The Tao of Yeats Meets Zuckerberg's Mechanism

A couple of years ago, I started reading Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s 2015 open letter to their daughter with my students in class. It is in that letter, of course, that Zuckerberg and Chan pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook shares to combat disease and inequality over the course of their lives. And that, if they indeed do it, would make them the greatest benefactors of our age. And so it is puzzling that their letter invokes such a tepid response from my students, as if they know Zuckerberg and Chan are saying the right thing, but for some reason they do not feel this as an act of paradigm-shifting benevolence. Why is that?

I like to read the letter aloud, without commentary at first, and wait and see how my students react, and the responses are fascinating. On the one hand, the letter is so full of hackneyed parental sentiments that it is hard to find anything to disagree with:

Dear Max, Your mother and I don't yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future. Your new life is full of promise, and we hope you will be happy and healthy so you can explore it fully. You've already given us a reason to reflect on the world we hope you live in. Like all parents, we want you to grow up in a world better than ours today.

So far, so good? And yet despite the recognizable sentiments, my students feel—even if they cannot articulate it—that the letter has a funny tone. There is something off. Something missing. Surely, this is in part because, in places, the letter gets a little preachy: “Right now, we don’t always collectively direct our resources at the biggest opportunities and problems your generation will face,” they patiently explain to their infant daughter. “Consider disease,” they continue, “Today we spend about 50 times more as a society treating people who are sick than we invest in research so you won't get sick in the first place.” But, nevertheless, the Zuckerberg Chan Foundation intends to dedicate itself to “do its part,” they say with great originality.

Throughout the letter, Zuckerberg is sober, but typically optimistic. Technology is accelerating. “Health is improving. Poverty is shrinking. Knowledge is growing. People are connecting.” A perfect three-sentence rhetorical summary of “The California Ideology.” Naturally, to continue improving the world we need to get everyone on the internet, because the “only way to achieve our full potential is to channel the talents, ideas and contributions of every person in the world, because most progress comes from productivity gains through innovation. Given that we find “technological progress in every field,” Zuckerberg hopes that life will soon be “dramatically better than [it is] today.”

In fact, for him, the great question is how far we can push “the boundaries on how great a human life can be.” Zuckerberg muses: “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?” The letter concludes: “Max, we love you and feel a great responsibility to leave the world a better place for you and all children. We wish you a life filled with the same love, hope and joy you give us. We can't wait to see what you bring to this world.” What parent does not want a better life for his or her children? And so, why aren’t we content with what we find in this letter? Why does it feel like something’s missing?

Contrasting Zuckerberg’s open letter with “A Prayer for my Daughter,” by W.B Yeats, helps us put that eerie absence into words. Much more than the optimistic Zuckerberg, Yeats is troubled by the doubts of a father who has brought an innocent child into an evil and manipulative world. Yeats spent half of his time worrying that in modernity, as he puts in “Second Coming,” things were “falling apart,” not getting better, spiraling farther and farther from a meaningful center. He worried that soon some pit of evil would open up and vomit forth its contents into the world, until “mere anarchy” would drown, everywhere, “the ceremony of innocence.”

Yeats starts with this anxiety in “A Prayer for my Daughter,” picturing himself pacing back and forth, while a storm rages outside and the child sleeps. In lines that echo “The Second Coming,” he frets: “Once more the storm is howling . . . and for an hour I have walked and prayed because of the great gloom that is in my mind / I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour / and heard the sea-wind scream up the tower . . . Imagining in excited reverie / that the future years had come, dancing to a frenzied drum, out of the murderous innocence of the sea.” And yet in the midst of this soul-sickness, Yeats has reached down within and found the capacity to pray: “May she be granted beauty and yet not / beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught, or hers before a looking glass, for such, being made beautiful overmuch . . . lose natural kindness and the heart revealing intimacy that chooses right.” In other words, Yeats prays for beauty, but not like that of Helen, who became ensnared in her own appearance, and felt the pressure to live her whole life on the periphery of her skin, acting in accordance with the weight of other peoples’ expectations.

