For Auld lang syne
We meet a lot of people during our lifetimes. A back-of-the-envelop-calculation says it is less than a 100.000 people, but it is still a lot. Many of those people are people we actually like. It used to be the case that we wrote handwritten letter to people we liked, sometimes they even wrote back, we exchanged letters; several a year even. These were our good friends. Also, writing letters was something to do with your time, before reality-television and high-speed Internet. But even back then we did in fact realize that keeping track of all those friends was a challenge. Five letters a year turned into two and then into one. A few years later your were shocked to find that some friends had fallen off the radar completely.
Electronic mail certainly helped, especially over longer distances, doing away with the fumbled envelop, addressing and stamp-licking. But even so, three mails a year turned into two which turned into a couple of cell-phone texts and a missed call culminating in an unintentional final comment on a MySpace page.
If you were anything like me, the lost contacts in your life was something to feel guilty about. A pain that stung especially hard when the new-year came and the band played ‘Auld lang syne’.
and never brought to mind?”
Which is perhaps meant as a rhetorical question, implying that ‘no, it should not be forgotten’ as well as, at least to me, an admittance that such is perhaps inevitable. A rhetorical question because after all, is it not obvious we don’t want to lose the connections to the people in our lives? It certainly seems self-evident that we are morally obliged to spare cost nor effort to connect to people and to stay connected. To ‘connect to the world’, not as a moral duty but as life’s fundamental ‘raison d’être’? But I’ve come to the realization that maybe this question is not actually as rhetorical as we tend to assume; and I even propose that the answer may very well be ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’. ‘Yes’, maybe, in the overall scheme of things, forgetting about some ‘auld acquaintance’ was not such a bad thing. Not if you considered the true cost of the alternative.
As the paper letter died optimism was rife and justifiably so. Any problem you had was just a concept that hadn’t met the right technology yet. A new idea emerged: What if there was a way you could group and partially automate the ‘keeping-acquaintance’-tasks in life? A place to permanently store the friends you didn’t actually talk to, reassured that they were only a click away. A semi-automated way of staying connected reducing all the overhead, keeping some of the benefits and doing away with New Year’s Eve – ängst. The first to recognize that the solution to ‘Auld lang syne’ was an interweb of people would have first ‘dibs’ and gobble up most users, leaving only crumbs for the second, a self-fulfilling monopoly. Facebook was born, and the rest was history. To some it was even the end-of-history, as a future without Facebook was quite unimagineable.
Or was it?…
I came to Facebook rather reluctantly and very late. This is because of my challenging character that doesn’t allow me to do things if everyone else is doing them. But working life gets lonely being cut-off from high-school and university social clubs. So one night I caved and made a Facebook-account… and it changed my life. Old crushes and old girlfriends, former teachers I’d liked and people I had played with over thirty years ago, as I had physically moved away years ago, now they all came rushing back in. Being privacy minded and not terribly comfortable with my appearance I didn’t put my actual photo on the profile, instead I initially put up an image of the Hal-9000 eye, from ‘Space Odyssey’ and earned my first little reward as one of my old teachers ‘liked’ it. Eventually I even installed the Messenger app on my phone and gave it access to everyone in my contact list, my location and my microphone, going head-first down the rabit-hole.
Overall, I didn’t use Facebook very actively. At the time I thought that ‘protecting your privacy’ meant not sharing your where-abouts or the color of your underwear with the acquaintances of acquaintances on Facebook. So I rarely shared anything and almost never posted. But still I spend a lot of time on Facebook and I did comment or ‘like’ what others posted. I also made a Facebook-page for this site and for a while that was my main means of promoting the site. I spend money on Facebook adds (even though I don’t earn money with this site at all), which got the ‘Silent Atheist’ Facebook-page a brief spike of traffic and very temporarily pushed some to the website as well. The reason I am telling you this is so you’d know I was in no means innocent in this Facebook-horror-story. I wasn’t better than you, who is perhaps still on Facebook. In many ways I’m sure I was worse, much worse. I was the guy who was always telling other people how wrong they were. Not even in a nice way mind you. I was morally indignant at their stupidity, absolutely flabbergasted that ‘someone was wrong on the internet’.
