"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“Manufacturers and promoters always stress the liberating attributes of new technology, regardless of the specific technology in question.” – Ursula Franklin
While sailing through the cold waters of the North Atlantic, a physical manifestation of early-twentieth century technological hubris smashed into an iceberg, and sank. Though the event took place slightly more than a decade into the twentieth century, it tragically encapsulates a tale that would play out repeatedly over the course of the ensuing decades as the powerful technologies that were garlanded in utopian hopes consistently collided with the rocks of the real world. Ships sink, reactors meltdown, airwaves spread hate, planes drop bombs, cars pollute, screens hypnotize, computers surveil—we race ever forward only to reach a destination that looks quite a lot like the place we had left.
It matters little how many “unsinkable” ships wind up plummeting down into the watery depths, the belief in unsinkable ships stays perpetually above water.
In the summer of 2016, a conference was held that brought together technologists, activists, politicos, and various professionals to consider what technological shifts meant for the future of democracy. It was an event that was characterized by an overwhelming attitude of technological optimism: smartphones were saving the world, social media was spreading democracy, and for every complex societal problem there was a technological solution. A handful of critics were allowed to take the stage, but they couched their critiques within statements of adoration and allegiance by carefully emphasizing that they did not oppose the tech companies (as such), they just wanted them to do better. Nevertheless, even these mild critiques earned these critics reprimands from the other speakers and eye-rolls from most attendees. Though Mark Zuckerberg was not present at the event, one of the event’s hosts dreamed from the dais of having him as a guest at the following year’s conference, and speaker after speaker spoke admiringly of the shining, more democratic, world that Silicon Valley was creating.
The summer of 2016 was a very long time ago.
Looking back at those halcyon days from the present vantage it is easy to focus on the wave of protests still taking place across the US (and around the globe), the surging pandemic, the arctic heat waves, or any other from a lengthy list of contemporary crises. Furthermore, it is easy to emphasize the ways in which Facebook (and other social media companies) far from mitigating these problems, has contributed negatively to the conditions exacerbating the various crises we face: social media platforms are hubs for hateful content, massive distributors of misinformation, and those in charge of these platforms do not seem particularly inclined to do anything about it. Yet, it is worth remembering, that in the summer of 2016 (at least at the aforementioned conference) the general consensus was that Hillary Clinton would crush Donald Trump in the Presidential election, and what’s more that the high-tech tools flowing from companies like Facebook and Google would be an essential component of her inevitable victory. Certainly, there were some problems with the various social media platforms—but those platforms (so the thinking of technological optimists went) were aware of these issues and working to fix them.
It was not that it was impossible to see any of our present predicaments coming, but that for those bathing in the bright light beaming from smartphone screens it was inconceivable that technological progress and social progress might mean very different things. Yet the times have changed, and the tech companies have gone from being seen as virtuous to being seen as villainous. Though they were celebrated as the solution to all of societies’ problems, it has become uncomfortably obvious that the big tech companies are largely pouring gasoline on the fire while eagerly distributing matches and oily rags to arsonists and pyromaniacs.
To be clear: it is a good thing to see people openly questioning the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Google, and the rest of their Silicon Valley ilk. And thus it is a good thing that in the last few years it has become increasingly acceptable to criticize these platforms and the billionaires behind them. However, it is worth remembering that not too long ago if you dared critique these platforms you were mocked as a technophobic Luddite, and accused of wanting everyone to go back to living in caves. Alas “not too long ago” means way back in 2016. Indeed, a hallmark of works on technology (particularly ones that framed themselves as critical) in that period was a tendency on the part of authors to devote paragraph after paragraph to declaring their love for technology lest they risk being dismissed of as out of touch fuddy-duddies. While it is certainly welcome to see major publications openly arguing that, perhaps, “Facebook cannot be reformed” it is worth remembering that many of these same publications spent years boosting Facebook and deriding those who criticized the company. Similarly, some of the figures who have become outspoken critics of these companies spent years ridiculing the critics who had the temerity to warn that we would wind up exactly where we are now.
