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Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Engineers of Human Souls

You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.
       – Mark Zuckerberg
This quote from a few years back still amazes me today. If we take it at face value, it implies that some of the fundamental laws and conditions of human existence are being blithely reworked by what are basically naive kids. The kids happen to run a billion dollar corporation, but does Zuckerberg’s technological and business prowess give him a license to not only pontificate about the nature of human identity, but radically alter it? Apparently it does.

Zuckerberg’s childish ideas about how humans work is going to affect hundreds of millions of people and how they interact with each other. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you will be forced to give up whatever multiple personas you like to keep on hand for different occasions, and just Be Yourself. In a way, maybe it’s a relief. No more playing roles, you are just you. As Zuckerbergs’s line about “lack of integrity” implies, only the morally flawed would want to hide their true face from the public eye.

Well, fortunately a lot of this is the usual cloud of hot air that hangs over Silicon Valley. Facebook and other social media certainly put a twist on social life and interaction, but do they reach into the deepest recesses of the human mind and change the way we are? I’m not sure. I don’t think Facebook has changed me that much, but I’m old. It may be a different story for those growing up in this media environment. I’m built out of books and bad 1960s television shows; my children are constructing themselves from multiplayer gaming worlds and the like. They will be different.

I do not mind so much that technology changes how we interact with each other and thus how we construct ourselves; that has been happening all the time, every new media technology (print, newspapers, radio, telephone) does that. If the Internet wires us together in a new way, that is OK, it’s not like the particular conditions of the previous social matrix were something especially sacred.

What does bother me is how we are doing this in such an undemocratic, centralized, and corporate fashion. The Internet was designed to be open, free form, and democratic. The web followed those principles and displaced the corporate walled gardens of an earlier era (AOL and Compuserve). Now we seem ready to give all that up and cede control of the very fabric of our lives to Zuckerberg’s walled garden / panopticon because that is where everybody else is, with barely a whimper of protest. It would be bad enough if social media were merely an entertainment playground, but it's builders seem to think it is part of the infrastructure of the new human soul, and they may be right.

[previously] [post title reference]


scw said...

Perhaps it is just because I'm an old codger, but I fail to see any use for Facebook in my life. I was not surprised to see that its stock price promptly collapsed after its much-hyped initial public offering. The wonderful thing about its being a corporation is that I am free not to patronize it.

Why are leftists like mtraven so apprehensive about corporations? No corporation ever tried to conscript me and send me halfway round the world to be shot at by the Viet Cong. No corporation ever tried to extort money from me for "services" I didn't need or want, making threats of incarcerating me if I didn't pay. The United States government did the former and continues to do the latter, even as it manages itself in a way that would lead any corporation swiftly into bankruptcy. To fear private companies while embracing government is to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Will you have one hump or two?

TGGP said...

I have a Facebook account, but I pretty much never do anything with it, so it doesn't matter. I like the open, decentralized nature of the internet, but who needs any democracy in it? Just don't use Facebook if you don't like it, simple as that.

mtraven said...

Good god, is there no issue that can’t be reduced to the pathetic and false schema of government vs. private enterprise?

- All concentrations of power, government or corporate, are liable to abuse.

- Government is at least in theory capable of being aimed at the common good, though it is more typically perverted to private or self-aggrandizing interests

- Most often government and corpororate interests are not opposed but work in tandem. Usually for the worse (such as the Iraq war, whose main domestic beneficiaries seems to be Halliburton and other private corporations who made out like bandits) and occasionally for the good, as in the development of the internet. (There are tenuous but suggestive links between Facebook and government intelligence agencies via their own venture arm In-Q-Tel).

- It’s ridiculous to say that just because you don’t use a corporation or service, you aren’t affected by it. I use Facebook somewhat reluctantly because there are people and groups there that I want to communicate with. I don’t have to, but if I don’t, I am isolated. Have you never heard of network effects? They are what every internet business is predicated on, and they mean that the effects, good or bad, of your individual decisions to purchase or consume a service are not limited to yourself.

scw said...

I do not feel "isolated" because I do not patronize Facebook, and I can only feel sorry for people who resort to it in order not to feel isolated. What pathetic lives they must have.

The truisms you have listed above do not conflict with my observation that government has a monopoly on the lawful use of force, and that the abusive conduct of government is thus more to be feared than is the abusive conduct of private enterprise. Moreover, the corrupt liaisons between government and business to which you refer - "crony capitalism" - arise in proportion to the size and power of government. If it were not so large and so powerful, it would not be so lucrative to pursue such arrangements.