Fortunately for me, Facebook was not just a good way for keeping friends, it also kept you appraised of what was going on in the world, as it stocked your feed with news that was likely to interest you. At the time I just assumed that while this was broadly filtered it still was pretty general and that everyone was getting updates on the U.S. elections as I was, because, even though we were E.U. citizens, that was what was going on after all. I didn’t even realize that none of my acquaintances’ likes or shares indicated this at all, nor how this demonstrated that my Facebook feed was determined by my internet traffic outside Facebook more than what I did within Facebook itself.
Two things latently bothered me about Facebook, though I blamed Facebook for neither of them: I spend way too much time on it (for too little ‘facebook-rewards’ or much in terms of actual real human interaction); nor did I like the way I felt confronted with the combination of ignorance, superficiality and the constant self-promotion that Facebook was made off. Rather than ‘being at the party’ most of the time I felt isolated, unliked, unaccomplished and annoyed.
Shock and awe
The first real shock, with how Facebook went about its business, came when Facebook suggested I’d become friends with a distant neighbour in the street. A man whom I’d had a rather toxic antagonistic relationship with ever since his boyfriend made a pass at me and I rejected both of them since ‘I wasn’t gay’. Turns out there is a whole class of low-life men who somehow combine having sex with men with violent homophobia and who become quite angry when it is suggested they might be ‘homosexual’. This was shocking because it felt like Facebook was suggesting I’d let my future murderer into my home.
Moreover Facebook was not supposed to know we were even aware of one another. We did not have acquaintances in common; did not go to the same schools or grow up in the same city. He did not remotely have the same profile as me when considering socio-economic class or education. His identity was not in my phone or mailbox-contact-list. We had never even called or texted each other. The only technical explanation for the ‘friend-suggestion’ was that we were both around the same age, and Facebook had tracked my where-abouts to roughly the same neighborhood, despite I had denied it permission to do so and only rarely activated ‘locational-awareness’ on my phone at all.
This was Facebook’s reply to my refusal to add three nested layers deep acquaintances as ‘friends’ on Facebook. It exploited the data it had mined in an attempt to reanimate my account with some new influx of ‘friends’ and subsequent activity. But in doing so it crossed a line with the wrong person. As a data and information analyst-developer it is my job to develop and debug (for my limited capacity) mind-blowing complex data-streams. For my sins, keeping intuitive track of what a certain collection or system ‘can know’ or ‘doesn’t know [yet]’ at a certain junction becomes very important when the clock is ticking and the CEO has to answer to shareholders for ‘your mistakes’. I became acutely aware that Facebook had not learned about my (awful) relationship with that neighbour from anything I had ‘told’ them, but by casting a wide on-line net around all of its users and inferring relationships based on fuzzy logic and a deliberately low threshold for ‘matches’. Imagine, by this logic, what kind of friend-suggestions a prison-guard must be getting: “Do you know Kevin, he’s a real swell bloke from D-block, want to connect?”
After the first blow a second, more profound one followed when Donald Trump won the U.S. elections in defiance of most of the polling and despite losing the popular vote by a wide margin. The reason for it was a near-perfect fit of the votes he did receive with their weight in the electoral college. While all presidential campaigns try to raise voter-weight in the indirect U.S. election, by targeting adds, directing add-funding and travelling to the swing-states, it is now part of the official record that Facebook-data and -influence was applied to maximize this for Donald Trump. Both by gathering knowledge about what voter-buttons to push and with whom as well as actually applying pressure and manipulating their vote with over-exposure to certain right-wing ideas supplemented with (basically) slander and lies.
These tasks were outsourced and neatly split up between a respectfully sounding third-party, Cambridge Analytica, profiling the voter-base using the Facebook data-mine on the one hand, on the other end a group of 450 fake Russian Facebook accounts spamming $100.000 worth of manipulating adds echoing things that Trump was speeching about onto the vulnerable target population. This split approach washed Facebook’s hands off direct culpability and saw them getting off with a squeakily uttered ‘mea culpa’. The only question before Congress remaining now, whether collusion between these two arms can be proven, to provide the smoking-gun surrounding the use of Facebook as a weapon of electoral manipulation.
