Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
‘Who rules here?’
‘The People naturally.’
‘Naturally the people
– Erich Fried, “In the Capital.”
While many things can be said about Facebook’s current problems, one cannot say that the company does not deserve them.
As if the initial revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica were not bad enough, the fact that Facebook knew and said nothing was only more damning. Add to that Facebook’s delayed – and laughable – response and it’s clear that the company has not only lost control of its own platform, it has lost control of the narrative, and the more it tries to pull itself out of the mire the deeper it seems to sink. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of Facebook’s rival tech-giants chortling in the background as they watch their once-mighty adversary brought low by its own hubris. And to make matters worse, no less a tech-insider than one of the co-founders of WhatsApp (which Facebook purchased for billions) had the audacity to tweet to the multitude: #deleteFacebook.
Facebook has found itself in trouble before, and yet there is something about the current debacle that just seems different. And though it remains to be seen how many people actually #deleteFacebook, and how many of those people truly keep their accounts deleted, the very fact that this campaign has caught on testifies to the existence of a backlash the likes of which Facebook has not endured before. Zero sympathy should be wasted on Facebook’s billionaire CEO, and yet one can still recognize that he must be extremely displeased and anxious about how things are playing out.
Yet, to be honest, it’s pretty likely that Facebook will weather this storm. Its value may take a hit in the interim, it may lose a few thousand users, and a few prominent executives may be forced to resign in disgrace, but it will almost certainly survive. And it will probably survive without having to really change all that much. For Facebook is not the disease, it is but a symptom. And the larger disease has infected, pretty much, the entire Internet as well as much of computer dominated society – and, arguably, this sickly state is the core operating ethos of computer dominated society. This disease operates under many names. Those who diagnosed it before it could take hold spoke of it as “the megamachine,” or “technique,” though today one often here’s the particular virulent strand of it referred to as “surveillance capitalism.” The risk, at the moment, is to see Facebook as patient zero, instead of recognizing that it’s just another plague bearer.
Before going any further it is important to state a few things clearly.
A. I do not have a Facebook account.
B. I think Facebook is terrible – as past postings on this site document.
C. I support the idea of people deleting their Facebook accounts.
D. Two of the areas my research focuses on are media refusal and the history of critiques of technology. And it is for this reason that I’m skeptical of just telling people to delete Facebook without being able to point them to an alternative. I fear the “just quit” argument is a non-starter for many people. Historically, telling people “just quit” hasn’t worked, and I don’t see why it would work now.
E. While, to restate the second point, I think Facebook is terrible, I worry that too much attention on Facebook (itself) instead of on the ethos that underlies this situation (an ethos shared by most tech companies) will wind up giving the other companies and the ethos a pass.
But, I digress.
One of the most important questions to wrestle with in regards to the current wave of outrage, of which #deleteFacebook may be the crest, is why is this happening now?
For critics of Facebook this may be the most interesting question. After all, there wasn’t a massive “quit” campaign launched when Facebook’s problematic content moderating policies were leaked. When Facebook alters its terms of services to push people to share more things publicly it was not met with this sort of response. Evidence of racist ad-targeting did not result in this level of anger. Past instances of data abuse left many feeling shocked, but it didn’t wind up tanking the company’s value. Heck, there wasn’t even anger on this scale when it was revealed that Facebook was running emotional experiments on its users. Certainly, in each of these cases, some people have spoken out, some have said that it’s time to boycott, but it’s never caught on like this before.
So what’s different now?
It seems that much of the present outrage at Facebook is not as much about the fact that this data was obtained, that Facebook knew and said nothing, or that Facebook is sucking up all of this data on its users. It seems that many people are furious because they blame Facebook (by way of Cambridge Analytica) for helping Trump win. It’s not that people can’t forgive Facebook’s panoptic tendencies, it’s that they can’t forgive Facebook for helping Trump win. And given that most Facebook users, at least in the US, can justifiably suspect that their user data was harvested by Cambridge Analytica – many users feel personally wronged by this in a way that they may not have felt personally wronged by Facebook’s earlier actions.
