In a recent speech at Georgetown University, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg surprised the world with his cry for help.
Or at least that’s what I heard.
Facing a barrage of criticism for Facebook’s effectiveness in distributing distorted information and sometimes outright lies, Zuckerberg devoted most of his speech to proclaiming his devotion to free speech.
And then he shifted gears.
“I hope this is a moment,” he said, “for us to put our place in history in perspective.”
This brings to mind a truism that has never lost its relevance: Even the devil can quote scripture.
But let’s reconfigure that familiar saying to fit Zuckerberg’s circumstances.
Even a man with the sketchiest knowledge of the past can still claim ownership of the high ground of history.
And yet, refusing a strong temptation for mockery, I interpret his remark as an expression of the subliminal desire to hang out with my people. So, I offer a formal invitation: Mr. Zuckerberg, please come with us to the Western History Association Convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 14-17, 2020.
Here’s the vision.
After a high-intensity orientation to the professional practices of historians, Zuckerberg will join several of us in a lively exploration of the central role of the American West in the transformations of the information industry and the many dimensions of its cultural, social, and political impacts. This discussion, we will follow the precedent set by former Silicon Flatirons Director Phil Weiser (now transformed into the Colorado State Attorney General), who orchestrated nearly a dozen public conversations reflecting on lessons drawn from the history of westward expansion. This comparison provided unexpected illumination on the dynamics of the digital world, often referred to as “the Wild West” or the “frontier.”
This sets us up for the most important element of our consultation: helping a person of unquestionable historical significance to assess the scale of the accountability and responsibility that he holds for the future of his nation.
If Zuckerberg accepts my invitation, he will depart from the Western History Association with a dramatically enhanced ability to anticipate and shape his “place in history.” Moreover, his capacity to chart a steadier course — from the past, through the present, and into the future —will benefit the United States and the world.
Providence is already supporting this convergence with a generous dose of synchronicity. On the very day that Zuckerberg gave his talk at Georgetown University, nearly a thousand historians assembled for the annual conference of the Western History Association, this time in Las Vegas. Yes, scholars have a legendary reputation for petty feuds and petulant turf wars. But after episodes of divisiveness and fragmentation, our conferences have become festivals of cordiality and civility, peppered with forthright and respectful differences of opinion and interpretation.
Mr. Zuckerberg, we have heard your cry for help, and we stand ready to share our knowledge with you. Indeed, given the urgency of your situation, you may not want to wait until October of 2020 to talk with us. Pick a time and place, and a search-and-rescue team of historians will appear with dispatch.
Given all the mischief and turmoil that social media have unleashed upon the world, it would probably be best to meet-face-to-face.
Patty Limerick is faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado. For interest in attending the 2020 WHA conference contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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