Testing on live rats
But off course this had not been an accident. We know this because of an earlier ‘mea culpa’ that Facebook did when it was discovered they did a limited experiment on users to see if they could swing their mood by manipulating the feeds they got. This was an obvious test construed by Facebook itself to provide proof-of-concept to its potential clients for the impact it could muster with large swatches of its users. It is something no respectable company would do just for fun. It is even doubtful that less moral companies, like Facebook, would run the risk of negative PR unless there were some serious gains at stake.
Likewise it was no accident that the third party API that Facebook created for its data-leaching clients remained ‘open’ to malicious data-sucking for years after privacy advocates had pleaded Facebook to reign in the permissions. They also conveniently failed to spot the manifest electoral meddling represented in the adds they themselves were pushing. It is not legal for foreigners (like myself) to buy adds commenting on the U.S. elections and Facebook should (and undoubtedly was) have been acutely aware that they needed to monitor this. Accounts obviously created from Russian IP-addresses should not have been able to place those adds. The one time all of Facebook’s data-sucking should have aided them in simply upholding their end of the law, they conveniently failed to do so and won a lot a money because of it. What other add-company could credibly claim to unwittingly have executed a paid campaign of foreign-election-influencing and slander?
The social-engineering test was a radiant success (for Facebook) and meant that they, or rather their clients, could call elections as they wanted just by scaling up and installing the correct emotions inside carefully targeted voters. Facebook wasn’t in the business of selling adds any longer, a market cornered by google long before, instead it started selling elections. Evidence would show Cambridge Analytica started by minting Facebook data, in pursuit of Russian interests, during the Brexit referendum. Another case where Facebook data and add influence was weaponized by Russia in trying to swing (a 2% margin) referendum. As much is suggested by the copious amounts of circumstantial evidence: during two otherwise non-related elections Cambridge Analytica worked on the side that aligned with Russian interests, abused Facebook data to do it; both times the election results diverged radically (or literally ‘incredibly’) from polling results. In both cases nefarious Facebook adds were applied from Russian initiatives and Facebook benefited. Are we to believe Facebook was not complicit in this (or for that matter President Trump who hired Cambridge Analytica for the second election) and just an incompetent unwilling co-actor? Are we actually expected to believe this, knowing that mr. Zuckerberg himself travelled multiple times to the Kremlin during President Obama’s last term? Knowing how Facebook had treated Ukrainian accounts during the Maidan, siding with Russia on every step. Really? The only real question that hasn’t been answered and will likely never be answered was whether these elections were ‘nudged’, ‘swung’ or actually packaged and sold wholesale at a discount. Past experiments and the history of manipulating masses (especially via new and popular media) suggests the potential for these weapons should not be underestimated.
In the end it doesn’t really matter whether Facebook’s data and news-feed actually bought an election. What matters is that the attempt to do so was the end result of a deliberate policy of Facebook to suck as much information from everyone on the internet, be they Facebook-users or otherwise, and maximally monetize it in whatever way possible, regardless of law or morality. In this they have not shun away from immoral cloak-and-dagger type deals with parties interested in Facebook’s data. Where this data was used illegally, Facebook has reverted to pleading to ineptitude or by denying any wrong-doing by referring to overreaching and lengthy legalese in end-user-agreements. In all this barely a slap on the wrist was given and Facebook isn’t the worse for wear as they kept the undisclosed profits of their failure not to be employed as a weapon of electoral manipulation.
At this point those of you who are still on Facebook may suffer from the same conflicting feelings I had. On the one hand you may hate being exploited by these people, on the other hand you have 165 ‘friends’ most of whom you will never ever ‘hear’ off again if you disconnect from Facebook tomorrow. I assure you that a lot of time went by between my realisation that I had to disconnect from Facebook and my announcement on Facebook, followed by my actually killing my account. At the time only one ‘friend’ requested the e-mail address I had offered in the post and he did so very bitterly. He never used it afterwards. Then again, it is not because you post your exit-intentions that ‘friends’ actually see it in their feeds. I doubt Facebook wouldn’t have parsers for exactly this kind of message and wouldn’t stop such a dangerous meme from spreading at it earliest possibility. So I guess it is possible Facebook suppressed my announcement, it makes no difference now anyway.
