CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new film by University of Illinois researcher Ben Grosser provides a lens on 15 years of Silicon Valley’s obsession with growth, in Mark Zuckerberg’s words.
Grosser created “ORDER OF MAGNITUDE” using video excerpts from Zuckerberg’s speeches and interviews during a 15-year period, from 2004-18. Specifically, he extracted phrases from the videos each time Zuckerberg said “more” or “growth” or referred to numbers. He predicted he would end up with a three- to five-minute supercut video. “ORDER OF MAGNITUDE” is 47 minutes long.
“It turns out he said these things so many more times than I could have ever imagined,” said Grosser, a professor in the School of Art and Design and the co-founder of the Critical Technology Studies Lab at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
“He was fully invested in growth and metrics right from the start,” Grosser said of Zuckerberg. “One of the founding principles of Facebook, and Silicon Valley in general, is growth at any cost. More users is better. The obsession with growth revealed in Zuckerberg’s speech over 15 years reminds us how we ended up with a platform that values growth over anything else.”
Courtesy Ben Grosser
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The film will be screened at Krannert Art Museum at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the lower-level auditorium. Grosser and Amy Powell, KAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, will discuss the film after the screening. The film also is on view in the School of Art and Design Faculty Exhibition at KAM through Dec. 7.
“ORDER OF MAGNITUDE” is part of current exhibitions or screenings in London and Dublin, and has recently screened in Brooklyn, New York and The Netherlands.
Grosser began thinking about Zuckerberg’s views on growth and numbers after creating Facebook Demetricator, a browser extension to hide the metrics on Facebook.
“When we see numbers that affect our sociality – how many likes we got, how many friends we have – it’s almost impossible for us not to want those numbers to be larger,” Grosser said. “If we have five likes, that’s great, but 10 would be better. If we have 100 followers, that’s nice, but 200 would be better. This concept of a ‘desire for more’ led me to wonder what we could learn from focusing on what Zuckerberg talks about as the head of Facebook.”
Grosser looked at approximately 400 videos covering 150 to 200 events, from keynote speeches at Facebook conferences to news interviews. The videos ranged from short clips to one or more hours, and from official company videos to cellphone recordings made by attendees.
Some videos and transcripts came from The Zuckerberg Files, an archive at the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. It was more difficult to find other recordings. Grosser said videos of some early Zuckerberg speeches appear to have been scrubbed from the internet, although he eventually managed to find copies on a Chinese website similar to YouTube. For example, Zuckerberg’s keynote speech from the first Facebook Developer Conference in 2007 was one of the most difficult videos to locate.
“Maybe the wildest thing about the final film is how consistent Zuckerberg’s language is over time – the constant march of obsession over user numbers,” Grosser said. “At first he’s talking about 200,000, then 1 million. Then 100 million, 200, 500, 1 billion. His words stay the same, but the numbers keep going up.”
Although Zuckerberg’s values remain consistent, Grosser saw the ebb and flow of his demeanor and confidence in the videos – from a less rehearsed and polished 19-year-old to an assertive billionaire tech CEO to a defensive stance. Facebook came under criticism and Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress in 2018 about how personal data was used in the last presidential election.
“You can see it in his affect and attitude in the film, even though all he’s saying is those few words,” Grosser said.
The film is not just the story of Facebook, he said.
“It’s really chronicling Silicon Valley’s obsessions. It’s the story of Google and Amazon and Instagram. It’s the dominant ideology of how to build a tech company in the 21st century. Getting big is always the first step. This is how to get investors,” Grosser said. “The focus is not typically on building a system that protects users from surveillance and manipulation, making sure we have an algorithm that foregrounds the most accurate information or making sure we have a platform that doesn’t make us all feel anxious about ourselves. It’s getting as much as possible as quickly as possible.”