Granted, people will be arguing over what “really” decided the 2016 election until the end of human civilization (which, given the outcome of the 2016 election, may be sooner rather than later), but the “blame Facebook” story functions wonderfully insofar as it presents people with a clear villain (Facebook) and provides people with a clear action to take (delete your Facebook account). If you strongly dislike President Trump, if you have a Facebook account, and if you think Facebook helped Trump win – it becomes quite understandable why you would want to walk away from Facebook. It gives users an opportunity to thumb their noses at Facebook and Trump simultaneously.
Of course, Facebook is not the only tech company that has come under fire for its role in the election. But Facebook is different, because Facebook is personal. YouTube has become a haven for the far-right and for conspiracy theories, but this feels less personal to those who don’t watch such videos. Twitter is filled with angry vitriol, much of which comes from Trump’s personal twitter account, but it’s easy to hit the “block” or “report” button and glumly sigh. But Facebook is where people upload their personal photos, it is where they connect with their family, it is where they plan and learn about events, it is where they wish their friends happy birthday – you don’t have to use Facebook yourself to understand the ways in which this current debacle seems like a personal attack in a way that a conspiracy theory video on YouTube does not. At this point it is hard not to know that Facebook is monetizing your data if you use Facebook. But it is one thing for Facebook to show you advertisements that are creepily specific, and it is another thing to think that in some small way Facebook used your data to help Trump win. True, your profile may have made it clear to Cambridge Analytica that you despise Trump and everything he stands for – but was that information potentially still usable in helping refine the search for the contrary inclinations in others? Facebook users do not know how exactly their information was used, but they doubt it was used in a way of which they would genuinely approve.
Had the 2016 election gone differently, and had this story still come out, it is easy to imagine that it would have met with a slightly different response. Sure, people still would have been outraged. But it doesn’t seem like the problem here is just that people think Facebook helped Trump, but more specifically that they think Facebook helped Trump win.
Again, if you despise Trump, and every time you log into Facebook you think “they helped Trump win,” it’s understandable why you’d want to delete your account.
And though much of the above reasoning could be wrong, if it isn’t it suggests that much of the anger driving #deleteFacebook isn’t about surveillance capitalism or the dangers of big data – it’s a reaction to Trump.
Here is a personal confession: I know that I miss out on things by not being on Facebook. It’s a tradeoff that I’ve been willing to make, but it doesn’t change the previous sentence. I still haven’t seen most of the pictures from my best friend’s wedding – because they were posted on Facebook. I’ve lost touch with many of my old friends, I don’t know what’s going on with many of my cousins, and I’m frequently scolded for not coming to events that I didn’t even know were occurring. And I can testify that over the last several years being personally opposed to Facebook did not endear me to many people. Of course, I will be the first person to tell you that a great way of staying in touch is to write to friends, to call them, and to make sure to verbally invite people to events. Yet, let us be honest, in its short existence Facebook has managed to alter many facets of social life such that people have now become accustomed to mediating their interactions through the platform. To be clear, I don’t think that’s a good thing, but I still recognize that it has happened. This is one of the points that is regularly emphasized in the scholarship that looks at social media usage (such as Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, and José Van Dijck’s The Culture of Connectivity) – that people keep using platforms like Facebook, even as they are aware of the downsides, because they’re worried about what they’d be losing by giving up the platforms.
Writing long before Mark Zuckerberg was born, and anxiously gazing towards the computer dominated future, the social critic Lewis Mumford tried to understand why people would willingly (even eagerly) embrace technologies with severe downsides. To Mumford there were two types of technologies: democratic ones (such as bicycles) that strengthened personal autonomy; and authoritarian ones (such as computers) that ultimately came to exert total power over their users. In seeking to explain why people, and a society, would opt for authoritarian technologies over democratic ones, Mumford argued that authoritarian technologies (which he also called megatechnics) operate as a wonderful bribe. What this bribe represented was a way in which these technologies, in exchange for acquiescence, offered people a share of the impressive things these technologies could produce. Writing in 1970, Mumford warned that accepting the bribe gradually led to the elimination of alternatives to it, and he noted that for those who accept the bribe, “their ‘real’ life will be confined within the frame of a television screen” (Mumford, 331) – though today we might just as easily say “within the frame of a computer or smartphone screen.” And as he glumly continued, “to enjoy total automation, a significant portion of the population is already willing to become automatons” (Mumford, 332). Granted, as Mumford also noted, it was not that everything offered by the bribe was rubbish, rather “if one examines separately only the immediate products of megatechnics, these claims, these promises, are valid, and these achievements are genuine” but what Mumford highlighted was that “all these goods remain valuable only if more important human concerns re not overlooked or eradicated” (Mumford, 333).
