A quickly forgotten film last year painted the portrait of a tech company that ran amok with its ambition to know and share everything. Just as we often learn a lesson through extreme examples of what can happen, The Circle, based on a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, provided a chilling look at what a Facebook Future can hold.
In the book, which tells a better story, the fictional company seeks not only to have every single American adult as a user online, sharing everything about themselves, but to do so by contracting with the federal government to privatize and administer the electoral process, so people would be required to vote through its proprietary online platform. With The Circle, there’s no such thing as a privacy setting; you’ll know how everyone else voted.
To be perfectly honest, the fictional company’s mission, “All That Happens Must be Known,” is not too far removed from, say, the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness”—curiously, the motto of a major newspaper in our nation’s capital, now owned by a billionaire digital guru.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The story unfolds through the eyes of an idealistic young woman whose dream to work at The Circle comes true, and the right perspective (presumably that of the author) is offered by her ex-boyfriend: “Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? You people are creating a world of ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us alive.”
He could not be more right.
Transparency has its value, especially when it comes to government and corporate accountability, but the sort of privacy we have to give up to use services that can and should be far simpler leaves us open to a lot of abuse, and we’re seeing the beginning of an exodus from Facebook.
These are indeed dark days for the company, which seems to be finding itself in the news daily. Its young billionaire founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, would, no doubt, like to wish away his troubles.
First, there was the way Cambridge Analytica used access to 270,000 Facebook accounts via an online personality survey to harvest profile data on more than 80 million Facebook users. More recently, there’s the charge that Facebook had attempted to secure data on hospital patients so it could compare it with their own information about the patients and, it said, help the medical field understand the patient’s health situation a little more deeply. This research project is now on hold. Finally, in the wake of these revelations, some people have begun to monitor the data Facebook has gathered about them, and the newest controversy is about how much data Facebook collects, particularly for those who allow it to upload contact data from their phone. The sharing of personal data is separate from the controversy over censorship of views the corporation finds objectionable.
As a result of the Cambridge Analytica controversy, it must have greatly pained Zuckerberg to sign off on publishing full-page apology ads in major American and British newspapers. After all, newspapers are supposed to be obsolete by now, along with personal data privacy in this age of digital surveillance marketing. He then had to replace his trademark hoodie with a suit and tie and travel to Washington to be interrogated by senators. Nearly half the U.S. Senate showed up for that hearing, some of which clearly had no clue about how the online world operates.
Reading about Facebook buying newspaper ads reminds one of something else in the news recently. In February, Best Buy announced that it will stop selling music CDs in their stores on July 1. Buying music digitally, or streaming it online, is killing the market for CDs. Some carmakers aren’t even including once-standard CD players in their models.
For the recording industry, streaming and digital represent the future, 65 and 15 percent of their revenue in 2017, respectively. Physical music (CDs, etc.) only represented 17 percent of the industry’s income that year. What makes this story odd is that vinyl albums, a non-digital music format that goes back to the 1930s, will remain on sale at Best Buy. There seems to be a trend here. In 2017, vinyl record revenues rose 10 percent, to $395 million; CD sales declined 6 percent, to $1.1 billion.
In his 2016 book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, writer David Sax looked at various trends where analog is making a comeback, starting with the surge of popularity for vinyl records. He talks about paper products (but not newspapers), film and board games, and a slew of “analog” ideas like work and school, print and retail. Sax, rightly, does not see a binary choice between the two, but rather a new realization of the unique value of the truly tangible in a world of touchscreens. Zuckerberg did not need to apologize in a newspaper, but he recognized it had an audience he could not reach on Facebook.
I don’t expect the “#deletefacebook” movement to go very far, despite its popularity with some celebrities, from Susan Sarandon to Elon Musk. For as much as we love to hate Facebook, we also love to use it for the purpose it was originally intended, to stay in touch with friends and family. Watching grandstanding senators ask silly questions in the recent Zuckerberg hearing reminds me of a similar observation often made: We all hate Congress, but keep reelecting our own senators and representatives.
Many people are turning to Facebook alternatives like MeWe. This newer social-sharing app debuted in 2016 with a special emphasis on privacy and has been positioning itself as the anti-Facebook in this current controversy.
In the digital world, it’s not just data at risk, but the truth itself, in this era where rumors, attacks and “fake news” spread so much more quickly at the swipe of a thumb across a screen.
Recently, the journalist Farhad Manjoo gave up getting his news online, relying solely on newspapers for a two-month span. “Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins,” Manjoo wrote in a much-discussed New York Times essay. “…Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today—and every one we will battle tomorrow—is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd.”
With the impetus to always be sharing, we have lost the ability to read and reflect on the news of the day, on subjects of paramount importance for human dignity and world peace. Another line from the ex-boyfriend in The Circle reflects this: “Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communications,” he says. “No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing.”
What will be left after the digital dust settles? Perhaps the coming analog revolution will have us all listening to records while playing Risk and enjoying a real face-to-face conversation about something we saw in the morning paper, the way it was meant to be.