There’s a quality of urban life that people either love or hate: Everywhere you look in a city is a terminal point of human desire.
If you’re in a city right now, look around. Church. Manicure joint. Strip club. Condos. The population’s collective demands for religion, sex, shelter and (above all) #nailart are inscribed in the cityscape. Contrast this with an untamed natural landscape where human desires aren’t answered at all. Want a bed or simple hydration? The forest and desert don’t care.
Facebook is a hypertropolis that can make even the most committed urbanite long for the countryside. It’s engineered to stoke and satisfy desires. Initially, users turn to Facebook for clients, romance and popularity. Eventually we’re trained to crave and demand everything from overpriced socks to political propaganda.
That’s when we start shelling out resources, in dollars and in the more precious coin of our attention and data.
But where a city fulfills the wants and needs of its entire population, Facebook is perpetually reading individual users. It both installs our buttons and pushes the hell out of them. It speaks to us in our own voice, cobbled together from what it interprets to be our longings and desires.
Facebook then coarsens that voice, and amplifies it. The data-and-targeting algorithm acts like Iago, amping up our basest emotions while pretending to be merely concerned for our welfare. Mention the word “cheating” in Messenger, for example, and Facebook’s Iago jumps to conclusions, showing you ads for private-eye services. (Not that I know this firsthand.)
It was this icky part of Facebook’s UX that seemed most to bother the members of Congress who interrogated Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg last week. Ostensibly the hearings were to determine whether government ought to regulate Facebook, which enjoys unprecedented power over 2 billion users. But the hearings often seemed more like a 10-hour encounter group for boomers and senior citizens terrified of digitization.
Understandably, the gang on Capitol Hill was deeply concerned about the targeting of users with bespoke come-ons. Targeted ads are one of the few ways ordinary people see visible evidence of Facebook’s arcane data operation, and concern about ads is a proxy for the broader worry about data-gathering.
It was interesting to hear senators and congresspeople voice their anxiety and to hear Zuckerberg express contempt for it.
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida (b. 1942) asked an especially sweet, pained question: “I’m communicating with my friends on Facebook and indicate that I love a certain kind of chocolate. And all of a sudden I start receiving advertisements for chocolate. What if I don’t want to receive those commercial advertisements?”
“If you want to have an experience where your ads aren’t targeted using all the information that we have available,” Zuckerberg replied, “you can turn off third-party information.”
The implication was that Nelson’s squeamishness was not just odd, but self-defeating. Why wouldn’t he want targeted ads using all the dirt on him in Facebook’s arsenal?
Zuckerberg’s answer implied one of Facebook’s more far-fetched talking points. According to the company line, data-harvesting and user-targeting are not done in the name of surveillance or even profits. Rather, they’re done for the same reason Facebook does all else: Because it cares about us. Hmm. Unlikely.
When Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska (b. 1951) pressed Zuckerberg on data storage, he said even more clearly than he had to Nelson that Facebook does it for our own good.
“We store data about what people share on the service and information that’s required to do ranking better, to show you what you care about in news feed.”
“What you care about” was an insidious Zuckerberg euphemism for targeted ads and propaganda. Another was “relevant content.” He was proposing that human beings want to be confronted with nothing but things they’re presumed to desire.
As he flatly asserted, “The overwhelming feedback that we get from our community is that people would rather have us show relevant content there than not.”
Clearly, the chocolate-loving Nelson was not part of that feedback. And if those who fail to opt out of the data-gathering are considered to be overwhelmingly in favor of it, that’s a hopeless indicator. Opting out is, of course, made as tricky as possible.
But that’s not the point. Zuckerberg and Facebook believe we are not only desperate to “connect” but desperate to be understood — if only by an algorithm that sees us as a nothing but a ball of needs and wants ripe for exploitation.
Then it mirrors and refracts that image back at us until we come to believe it, and — worse — until we yield to the exploitation as evidence that Facebook cares about us.
It’s devilish logic. No wonder the reflex of many in Congress was a kind of disbelief and dysphoria. And every time Zuckerberg insisted that data-gathering and targeting are for the benefit of the people, they looked more defeated.
Nelson is from Florida. Fisch is from Nebraska. Come the next recess, I hope they go home for a bit. Maybe visit the Everglades or the Wildcat Hills. In swamps and rugged terrain, it takes some doing even to meet baseline desires for comfort.
But when no one’s telling you to want — well, the traditional American word for that is freedom.