Yeats continues: “May she become a flourishing hidden tree / that all her thoughts may like the linnet be, and have no business but dispensing round, / their magnanimities of sound.” That is, may her heart and mind have joyous thoughts; may her interior life be rich with insights and love of fugitive moments of beauty. Yeats further prays that she may not be “choked with hate,” and he hopes that when she has driven all hatred hence, her soul will “recover radical innocence, and learn at last that it is self-delight, / self-appeasing, self -affrighting, and that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.” Which is to say, if a soul is not at rest with itself, if it is not pure, it will never find contentment, no matter how many resources it has access to. And so Yeats does not just admit “your mother and I don’t yet have the words to describe the hope you give us for the future,” but rather forces his mind to restlessly range over the worlds of myth, nature, and craft in search of likenesses: storms, winds, towers, oceans, trees with delicate birds chirping within.

My friends do not think it fair to compare an open letter by a techie with a poem written by an inspired lyric poet from one hundred years ago. I disagree. If Zuckerberg had been an industrial magnate or land-owning aristocrat from a couple of centuries ago, he would have commissioned a lyric poet, a composer, or a painter to commemorate the event. But in our day the very unpoetic “open letter” has replaced this traditional function of poetry. Furthermore, if Zuckerberg had limited himself to commenting on matters within his own field of knowledge, then it would be apples and oranges. But he did not.

Zuckerberg had the unwarranted self-confidence—and everyone in Silicon Valley and Washington is behind him—to deliver pronouncements on a totalizing vision of human flourishing. And thus, he has encroached upon the ancestral territory of poets, theologians, and philosophers, perhaps without knowing it. And the very fact that he does not seem to know that his field does have limits—does not seem to recognize that knowing something about technology does not mean you know everything about souls—is part of the problem. He displaced Yeats and does not care. He does not know that he has. The comparison is fair.

And so, what do we find when we read Zuckerberg’s letter against the background of Yeats’s poem? We find that Zuckerberg’s imaginative vocabulary is suffocatingly limited. In fact, the metaphors we hear, almost exclusively (perhaps, not surprisingly), are drawn from the practical application of mathematical functions, sketched out into order to find vertex coordinates; that is, those graphable points that represent maxima and minima for market opportunities. And anytime that Zuckerberg does address Max herself—rather than turning the birth of his infant daughter into a press release for his new foundation—we find him contemplating her productivity value over time, or the resources he intends to assemble to make her generation’s output 100 times more than his.

Max’s life is a graph, whose function has been vertically stretched: given that the domain of inputs at her disposal will approach the unlimited, her range of work outputs should be maximized. Her name is, Max, after all. But there are no subjunctives; no tender wishes; no prayers for quiet intimacy; nothing about ceremony, grace, inwardness, friendship, or even fulfillment. Max, I imagine, will be very productive. Do you think she will be happy? Will she even know to look for it?

And so, against the background of Yeats’s poem, we can put our finger on why Zuckerberg’s letter feels so eerie: his whole worldview unfolds within what I call the Late Autumn of the Scientific Revolution. In other words, what historians of science call the “mechanization of the world picture” has become, for us, a worldview, one that has so penetrated our psyche, become so “obvious,” that even the meaning of “human being” has been plugged into this mechanistic paradigm of optimization, maximization, inputs, and output functions. In the 17th Century, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and others developed a method to approach the world, according to which the world picture would be broken down into primitive parts and functions: read as a great machine. And, once done, technologists could take hold of the mechanism and reverse engineer it in order to produce practical results.

As historians of science have pointed out, scientific “instruments” played a necessary role in bringing about this revolution. The clock, Torricelli’s and Pascal’s barometers, Hooke and Boyle’s air pump, Leevenhook’s microscope, and, of course, Galileo’s telescope all extended observational powers, but at the same time, these tools also framed the paradigm of what kinds of questions and what kinds of answers were felt to be worth looking for. The more you look at the world through machines and instruments, the more it looks like one. At the same time, in a process that Peter Dear has called the “instrumentalization” of science, instruments were not only used for making observations, but the very justification for science became the creation of new instruments. In contrast, Yeats is an heir to a very old tradition (with roots in antiquity) that sees the soul not as a machine, but a “little world” (a microcosm). And thus he feels the need to range across the scope of the natural world to build a vocabulary expansive, varied, and rich enough to discover that ensemble of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual faculties that make up our souls: machine vs. microcosm.

