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Precursor to Dystopia #4: Facebook

Welcome to the fourth Precursor to Dystopia column.

Usually I start these with some weird-but-intriguing analogous relationship between something innocuous, and the inevitable dystopian future we all face. Today, I only have one word: Facebook. I want to start with a few quotes. You may or may not recognize the names attributed, but you will surely understand their titles:

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works…. Hearts, likes, thumbs-up, no civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem, this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.

 –Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth, Facebook

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators, it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people understood this consciously. And we did it anyway. God knows what it’s doing to the brains of our kids.”

–Sean Parker, Former Facebook Exec, Facebook
(and the guy who inspired Justin Timberlake to say “You know what’s cool? A BILLION Dollars”)

“They’re bright bings of pseudo pleasure…It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences”

–Justin Rosenstein, inventor of the “Like” button, on his creation for Facebook

My thesis:

I don’t think Facebook started out evil, nor do I think they intended to be evil. But they have become evil, by sheer virtue that they refuse to stop doing evil things.

They have put profit above responsibility. They have put user engagement above user health. They have refused to reign in systems that are continually abused by bad actors to manipulate and control people, because Facebook depends on widespread public use to work — and shutting even one door affects their bottom line.

Chances are, you found this Forces of Geek exclusive column via a link shared there, either by Stefan or by a friend, or just because you happen to have liked an article from this site in the past. Or any article related to “geek culture” or “dystopia” or even “precursors.”

Or maybe you were searching for “Dystopian furniture and lighting” for your new cyberpunk-themed smoking lounge in your brand new house, and amongst the links to wall clings for loading bars and cool circuitboard patterns and LED lighting was a link to this, because Machine Learning.

No, really. That’s why.

Facebook is a gigantic machine, learning everything about you based on what you tell it, and even what you don’t. Every click, every comment, every photo, every link — even on sites you visit that AREN’T Facebook and weren’t visited via Facebook — and even if you actually aren’t on Facebook (when it asks to see contacts by your friends, if you’re in that contact list, you’re ingested too)… You’re in the Facebook machine.

When you use Facebook, Facebook uses your interactions to learn how you’re using it, and then begins presenting achievements and asks you to use it more.

Of course, Forces of Geek is certainly not evil.

Stefan Blitz is not evil.

I am not evil.

The post on Facebook you may have followed to read this article is not evil.

Even the system itself is not evil.

It’s just a robot, after all. It can’t know good from bad. It only knows what makes you tick so you will click, and it gets smarter on that fact every day. Because without that data, Facebook can’t be nearly as engaging. But the problem is, they’re ONLY focused on engagement, to an extreme degree that is harmful to the 3 billion people using the platform.

Think about it for a moment. THREE BILLION people use Facebook. That’s a little under half the planet, and includes children and senior adults unable to use computers. The statistic becomes far more stunning once you eliminate those two ends of the use spectrum: 72% of all teens and adults on the planet use Facebook. And all they care about is that you use it. It’s how they’ve built their robots, which is also how they’ve built there billions upon billions of dollars of cash in reserve.

The fact is, it is in Facebook’s best interest to get you engaged, even if it gets you angry, sad, depressed, and otherwise miserable. Because if misery gets you to use the machine, the machine regards it the same as happiness. And let’s not forget, Zuckerberg is TOTALLY not going to run for president in 2020.

With a platform he owns which holds half the planet’s attention for more than half their day, which has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to have influenced Presidential, Senate, Congress, Gubernatorial, and City Council seats… why would he? What makes Facebook evil is that it doesn’t stop us — the collective us — from using it to hurt ourselves, because to do so would destroy what makes it so powerful. Facebook — the people who make up the company — have decided that they care more about maintaining the control and power they have than they do about the health, welfare, safety, and freedom of the people they have in their grasp.

Mark Zuckerberg / Photo by JD Lasica

Facebook allows white supremacist groups to operate freely, but blocks ads for marches against them. UNICORNS!

We absolutely cannot trust Facebook to regulate itself. Every system can be hacked. And when you open the doors to the masses, the nefarious among them — even the computer illiterate ones — will learn how to use the system and abuse it to their own gain, especially when that gain is controlling the actions and thoughts of THREE BILLION people. Usually, when you realize you have a vulnerability, you work to patch it for the safety and security of your users. But what happens when your vulnerabilities are some of your most profitable features? What happens?

As Rob Beschizza said: “The thing Facebook will never understand is that their smartest algorithm is still dumber than the dumbest Nazi.” And as my friend James likes to say, “Facts are merely an inconvenience when your livelihood depends on ignoring them.”

So what can you do? Simple: Leave Facebook.

“But come on, really Joe?” you may ask. “Is it that drastic? I mean, it’s just a website!”

If it’s really “just a website” then leaving shouldn’t be hard, should it? But it is.

In my post about “Why I Left Facebook”, I explain how it affected me and how the process went a month into the experiment.

It’s not easy. Hell, I’m still not off it (although my relationship with it, as well as all of social media, is vastly different these days). I have a “stealth” account that I use to manage my author page and the page for my novel series. The account has only a few friends, who are real-life people I know and talk to daily, who can update my pages for me when I’m not able to. I don’t hang out there (or Twitter). I don’t post things for likes. I don’t argue with people all day. I don’t shout into the void for the dual benefit of feeling right and getting little dopamine hits of validation. I have not experienced any of the negative issues I used to, because I don’t actually use Facebook how Facebook wants me to use it. I post articles I write, updates about my books, and photos of my cats to it through other apps and hope that people check things out.

As a result, my traffic and engagement has fallen by an order of magnitude. And you know what? I’m good with that. Because I don’t wake up angry every day, and I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m doing anything meaningful when I espouse nonsense to people who simply ingest it as yet more stimulus to either be entertained by or react to.

If you don’t want to quit Facebook, at the very least, check out this guide to a healthier digital life. The main goal for me isn’t to get people to outright leave a platform, as much as it is to point out that these systems benefit to great profit by manipulating you, and you very likely have no idea exactly how they do it.

But there are very real consequences to this blindness of your own motivations. The trick to every great con is to make the victim believe it was their idea to do what you want them to do. And that’s precisely how large-scale social networks are engineered.

If you haven’t been paying attention, the five largest corporations in the country are all technology companies who offer you “free” platforms to spend your time all day. They read your messages. They study you and find new ways to get you to engage with them, because they can sell that engagement promise to advertisers who then track every move you make themselves.

If we’re not careful, it’ll be a Brave New World before we realize it.

The “Other Precursors to Dystopia” will return next week. This week, it’s all about Facebook.

Joe Peacock is a writer and producer of the Screenland cyberculture documentary series on RedBull.TV, and author of the Marlowe Kana cyberpunk novel series.

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