy, and fostered a culture of “brilliant jerks.” The company did this with a ruthless, unapologetic insistence that it alone could foresee and take necessary steps toward a better future.
At Uber, it took a new CEO to begin taking failure seriously. Dara Khosrowshahi has spent months on an international apology tour designed to smooth over Kalanick’s errors. At Facebook, the problem runs deeper. The company is older, the founder more idealistic and defensive, the platform more entrenched. If you can only view your failures as an unforeseen consequence of good intentions, how can you ever really hope to change?