"More than machinery, we need humanity."
A common feature in thrillers is betrayal: that moment when suddenly one individual reveals that (surprise!) they are not actually the protagonist’s friend. Calamity ensues as the hero must face this new adversary and struggle to complete their objective while simultaneously having to come to terms with what this violation of trust means for their perception of the world around them. Of course, in keeping with the thriller example, there’s usually a mix in the audience of those who are genuinely caught off guard by the betrayal and those who saw it coming. Alas, betrayal isn’t something that only happens in thrillers. Rather, real people place their trust in a range of other people, institutions, beliefs, and technologies – and when that moment of betrayal occurs it sends them reeling.
To witness the angry face of the betrayed look no further than the exchanges between members of the congressional intelligence committee and the lawyers from Facebook, Twitter, and Google (Alphabet). Ostensibly, and in actuality, these heated exchanges are related to the way in which these tech platforms were exploited by groups tied to the Russian government in pushing particular content in the run up to the 2016 election. These various questionable accounts pushed fallacious news stories, created groups to push divisive issues, operated armies of bots, and distributed memes. And though opinions are still divided as to how much of a genuine effect these had on the election’s outcome (did they really convince anyone to vote, to vote differently, or did they just reinforce what certain people already believed?) – the fact that these tech companies found their lawyers being grilled in the Capitol makes clear that this is a serious matter, being taken seriously, by serious people.
While it would be unwise to simply dismiss of the concerns about meddling, one of the questions that lingers in the background here is: why are people so upset by these tech companies’ actions (or inaction)? An obvious, if simplistic, answer would be to read this exclusively through a partisan lens and respond that people are angry about the election’s results and are eager to pin the blame on a nefarious foreign plot that duped a chunk of the populace with some cheesy memes and trolling. Lest there be any confusion, the point here is not to minimize or mock the concerns that many feel this debacle raises – but rather to point to another important feature of the story that is going largely ignored. For it seems as though there is another subtler narrative at work here: perhaps the reason people are so angry at Facebook, Twitter, and Google is because they feel that they have been betrayed by them.
After all, we enjoy keeping up with our friends on Facebook, we want to share our vacation photos on Instagram (which Facebook owns), feel as though we are engaged in political discourse when we use the right hashtags on Twitter, we like watching news clips on YouTube (which Google owns), and we’ve become accustomed to using Google to find what we’re looking for online. The news that these platforms have been exploited for political aims we disapprove of taints these platforms and calls into question much of what we’ve done on them. Are you sure you never accidentally read, watched, liked, or shared something that originated from one of these shadowy groups? How sure are you? How sure can you really be?
Companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are more than just businesses – they are the real world manifestations of a powerful ideology. This is a worldview in which Internet connected technology represents the promise of a happier today and a brighter tomorrow. This is a popular and prevalent view in the computer dominated societies of the twenty-first century and it’s a view that has only become stronger as these companies have grown in size and as the Internet has come to be an ever more present feature in many people’s lives (when was the last time you genuinely didn’t go online for an entire day?). On the one hand this is tied to the sort of model of “the goods life” as “the good life” that the Internet offers people, online: you can shop, connect with friends, watch movies, shop for other stuff, read the news, shop for yet other things, post pictures of your pets, and even shop for handmade artisanal trinkets. Convenience, entertainment, information, and connection all await you on the nearest Internet connected screen. Importantly, there is also a set of explicitly political ideals that have been tied up with the Internet, wherein the Internet (and especially social media tools) is the great patron saint of emancipatory politics and activism. Some may roll their eyes at terms like “Facebook Revolutions,” or “hashtag activism,” but the Internet has cultivated an aura as a friend of democratic (small d) struggle. And these are views which are hardly subterranean: the companies themselves (perhaps Facebook most openly) tout that they are transforming the world for the better, and there’s never a shortage of well-meaning individuals lining up to sing the praises of these Internet giants. This worldview has had its (largely ignored) detractors, but it is an ideology that has been successful because many people have to a greater or lesser extents bought into it. And even where they have remained resistant they’ve still played a role in pushing it forward, simply by making use of these platforms. If you are using Google, Facebook, or Twitter than these platforms benefit from your use of them – regardless of whether or not you actually like the platform.
