Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It appears that Facebook has a fierce new competitor!
While Facebook has become skilled in squishing startups, they are as yet unsure as to how to deal with this menacing upstart. Clearly, those at Facebook fear that this new enemy poses an existential threat – and what makes matters worse is that they fear they will not simply be able to buy off this foe. So addled is Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, that he has taken a truly dramatic step: he has called President Obama.
Because – of course – the source of Facebook’s current consternation is another revelation about the NSA (courtesy of Edward Snowden) that makes it clear how the government has targeted Facebook. This is a gross and unconscionable infringement! Does the NSA not realize that trapping user information in a Kafkaesque maze of shifting privacy norms is a job already taken? It’s Facebook’s whole business strategy.
Angered by the news that the NSA was using Facebook’s information without first hitting the “like” button, Zuckerberg called the President, yet seems to have been rather unimpressed by the response he received. One can imagine that, Zuckerberg was displeased by the new interface and told President Obama that he preferred the old surveillance state and demanded that it be switched back, but it seems that President Obama’s response was “thank you for your comment, we’re committed to listening to our users as we work to strengthen our surveillance programs.” At which point President Obama hung up, prompting Zuckerberg to take to his Facebook page to publicly grouse.
Zuckerberg’s statements were filled with the stock techno-humanist gibberish that seems to be yet another sign of the mutation of “The Californian Ideology” wherein the ideology’s adherents attempt to not so much return to its hippie roots, but to put on a tie dye shirt and hope that the optics confuse enough people. With optimistic line after hopeful line Zuckerberg sang the praises of the democratic potential of the Internet even as he used words to shake his head at the actions of the NSA, whilst reminding everybody how committed Facebook is to protecting their privacy.
Filled with righteous indignation, Zuckerberg’s post is better than a staid “official press release” – if only because such a press release would make it too obvious that this statement was primarily about one thing: a deep fear that these revelations could mean a loss of profit for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s point can be summed up quite simply: “please, please, please don’t blame us.” Granted, Facebook does not really need to worry too much about a massive exodus of users from the platform – for Facebook has done a truly wondrous job of making it a hassle to quit the site (and quitting does not mean that all of one’s info gets deleted). Maybe Facebook’s bigger fear is that this evidence of NSA interference will tarnish their plans to unleash a fleet of Internet drones – a move which now seems stained by surveillance. Or, perhaps Zuckerberg had recently read the New York Times op-ed penned by Google Executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen regarding the Internet and freedom and felt that something had to be done by Facebook to apply another coat of moralistic-lacquer to the Internet’s cracking veneer. For, of late, the glossy paint has been chipping away and people do not seem particularly comfortable with what they are discovering was painted over.
Which is to say that Zuckerberg’s comments, well meaning and well intentioned as they may be, are more a moment of absurdist comedy than anything serious. To put it another way, it is an elaborate bait and switch, whereby Facebook engages with concerns and worries about privacy and information falling into government hands before immediately pulling a switch so that none of this responsibility sticks to Facebook. “See: he called the President! He must really care!” It is as if Facebook is screaming at the top of its lungs “there are terrible things going on behind that curtain over there” so as to ensure that nobody should point out that Facebook is also hiding behind a curtain.
There’s a certain level on which it is easy to imagine Facebook feeling flattered by the NSA’s attention, after all it is a signal that Facebook is so good at gathering information that the NSA has realized it is easier to tap into their information streams than to start from scratch. It is worth bearing in mind that the Facebook equivalent to Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” is statements about making the world “more open” or “more social” – but what Zuckerberg’s comments reveal (without actually putting it in these terms) is that sometimes being “more open” or “more social” can be a bad thing.
It is certainly true that there is a different relationship between somebody who signs up for a social-networking platform (which then uses their information in various ways) and a person simply realizing their information is being tracked by government agencies. A person signs up for Facebook, not for being watched by the NSA – though it seems the difference may have become moot. And yet it is important to bear in mind that these are two sides of a remarkably thin coin, and while one side may be stamped with a corporate logo and the other side stamped with a surveillance camera, one of the questions that remains is who minted this coin? It is fair to say that people need to accept some personal responsibility for the technology and platforms they use – but such personal responsibility on the part of an individual does not diminish the responsibility of those who design technology or the companies behind popular Internet platforms.
Facebook does the work of intelligence agencies in magnificent ways – it features extremely informative dossiers on people, which tell a story not just about their interests but also about where they go and who they interact with. What makes these dossiers even better is that the subjects themselves compile them – Facebook trains its users to be their own information gathering secret police officer. True, Facebook wants this information so that it can monetize it and sell it to advertisers and the NSA wants it for – well – other purposes. Yet the NSA is simply taking advantage of a system that Facebook has built and spent millions of dollars marketing. One need not – and should not – give a pass to the NSA’s activities, but to truly reckon with what is going on, one must do exactly that which Facebook does not want its users doing: question the system itself. When a tech executive starts shouting “don’t blame us” – that should be the cue to turn a critical gaze in their direction.
Privacy, surveillance, freedom, ethics – these are important issues in contemporary society, especially as we come to reckon with the ways that technology has altered these very values. This is a matter that requires consideration, discussion, and debate – but it is also a matter that requires recognition of the biases of those with the loudest megaphones in the debate. Google’s praise of freedom will always be in line with the company’s freedom to grow, Apple’s appeals to environmentalism will always be more about the interests of Apple (the computer) instead of apples (the fruit), and Facebook’s praise of privacy will never truly conflict with Facebook’s desire to shift the definition of privacy according to their whims. Technology firms are not in the habit of suggesting that the technology itself may be part of the problem.
It can be difficult to conclude which is more absurd: the PR soaked techno-humanistic comments from the tech industry, or the fact that anybody continues to consider these companies honest parties in this discussion.