Facebook Flexes: Technology, Power and Ethics


First dates are always nerve wracking. It’s an eyeless chemistry experiment: mix two unknown quantities together, haphazardly, with no prior knowledge of how they will react to one another, hoping only for the best.

Sometimes it works; most times it doesn’t. Usually, you get a lacklustre fizz that initially promised something more explosive, but rapidly decays into a disappointing formless goo. Better luck next time.

The problem was a paucity of information. You didn’t know enough about your date’s political views, their taste in music, art and food, their social tribe. Your efforts were courageous, but always doomed to fail. What a waste of time. Why did you even bother in the first place?

In the futuristic film Sight (2011), an innovative new technology provides a unique solution to this problem: an ocular implant named “Sight” that displays real-time data on objects in your field of vision. It takes the form of a scrolling graphical overlay that pops up when you open your fridge, for example, telling you exactly how much food is left, precise calorie counts and recommendations for more efficient storage.

Sight also comes in handy when you’re on a date with a woman you’ve never met before; her strangeness is diminished by your ability to preemptively access her “profile” on the web. On it, you will find all you need to know, avoiding any unintended faux pas in conversation. But if she doesn’t give too much away there, then you can always use Sight to lauch an application that analyses her micro-expressions as you interact, keeping a score of how well you’re doing and giving instructions on how to optimize the encounter.

Sight’s power is in its ubiquity. Everybody uses it. The line between life offline and online is completely blurred, if not non-existent.

Though a more physically integrated version, this is not unlike our experience of information technology in the present day. Our personal lives are becoming increasingly mediated by it.

The artist Banksy observed this modern phenomenon in his latest artwork. In it, he depicts a young couple embracing, enraptured not by each other, but by the mobile phones they’re both holding; lovingly gazing at the screens of their respective devices.

We now have a close relationship with our technology. But the feelings of affection may be more one-sided than we realize.

For the other party it is more a partnership of utility than it is sentiment.

Their primary concern being the commoditization of our data.

Power Dynamics

Though the previous sentence could be easily read in an ominous tone. It is not intended as such. It is merely a statement of fact.

Technology companies are more intimately involved in our personal lives than government is. NSA surveillance fears aside, enormous companies like Facebook and Google are able to gather vast amounts of information on their users on a daily basis.

Facebook has over 1 billion users and is actively mining the data it gathers from that vast user base to build a highly valuable business.

“Revenue climbed 72% to $2.5 billion, beating the $2.36 billion expected by analysts, as online retailers and other advertisers increasingly use Facebook ads to boost sales.”

–       Wall Street Journal

Writer and technology entrepreneur Jaron Lanier has also characterized this as an unequal “information relationship” between the company and its users, where the party with access to the largest computers – those most efficient at gathering information (the company) – wields the most power.

It is the power to ascertain an individual’s entire online identity by collecting huge amounts of data on them.

Jaron Lanier makes the point that these companies do not necessarily have nefarious intentions but that this power differential is just a natural consequence of the sprawling information systems we’re creating.

There has been no comprehensive and wide-ranging public discussion around these practices, probably because they are so new. We are right at the beginning of the era of “big data”.

That is not to say that there are no legal restrictions in place at all. The European Union, for instance, requires that web users give explicit permission for websites to use cookies that track their movements online.

In the US, however, there are no baseline legal restrictions on data collection and analysis by corporations.

That is why it is important that we start having a discussion now as to exactly what our tolerance levels for data collection are and how we plan to regulate it.

As the furore over the NSA leaks evinces (and whatever your position on that may be), the general public has a low tolerance for what they perceive to be intrusions into their privacy.

Though this may sound foreboding, is there any evidence to suggest that this information is being used with malicious intent? Do we have anything tangible to fear from this rather abstract sounding “power dynamic”?

So far, no. Right now it seems to be used for benign purposes, though some may feel that they are uncomfortable with the notion of their data being used for anything at all, there are no clear instances of outright abuse to point to just yet. Though the recent controversy over Facebook manipulating news feeds has angered people, the experiment was performed with the approval of two Ethics Boards (however questionable).

But isolated, individual trangressions are not cause for major concern, that is inevitable within any organization, it is rather the broader systematic exercise of that organisation’s power that must be subject to checks and balances. A necessity in any democratic society.

Democracy

If democracy is a desired goal, which is safe to assume is the case in most Western countries, there has to be a critical examination of the power structures that govern the lives of its citizens, and processes and procedures implemented to hold that power to account.

Information gathering companies such as Google and Facebook do exert a great deal of influence over our lives. In many ways they are shaping our culture and how we live in the modern technological era.

They have proven themselves so indispensable, that most people are prepared to make certain trade-offs with their privacy in exchange for access to the free services they provide; but it is important that this freely given consent takes place within an institutional framework of accountability and oversight.

Jaron Lanier has expressed the concern that the legal system is too slow for the fast pace of technology.

But as Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard legal professor and well-known social commentator, said in a recent Munk debate on mass state surveillance techniques, the law is always one step behind technology.

And this is by design, the judicial process is slow and careful, the very antithesis of “disruptive technology”.

This is because whilst the face of those who wield power may change, power itself, in whatever form, will always exist. Democratic institutions have always had the task of holding it to account, using reliable and effective models of debate and contestation to do so. It may be ponderous, but it works.

Visions of the Future

Spoiler Alert:

The film Sight ends on a baleful note. An employee of the company Sight hacks into and begins to control the brain of a woman who has the implant. What may have once seemed like an empowering experience for individuals –almost unlimited access to information- is now revealed to be a fundamentally disempowering one.

Of course, this dystopian vision of our technological future is a common theme in science fiction.

These accounts often lapse into hyperbole and are deliberately dramatized for entertainment purposes, so we cannot take them to be an exact representation of a future reality.

But as the fiction writer Alan Moore has said, most dystopian sci-fi is not about the future, so much as it is a comment about the society in which it is written – albeit an exaggerated version. It serves to warn of the possible disastrous consequences of the actions we take in the present – things that bear thinking about.

Of course it must be emphasized (once again) that there is no cause for concern at the moment. Google and Facebook, etc. do not appear to have any sinister motives.

But a democracy does not rely on the good nature of those who possess power it relies on the strength of its institutions.