Of course, not every Facebook user thinks that Mark Zuckerberg should be president, many people who conduct Google searches have trepidations about the company, and it has almost become something of a standard act of self-deprecating humor for Twitter users to tweet about how much they hate Twitter. That being said, one should also not necessarily believe that all of a platform’s users operate with any sort of critical perspective – many people still lionize these companies, or think that the broader actions taken by the company do not affect them personally. Nevertheless, what all of these platform users share is a certain sense of how the platform is supposed to function. This is why there are momentary outbursts of befuddlement and rage when one of these platforms undergoes some kind of significant change – Facebook reactions!? 280 characters!? Having to pay for YouTube!? These are truly important changes, because they force users to alter their expectations of these platforms and require them to rethink how they interact with these platforms. And there is a secondary set of expectations about these platforms, beliefs about how they operate in the world. This set of beliefs flows largely from the previously discussed ideological framework, but the core belief is that these platforms function in a way that is basically benevolent. Who would make use of any of these platforms if they did not believe – on at least some level – that their good features outweighed their bad features?
All of which brings us back to betrayal. The disconcerted frustration and anger of the members of the congressional intelligence committee speaks to the ways in which these recent revelations about Russian meddling have upended the narratives these companies tell society and which users of these platforms tell themselves. Suddenly, it becomes all too clear that Google, Facebook, and Twitter might not actually be particularly good for democracy. That they might be more interested in pecuniary values than social ones. And that they might have invested more resources in detecting nipples than in detecting nefarious bots. These companies have grown massively in their short lifespans, they have largely escaped oversight and regulation and it seems that one of the explanations of that is because many of those tasked with regulating them thought these companies were basically “on the right side.” And it not only members of Congress who feel as though their trust has been violated: a user can make peace with Facebook Reactions or a 280 character limit, but what are they to do when that platform has been caught happily disseminating divisive propaganda for a few rubles? Beyond the Terms of Service (which no one reads) there seems to be an oft unspoken contract that a user mentally constructs between themselves and the platform wherein they will continue happily using that platform as long as it does not do X, Y and Z. But if the platform does X, Y and Z the user pledges they will leave. But now these platforms have been caught doing X, Y and Z – and the user’s bluff has been called.
Part of what makes this betrayal smart so much is that users do not know what to do or where to go. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are lots of furious Facebook users who really want to delete their accounts…but then how would they keep up with their family and friends? Similarly, there are indignant Google users who are horrified by the way that Google has allowed its algorithms to be gamed…but Google Maps is really useful and it would be such a pain to set up a new e-mail account. Legions of Twitter users loathe the way the platform has become a haven for harassment and hatred while the recent revelations have created an odd atmosphere wherein anyone who disagrees with you can be framed as a Russian bot…but Twitter is still a pretty good platform for keeping an eye on breaking news and telling jokes. Users are very angry with how these platforms have betrayed the trust the same users invested in these platforms, but few users are going to go as far as to delete their accounts and swear off these platforms altogether. And for many people, swearing off these platforms may not even be a realistic option.
These platforms have us trapped with nowhere else to really go. They know it. They’ve known it. Heck, they’ve invested millions of dollars in building up the walls that now entrap up. But the problem is that now it’s becoming really hard for users to pretend that they don’t know it themselves.
And thus, we are left pondering the matter of “what to do?” as we nurse the wounds of our betrayal and begin to suspect that anyone (anyone!) might actually be a bot acting on orders from an adversarial government. On the one hand it’s very tempting to simply council “delete your account,” or “stop using platforms owned by that company,” but as Neil Postman observed:
“Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus, and to suggest that they do so is to make no suggestion at all.” (Postman, 158)
Therefore, a productive step would be to recognize that this betrayal was not unforeseen. Google, Facebook, and Twitter may have betrayed our trust – but we never should have trusted them in the first place. It was folly to think they’d be good for democracy when there is nothing democratic about them. It is long past time to revisit those voices that were warning about this inevitable betrayal before there even existed companies called Google, Facebook, or Twitter. After all, Neil Postman – from whom the previous quote comes – did a better job predicting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), than 99.9% of pundits and pollsters. The twentieth century is populated by numerous social critics who warned about the technological quicksand into which society was merrily marching – many of them were ignored or denounced as pessimists, prophets of doom, or Luddites during their lifetimes – but they now have their woebegone revenge by being proven right.