Make no mistake, for Facebook my account is only as dead as a humming bird in spring. My telling them to kill the account doesn’t delete my data with them, or make them forget my ‘friends’, even if I have. It doesn’t even guarantee they can’t link data from me they gather via ghost-cookies on the net to my ‘dead’ account. My ISP hasn’t changed my IP address so all dynamic pages that have Facebook like-buttons or share-widgets will likely still link all internet activity from my house to that account. All my disconnection really did was start an erosion-process where the accuracy and age of the data they hold on me starts decreasing and increasing respectively. And as it erodes, its value to Facebook’s clients quickly evaporates (in so far they are aware of it).
But while killing my account may not be the end of my relationship with Facebook I can guarantee you that for all the anguish I suffered before doing it, I did not miss having Facebook for a single moment since. Much to my own surprise I actually feel happier now on those rare occasions that I do think about Facebook. For most of the time since however I actually forgot about its existence all together. If your Facebook-rewards are more consistent than mine it may cost you more than it did me to disconnect but as a former smoker I can almost guarantee you that quitting a Facebook habit will be easier than quitting cigarettes (even if the latter is totally doable and you should totally do it if you haven’t already).
But even as I was leaving Facebook on a point of principle about election-meddling and a callous disregard for my privacy I did not come to the most important realisation of all, until much later. You see, the reason that I hadn’t immediately flocked to Facebook at the beginning was because I had seen the last quivers of life draining away from the MySpace phenomenon. I therefore assumed that Facebook would sooner or later go the way of MySpace and become that ‘uncool’ thing your uncle was on. I thought it was just another passing fad. While this is still a possible scenario, it hasn’t quite materialised and I’m less and less convinced it will.Imagine for a moment you are at the movie-theatre and see the beginning of a Sci-fi thriller-movie in which the director carefully focuses the camera on items in the street, showing you that each and every one of them carried the same logo of the same company in some form or another. Would you not conclude from this that this company seemingly had gotten a foothold in every single aspect of that sci-fi society? Would this not suggest to you that the theme of the movie would be about how the subjects of the movie would wrestle that control back from the company’s cold, dead hands? And yet here we are, in a society were every website and many real-world items carry the logo of Facebook in some for another; and few of us ever worry if perhaps we haven’t given a little too much control over our lives to this company that was seemingly founded by Star Trek Data’s evil twin-brother.
Who died and made Facebook the king of the internet anyway?; such that each and every other company henceforward had to supplement their own website with a redundant Facebook-page (with limited form-factor and not actually owned by them), invite their own clients to spam-click Facebook links on their own website (all while installing Facebook-cookies) and as such handing over their clientèle to the Facebook databases in return for some scraps of publicity and a couple of marketing opportunities? How logical is it, in a liberal world that adores choice and loathes monopolies, that those companies have literally no other choice, no alternative than to adorn their websites with the ‘f-word’ if they don’t want to miss the proverbial ‘bus’? Getting some cheap publicity and getting more apes hooked up to the Facebook-Chimera got so valuable at one point, that all mobile app-stores became flooded with free-to-play games that allowed you to ‘purchase’ in-game items with Facebook -‘shares’ and -‘likes’. Sacrificing a little liberty for a little dopamine and a little publicity. Proving they merited liberty nor privacy, next thing you knew half your feed was game-notifications from your close relatives crushing-candy like there was no tomorrow.
How healthy is it that in many of the developing-world Facebook is literally the only internet-experience of most of the population, becoming a defacto stand-in for the actual internet. The internet that actually has so much more to offer than Facebook could or would ever be willing to? Where is the emancipating role of internet in those societies? Were is the added value of free communication when that communication is carefully curated and its publication timed as to serve the interests of Facebook and her paying clients? How is it that Facebook is able to block its users from sharing news about Facebook data-breaches on Facebook but is unable to quell Buddhist calls for genocide on Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims, despite repeatedly being made aware of this unfolding crisis and the accounts responsible?
