"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“On the one hand the computer makes it possible in principle to live in a world of plenty for everyone, on the other hand we are well on our way to using it to create a world of suffering and chaos.” – Joseph Weizenbaum (1980)
It is easier to imagine Facebook causing the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of Facebook.
In the wake of another series of damning revelations about Facebook, failures that saw the company’s various apps go down for much of a day, and widely covered Senate testimony from a whistle-blower—we find ourselves in the same position regarding Facebook we have been in for some time. On the one hand, it has become undeniable that something must be done; on the other hand, most in a position to really do “something” seem rather unwilling to do much more beyond making vague gestures in the direction of oversight. And based on the PR strategy with which Facebook has responded to its latest cascade of debacles, it seems that Facebook is pretty confident that it’s not going to face much worse than some bad press and maybe a mild slap on the wrist.
There are certainly some who are looking at the events of the last few days and predicting that these are the events that will finally trigger some manner of real crackdown on Facebook. Yet, we should not pretend as if this is the first time that Facebook has found itself in such serious trouble. And we should not act as if this is the first time that it has seemed obvious that Facebook’s misdeeds will result in some kind of real response. People have been saying “delete Facebook” for years, reporters have been writing damning stories about Facebook for years, Facebook’s representatives have been embarrassing themselves in front of government bodies for years, and we have known that something needs to be done to rein in Facebook for years. To be clear, there was a long period (most of Facebook’s history prior to 2016) when Facebook was largely fawned over by much of the press, the political establishment, and many academics/thinkers who should have known better—but we no longer see Zuckerberg as the kindly inventor of a wonderful new thing, rather he is now seen as the hubristic creator of a monster that he has uncaringly set loose to prey upon the public.
Despite the fact that Facebook literally stopped working for much of a day, we increasingly find ourselves in a situation wherein we have to balance two things: it has become extremely clear that many of us (indeed, entire societies) are heavily reliant on Facebook, and at the same time it is clear that Facebook is exactly the sort of company that we should not be relying on. It is fun to fantasize about Facebook suddenly disappearing, but if Facebook were to suddenly disappear it would have a significantly negative impact on many people’s lives; and those who might be most heavily impacted are not Facebook’s aggrieved users in the United States, but those in parts of the world for whom WhatsApp has become an essential means of communication.
It is easier to imagine Facebook causing the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of Facebook—and this is because we have grown accustomed to a steady deluge of stories about how Facebook is screwing up the world, while at the same time Facebook has become one of the defining features of “the world as we know it.” Thus, if we want to get to where we want to go (a society in which Facebook’s power has been significantly curtailed if not completely dismantled), it is worth considering where we are now.
Do not expect those who got us into this mess to get us out of it
The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, deserves ample credit for coming forward. It takes genuine courage to do what Haugen did, and she should be applauded for it. Nevertheless, beyond damning accusations that Facebook knows exactly what it’s doing and is doing it anyways, it is still worth considering other parts of Haugen’s testimony: she opposed breaking up Facebook, pushed for collaborative solutions, and though she accused Facebook of “moral bankruptcy” noted that she “joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us.”
Haugen fits the model of a new figure we have seen grow in stature in the last few years: the former tech insider turned public critic. Such figures come out of the tech world with resumés stacked with time at major tech companies, and then make a public pivot wherein they state that their time working in the tech sector has made it clear to them just how harmful many of these companies can be. Given their impeccable tech credentials (“this person actually worked for Facebook!”), such figures are quickly elevated by the media as well as by the government, and are given the vaunted position of official critic of the tech sector. Thus Haugen joins the ranks populated by Tristan Harris, and the gaggle of other “reformed” tech employees who moped their way through The Social Dilemma. While those who have been criticizing big tech for years are often treated (even now) as strange technophobic luddites, the apologetic techie is elevated as someone who can speak critically of the tech companies without anyone having to worry that they’re going to propose something to radical. The people who didn’t need to go work for the tech companies to know the tech companies are bad are shunned for their prescience, while those who went to work for the tech companies with bright eyes only to emerge with a slightly dimmer outlook are hailed as heroes.