The issue at hand is not "the pathetic and false schema
of government vs. private enterprise" but rather an argument of comparative disadvantage - that
government is capable of greater evil than private enterprise is, and is therefore the more to be mistrusted. On the other hand, as Dr. Johnson observed, "men are seldom more innocently employed than when they are honestly making money." Government's legitimate role is merely to deter dishonesty.

Archie Leach said...

I sometimes think of Facebook as the culmination of the internet rather than being its antithesis, in the sense of its pointing to a hippyish ideal of no-one having secrets and everyone being connected. (It's hardly surprising, therefore, that draft-dodging baby-boomers would fail to acknowledge the problem.)

TGGP said...

I've heard of "No one makes you shop at Wal-Mart". Does Facebook "affect" me? Sure, I receive emails as a result of what people do there, and I can rsvp for some events through it. Ooh, scary. I guess it's become a popular platform for comments, despite being inferior to the usual wordpress/Disqus setup. Usually Facebook sites still let me use yahoo/hotmail/open-id or other methods, although not always very well.

I worked at a company involved with In-Q-Tel. I don't think I'm violating my NDA in saying that the product is still something of a science project, but maybe I didn't even hear about the super-secret stuff. I was also kind of glad that the sales (In-Q-Tel was investing rather than buying) guys dedicated to the government had to keep on reporting failure.

hoyhoy said...


scw said...

Facebook is a much overrated phenomenon.

mtraven said...

The stock price of Facebook is a small matter; but the general phenomenon of social media is not. It enables these stupid arguments between people who would otherwise not be in communication, but it also enables a whole host of other more useful forms of communication. I have an upcoming post that argues this at some length, so you might want to wait and sneer at that.

scw said...

Stock prices fluctuate for a variety of reasons, some less significant than others. The Vice article to which I referred, if you read it, makes it evident that the fall in Facebook's stock price is not just the result of some short-term play, but rather reflects an adverse judgment by investors on the continuing viability of company's business model. That is not such a small matter, especially in view of all of the portentous things you have said about social media.

No one could deny that digital media have brought about notable economic, social, and even political consequences. E-mail has replaced the written letter to such an extent as to be at least a partial cause of the economic distress of the U.S. Postal System. The commercial development of the Internet introduced a new advertising medium offering an economy of substitution with respect to older media such as print, radio, and television. The advent of Craigslist cut so severely into the classified ad revenues of newspapers that many of them went into bankruptcy. Similarly, the digitalization of news reportage has broken the control that the older media once had over how current events were covered, or whether certain events were covered at all.

However, Internet advertisements, online news reportage, blogs, and e-mail, while they are digital media, aren't "social media" - are they? That term appears to be reserved for Facebook, MySpace, and similar facilities, and for Twitter. The former seem to me to be primarily adolescent venues - although there are some people using them who are chronologically past adolescence, they haven't laid aside adolescent patterns of thought and behavior. As for Twitter, it is mostly a vehicle for the exchange of adolescent vapidities.

Just as the development of e-mail did not lead to a renaissance in the art of written communication, neither has Twitter produced a revival of the epigram. The e-mail age has produced no correspondence comparable to that of Mme de Sevigné, Lord Chesterfied, or even the ordinary Civil War soldier's letters home. In like manner, Twitter has not so far yielded an aphorist or wit to match Martial, Dr. Johnson, or Oscar Wilde. We may judge it by its fruits.

hoyhoy said...

Aren't 70% of the valuation of all stocks manipulated by the Fed via liquidity injections anyway?

scw said...

Yes, stock prices have risen because of the artificially low rates of return on bonds, and the latter arise from the actions of the Fed's open market committee. To attribute 70% of the market's rise to those actions seems rather overblown to me, but I can't profess to know for sure. It would be interesting to see what effect on stock market averages a reversion to historically typical bond interest rates would show in a mathematical model. It would certainly play hob with Federal budgeting.

Given the generally high prices of stocks, the fall in Facebook's stock price is all the more striking. As the linked article states, Facebook has lost something like 6 million customers. That might go some ways toward explaining why its stock price has so underperformed the market - closing today at $26.14, down from its $38 IPO price, as against an 11% gain in the S&P 500 since the start of this year. Earnings are $0.02/share - a P/E ratio of 1300! It's still significantly overvalued.