You know, we used to live in a time where we’d get warnings from privacy-advocates regarding the googles, microsofts, ebays and amazon’s of our world and how we should go about limiting our exposure to their information greed. Yet all this time we kind of assumed, like those experts did, that this data would be used for marketing purposes. Like in the worst case scenario they would convince you to spend a little money you hadn’t planned on or squelch on something you didn’t need at all. Let’s not be coy about it, I am working in exactly such a company gathering data that is precisely used for these ends. We accepted this risk because we also assumed that this loss of control over our data would be compensated by something that company did for you; a symbiotic relation. Google unlocked the internet, microsoft ran your computer and gave you free e-mail, ebay gave you access to hard-to-find things. So-what if Google scanned your inbox to deepen the uncanny-valley of their targeted adds and make Internet searching a little creepier? As long as they kept our secrets secret and didn’t f$ck with our minds too much we were kind of ok with it.
Little did we know there would come a time where you could do almost nothing to stop the snooping, because the company was omni-present on the internet. A time when the data-mining would not serve to separate you from a small amount of cash but rather to control the very thoughts that came in your head by manipulating the information you were exposed to and weaving in lies; then turn around and sell this capacity to any Tom, Dick and Harry with a fistful of dollars. Combing through your data and closet for their electoral or genocidal pleasures.
There was a time when we called it ‘free-thinking’ when we allowed for ideas that were cleansed from religious dogma and divine-authoritarianism. But in order for our thinking to actually be free it must be inspired by the random input from reality, based on true facts and founded in our core being that we dragged with us from the past. It should not be force-fed to us via emotions and peer-pressure as if we are some last-minute Foie-Grass-Goose being groomed for the season. A mass mind-manipulation company not only controls elections, it can steer laws if they encroach on their authority and make entire countries subject to their will by controlling much more powerful countries. Rather than go the way of MySpace, Facebook is currently uniquely placed to gain control over large sections of the cabled world or sell it to the highest bidder.
One of the selection processes where this happens is the haphazard way in which we coincidently learn about -often mundane- facts going about our daily routine. A title in a news-paper, publicity in the street or a colleague telling you things. Quite often this is how we learn about things, important things that actually matter but which we were rather unaware of before, because we had other interests. This phenomenon of being out of sync with common world-knowledge is expressed in the concept of ‘catching up’ with news or latest developments. However this tendency not to be surprised to learn new ‘common-knowledge’ can be abused. This basically is the plot of the classic movie ‘Wag the dog’ where a war and entire army-units are invented without questions from, among others, military staff that should have known better. This couples with our survivorship bias that assumes that whatever information reaches us more often now compared to before has either changed in incidence (it happens more) or is widely considered more significant (your surrounding community recognizes it more or fears it more). With these things combined the power to control the ‘random’ feed of daily information becomes a very powerful tool indeed.
There are globally 150 fatalities because of coconuts falling on heads. By simply reporting to a specific person each-and-every incident through a variety of formats, without even lying or twisting a single fact you will convince him that something is very wrong with coconuts. This unknown, potentially lethal problem will stress him and lower his threshold for clarifications he would otherwise be critical about. Suddenly the ‘CIA-coconut-assasin’ doesn’t sound so ridiculous anymore, after all, ‘something is very wrong with coconuts these days’ and ‘there is no other explanation’. With a fortnight of manipulation, I dare say, these mechanics can be exploited to convince anyone of anything. *You can fool all people some of the time …*
This is why supposed random news-feeds, like Facebook composes, are a very dangerous tool. It can target each individual specifically and avoid that served crackpot hypotheses are publicly scrutinized by sceptics. You and I, for instance, were not aware of how deep Hillary Clinton was involved with that paedophile-child-trafficking network [Debunked pizzagate conspiracy]. This was not the same for some people who heard about it not only on Facebook but also on 4Chan and Twitter. If so many independent sources tell you something, you know something is definitely up; except that these sources were not independent, objective or without motive to lie and none of it was even remotely true. Still, because of this malicious Meme, actual shots were fired, which kind of underscores the strength of these opinion manipulations. In case you were not already convinced by the disintegration of the United States of America and the European Union.
Slot machines and roulette-wheels, heroine, cocaine and alcohol; the one thing they all have in common is that they manipulate the dopamine pathway’s in the brain; the reward circuit of the basal ganglia. They do so in orders of magnitude stronger than food, sex and socializing, the mechanics that these pathways were intended for. Dopamine is that which tells us what to strife for in life. Man was evolved using a cooperation strategy allowing it to pass its genes on in the presence of much stronger predators. To establish this we get a dopamine reward from successful social interactions and stress penalties for social failure. To maximize dopamine uptake using the normal mechanics, we have to variate the activities because each has a saturation-timer during which the dopamine reward gets smaller and smaller. When these saturation-timers don’t function properly food and sex addictions become a possibility. Because addiction is when we avoid alternative dopamine triggers in favour of the single source. Resulting in unbalanced behaviour.