Haugen deserves credit for speaking out. It’s always good when tech employees turn against the companies for which they once worked. But we should not expect any of these people to save us from the companies for which they used to work.
If Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress and said “I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us,” he would be met with mocking laughter, and the clip of it would be fodder for plenty of jokes from late night comedians. It would immediately become a viral meme. Indeed, if any current Facebook employee were called before Congress and made a similar statement, it is hard to imagine that they would be taken seriously. And yet, having taken on the mantle of the critic, former tech insiders can voice these sentiments and be treated as though they are bold truth tellers. Thus, they are able to restate and reaffirm the basic ideology of the tech companies: that they mean well, that these platforms can be used “to bring out the best in us,” that the people who work for these companies are committed to using tech for good, and that all that’s needed (at most) are some minor tweaks and then we can go back to skipping down the road to high-tech utopia. This allows for an elaborate switching act in which those who are ostensibly voicing the critique, are simultaneously deepening the core message of the tech companies. Under the guise of providing a critical attack on the tech companies, many of these critics wind up celebrating the very ideology driving these companies. Even as many of these figures become critical out of a sense that they have participated in something bad, they usually cannot bring themselves to fully confront just how much harm they have caused. People generally do not like to see themselves, and their friends, as the villains—and thus it is no surprise that the reformed tech workers have a hard time looking back at their office mates (who all “meant well”) and seeing them as part of the problem. This late in the game we should not only be skeptical of the tech companies, we should be skeptical of anyone who is still voicing the sentiment that these companies mean well.
Facebook does not only represent an actual tech company, it is also the most prominent manifestation of a belief system. And in taking on Facebook, we need to challenge the belief system that sustains the company (and others like it). We need to dispute the claim that Facebook “means well,” we need to reject the idea that Facebook can “bring out the best in us,” and we need to stop believing that there is going to be a magical technological solution to all of our social problems. It matters who gets to fill the cultural space of the tech critic. And in this moment the people who should be filling that cultural space are those who never bought into the ideology of the tech companies, and who are not still spreading that technophilic worldview.
As long as those who are being elevated as tech critics continue to believe and disseminate Silicon Valley’s catechism we will stay right where we are.
Facebook must be seen as an international problem
Discussions of Facebook in the United States tend, unsurprisingly, to be highly focused on how the platform operates in the United States. Thus, attention tends to be focused on matters of misinformation, irresponsibility in and around elections, the impacts of Instagram on teenagers, how Facebook wiggles around taxes and regulation, and so forth. Such a focus is not particularly surprising, and Facebook certainly does have significant impacts in the United States. However, in considering Facebook it is essential to remember that focusing wholly on the US (or any single country for that matter) provides a dangerously limited view of the platform, and by extension only a partial view of the company’s worldwide impact. Or to put it differently, Zuckerberg is always talking about connecting the world—so it’s important to consider the ways in which Facebook is making a mess of the whole world.
The particular Facebook platform failure you noticed first on October 4, 2021 probably says quite a lot about where in the world you are, and about how you interact with Facebook’s various platforms. Much of the reporting on the outage makes it seem like many in the US noticed Facebook’s crash when they were unable to access Facebook (proper), Instagram, or Oculus. Yet for many people around the world (and many people who communicate with people around the world), the part of the crash that was most noticeable was the failure of WhatsApp. For WhatsApp represents one of the dominant ways in which people digitally communicate with each other in many parts of the world—for many people WhatsApp is pretty much synonymous with texting. Losing access to Instagram and Oculus was certainly an annoying inconvenience for many, but such problems pale in comparison to the legions of people who suddenly found themselves deprived of their primary mode of communication. All of which is to say, that for some people Facebook is an annoying company lurking in the background the failure of which causes some momentary inconveniences, and for others Facebook provides essential communicative services. And of course, when considering the international aspects of Facebook it is essential to remember that the platform is not only rife with misinformation and xenophobia in the United States—in 2018 Facebook was used as a tool to incite genocide in Myanmar.