Zuckerberg’s genius, or fortuitous mistake, has been the extension and crowdsourcing of instrumentalization to include the human soul. He has helped to create a gigantic grid in which, all day long, every day, you and I, and billions of other people, gleefully translate our own emotions into coordinate points of desire, creating useful datasets for others to exploit. As David Auerbach reminds us in his Bitwise: A Life in Code: “The primitive level of user feedback encouraged by online services is a feature, not a bug. It is vastly easier for a computer to make sense of a ‘like’ or a [5-star rating] than to parse the meaning out of raw text.” In other words, the Zuckerberg letter is just a case study of a more universalizing phenomenon of the restriction of the domain of our imaginative vocabularies.

What really interests me, though, is the possibility that our own face to face relationships, and even how I think about myself, are becoming a subset of our virtual interactions. Take the example of “liking.” You send me a text which amuses me, and I “like” it. I send something back to you, and you “love” it with slam effect. But what happens when I get into the habit of this? In other words, is there a possibility that I could become habituated to these types of responses, so that even when I am psychically present to you, my emotional and verbal responses are an attempt to create a “slam effect”? Can I turn myself into an emoji? I have seen my students talking to one another, saying things, like, “sad face.” Could be it be that we are actually deleting from our vocabularies all adjectives of quality and replacing them with mere adverbs of quantity? Can my language approach the machine-like, serving as litter more than the quantified amplification of primitive affirmations? I like something; love, love, love something; hate something; or totally hate something. Of the vast range of difficult, evasive, and fugitive spiritual impulses, could we be voluntarily cooperating in the simplification of our interior lives, and, by doing so, begin to lose the ability to feel the need for anything deeper in the first place? Are we closing the gap between the original emotions and fabricated responses?

The fact that, one decade ago, one study found that teenagers’ daily active vocabulary was a mere 800 words a day seems to confirm this. The rich treasure of language, metaphor, adjectives, adverbs, qualified statements, unusual utterances, literary allusions to well-loved characters, and rhythmical language with rhetorical effects has been flattened into a reductive set of objects and quantifiable primitive attributes, with slam effect. As David Auerbach, again, hauntingly puts it: “If the restricted set of six reactions [like, love, wow, angry, sad, and haha] has the effect of narrowing emotional diversity, social media and advertising companies view this tradeoff as the necessary cost of gathering better data on users . . . The simplified language of a core set of emotional reactions bridges the computational-human gap.”

Compare such a restriction and mechanization of the vocabulary with a passage from Thomas Hardy’s ineffably beautiful, Far from the Madding Crowd. At a certain point, the heroine, Bathsheba Everdeen, goes for an evening walk, hoping to avoid the lover she has just jilted. Here’s Hardy’s description of her walk:

She went out of the house just at the close of a timely thunder-shower, which had refined the air, and daintily bathed the coat of the land, though all beneath was dry as ever. Freshness was exhaled in an essence from the varied contours of bank and hollow, as if the earth breathed maiden breath; and the pleased birds were hymning to the scene. Before her, among the clouds, there was a contrast in the shape of lairs of fierce light which showed themselves in the neighborhood of a hidden sun, lingering.

Unfortunately, Bathsheba does run into Farmer Boldwood, who has this telling response to his cruel beloved:

He came on looking upon the ground, and did not see Bathsheba till they were less than a stone’s throw apart. He looked up at the sound of her pit-pat, and his changed appearance sufficiently denoted to her the depth and strength of the feelings paralyzed by her letter. “Oh; is it you, Mr. Boldwood?” she faltered, a guilty warmth pulsing in her face. Those who have the power of reproaching in silence may find it a means more effective than words. There are accents in the eye which are not on the tongue, and more tales come from pale lips than can enter an ear. It is both the grandeur and the pain of the remoter moods that they avoid the pathway of sound. Boldwood’s look was unanswerable.

Rather than reaching for an OMG emoji for Boldwood’s “remoter moods,” Hardy needs the landscape of wet ferns, innocently triumphant birds, the fresh moistness of the earth, to set the stage for the exhalation of the pained loss of the jilted lover. Whereas we reach for the ready-to-hand responses, Hardy forces himself to range the world to find language and metaphors and similes of sufficient subtlety to touch those fugitive realities within.