The non-natural dopamine mechanics are worse though, because even when saturated the dopamine rewards tend to surpass those of the natural mechanics. This is why drug addicts tend to neglect things like food or the basic personal hygiene required for sexual contacts or other social interactions. Alcoholics usually don’t mind their frequently complete sexual impotence. A lot of our behaviour is actually determined by a balance in our neurotransmitters and dopamine specifically. Monkeying around with these can have extended consequences. Give a person a button on a cable connected to his brain, producing dopamine at every push and like a Chimpansee he will spam that button until his brain literally forgets how to coordinate breathing muscles and he dies, happy, but dead!
Thanks to our evolution we as a species are very sensitive to the social recognition mechanic for dopamine. It is this pathway that social media exploit to keep us coming back and they do so intentionally. This is not [just] an extrapolation by a paranoid atheist, it is literally Facebook’s company policy as explained by the person they employed to implement it: Havard paper on “social media and dopamine manipulation”
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained. In Palihapitiya’s talk, he highlighted something most of us know but few really appreciate: smartphones and the social media platforms they support are turning us into bona fide addicts.
Not only is Facebook consciously manipulating its users via dopamine pathway’s, it deliberately strives to create stronger addictions following both dopamine research on mice as well as strategies from the gambling industry. This involves strategies for randomizing the interval at which a user will get a dopamine reward for certain behaviour, forcing the ‘mouse’ to do the action over and over until the reward is gained; as well as building in slightly longer periods of withholding reward followed by a slightly higher dose (by buffering likes, shares and comments). This aligns neatly with the discrete activities that Facebook forces upon its users via its form factor. A status update, an account picture change, a share or a comment. These activities all have a ‘burst’, object -like nature allowing for distinct dopamine rewards in the form of likes, reposts etc. As a website dedicated to being ‘social’ Facebook could have been a organic discussion board or a ‘private website’ type of MySpace. Instead they decided on the A.I. curated news-feed-style format build up from small discrete components allowing them full control over both content, timing and biochemical reward mechanics.
The way Facebook is build is not really conductive to the type of social interactions you get in the real-world at all. In fact ‘social medium’ is more a marketing label than an accurate description of the activities it facilitates. In reality it is more like a web into which Chimpansees are hooked up and given a dopamine button on a cable. The only caveat is, it is not even their own button. Instead the ape is shown a Facebook-selection of content he can reward with a dopamine push in the hope that the other ape will eventually make some of it will flow back to him. The ape is rewarded more often if he can get more apes, apes he knows, to hook up into the network and join into Tit-for-tat type of relation. But even the best rewarded ape will reach a dopamine plateau where the returns of whatever reward he receives diminish and he falls into depression and feelings of inadequacy. In real life this would be the moment to switch to an activity with a higher level of return. But none of the real life mechanics yield like Facebook-dopamine does, just like with heroine, so the ape keeps going from depression to new High like a Newtonian pendulum as dopamine receptiveness and reward sync and desync with each-other. Facebook is a drug-dealer-company where its users are also their own drug-producers, whom pay for their drugs indirectly through personal data and information consumption.
“Everyone who uses Facebook is being emotionally monitored.”
Perhaps you think this ‘drug-dealer-company’ is an analogy or a hyperbole? Rest assured I’m quite sincere. Families are spotted in restaurants, letting expensive food go cold, with ample opportunity to socialise among each other, but all four are neck-deep in their Facebook-feed. All because the dopamine returns they get from these, even at diminished rates, still yield higher than anything they can induce among eachother. Passing up on a variety of dopamine producing activities in favour of a single source of dopamine is the very definition of an addiction. Consider also how traffic accidents involving mobile devices distracting conductors have gradually increased. How they have become the number one cause of traffic fatality in many countries. Do these indicate a healthy desire to socialise or are they indicative of addictive behaviour, diminished impulse-control and a tragic disregard for own safety? What about users who check their phone for Facebook-notifications 10 times per hour? Would this define as normal social behaviour or is it a clear sign of an addiction? Finally, are there any users that hide not just the activity but also the level of activity on Facebook from their direct environment; Visiting the bathroom just for an undisturbed moment on Facebook? Facebook checks all the boxes on the addiction scale.