Facebook currently states that it has around 2.85 billion monthly active users, the United States population is around 331 million—you do not need to be a mathematician to recognize that this means that most of Facebook’s users are not in the United States.
Thus when we talk about Facebook it is imperative to think seriously about who is included and excluded in that “we.” Because what Facebook looks like and how Facebook is relied upon looks very different to different groups of “we.” For many people the call of “Delete Facebook” seems like a good one, but for many people the idea of completely deleting all Facebook platforms is simply unrealistic as Facebook’s platforms (notably Instagram) are essential modes of communication. To be clear, the fact that so many people are highly reliant on Facebook for providing communication infrastructure does not in any way mean that the solution is to make Facebook more powerful. Rather the point is to emphasize that the particular challenges posed by Facebook do not look the same everywhere.
It is easy to dream about Facebook simply shutting down completely and disappearing when such a vanishing act would not leave you unable to communicate with your loved ones.
In talking about Facebook and what to do about Facebook it is therefore essential to think more broadly about how people are reliant on the company (and its various platforms). Truly confronting Facebook requires more than some milquetoast regulation wherein Facebook pledges to do slightly better, what is necessary is to make it so that people are not so reliant on Facebook at all. In other words, if some of Facebook’s platforms have become essential communication infrastructure, it’s time to start talking about how that infrastructure can be put in the public’s hands and run in the public interest.
Imagine there’s no Facebook
To imagine what the world would look like if Facebook were to suddenly disappear can be a fun game to play. It is easy to romanticize the situation, as if Facebook vanishing in an instant would suddenly fix everything that is wrong with the world. We imagine people throwing aside their phones and running outside to frolic in the parks, or read beneath a tree, or engage in nuanced conversations about complex world issues, or experience immediate mental health improvements. In such narratives Facebook easily becomes seen as the source of all of the bad things in society, instead of seeing Facebook as a magnifying glass that takes the problems that existed in our society and makes them worse. It would be wonderful if we could solve all of our complex social problems by getting rid of Facebook, but Facebook was initially celebrated because it was seen as a quick technological fix to all of those complex social problems. We did not live in a utopia before Facebook arrived, and Facebook’s existence is not the angel with the flaming sword blocking us from reentering Eden. Besides, as Facebook’s outage showed, for many people in the world, Facebook suddenly disappearing would result in very serious problems.
It would be crass to refer to Facebook’s multi-hour crash as a disaster. However, it is in the aftermath of a disaster that it is particularly important to make sense of what went wrong, to ensure that it won’t happen again, and to make contingency plans for if something similar were to happen again.
In the wake of Facebook’s outage it is essential for individuals (and societies) to start thinking seriously about what they would do if Facebook were to suddenly vanish. Do you have an alternative way to get in touch with loved ones if WhatsAppp goes down? Do you have a way to make a living if Instagram suddenly vanishes? Is there a way for a school district to inform parents about upcoming events without Facebook? Is a society so reliant on Facebook’s privately controlled infrastructure for matters ranging from communication to sending payments that Facebook failing threatens to turn that society upside down? These are not necessarily easy yes or no questions. But they are the types of questions that everyone should be trying to answer in this moment when the Facebook outage is still fresh in people’s memories. One of the things that sustains Facebook’s power is how reliant many people and many societies have become on Facebook, and an important way of challenging this power is to break away from this reliance on Facebook. This is not necessarily an easy task, but it is a vital one—especially when it comes to nations that are heavily reliant on Facebook for providing communication infrastructure.
The act of imagining a world without Facebook isn’t about having a fun little utopian game, it is about doing the real work of preparing for the possibility that Facebook might suddenly stop working again. We live in an era of all manners of instability where essential infrastructure is battered by a variety of forces, in this context it is worthwhile to think about what we do when something stops working. And if there are certain things that would be calamitous if they were to stop working, we need to think about alternatives.
