The Prodigal Fanboy 

24th August 2018

It is so easy to be drawn into it – the tumult of adoration during which we suspend our critical faculties.

Take the founders of Google, for example.

I hardly know anything about them other than they’re Stanford wizards, one is called Sergey and both were bent on changing the world. Their origin story was one of raw cleverness and strategic vision. And because they were educated and spoke like me, I signed up to their mission. I was not alone. I recall actively wishing for the demise of Bing! and AltaVista. Ask Jeeves was a joke. Sergey and the other bloke had it down. Even the name of their search engine – an exotic word meaning some version of loads and loads – felt enviable and quirky, as did the primary, childlike colour palette of their logo. And then, to top it all, they shared their core ethos with us all: DO NO EVIL.

I mean, really. Sign me up. They can do no wrong. 

Until, alas, they did. Google became gargantuan by using anti-competitive practices; it invaded our privacy; it manipulated search results (oh yes it did, and does); it evaded paying tax; it hired some of the most talented graduates into menial jobs where critical thinking was not just discouraged, but irrelevant. 

At Google, just as at Facebook, we have discovered that the boys who wished to change the world are now rich and powerful men, and we would like if they take responsibility for what they have created. [I recommend Kara Swisher’s work on this theme.]

I’m a recovering fanboy of Silicon Valley, having moved from a zone of loving it all to a more clear-eyed disposition where I expect its players to be held to account too. Privacy issues are just the start. They must take responsibility for human addiction to the black mirror (because in algorithm-land, success is measured in minutes of attention). They must take responsibility for the gaping loneliness which emerges from connections that are proximate but not fully real.

The free rein they were given is shocking in retrospect. It is as if we have been collectively mezmerised by a cult and have forgotten to think for ourselves. Sergey, Zuck and their peers have created wonderful things for their own agendas, but not necessarily ours. They need to hang around to clean up the mess.  

The fanboy does not necessarily know or appreciate it, but dissenting voices are his biggest ally. 

I recall in 1992 how Sinead O’Connor stood in front of the NBC cameras of Saturday Night Live and tore up a picture of the then Bishop of Rome, with the words ‘fight the real enemy’. This fragile, passionate and damaged person was thrashed for her actions. They said she should be ‘smacked’ and ‘spanked’ for what she did. She became a cultural whack job. And then the truth of the insane abuses of the Catholic church came to light. Indeed, Pope John Paul II is now implicated in their cover-up.

I must admit to being a fan of the woman who blew up fanboys. 

It is human instinct to ‘get on board’ with the prophets of the time – be they of business, technology, music, literature, rhetoric, politics, electric cars or religion. This is what fashion is: a united gush of enthusiasm, sustained by the enthusiasm of others. And yet, we know that the answer to almost any human problem is a version of balance: see both sides, weigh the arguments, trial before commitment, predict the issues, search for the wrinkles. 

As Francis is about to spend time in Ireland, the first pope since John Paul II’s Living Saint Tour of 1979, I am glad when I see balance in the way we Irish citizens engage with his visit. For me, he is fully welcome to be here. He has many followers and admirers among Irish people. So too does he have detractors. All parts of the argument deserve attention and weighing. I do not find it disrespectful to air the many grievances we have with his church. Nor do I find it disingenuous to still believe in that church. 

The lesson of the Prodigal Fanboy is this: thoughtfully admire, thoughtfully admonish.  

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