The not so social network
Hell, they couldn’t even give it a good name. It is called ‘Facebook’! Using the very colloquial ‘face’-part of the human body and adding ‘book’, neither of which is an integral part of the Facebook website. A website which contains more than just faces and couldn’t be further removed from ‘books’ than it is. But of course the name reflects Facebook’s history as a replacement for the old college paper “who’s who” or ‘facebook’; which was actually a book with faces of people on campus. Still a much better and more accurate name for it would have been ‘The Matrix’. A network featuring a fake version of reality onto which humans are hooked-up in order to enslave them for the purpose of maintaining the Matrix itself and in service of the Overlords that created it; an illusion for which mankind trades its freedom, time and development-potential in order to profit from some infrequently dispensed intangible rewards, interspaced by copious amounts of depression.
The main objection to the Matrix in the movie, as you may recall, was not that its version of reality was unpalatable, in fact some escapees preferred it over their condition in the real world. The objection was that it simply wasn’t real. As such nothing that was done in the Matrix had real value, while life in reality was being wasted hooked up to a machine. As part of disconnecting from the Matrix Morpheus offered a pill that would only lead to the truth, the plain ugly truth, a version of reality less aesthetically pleasing than the Matrix, but real! You don’t have 189 friends in the real world. But you also don’t have 189 friends in the Matrix, just 189 co-victims you may have known in the real world once upon a time. Wake up Neo, the Matrix has you! Because if you don’t in a couple of years, when the Matrix spits you out, you will have nothing to show for your life other than the memory that once upon a time you got 24 likes on something you did in a make-believe world. Facebook demands that we give it all of our time, making us feel like there is more where that came from. But time is all we have and most of us will soon be dead so we already have none to waste.
We call it a ‘Social Network’ granting instant forgiveness to all it does since, it’s ‘social’ and ‘being social’ means ‘good’, right? But it is not really ‘Social’. Real, profound human interactions on it are scarce at best and constantly being drowned out by a highly filtered fake self-promoting view of our lives. Like rats, who are a very social species, humans weren’t evolved to have more than a 100 social connections at a time. Like with rat-experiments (as described in ‘the behavioural sink’) it leads to enormous stress and makes society shut down. You are not actually connecting to your 189 Facebook friends and you wouldn’t be able to if you tried. Meanwhile you did throw your actual friends on a big pile with third-level acquiantances, forcing them to push your dopamine button for all you do or risk sinking to the bottom of a crowd. This is not social behaviour it is social communism, a non stop popularity-contest and a collapsing rat-colony of burned-out rodents all rolled into one.
To kill a mockingbird
This all has lead me to the conclusion that leaving Facebook was not just a personal decision. Rather it is our collective moral responsibility, to future generations, to kill Facebook and wipe it from the face of the Earth with the power of God’s own thunder. ‘But how can mortal humans fight the Gods of the social Mafia’, you ask? Indeed a company that holds sway with both Presidents and lawmakers across multiple continents may be hard to kill. But in fact it is may be very easy. We, the rats, must simply abandon it. We must convey the true cost of Facebook addictions to others like us and lead the way. Unlike with alcohol, with every recovered Facebook-addict there is actually less drugs in the pool for everyone else. It will first be a trickle that follows you, then others will follow. As a snowball picking up speed the effects will multiply until finally a deluge of people will abandon them. Without other people pushing the dopamine buttons (and only we rats can really press those buttons) there is no reason for anyone to stay. Their money will melt away as companies will no longer seek their association. Cambridge Analytica will see that Facebook no longer has anything to offer. Then the beast will die.
and the others?
While many other platforms are guilty of some of the same things Facebook did, the scale at which Facebook did and does it is only matched by the unrepentant way they have copped to minor infractions in order to steer clear of the penalty for their real crimes. Where others have played fast-and-loose with our privacy, Facebook has been in the business of selling out basic freedoms and democracy itself. While I will remain extremely sceptical of all social-media I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If only because I don’t think this thing is going to disappear entirely.
