It was interesting to read reports of the festivities associated with the Facebook initial public offering (IPO), which described founder Mark Zuckerberg opening the public markets in New York remotely from his own Californian headquarters. According to the Financial Times, no journalists were given access to the event itself – only a video feed was supplied. But by ringing the (public) market opening bell from his (private) office, Zuckerberg echoed the behaviour of the tyrants of the ancient world, converting the public (and we can regard our public markets as the equivalent of the ancient agora) into the private.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, when Deioces was chosen by the Medes to be their king, he took his responsibilities very seriously and established a range of royal protocols (Histories 1.96-100). He also compelled his people to build him a palace. Once this private world was constructed, he retreated within it and contracted all his business through intermediaries and written notes. His royal status was protected by restricted access to his person, while the other Medes were kept outside the citadel. The control of the public world from a private space becomes a hallmark of tyranny, the control of a city or country by a single ruler operating in his own interest. Nobody had the opportunity to assess just how ordinary Deioces was. His command of the system of justice in the Median empire rested on the assumption that there was something special about his capabilities. Privacy advocates might also note that Deioces maintained his power by setting up a network of spies and informers to keep him on top of events outside the palace, another action that becomes a hallmark of tyranny. Zuckerberg, with all Facebook’s wealth of our personal data at his command, obviously doesn’t have any difficulty keeping informed about the outside world. According to Aristotle, despotic rule replaces the appropriate relationships between ruler and ruled with those that exist between master and slave, turning the public world of the polis, where citizens are treated as equals, into a giant household in which citizen status is replaced by slavery. But tyrants rarely lead happy lives, in the examples cited by both Herodotus and Aristotle: friends and family turn against them, their subordinates revolt and grandiose expansion campaigns end in catastrophic defeat. Interestingly, Herodotus generally looks more favourably on founders such as Deioces; later rulers who’ve inherited rather than won or earned power tend to do much worse than those who’ve established new cities or empires. He would have probably had a sneaking admiration for Mark Zuckerberg and have been fascinated by Facebook. Fortunately for Zuckerberg, the ancient world has plenty of advice for the tyrant. In Xenophon’s Hiero the Tyrant, a self-help manual for the lonely tyrant, Simonides encourages the tyrant to gain affection through self-improvement. Aristotle offers a stark choice between repression and transition back to moderation and political rule, in which there is some equivalence of status between ruler and ruled (Politics 1310a39-1315b10, book 5 chapters 10-11). So it will be interesting to see whether Facebook’s next steps follow the advice of the ancient philosophers, or the more aggressive strategies that Machiavelli would later offer to his prince.