Earlier today, Mark Zuckerberg announced that “this morning, there are more than one billion people using Facebook actively each month.” He went on to utter what could be the understatement of the century, “Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life.”
To be certain, what Facebook has accomplished is truly amazing. Who could possibly have predicted this kind of dominance? Perhaps Aldus Huxley. And I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Huxley is looking down on all of us right now saying, “I told you so.”
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. –Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death
What is one of the keys to Facebook’s unmatched success? Unquestionably, it is that it feeds our unquenchable appetite for distraction by elevating the most distracting content to the top of the trough. Using its famed Edge Rank Formula, it destroys less distracting information by making it invisible. And since the distraction, the amusement is what we really seek, the vast, vast majority fail to dig deeper for something perhaps more valuable. In this way, as Huxley predicted, Facebook controls us by inflicting pleasure.
We take to it and other similar social platforms and technologies like sweets, unable to pull ourselves away from the candy to feed on healthier food. And while our rational mind can see the benefit of backing away from the candy jar, we return time and time again because it’s easy and it feels good. Facebook controls us. And we like it.
Many will celebrate this milestone today. On one level it is certainly deserved. I certainly enjoy the connection to family and friends that Facebook’s platform has provided. But like Sherry Turkle, I wonder if “we are too quick to celebrate the continual presence of a technology that knows no respect for traditional and helpful lines in the sand,” Turkle writes in Alone Together. “When media are always there, waiting to be wanted, people lose a sense of choosing to communicate.” In this way also, Facebook controls us. And we appear to like that as well.
I am not opposed to technology. The fact that I am compelled to say that says something about our culture. Love of technology is as American as apple pie. Postman had something to say about this as well. In Technopoly he writes:
“In cultures that have a democratic ethos, relatively weak traditions, and a high receptivity to new technologies, everyone is inclined to be enthusiastic about technological change, believing that its benefits will eventually spread evenly among the entire population. Especially in the United States, where the lust for what is new has no bounds, do we find this childlike conviction most widely held. Indeed, in America, social change of any kind is rarely seen as resulting in winners and losers, a condition that stems in part from Americans’ much-documented optimism. As for change brought on by technology, this native optimism is exploited by entrepreneurs, who work hard to infuse the population with a unity of improbable hope, for they know that it is economically unwise to reveal the price to be paid for technological change. One might say, then, that, if there is a conspiracy of any kind, it is that of a culture conspiring against itself.”Neil Postman – Technopoly
“It is economically unwise to reveal the price to be paid for technological change.” Let me say this again. I am not against technology. I am simply worried about what we lose when we grant technology more power than it deserves and when we turn a blind eye to the potential pitfalls each new technological change brings.
When we eat too much crappy food, we get fat. The result is visible. Others can see it, we can see it. It becomes obvious that we need to do something about it. But what happens when we consume too much crappy information? If Postman is right, and I fear he is, what happens is that we amuse ourselves to death.
There are one billion people actively using Facebook each month. And I’m not certain if I should celebrate or mourn.
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photo via Flickr Creative Commons by James Cridland
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