We should remain self-observing and critical of all social-media but killing Facebook would go so much faster if a replacement for it became popular. Preferably one that was at least partially paid by the users so they would have a motivation to treat them better than rats on a wire.
We must never ever forget however that social interaction is a drug that can be used against us. Like with alcohol, a little can be quite enjoyable, but we must learn mechanisms for avoiding dependency. If you feel that ‘doing without’ is quite impossible you kind of have made your own case for why you should.
Though it may not feel like it right now, to leave Facebook is quite easy. First thing you must do is contact your real friends on another channel. Announce to them what you are planning. Download whatever images you’d still like to keep, but be selective, you don’t want too many Facebook memorabilia. Set a date and announce your departure on Facebook. Then when the day comes delete your account following the instructions on the site below. Look up and smell the roses.
After closing down Facebook it may seem like you now have fewer friends. This is not really true if you did it right. Instead of on the other end of a ‘like’ they are on the other end of an e-mail server. You can’t talk to all at once any-more, but what you say to one of them can be more meaningful than anything you shared with them these last few years. Besides it is not because you now have fewer friends that your life has fewer value or that you are less accomplished. Trade quantity for quality. Bringing auld acquaintances to mind is a resource-intense activity that can’t be automated without losing that what is essential to it. It never could, it just seemed like it could. But also, since life is made up out of finite resources saying goodbye is as much a prerequisite for a happy life as being able to dispense with things you no longer need. You are not an Island building bridges to the mainland, you are a wave and constantly on the move. As a historian I’m all about respect for the past, but we shouldn’t try to relive it over and over. Failing to do so will make you miserable and lonely and make you miss that shining opportunity in the corner of your eye.
With Blanket permissions in End-User-agreements (the kind E.U.’s GDPR is regulating against) users have little control over their data or what happens to it afterwards. This risk used to be limited to making the user vulnerable to some marketing analysis and manipulation. With increasingly powerful cpu’s, faster databases and the transformation of the Internet from static to dynamically constructed (with every browser rendition involving code-execution) the opportunities to capture and cross-reference huge datasets has opened the individual up to mass surveillance and profiling. In your data lays the key to your history, your social-support system, your social-pressure points, your financial resources, your online activities, some of your offline activities, your opinions and your daily routines. Artificial intelligent filters can identify witness-free opportunities to kill-or-capture you with more accuracy than any analogue surveillance in the past could. But unless the data-parser company has any interest in doing this herself, her interest lays in selling your data to interested parties. Parties with deep pockets like Russia, the NSA, Scientology or Saudi[choking] Arabia. If the data can’t be sold without legal liability it can still be hacked or ‘allowed-to-hack’ with manufactured incompetence, which carries less penalties. Since the link between the data-parser and it’s nefarious use will always be hard to prove the legal risk is very small after all. This is akin to Russian Black-hat IT-companies selling malware-suites to ‘hackers’ whom barely qualify to boot a computer. The black-hat companies use profound skill and creativity to earn money off crime but remain outside of prosecution range.
The Internet used to be referred to as the Super Highway, an open road to a bright future. A way forward to the netizens, like myself, that decided to live part of life on-line. By itself this needn’t be a dehumanizing thing. And yet, from 2018 onwards multiple blogs and articles by netizens suggest a sudden tendency to recoil from the net. No longer is the Internet a wide open road to them. Instead is has become a labyrinth of back-alleys were thugs, government-agencies and big corporations alike are looking for your back just to shank you. As in a lucid dream..tired of this Brave New World the citizens retreat to the coastline where, if not privacy, at least there is no surveillance either. Realising they are still carrying their phone, they reach to remove the battery. Only to find this too is no longer allowed.
With the damaged Statue of Liberty sticking partway from the sand a man sinks to his knees. The boulder in his hand crashing violently on the smart-phone in the sand. His voice bellowing across the beach ‘Damn you all to hell’ ! In a muttered tone he quickly adds ‘hashtag-Zuckerberg, hashtag-Facebook, hashtag-planet-of-the-dopamine-apes’.