Many of those who chortled when Facebook went down were able to scoff precisely because they were already not so heavily reliant on Facebook. But for everyone who experienced a serious disruption when Facebook went down, now is the time to figure out alternatives to Facebook. And where no alternatives exist, this is not the occasion to therefore strengthen Facebook’s power, but to insist that there be alternatives.
This is about more than “surveillance capitalism”
As a term, and a hashtag, “surveillance capitalism” serves to define the particular economic model behind companies like Facebook and Google that make their profits largely from surveilling their users. The concept is closely associated with the scholar Shoshana Zuboff and is explored at length in her 2019 tome The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. In and around the publication of that book the term started being increasingly deployed in discourse about the digital by academics and activists, but the term got boosted to broader public attention thanks to the idea (and Zuboff) featuring prominently in the Netflix film The Social Dilemma. As a framework for discussing the ills of companies like Facebook and Google, the concept of “surveillance capitalism” has much about it that is appealing to many—for it manages to keep afloat the utopian hopes associated with the early Internet, while still acknowledging that something has gone very wrong. As a way of naming the problem “surveillance capitalism” does an impressive job of simultaneously placing and blunting the blame: the problem is the technology…but only the parts of it that are constantly spying on users; the problem is capitalism…but not really capitalism (as such) but just this particular mutation of it.
While there are certainly critiques of the concept of “surveillance capitalism”—such as the way that “surveillance capitalism” is really just capitalism, or of the way that “surveillance capitalism” does not sufficiently consider what it is about computer technologies that makes such a system possible. And yet in considering Facebook’s latest bout of problems it is increasingly clear that “surveillance capitalism” is insufficient as a diagnosis of the present predicament. The concept does a pretty decent job of explaining why Facebook puts profit above everything else (granted, this is simply what the vast majority of companies do under capitalism), but it does not provide as good of an explanation as to why Facebook going down for much of a day created so many problems.
The challenge in this moment is to not only think about the economic model behind Facebook and Google, but to think of the way in which societies have come to be so heavily reliant on companies like Facebook and Google. “Surveillance capitalism” can help explain why you are seeing the ads you’re seeing when you visit websites, but it has a harder time explaining why so many universities use gmail as their email service, or why the best source of information in many communities is not a school’s independent website but its Facebook page. There is no doubt that part of the problem with Facebook (and other firms) is the economic model behind the company, but in really considering the problem with Facebook it is necessary to consider why it is (and how it is) that societies have come to be so reliant on these companies. If something were to happen that would change Facebook’s business model, but nothing was done to seriously alter the way in which we have become reliant on Facebook, than many of the present problems would persist.
Long before Facebook or Google, various twentieth century critics of technology warned of the way that complex technological systems remake societies in the image of those technological systems. They deployed terms like “the megamachine” or “technique” to describe the ways in which complex technological systems would gradually eliminate any and all alternatives to those systems. In this situation, the matter of “means” and “ends” would become blurred as the “means” were those of the complex technological system and the “ends” were to incorporate ever more aspects of life into that complex technological system. For such thinkers the problem was not a particular aspect of the technological system (“surveillance”), and the problem could not be reduced to just talking about economic motivations (“capitalism”)—instead the problem had to do with the technological system itself.
Most of those twentieth century critics are largely forgotten today, and to the extent that they are remembered they are often accused of being technological determinists, romantic humanists, or technophobic Luddites. Their tendency to attempt to sort all technologies into camps of “authoritarian vs democratic,” or “holistic vs prescriptive,” tend to be seen as over simplifications. Furthermore, the shadows of the concentration camps and mushroom clouds that cast a dark color over such thinkers makes them appear dour and pessimistic in our age of shiny pocket computers. And yet, in their willingness to stake out firm ethical positions, many of these thinkers were able to clearly cut through arguments of “sure this technology is harmful, but…” to simply state that the technology’s harms outweigh its benefits. And in their willingness to at times exaggerate, they were often able to get at some basic truths about the ways technologies remake societies.