I want to end on a hopeful note, though. In the very age in which our imaginative vocabularies are being so radically restricted in metaphorical range, we are also witnessing an extraordinary moment in which the science of ecology is, more and more, underscoring the differences between machines and natural systems. And this ecological model could have dramatic consequences for how we think about psychology, but also education, urban planning, the contemporary urgency of the arts, and even things like how we eat and grow our food. A machine is a function which has been built to produce certain outcomes. It has no “meaning” outside of that, and, thus, it is a sum of its parts. An ecological system, at least in its classic formulation, is a community of wholes; that is, creatures with their own lives and meanings and inwardness, which, nevertheless, come together to make up a mutually enriching network, and thus bring about so-called emergent properties: that is, higher-level orders than anything that could arise from primitive. And thus, unlike machines, ecological systems are dynamic: they are seres, that is, communities that proceed through successional developmental stages.

Some of the pioneers of ecology used the term “climax” formation to refer to that stage of development toward which ecosystems are oriented. Eugenius Warming, the Danish pioneer of ecology, pointed to Krakatoa, near Java, which had recently bit obliterated by volcanic eruptions: “slowly, as if by some cosmic magician’s trick, ferns and lichens appeared on the barren soil, tenaciously carving a homestead for themselves out of the rubble. Someday, Warming and other ecologists anticipated, a richly diverse community of plants and animals would once again make these volcanic rocks their home.” And so, he concluded: “the ultimate goal of nature . . . is nothing less than the most diverse, stable, well-balanced, self-perpetuating society that can be devised to meet the requirements of each habitat.”

Similarly, the American scientist, H.C. Cowles in a famous paper written in 1899 on the Indiana Sand Dunes commented on how Lake Michigan (which was receding in his day) was leaving behind a series of “successively younger and younger sand dunes.” In this, Cowles was able to see “a series of communities of various age” from “pioneer stages at the lake shore and increasingly older seral stages as one proceeds way from the shore.” And how did they differ?

The pioneer colonists on the dunes are beach grasses, willow, sand cherry, and cottonwood trees; and animals such as long-legged tiger beetles that flit along the sand, burrowing spiders, and grasshoppers. The pioneer community is followed by open, dry forest of jack pine, then black oak, and finally, on the oldest dunes, moist forest of oak and history or beech and maple. Although the community began on a very dry and sterile sort of habitat, development eventually results in a closed canopy forest, moist and cool in contrast with the bare dunes. The deep, humus-rich soil with earthworms and snails, contrasts with the dry sand that it replaced. Thus, the original, relatively hospitable pile of sand is eventually transformed completely by the action of successive communities.

Now, what if we used this as a paradigm for psychology, as opposed to Zuckerberg’s mechanistic, production model? What if the human soul, as Yeats would put it, was tuned to the cosmos, so that by discovering the cosmos’s ordering design, you could awaken the full harmony of all your spiritual, intellectual, and moral faculties? If, according to the ecological paradigm, the soul is analogous to the climax stage of an ecosystem, then making my mind and heart a rich, diverse habitat of learning and relationships and history and literature and science could bring the necessary diverse vocabulary for allowing my soul to grow into a uniquely beautiful and balanced space. The emergent properties are my character. According to the mechanistic view, the soul needs to be always happy, upbeat, cheerful in order to remain productive. The souls is like a little factory that needs to keep running. If you are not happy, you better get yourself happy through medication. But there are psychologists and sociologists who are now using the term, emodiversity. As Tiffany Watt Smith explained in an interview with the Atlantic:

I’ve read self-help books about happiness that make the case that if something’s important, you need to measure it and you need to figure out how to have more of it. I think that’s a mistake. There’s been some interesting research on the concept of emodiversity recently. The cause-and-effect relationship isn’t completely clear, but stronger physical and mental health is correlated with experiencing a range of emotions instead of just being happy or content all the time. It means allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, irritable, bored, and frustrated. All the things we’re told we ought not to feel.

This, then, is the Tao of Yeats, as opposed to the mechanistic way of Zuckerberg. And I am convinced that other domains of human experience could be similarly rethought and enriched if we asked how a shift of paradigms could transform them.

EDITORIAL NOTE: The author would like to thank Brett Robinson, for the invitation to speak at the concluding conference of the Church Communications Ecology Program in July 2022. This is a modified version of that talk.

Featured I amge: Louis Beroud, Intérieur de la galerie des machines à l'exposition universelle de 1889; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jason Baxter

Jason M. Baxter is an associate professor of fine arts and humanities at Wyoming Catholic College. He is the author of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis and his online writings can be found here.

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