All the values that Silicon Valley professes are the values of the 60s. The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberation. Everyone has the right to speak their mind on social media, to fulfil their intellectual and democratic potential, to express their individuality. Where television had been a passive medium that rendered citizens inert, Facebook is participatory and empowering. It allows users to read widely, think for themselves and form their own opinions.
We can’t entirely dismiss this rhetoric. There are parts of the world, even in the US, where Facebook emboldens citizens and enables them to organise themselves in opposition to power. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere, either. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait.
In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules devised by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation. Facebook is always surveilling users, always auditing them, using them as lab rats in its behavioural experiments. While it creates the impression that it offers choice, in truth Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that gets them thoroughly addicted. It’s a phoniness that is most obvious in the compressed, historic career of Facebook’s mastermind.
By the time Zuckerberg began extolling the virtues of hacking, he had stripped the name of most of its original meaning and distilled it into a managerial philosophy that contains barely a hint of rebelliousness. Hackers, he told one interviewer, were “just this group of computer scientists who were trying to quickly prototype and see what was possible. That’s what I try to encourage our engineers to do here.” To hack is to be a good worker, a responsible Facebook citizen – a microcosm of the way in which the company has taken the language of radical individualism and deployed it in the service of conformism.
Nobody better articulates the modern faith in engineering’s power to transform society than Zuckerberg. He told a group of software developers, “You know, I’m an engineer, and I think a key part of the engineering mindset is this hope and this belief that you can take any system that’s out there and make it much, much better than it is today. Anything, whether it’s hardware or software, a company, a developer ecosystem – you can take anything and make it much, much better.”
The engineering mindset has little patience for the fetishisation of words and images, for the mystique of art, for moral complexity or emotional expression. It views humans as data, components of systems, abstractions. That’s why Facebook has so few qualms about performing rampant experiments on its users. The whole effort is to make human beings predictable – to anticipate their behaviour, which makes them easier to manipulate.
I believe this is where the SIGINT community and Mark high five.
Facebook would never put it this way, but algorithms are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction. Algorithms fuel a sense of omnipotence, the condescending belief that our behaviour can be altered, without our even being aware of the hand guiding us, in a superior direction.
Aim to misbehave, kiddos. Aim to misbehave.