While the talk of a “techlash” has always seemed rather ridiculous (a bogeyman concocted by Silicon Valley so that they could frame themselves as victims of an irrational mob), it is undeniable that Silicon Valley’s legion of defenders has thinned out of late. After all, it’s becoming rather difficult to defend the actions of these tech companies. But, perhaps, no company has emerged as a monolith of Silicon Valley malfeasance quite like Facebook. It is not only that Facebook has become a hub of hate and misinformation (which it, arguably, always was), and it is not only that Facebook appears to be quite happy to profit off of all that hate and misinformation, it is that Facebook can no longer even be bothered to pretend that it’s going to change. The stance of “please trust us, we’re working to improve” has been a shield that tech companies have deployed for years, but Facebook can no longer even be bothered to lazily lift that shield. Over the years, Zuckerberg has stood before an audience time and time again to put forth a justification of Facebook’s principles and its role in society, and time and time again he has been given the benefit of the doubt, but at a certain point even the technological optimists grow tired of being asked to defend his hubris.
Times change, people do too, but that does not necessarily mean that anything has been learned. While it is encouraging to see many people and many technological optimists adopting a more critical attitude towards the shiny gadgets dispersed by Silicon Valley, it is important to consider what is driving this shift—especially as the tech companies themselves shift. Based on the recent actions of the various tech giants, it seems that they all suspect that one of them is going to be sacrificed for the sins of social media – and they are all desperately trying to ensure that the company that faces the sacrificial knife won’t be them. And at the moment it seems like the most likely candidate for the role of scapegoat will be Facebook—though it may be that Facebook saves itself by following the playbook of other tech companies (getting rid of its CEO in order to make it seem like the company is trying to change).
To be clear: Zuckerberg should be forced out, and Facebook should be dismantled, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the social problems that Facebook exacerbates will be fixed just by getting rid of Facebook, or just by demanding that these platforms do a better job of moderating misinformation. Racism has flourished on social media platforms like Facebook (and YouTube), and the reactions of these platforms has been wholly inadequate, but these platforms were never ours just because we used them. These platforms are aware of the presence of hateful content, and they certainly could take more direct action if they wanted to – but as the current moment makes clear, many of the people running these platforms simply do not want to. If anything these platforms have kept pouring gas on the fire, because they think the blaze is good for engagement (and is profitable) and they care more about that than whatever might get destroyed by the fire. For all of the talk of disruption that surrounds new technologies, the technological systems (and platforms) that generally gain power in a society are those that reinforce and retrench the dominant power systems not the ones that genuinely challenge those systems. Or, to put it slightly differently, our technological systems may start as reflections of our society; however, as these systems gain power it is not just that they reflect society back on itself, but that they magnify particular aspects of society. And it is quite clear that what social media often magnifies is hate. We are in a historical moment when it is becoming clearer and clearer how many of the powerful systems, institutions, and structures in our society are rotten to their core – and though many are loathe to admit it, many of the technological systems we use (and even enjoy) are part of the problem.
The adoration that greeted social media platforms, like Facebook, was often couched in a simplistic belief that these platforms offered technological solutions to complex social/political/economic problems. But far from solving those problems, these platforms have only served to deepen them. Though some people are starting to turn against Facebook there still seems to be a fair amount of hesitancy to reject the underlying faith in the redemptive power of new technology. Indeed, it seems like sacrificing Facebook as “the social media company that has lost its way” is part of a project to redeem the underlying ideology.
Facebook is a problem. Facebook cannot reform itself. Facebook should be dismantled. But we must also rid ourselves of the quasi-religious expectation that new technology will redeem society’s sins.
The idea that new technology provides a shortcut to solving challenging societal issues was not created with Facebook, but it is the idea that undergirded much of the early boosting of Facebook. Similarly, the belief that just because a technology can be used for democratic (small d) purposes means that the technology is inherently democratic, also predates Facebook. The ideology that technological progress is synonymous with social progress has a long history, and the social media companies are just the latest beneficiaries of this ideology that always appears wonderful and invincible until it smashes into the rocks of the real world. Ships sink, reactors meltdown, airwaves spread hate, planes drop bombs, cars pollute, screens hypnotize, computers surveil, social media maims democracy—we race ever forward only to reach a destination that looks quite a lot like the place we had left.
If we dismantle Facebook but do not take apart the underlying faith in high-tech panaceas, we are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Or, to put it slightly differently, we are just rearranging the apps on our smartphones.