Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series about technology and its impact on us: Facebook, May 30; China’s new “social credit” system, June 13 and the Artificial Intelligence juggernaut, June 27.
So there’s this cartoon titled “Facebook and You.” Two chickens run into each other outside a huge barn that houses thousands just like them. First chicken says, “It’s just amazing that we can live here without paying rent!” Second chicken says, “Yeah, and all this good free food; I’ve even been putting on weight.” The caption below says, “If you’re living and eating for free, you are not the guest; you’re the product.”
Okay, each one of us willing chickens has known for a long time that we’re merely consumer flesh used to fatten Facebook’s (FB’s) profit margins, which in 2018’s first quarter were the company’s highest ever. But, just last January, feeling like an easily manipulated pawn in some massive, algorithm-driven menace in the sky, I dumped my Facebook account.
(An aside: at the same time I also dumped my TV cable account and I no longer feel so angry at the endless controversy, conflict and pumped-up drama of the daily news that was fed to me for the purpose of capturing my eyeballs. After a few days of painful withdrawal, I found I’m beginning to enjoy the solitude and the pleasure of meeting with friends face-to-face rather than electronically, and I’m saving a bundle by no longer “bundling.”)
In January, when I announced on FB that I was going to shut down my account in 24 hours, I had more responses to that than to anything I had ever posted before. Many of those responses also indicated they too had thought about dumping Facebook, but I doubt that many have done so. Too many connections to distant grandkids, old high school friends, ex-lovers turned stalkers, and constant offers for products once glanced at while in a big box store.
How did FB know I briefly glanced?! Several years ago, as a novice user of their system, did I give them the permission they asked for to wring me dry of my computer-stored content, e-mail address list, etc.? I can’t remember. But it turns out that I didn’t have to give them permission. If I did not give them permission to harvest my information, they still retrieved my data from any one of my now former “FB friends” who have allowed the “FB menace in the sky” to upload their own data, which includes anything I ever communicated to them.
An article in “The Guardian” newspaper (Dec. 12, 2017) wrote about a former FB executive, Chamath Palihapitiya. Until 2011, Palihapitiya was vice president for user growth at FB – work for which he now feels guilty. He currently speaks publicly regarding the tools he helped develop, “…tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
The same article quotes FB’s founding president, Sean Parker, as criticizing the company’s exploitation of a particular vulnerability in human psychology: our need for social validation. This need is expressed very clearly in so many of our FB posts: “Look at the great vacation/gourmet meal/grandchild I am enjoying. See how adventurous/compassionate I am by climbing this rock/water skiing on one ski/volunteering in Haiti, etc.” Never has there been a medium that allows us to be so expressive of our hunger for social reassurance. We definitely receive that social validation on FB, but in return we give up any notion of personal privacy.
Do we also give up any sense of our personal dignity and the dignity and respect owed to others? Because of FB and other social media companies, we are herded into tighter and tighter niches of political polarization, marketing categories and myriad clearly differentiated interest groups. (If any readers don’t feel they personally have been manipulated, please let me know. I will recommend a local therapist who can help you overcome that delusion.)
We go back again and again to those same niches, are less open to other views, new people and new interests. As Palihapitiya and a growing number of other critics of social media assert, we should be more reflective about our relationship with these media, how their algorithms are programing us to give up independent thought.
Obviously, I grew to adulthood (well, okay, still stumbling in that direction) prior to the existence of FB and other social media. My antique mind is amazed that so many young (and old) people accept this stripping away of their privacy as a good tradeoff for what they receive in terms of social reassurance, easy access to products, and online celebrity gossip.
The European Union with its new privacy rules has an edge on the US, predicated on protecting human dignity. Their rules push back against the pervasive surveillance, data mining and other overbearing digital piracy to which people now submit and/or confront throughout much of the world. Such rules are an honest effort, but over time they will erode due to the geometrically increasing power and “everywhereness” of these technologies.
China has initiated a new “Social Credit” system driven by facial recognition software and big data gathering, all for the purpose of altering more “positively” the behavior of its 1.4 billion citizens. You can count on the US staggering toward a similar unified system to alter citizen behavior and help us to be more cooperative with government and useful to big business.
Tune in next time for more about China’s new system.