Facebook is an excellent example of this bribe at work. And to be clear, the bribe works because it offers people something they think is beneficial. Facebook offers people an easy way to stay in touch with friends, Facebook offers people an easy way to stay on top of the news, Facebook makes it easy for people to share photos, Facebook makes it easy to plan events (and to say whether or not you’re going to the event), Facebook makes it easy to promote your new creative project, and so forth. In order to obtain these “goods” on offer from Facebook a user must deal with the “bads” of Facebook – but that is why the bribe exists and how it operates. The offer of the good is used so that people overlook the bad. And to be clear, when you take a step back, a Mumfordian argument would be one that frames Facebook (in its entirety) as a bribe and points to the broader system of computerized surveillance capitalism as the authoritarian technology. Platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and the like are all the bribes that convince people not to war against computerized control by offering them a little share of the goodies. A turn of phrase that Mumford returned to repeatedly throughout his oeuvre is the difference between “the good life” and “the goods life” – and he argued that things such as the bribe were the tools by which people came to mistake “the goods life” for “the good life.”
Facebook is a bribe. And, as it turns out, it may actually be a pretty bad deal. But Facebook is hardly the only bribe being offered by the authoritarian technologies of surveillance capitalism.
Deleting Facebook is an excellent way of refusing a bribe. Yet it must be remembered that the bribe has been successful because it has offered people things which seemed enticing, and the bribe sustains itself because people have now become reliant on it.
Unless we see the bribe for what it is – there’s no guarantee that we won’t fall for the next bribe.
In 1985, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book which (arguably) did a better job predicting the outcome of the 2016 presidential election than many of the world’s journalists. Throughout the book the media technology with which Postman was most concerned was television, and towards the book’s conclusion he found himself faced with the question of “why not just get rid of all the televisions?” In particular Postman was wrestling with the arguments put forth in Jerry Mander’s provocative Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television – a book in which Mander argued that television was irredeemable and needed to be done away with altogether. While Postman was clearly sympathetic with Mander’s argument he still warned his readers that “we must, as a start, not delude ourselves,” adding “Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus, and to suggest that they do is to make no suggestion at all” (Postman, 158). As Postman saw it, the television had already become too widely disseminated – the bribe was working – and to dream of simply getting rid of it was simply unrealistic.
Alas, Postman’s words ring true when it comes to #deleteFacebook as well. It’s a campaign that is just a half step removed from making “no suggestion at all.”
Here it can be helpful to compare #deleteFacebook with other recent campaigns that have sought to push back against various technologies. Two recent efforts that come to mind are the campaigns against Google Glass and the various boycott efforts targeting Uber. However, again, “we must…not delude ourselves.” Google Glass was stopped before it could truly become pervasive. Uber, on the other hand, represents a more interesting example, for part of the reason that the campaigns against Uber worked is that they immediately presented people with alternatives (Lyft, taxis, public transit, other driving companies). Though it must be remembered, Uber is still around – yes, it had to jettison some problematic executives, but the company survived the delete campaign. But if we compare #deleteUber to #deleteFacebook it becomes immediately clear, that part of the challenge facing #deleteFacebook is that it isn’t offering people anywhere to go.
