What the ‘Soulless Zuckerberg’ Memes Say About Our Relationship With Tech
If you’ve been online long enough, chances are you’ve come across ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ and ‘soulless’ together in the same sentence — or meme — at least once.
A few days ago, Zuckerberg’s metaverse avatar seemed straight out of the uncanny valley, with many commenting on its “dead-eyed” gaze. But this isn’t the first time; a selfie — featuring the real (whatever that means anymore) Zuckerberg with some colleagues — was similarly noted for its soullessness. In the past, his many testimonies before U.S. Congress have been dissected and analyzed — not just for the things he said, but the way he said them. Body language experts have weighed in too. There’s also several jokes about him being an alien disguised as a human — a claim that’s only half-joking in its tone, as it reveals a larger anxiety about the kind of person who is in charge of our digital worlds.
There’s something to the “OG” tech guru that’s unsettling to the general public — but arguably, Zuckerberg represents a larger cultural alienation from tech itself. It regulates nearly all aspects of our lives — and it could be making us drift further away from ourselves. And the fixation with Zuckerberg’s cold detachment could be hiding a deeper frustration with the ethos guiding much of our lives.
The very ideology of tech is to distance people from each other — facilitating a hyper-optimization of consumption such that one can minimize their direct communication with another human being. When it comes to human connection, we’re not just awaiting a tech dystopia, we’re living in it. The soullessness we perceive in Zuckerberg’s eyes, then, isn’t just about him — it’s about what he represents. Consider the Metaverse itself as a project: replete with virtual avatars that approximate the humans they’re supposed to represent, it’s an entirely artificial world with very little human touch to speak of. And its purpose, too, is obscure: why exactly should the Metaverse exist at all?
Meanwhile, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Google have turned us into packets of data. Everything from our likes, dreams, fears, desires, hobbies, loves, and losses are turned into monetizable units of information — in other words, our souls are endowed with exchange value at the behest of tech. We’re increasingly isolated from not only others but ourselves because of it — seeing as artificial intelligence can now use the information it has on us to predict our own future.
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Voice assistant devices — such as Amazon’s Alexa — have in turn taken away more of our privacy than we signed up for. This is ubiquitous tech that never stops listening — a non-reciprocal flow of information that disempowers us by the moment. In the age of surveillance capitalism, what’s at stake is our very free will as human beings: “…what is crucially different about this new form of exploitation and exceptionalism is that beyond merely strip-mining our intimate inner lives, it seeks to shape, direct and control them,” notes a review of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by researcher Shoshana Zuboff.
Too many aspects of our lives are Amazon-ified — such that it’s nearly impossible to now imagine a world without it. The company paved way for gig economies that have pit consumers against workers in new, unforeseen ways: giving the former control over the latter via a phone screen tracking their moves, and allowing them to accordingly rate their services. In mediating the ways through which we interact with people for our own consumption, platform technologies instill soullessness into the very culture of consumption.
Dating apps also mediate our love lives — a domain arguably fullest with soul and vitality. But the gamification of romance and sex has meant that the whole experience feels despiriting — even harming our mental health and self-regard. “It’s depersonalized dating and it’s so soulless,” psychologist Jo Hemmings told BBC.
If tech has its way, many of these aspects of our lives, can be transposed into the virtual world for good. “There is no sign of revolutionary counterforces organizing to free us from the Sisyphean nightmare of lost passwords, dual-authentication protocols, and unwanted updates,” wrote Jeffrey Sconce in The Baffler. We stand to lose ourselves to the coldness of tech — and Zuckerberg is arguably the one who started it all. That Facebook began as a site to rate attractive women tells us everything we need to know about the ethos of tech — it embodies the least compassionate imperatives for innovation, and hands the most power to the people who don’t prioritize societal well-being in their machinations.
There’s no unified outlet for the discontent that many feel with tech, but have resigned to. There’s a uniquely hollow emotion at the heart of it. It’s this collective sadness, then, that ultimately finds its expression in the dead-eyed stare of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse avatar — a bleak projection of the future that awaits us.