"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The plot of a new horror movie is causing quite the tizzy. Here’s an overview (don’t worry, no spoilers):
A group of friends are gathered inside a house. They are pleasantly wiling away the evening but a horrific disconnect is occurring…some of them are vanishing! Strange messages begin reaching the still present members of the group providing bizarre insights into the locations of the missing friends.
In a maddened frenzy one person seeks to understand what has occurred. What is the cause of these disappearances? An ancient curse? A diabolical plot? A engineer who has gone mad and is seeking to construct a book out of their faces? The stirrings of some eldritch horror? But it is too late! As the last remaining member of the group wanders the halls of the empty house they realize: they brought this upon the group! They carried the monster/madman/curse/robot/whatever into the house!
And just before the credits can run the sole survivor shouts out the name of their diabolical foe: Facebook Home! AAAAAAAAAHHHH! Oh, wait, this isn’t a movie? But it had a really terrible trailer filled with disconnected pretty young people gazing at each other and then at their phones. That wasn’t for a movie? Well, that’s okay, it was a crappy trailer anyways.
Alas, Facebook’s “Home” is not a movie—it isn’t even a parody—rather it is the new Facebook operating system for usage on Android phones (it is only available on some so far but it will soon be available on more [they do not refer to it as an operating system]). Users who download “Home” will no longer need to access Facebook as an App, rather Facebook will be the phone’s very own HAL 9000, I mean, it will act as the interface through which all other applications are accessed (“open Google + Facebook!” “I’m afraid I can’t do that…”). “Home” will remove the horrifically onerous friction of opening the Facebook App, which took away precious moments during which you could be on Facebook. With “Home” Facebook will always be running.
In fairness “Home” is a very crafty and wise move by Facebook, and it evinces an interesting understanding of the current tech world. Facebook is choosing not to try to fight the battle of “who can make the phone with the biggest screen,” rather the team at Facebook has understood that at a time when more and more people already have smart phones it is not about selling more smart phones it is about controlling how those smart phones are used.
Furthermore, in ignoring the device wars, “Home” provides an insight into the real struggle that is going on between the big technology groups: the fight for your information. Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc… are all competing to see which can amass the most data, as whichever group has the most will be best positioned to monetize this information (either for their own sales [Amazon] or in order to get more advertiser’s dollars [Google, Facebook]). What “Home” will do is turn its users every step into a data deluge for Facebook.
As “Home” will always be running it will know whether you are, say, at home or walking by Starbucks. And it will therefore be able to target you even more efficiently (perhaps by giving Starbucks a chance to send you a coupon as you walk by). “Home” will be watching you as long as you have your phone with you, meaning it will always be watching.
Those who look at “Home” and enter a panoptic-panic are overreacting, if for no other reason than because “Home” changes relatively little, despite Facebook’s propaganda. Smart phones were already tracking your every move and action (as discussed in an earlier post and in a different post), the only difference is that now your information will be harvested by Facebook instead of by Apple or Google.
What differentiates “Home,” and what actually makes it interesting, is not the fact that the page your smart phone wakes up to will have updates from Facebook, nor is it that you’ll be able to receive Facebook messages whilst in other Apps. What makes “Home” worthy of notice is the language being used to promote it. Allow me to quote, extensively from Facebook’s announcement of “Home” to illustrate this point:
“We all want to share and connect. That’s how we discover new information and build meaningful relationships. But today, phones are built around tasks and apps. To see what’s happening with your friends, you pull out your phone and navigate through a series of separate apps.
We asked ourselves if sharing and connecting are what matter most, what would your phone be like if it put your friends first?
Our answer is Home. Home isn’t a phone or operating system, and it’s also more than just an app. Home is a completely new experience that lets you see the world through people, not apps.”
More than anything else, that which Facebook does best is mutilate meaning. “Friend,” “Like,” “privacy,” in the capable coding of Facebook these complex concepts are turned into bland technical terms. Thus, when the press release talks about putting “your friends first” it is important to remember that this doesn’t mean your actual friends, it means the people who are your Facebook “Friends.” Facebook has consistently cloaked itself in an aura of being more than just a way to sell your information to advertisers, which is why they can describe “Home” as:
“a new way to turn your Android phone into a great, living, social phone.”
In Facebook’s parlance “Home” is “a completely new experience that lets you see the world through people, not apps,” this is a sentence worthy of Tristan Tzara, for it is utterly false gibberish, albeit wonderfully composed (wouldn’t it be wonderful if Facebook just turned out to be some vast Dadaist prank?). You can change the terminology used to refer to “Home” (insisting that it is not an App) but it is still just software, and “Home” is little more than a “new” program that “lets you see the world” through a new piece of computing. The only thing that is changing is the program. You aren’t now seeing the world through people, you’re still seeing the world through a program, it’s just a program that is hiding behind the vacation snaps of an old school chum.
By attempting to reference humanistic values through invocations about how “we all want to share and connect” and “what would your phone be like if it put your friends first?” Facebook is able to make “Home” seem like a social innovation, a product with a lofty mission, when its mission is just enriching Facebook. Indeed we do not “all want to share and connect,” part of being human is knowing that there are times when we do not want to share or connect. Sharing and connecting is what Facebook wants, as Facebook wants to “share” your information with advertisers and “connect” you with other people so that it can make money off of these connections.
This mutilation is seen perfectly in the promo video for Facebook “Home” (you can watch it here [link is to youtube]) in which attractive young people are shown pulling out their phones “to connect with the people [they] care about.” The awkward humor of the add is in the sequence that shows people with those they—likely—“care about” only to show them pulling out their phones (including somebody lying in bed). Thus, in the midst of actually connecting with people, these “Home” users are breaking the human connection so that they can “connect” with people who aren’t even there…and this “connect” could just be to learn that the kid they sat behind in seventh grade math has just eaten a sandwich.
It would be folly to suggest that people don’t act in this way. It’s a sad fact that most of us have experienced—and been guilty of—checking our phone whilst with other real live human beings. But by making our pings from Facebook non-stop we only see a further metastasizing of the intrusions into our real world lives by Facebook’s ideas of enforced sharing and connectedness.
Facebook “Home” does not put your friends first, it puts Facebook first. After all, would a friend really be exploiting your every move for their own enrichment? If so you need to find some new friends.
So, I “asked” myself “if sharing and connecting are what matter most,” and I’m not sure they are what matter most, but if they are “what would your phone be like if it put your friends first?”
For one thing it wouldn’t do anything to exploit your relationships with them, and at least when you’re with them in real life, it would probably be off.