Over the years there have been no shortage of attempts to start new platforms to challenge Facebook (remember Diaspora? What about Ello?). These platforms have failed. Facebook is the dominant force in its particular corner of social media, and this is a dominance which it has been able to extend by buying up would be competitors like Instagram and WhatsApp. Indeed, a question that lingers in the background of #deleteFacebook is whether or not it also means that one should #deleteInstagram and #deleteWhatsApp. If one has purchased an Oculus VR headset must one get rid of it? It would be wonderful if the solution to the problem was as simple as deleting Facebook, but alas that is but a technological solution to a massive societal problem. One that overlooks the way in which Facebook has interwoven itself with much of the basic fabric of today’s Internet. And as we know, you might not be on Facebook – but that doesn’t mean that Facebook isn’t watching you.
Furthermore, one should not overlook the extent to which #deleteFacebook can be seen as a sign of privilege. It is a campaign that is most easily embraced by those who feel that they can delete the platform without any real repercussions. And it often gives rise to an odd, somewhat egotistical, aura of “if someone needs to get in touch with me, they’ll find a way.” It is in no way meant as a criticism of “normal” people to recognize that there is something faintly elitist about #deleteFacebook. After all, for the super-cool and ultra-hip tech influencers jumping on the suddenly-it’s-okay-to-criticize-Facebook-bandwagon Facebook has been old hat and uncool for some time.
Yet, to give full voice to cynicism, there’s always the chance that #deleteFacebook will simply serve to deflect criticism away from the dominant ethos of surveillance capitalism by redirecting it at Facebook. Thus, people rage against Facebook instead of the ideology that Facebook shares with many other companies. It’s easy to imagine Google trying to capitalize on the current mayhem at Facebook by using the current frustration as an opportunity to relaunch Google+ (they could create tools that make it easy to import an old Facebook account). But that would just be trading one surveillance capitalism platform for another. And though there are certainly hardcore privacy and crypto advocates who will point to various “secure” services or “really private” alternatives it seems that many such arguments are only a bit better than “no suggestion at all” – especially as (at least as of yet) there still isn’t a genuine alternative to Facebook on offer. Though #deleteFacebook may appear ready to take a bite out of Facebook, it risks being a technological solution that defangs the push for broader systemic change and critique.
And lurking in the background of so much of this is still the question: what are people protesting when they say #deleteFacebook?
It would be great if this was the opening salvo in a genuine campaign against surveillance capitalism, but so far it seems like the campaign is largely being driven by people who are angry at Facebook for helping Trump win.
To be clear, people should be angry at Facebook.
But deleting your account, which you should do if you like, is not enough.
So, what then is to be done?
The first thing to do is to expand your imagination regarding technology and society. Scholars and critics were warning about Facebook (and its ilk) for years – but were largely ignored, and were often mocked. When using any technology its always worth considering how it is using you, and it is worth considering what kinds of risks are embedded in the system. The news about Facebook is frustrating, but it is hard to argue that no one could have seen it coming. At the very least, let hope this incident opens people’s eyes.
Second, and more importantly, we need to think about how Facebook could be different. What would Facebook look like in an ideal world? As Facebook lurches us closer and closer to dystopia, let’s imagine what it would look like if we tried to tug it in a utopian direction. What would it mean if instead of pushing for everyone to get off Facebook we instead pushed for the platform to be nationalized? After all, Facebook has made its fortune off of monetizing your data why shouldn’t you have a say in how the platform is run?
Here’s a quick three-point potential program: 1. Facebook should be owned entirely by its users; 2. Facebook should be run as a non-profit; 3. Facebook users should have complete control over their own data. This is not to argue that this is the only way to do things, or to argue that it is necessarily the best way to do things, but it represents a way forward that simultaneously takes on Facebook for what it did and takes on the underlying ethos of surveillance capitalism. True, it doesn’t result in the same instant gratification of deleting your account – but there is no quick fix to the technological mess in which we find ourselves.
The present debacle has opened up a marvelous opportunity for angry Internet users to push to challenge the dystopian ethos undergirding the Internet – it would kind of be a shame if all that happens is a bunch of people delete their Facebook accounts.
Fried, Erich. 100 Poems Without a Country. New York: Red Dust, 1980.
Mumford, Lewis. The Pentagon of Power. New York: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1970.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985.