As the Facebook generation enters adulthood I do wonder if the thinly disguised reference to a sinister side of “the platform” in the latest Jason Bourne movie has any substance. For those of you who aren’t a JB fan, one of the plot lines in the latest movie reveals the agency has a “special” relationship with the architect of a rapidly growing social media platform.
Let’s face it, if you wanted to install a surveillance state, Facebook is gold. Team it with a mobile phone and there’s a basic profile without having to lift a finger from the keyboard.
Nor do I think this is particularly paranoid. It just is the way it is. A surveillance state by stealth and what could be stealthier than something we have willingly signed up for?
But getting back to the JB plot line. While I think it isn’t outlandish to claim that government agencies might have special relationships with IT companies (since in fact they do, despite the widely reported Apple iPhone case) I am more interested in the real politics. To be Machiavellian, who benefits from the rise and rise of Facebook?
Obviously Zuckerberg gets rich. One day he will catch up with his sponsor Gates. But if you look at the impacts of a rising Facebook on the old world social fabric it seems to me that something else is going on.
The claim of Facebook is that everything is social and by definition, connected. Facebook rather innocuously claims to just be what people want, despite the obvious fact that Facebook is very tightly controlled and managed. Without intervention, Facebook would be a mess, much like the world is in real life. So in a sense Facebook is a sanitized version of life with some room for a bit of nastiness.
Is it a platform for social change? Remember the chest beating about the role of social media in the Arab Spring? And where exactly did that end up? Syria? Iraq?
It has been remarked by others that Facebook tends to be a sort of echo chamber where we tend to gravitate towards comfort zones, friends we agree with, pictures we like, groups we think are worthy, pages that appeal to us. Facebook makes it extremely easy to avoid anything we don’t like or agree with. In fact we are so bombarded with stuff we like or should know about that we simply don’t have time or the energy to look at anything else. And this is happening to billion plus facebook users every day.
Sociology isn’t my area of expertise but I suspect what is going on here amounts to something that is actually the antithesis of social connections. By immersing ourselves in our echo chamber of choice we actually disconnect from the rest of society. The divide between us and them appears to disappear but only because we never have to deal with them on Facebook, until they burst into our lives armed with guns and start shooting.
A lot of screentime has been consumed recently devoted to the apparent demise of democracy, specifically the two party state variety and how fractured traditional political models have become. Is this a consequence of the Facebook effect? Impossible to answer definitively but there is something in the rise of authoritarian nationalism which is enabled by a media platform which facilitates close minded bigotry which in turn preys on the breakup of seemingly weaker tolerant liberal society.
And to which we add the spying capacity of Facebook and mobile phones. Scary huh? Particularly when you consider the role of the secret police in authoritarian regimes.
Of course the truth is usually seen as the best weapon in defense of liberty and justice but what happens when truth assumes a totally relativistic position. Well you get Trump, that what’s happens.
The advocates of change and disruption are quite strident in how we have to embrace the new. The problem is the new has some worrying old coming along for the ride and it is quite possible all this technotopia will simply usher in an age we might live to regret. If we survive.