- Singing Scientist Podcast
[This blog was originally published in The Holland Sentinel]
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence …
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
—T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
I have decided not merely to deactivate, but to delete my entire Facebook profile and its history. Here’s why.
My anxiety about Facebook began in the summer of 2015. It was a hot July day in Michigan and I was at the mall, taking pictures of skincare products to research online at home. When I returned to the car an hour later and opened Facebook, I noticed advertisements in my News Feed for some of the very products I’d photographed minutes before. Whoa! Something must be wrong — I didn’t post these, I thought. (We’ve all had that “whoa!” moment.) A few seconds of research revealed that, when allowing Facebook access to a phone’s Camera Roll, as they require for posting pictures, Facebook thereafter constantly examines not just the pictures we post, but every single picture on our phones. No options, no in-betweens — it’s all or nothing. I quickly deleted Facebook, but lost my resolve a month later, deciding it didn’t really matter so much.
This time Facebook will not be so lucky, because it is now clear that there is much more at stake than our privacy — perhaps even our minds, for sale to the highest bidder.
Hear me out. While it is surely the case that every wave of new communication technology in history has sounded alarms about brainwashing and propaganda — especially radio and television — I believe Facebook represents a unique threat for several reasons.
First, the “algorithm.” Facebook has long decided that it will use what I call our “word data” to personally tailor our News Feeds. Every single post we write, like, share, or spend time viewing is stored for safe keeping in our Activity Logs. Facebook has over a billion such Logs to analyze, and even the most elementary statistics can be effectively used to find correlations between posts. This means Facebook can quickly learn what you will like, before you Like it: several people Like both post A and post B; you Like post A but haven’t yet seen post B; Facebook will then show you post B because people with similar preferences have Liked it. Machine learning techniques can achieve even more tailoring.
While Facebook gives us the illusion that we’re exposed to the global community of ideas, it has over the years backed us into a small corner where we can hear only the echoes of our own screaming voices.
Why does this matter? Because, while Facebook gives us the illusion that we’re exposed to the global community of ideas, it has over the years backed us into a small corner where we can hear only the echoes of our own screaming voices. We’re shown only a tiny subset of posts: only conservative news; only liberal news; only cat memes. In the process, we’ve grown, unwittingly, even more extreme, even more isolated, and even more unthinking than we were before — all the while thinking quite fondly of ourselves. Anyone could walk into the café as you read a book; not anyone, it turns out, could come across your News Feed.
Does this differ from radio, television, and books? Of course. A popular publication (say, the New York Times) or broadcast (say, Fox News) must appeal to the logic of at least thousands if not millions to constitute a viable product. Facebook stories and internet articles, on the other hand, can be virtually personally tailored, because Facebook has analyzed our word data to provide near complete psychological profiling of each of us. It knows exactly the sort of thing you’d need to hear to change your mind at an emotional level, and it’s been used to do exactly that on a mass scale, as recent events have shown. Those sorts of articles take only an hour to write, and the people to whom they appeal have no scruples about spell check.
Regarding those who lack scruples, Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerburg, has now confirmed once and for all that he is an unprincipled egotist — and the Good Book tells us that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Other social media pioneers have warned of the potentially harmful effects of Facebook and other platforms, noting that they are essentially designed — just like any other product — to get us hooked, to release dopamine in our brains, and to get us spending as much time as possible on the platform. (Yes, you really do open Facebook the moment you see that shiny red notification count, and “1” is almost as enticing as “20″.) Not Zuckerberg. He has displayed little caution in his attempt to monopolize and monetize all the world’s social life. He has violated his own word in allowing our data to be sold and used against us.
Facebook seeks to be the primary medium by which we interact with others — all so it can have our attention when it wants to show us something.
Finally, Facebook is truly the most anti-spiritual force of our time. Unlike other products such as books and television, Facebook has lodged itself between us and those we love. It seeks to be the primary medium by which we interact with others — all so it can have our attention when it wants to show us something. And in the midst of this uninterrupted attention, we have forgotten the quiet spaces and solitude each of us possess. We have forgotten to listen to the “still, small voice” that comes from within. Even if Facebook were completely innocuous, I would want to be free from its influence, lest it fall into the wrong hands, and lest I forget the purpose of my life.
I say I’ve deleted Facebook “for now.” Here’s what it might take to get me back as a regular: (1) a function to easily delete large portions of my history; (2) an option to set expiration dates for my posts so that they are automatically deleted after a time; (3) a guarantee that deleted material is deleted completely and permanently; and (4) an option to upload pictures to Facebook without granting access to my entire camera roll. That such obvious options are not available is quite telling.
In summary, I’ve grown uncomfortable with Facebook because of the level of personal tailoring of information that is now possible, and the vast word data they have on each of us, allowing near-complete psychological profiling in order to execute said tailoring. I think it makes people more and more convinced they’re right about everything and doesn’t encourage people to think critically. It is designed to appeal to vanity, and only serves to make us more vain. When I create a new barebones account in the future, I intend to use it for the most basic of purposes. In the meantime, I hope my period of fasting from the platform will provide some realizations about just how addicted I have become, and the degree to which I must self-limit the time I spend on Facebook should I return.