Peter Franklin

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

September 11, 2017

Facebook has two billion users, two-thirds of whom use it everyday. That’s just one of the jaw-dropping statistics in a John Lanchester long-read for the London Review of Books.

The main focus of the essay is on just how much Facebook knows about it’s users – Lanchester calls it the “biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind”. Also of interest is something he reveals about the first outsider to invest in Facebook – the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Peter Thiel:

“Thiel’s $500,000 investment in 2004 was crucial to the success of the company. But there was a particular reason Facebook caught Thiel’s eye, rooted in a byway of intellectual history. In the course of his studies at Stanford – he majored in philosophy – Thiel became interested in the ideas of the US-based French philosopher René Girard, as advocated in his most influential book, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Girard’s big idea was something he called ‘mimetic desire’. Human beings are born with a need for food and shelter. Once these fundamental necessities of life have been acquired, we look around us at what other people are doing, and wanting, and we copy them. In Thiel’s summary, the idea is ‘that imitation is at the root of all behaviour’.”

“…The reason Thiel latched onto Facebook with such alacrity was that he saw in it for the first time a business that was Girardian to its core: built on people’s deep need to copy.”

Lanchester’s description of Girard’s philosophy as a “byway of intellectual history” is apt in that the intellectual establishment – especially in America – is immensely more impressed with Girard’s compatriot and contemporary, the post-modernist Jacques Derrida.

It’s typical of Thiel – an iconoclastic libertarian who dissents from Silicon’s Valley’s modish liberalism – to go against the flow. And yet the basic truth of Girard’s account of human nature and history should be obvious; anyone who has children can see that the “deep need to copy” is fundamental to who we are.

Perhaps the reason why Girard’s philosophy isn’t more widely taught is that it stems from a Biblical worldview:

“Girard was a Christian, and his view of human nature is that it is fallen. We don’t know what we want or who we are; we don’t really have values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare. We are Homo mimeticus. ‘Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and who turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires.’ Look around, ye petty, and compare.”

Consider the Biblical account of the fall from Eden, in particular the third chapter of the book of Genesis  in which Satan, in the form of a serpent, persuades Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Crucially the snake’s clinching argument was an appeal to the ultimate in ‘mimetic desire’: “…and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So, is that what lies at the heart of social media? John Lanchester is worried it might be:

“The view of human nature implied by these ideas is pretty dark. If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want – if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations – then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.”

Things may be even worse that Lanchester fears. Girard taught that mimetic desire is contagious, with the struggle to possess the object of desire resulting in violent conflict. Soon it is the violence itself that goes viral rather than the original desire. To prevent the ‘mimetic crisis’ from turning into a war of “all against all” (to quote Hobbes), human societies have, throughout history, opted instead for a war of all against one – i.e. a victim, sacrifice or scapegoat on which the group’s pent-up violence can be focused and released.

Girard saw in the victimisation process the origin of archaic religion and, by extension, all human culture and institutions. He also saw in Christianity – and in particular the death and ressurection of Jesus Christ – the ultimate refutation of the victimisation process, because it proclaims the innocence and victory of the ultimate victim.

How telling, then, that in our post-Christian society, social media isn’t just a facilitator of mimetic desire, but also of an online, globalised process of victimisation. The next time you see someone singled out for the digital equivalent of a human sacrifice, think very carefully before joining in.