What Napoleon Bonaparte envisioned, Ferdinand de Lesseps achieved, constructing a canal across the isthmus of Suez, linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and opening an avenue for Europe to fortunes in East Asia.
If Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg does not already know the story of de Lesseps, he is living it in the digital age of which he is so much a part.
A Frenchman bearing the requisite charm of his country, de Lesseps ascended to wealth and adulation. Statues of him still stand marking his success where others merely dreamed. But, of course, there’s more to the story. A diplomat and a dealmaker, de Lesseps engineered Suez only in the sense that he brokered it.
This set him on a course for doom in Panama. There, he attempted to replicate Suez by embarking on a massive project to build what historian and author David McCullough calls in his book of the same name “the path between the seas.”
At age 74, de Lesseps became president of the Panama Canal Company. His acclaim in France and worldwide celebrity fetched a surplus of takers when he offered stock. Buyers surpassed the number of available shares within three days.
Eschewing the expertise of leading engineers, de Lesseps insisted on a sea-level canal without locks in Panama, just as his crews had built in Suez. In an 1888 writing, de Lesseps himself explained the problem he ignored: “many engineers would prefer, on account of the difference in level, not of the seas, but of the tides, to construct a lock.”
Disaster followed, demonstrating then what so many others persist in demonstrating now, the futility of shunning science and logic. French workers labored in the scorching heat haunted by plagues ranging from landslides to floods to the worst of them all, malaria and yellow fever.
Somehow, they excavated more than 75 million cubic yards of earth, but it never would be enough as costs soared and de Lesseps fed anxious investors one lie after the next. By the time the whole effort came crashing down, 20,000 lives had been lost, the equivalent of $600,000 in bribes had been doled out to more than 100 French officials and journalists and the Panama Canal Company had declared bankruptcy.
De Lesseps could have sailed off into history on the success of Suez, but instead plunged into scandal and passed in infamy at age 89, five years after the liquidation of his canal company.
Zuckerberg is no de Lesseps but certainly feels the waters rising around him. Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill after leaking documents indicating the social media giant knows its platforms negatively impact teens but does nothing about it. The company would rather risk young minds than chance a dent in revenues.
This is hardly shocking. In fact, the behavior is enabled by the federal government. Afforded protection from liability by the legislative tripe known as Section 230, Facebook and others profit from content while being insulated from responsibility for it.
Imagine a sporting contest in which no penalties or fouls can be called on one team, in which that team can do whatever it pleases, while the other is subject to officiating, subject to rules. Then imagine for the latter team that for every point it scores, the opponent gets two.
That’s the game people in the news business are playing. It might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s not. Two companies, Google and Facebook, capture 70% of every local digital advertising dollar. What do these companies themselves contribute in the way of local content? Not a damn thing.
Explained another way, for every three dollars in digital advertising revenue local media collect, those two companies alone get seven.
Meanwhile, local media, this newspaper and the rest across the country as well as television and radio, are legally liable for the content they produce. That is a powerful incentive to ensure care with the facts. Big Tech has no such incentive.
They’ve no reason to consider how teenage minds are affected by the bilge flowing across digital platforms nor have they reason to concern themselves with the steady disintegration of discourse and the erosion of people’s trust both in our institutions and in one another.
The rest of us might ask: Are we better off now than we were before social media allowed all this?
As for Zuckerberg, he’s in the position of de Lesseps, having attained celebrity and wealth, failing to resist reaching for still more and, in the process, risking all, not the least of it the well-being of his country, for nothing more grand than ordinary avarice.