While many of these twentieth century critics of technology were invested in diagnosing what was wrong with particular technologies, they were also committed to explaining what was wrong with societies such that they would be unable to resist these technological systems. In other words, questioning these technological systems requires some real introspection, and also requires moving beyond exclusively critiquing this or that platform to look more broadly at the ways in which our lives have become so highly reliant on these complex technological systems.
As a way of identifying why Facebook does not care that its platforms have negative impacts on the mental health of teenagers, “surveillance capitalism” provides a decent explanation. As a way of explaining why entire societies have become so reliant on complex technological systems (of which Facebook is only one visible example), a deeper explanation is needed. Or, to put it somewhat differently, “surveillance capitalism” draws our attention to Facebook, the technological critics from the twentieth century would have told us that if we want to make sense of Facebook we really need to be thinking about computers.
We still need to talk about computers (and the Internet)
One of the things that is consistently fascinating about the discussions around Facebook is how these conversations wind up being about technology, while rarely really talking about actual technology. Sure, there are moments where we hear about algorithms, big data, servers, and the like, but such technical talk is usually passed over quickly. The talk about actual machines is treated as if these devices are the arcane secrets of a hallowed order, and this in turn serves to further elevate the authority of the tech workers who are seen as being the only ones who really understand how the sacred machines work. And as a result we talk about Facebook, or we talk about Google, or we talk about Amazon, or we talk about [insert some other tech company]—but we rarely stop to actually talk about the machines that make these companies possible.
As a result we find ourselves in situations where we talk about all of the negative impacts that Facebook (or some other tech company) is having on society, and yet we stop short of asking if there is something about the underlying technology that we need to be addressing. Though it took us far too long to get here, we seem to have finally reached a point at which most people are willing to admit that Facebook is not neutral, but too many people still seem to want to see computers (and the Internet) as neutral.
Facebook certainly deserves to be criticized, and Facebook should certainly be dismantled. Yet, it is worth recognizing that beneath the story of our reliance on Facebook is a story about our reliance on computers. Granted, that is a somewhat harder story to tell, and it is made much more difficult because it is easier to single out Facebook and Zuckerberg as villainous figures of contempt than it is to direct our attention to the more abstract matter of computers. In having a conversation about the role of Facebook in our lives we need to be willing to go beyond Facebook and to think more seriously about the role of computers in our lives. After all, even if you are not so heavily reliant on Facebook in your personal life, chances are still pretty good that you are still very reliant on the normal functioning of a range of computer systems big and small.
Too often it seems that we are singling out companies like Facebook for invective so that we don’t actually have to talk about our society’s reliance on computers and the Internet. Thus, Facebook gets held up as the scoundrel that is responsible for quashing the utopian potential of computers and the Internet—a potential that will be surely redeemed by the arrival of Web3. Yet the fantasies about Web3 sound very similar to the fantasies that originally surrounded Web 2.0 which in turn sounded a heck of a lot like the fantasies that had surrounded the original Web which in turn sounded a heck of a lot like the fantasies that were first spun out about personal computers which in turn sounded a heck of a lot like the fantasies that were first spun out about computers. The danger here is that we are vilifying Facebook (villain though it surely is), to save us from having to think more deeply about computers and the Internet.
Of course, any serious conversation about the role of computers in our society, and the ways in which computers have remade our societies in their own image, will be a complicated one. Considering how hard it is to confront our reliance on a single tech company it seems almost unimaginable to enter into a broader conversation about the sorts of complex technologies upon which we are so reliant. But the fact that this discussion would be difficult does not mean that we can afford to keep putting it off.
It is easier to imagine Facebook causing the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of Facebook.
So it’s probably past time to devote more time to imagining the end of Facebook.
Why it matters who gets to be seen as a tech critic
Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers – on The Social Dilemma
Burn it All! – A review of Your Computer Is On Fire
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