Writing in 1964, the historian and social critic Lewis Mumford argued that there were two archetypes of technology (or “technics” as he put it): authoritarian and democratic. Democratic technics are small in scale, ecologically inoffensive, and remain in the control of the individuals or local communities that utilize them – these are technologies that build a virtuous cycle by reifying and maintaining self-reliance. Authoritarian technics, on the other hand, are large in scale, ruinous of planet and people, impossible to exert genuine local control over, and the more that people come to rely on authoritarian technics, the more they are pulled into the system of such technologies. Once a society opts for authoritarian technics, it becomes harder and harder for them to ever opt out. Of course, the term “authoritarian” is soaked in negative connotations and one would be justified in asking why people would ever go for such technologies, but to this Mumford had a ready reply, authoritarian technics succeeded because they had:
“accepted the basic principle of democracy, that every member of society should have a share in its goods. By progressively fulfilling this part of the democratic promise, our system has achieved a hold over the whole community that threatens to wipe out every other vestige of democracy.” (Mumford, 6)
The people who are angry about Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s roles in the last election are simultaneously those who have been enjoying a “share in its goods.” And this is a “share” that has been democratically distributed thereby leading many to believe that the “goods” were themselves democratic. But now we are realizing – admittedly too late – about the true character of these systems. And we feel betrayed as we come to realize that what seemed like a good deal may have been anything but, and as we come to realize that we aren’t sure of how to pull ourselves out of the bog into which we are sinking.
Admittedly Mumford was drawing out this duality long before the rise of the personal computer, the smartphone, or social networking platforms, but he still singled out the computer as an example of an authoritarian technic. And though it may not be comfortable to think of your smartphone, laptop, or the platforms you use in this manner it can still be productive to puzzle over it in this way. After all, are you really in control of your computer? Do you really understand what is going on in the machine? Can you maintain it yourself? Did you make it yourself or does it rely on globalized chains of capital involving mineral extraction, labor, and the like? Does it rely on a broader set of other technologies over which you similarly have no control (power, the Internet)? Does it become harder and harder to walk away the more you entangle yourself with these systems? And, to be bleakly honest, can you really conceptualize a situation in which you are able to just turn all of it off and walk away? Or has your social, political, and economic life become wholly reliant upon all of these machines? We know the answers to these questions, but we spend more time trying to avoid having to answer them than actually wrestling with what those answers say about our world. After all, there’s a reason why people who raised these questions (like Mumford) were denounced and derided as pessimists. We like to think our computers and the platforms we use are democratic technologies because we use them ourselves – sometimes even for democratic ends – but that does not mean there is anything inherently democratic about these devices.
Concluding his argument about these two traditions of technology, Mumford explained:
“What I wish to do is to persuade those who are concerned with maintaining democratic institutions to see that their constructive efforts must include technology itself. There, too, we must return to the human center. We must challenge this authoritarian system that has given to an underdimensioned ideology and technology the authority that belongs to the human personality. I repeat: life cannot be delegated.” (Mumford, 7)
There may be elements of international intrigue permeating this story, but we are not actually in a political thriller but in a less than thrilling political reality. We wound up here thanks to a galling lack of information literacy and a stalwart refusal to learn from history (full stop) or from the history of technology. Many people will continue using Google, Facebook, and Twitter in light of these recent hearings and revelations – and many of those people will do so out of a feeling that they can’t simply step away from these platforms. But if we care about democratic institutions, we need to fully recognize that many of our beloved gadgets are profoundly anti-democratic.
Google, Facebook, and Twitter haven’t betrayed us – they’ve just forced us to see them as they truly are.
Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture, vol. 5, no. 1 (Winter, 1964), 1-8.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (20th Anniversary Edition. New York: Penguin, 2005.