I grew up reading all the dystopian novels, favorites like "Fahrenheit 451," "A Brave New World," "1984" and "The Giver." As an adult, I’m still fascinated with the dystopian world.
However, as a teenager, I had a lingering question: How, if ever, would society come to such a world? What would it take for people to surrender their privacy and freedom? That type of thing doesn’t just happen overnight. Big Brother can’t march into our lives in a single day and strip civilization of its rights.
What I underestimated, what we all underestimated, is the length to which people will go for information and social connectedness. We have surrendered a great portion of personal data in exchange for access to convenient technologies. In just over two decades, platforms provided by Google, Apple, Facebook and others have burrowed so deep into the fabric of our lives that we can’t imagine uncoupling ourselves.
I had a message on my Facebook account this week informing me that I was one of the roughly 87 million users whose data was harvested by Cambridge Analytica. Most disconcerting was the fact that I wasn’t disconcerted. There are many things that bother me about Facebook’s platform, but the sloppy handling of data did not surprise me.
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself using social media platforms less and less. Something didn’t sit right. Perhaps it started when I bought tickets for Broadway’s "Lion King." I didn’t purchase the tickets through Facebook, but somehow, ads for the show followed me for two years. A similar thing happened when I researched a medical concern. The ads trailed me through Facebook and Instagram like a stray puppy. I was being followed, not just by 1,000 of my closest friends, but by legions of advertisers.
Were you riveted, as I was, by Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the House and Senate last week? Zuckerberg’s answers were interesting. More interesting was the revelation that our leaders on Capitol Hill are in way over their heads. They don’t speak “tech.” And it’s very hard to regulate something you don’t understand.
A few months ago, my husband, Seth, was invited to a social science research conference at Facebook. While not solely initiated by Facebook, the gathering of researchers was sponsored and hosted by the tech giant.
At Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, there are open snack bars with smoothies, protein bars, cereal (and milk), candy and fresh fruit. There are also cafes for Facebook employees to hang out after work. The bathrooms are stocked with toothbrushes, toothpaste, bleach pens and specialty floss. All of this is free, grab-and-go. A complimentary spa offers everything from Swedish or prenatal massages to a blueberry facial. The unwritten message is one of abundance.
My husband, a researcher who studies digital media and their social influences, walked around in awe. “All of this,” he told me, “in exchange for people’s time.”
And at the cost of their data.
The unwritten message of Facebook may be abundance. The written messages are everywhere, peppering almost every hallway and meeting room with signs that say things like “Move Fast; Be Open; Be Bold; Focus on Impact.” And “Please Do Not Hesitate,” plus a slight alteration of their old motto (“Move Fast and Break Things”) to “Move Fast and Build Things.” Seth told me the messages created a strange, Big Brother-type feel throughout the campus.
In a call with investors in 2016, Zuckerberg boasted, “Today, people around the world spend on average more than 50 minutes a day using Facebook, Instagram and Messenger… and that doesn’t count WhatsApp.”
An hour per day — that may not sound like too much, but most of us only have about 16 waking hours per day. By some estimates, people will spend about five years of their lives on social media.
“Time is the best measure of engagement, and engagement correlates with advertising effectiveness,” James Stewart wrote in a New York Times article about Facebook’s appetite for human attention.1 comment on this story
Selling people things in exchange for their time is nothing new. After all, books, newspapers and television do the same thing. It’s what we give in exchange, our user privacy, that is most disconcerting about the new regime. When we surrender our hopes, fears and friends to advertisers, what are we really giving up?
It’s hard to see a thing when you’re right in the middle of it. We can’t understand now what the implications will be in another decade or two. However, knowledge seems to be the first step. It’s important for us to understand the high cost of free access to search engines, video platforms and social media.
It’s important for us to try to know as much about these tech giants as they know about us.