It’s no secret that Facebook is seriously under fire for a “data breach” that has been wildly exaggerated, in my own view. The offending party used personal data from Facebook to profile voters and push ads – hardly a surprise. But in financial markets perceptions truly matter.
The FTC has now opened a probe into Facebook’s policies. Mark Zuckerberg is on the hot seat. The staff is demoralized.
And the real problem is that there is no fundamental fix: the whole model of Facebook is all about selling user data provided by the users themselves, under terms everyone understands. It’s hardly surprising, even to users. You look at a blender on Amazon and, sure enough, an ad for that blender shows up on your profile. It’s cool. But when it impacts politics in a way that the center-left doesn’t like, it becomes a huge source of controversy.
Let’s look at the bigger picture, however. Facebook (and others) have fundamentally changed key features of life. You can no longer hide. Sociologically and even politically, this has huge implications. There is no going back. What’s more, we did it to ourselves.
The End of Privacy
Last night I watched a movie, now considered a cult classic, that I had missed the first time around. It is Gattaca from 1997. It is set in a future in which people’s children are carefully crafted to be genetically superior in every way, and these elite are pushed into high-end professions, while people born of parents who randomly mate are kept in lower positions.
There are validation and invalids, genetically approved people and degenerates, the fit and unfit, and it becomes extremely important for the authorities to be able to discern the difference. Every technology is deployed to keep track lest someone slip through, as one man attempts to do: he is born an inferior and tries to pass himself off as a superior. He does this because he is personally ambitious and doesn’t believe anything or anyone should hold him back.
Anyone who has examined the chilling history of eugenics knows that this is not entirely crazy. We actually came close to institutionalizing this very system, circa 1890-1938. This is the origin of a vast numbers of laws in the 20th century, such as marriage licenses, zoning and segregation, and exclusionary labor legislation such as the minimum wage designed to reserve the workplace only for those deemed worth. For more on this grim history, see Illiberal Reformers by Thomas Leonard.
In 1997, You Could Disappear
But what really intrigues me about this film is the technology. It shows what science-fiction writers of two decades ago imagined to be their future. The guy who is at the center of the plot tries to adopt a new genetic identity. He employs a gray-market doctor to reshape his body, face, hair, eyes, and concocts an elaborate plot to switch blood and urine samples with another person who was high born but lost the use of his legs in an accident. He mostly gets away with it, too, thanks to some impressive trickery.
The plot turns on the same device that has been used since 1940s film noir: hidden or mistaken identity and discovery. One summer years ago, I watched probably 50 or so of these films and was struck how none of the plots would work today.
For example, a guy would commit some crime and escape over state lines (can you imagine?) and check into a hotel (with what ID?). He only gave a fake name (oh sure). The car could not be traced (huh?). The phones were all attached to the wall, and there was no caller identification (why did people answer?). It provided great drama. And sure, the bad guy was always caught eventually, but the inability to trace identity served as the core of the action.
How striking it is to discover that the same plot was still plausible as recent as 1997! Of course, Facebook didn’t exist. It was created in 2004 and gradually rolled out to the general population. Then the iPhone came along in 2007 and we gradually got applications on our phone. Then we started uploading personal information.
We told these companies what we like and don’t like. We revealed our email addresses, physical locations, and education level. We posted where we ate, what we ate, what movies we watched, our vacation spots, our workplaces, our family members. We did this for anyone on the planet to see.
It’s amazing when you think about it. The entire foundation of countless stories and movies for decades, if not centuries, has been shattered by the advent of social media. Today, when there is any crime and a suspect is named, within minutes, anyone can find his or her friends, interests, thoughts, location, parents, education, likes and dislikes, and so on. This happens every single day now.
There is literally no hiding and disguising at all. You cannot disappear. You cannot hide. You cannot change your identity. It’s all done.
The remarkable thing about it is that we did it all to ourselves.
Do We Want Privacy?
In the late 2000s, there was a debate going around my circles. Libertarians warned not to join Facebook, not to upload data, not to share private details of your life with random companies. It was all pretty ominous, and these warnings were probably correct.
But here is the problem that these critics never overcame. People fear obscurity more than discoverability. They want notoriety more than privacy. People want to be noticed, want to be known, want to be famous, want to be admired.
This is the best-kept secret about human nature. People have a demand for privacy in their own homes and when they otherwise want it. But that is extremely selective. Take one look at Instagram and you notice something different: people are clamoring for attention. They want likes, hearts, thumbs up, followers, and friends. When the technology came along that made it possible, we went for it like pigs to dinner scraps.
It is not all bad. We have new friends. We have taken ownership of our own networks, personal and professional. This has liberated us from attachments to institutions like our own workplaces, so that bosses are no longer in a position to make or break our careers by keeping our "Rolodex" when we move on. This change has been glorious for humanity. Also, thanks to Facebook, we are in a position to stay in contact with people as never before through audio and video. The platform even gave to everyone the ability to create a personal video service that can potentially reach millions.
This is all glorious, and should not be forgotten.
How can we create the balance between privacy and our need to be noticed and known? No one person in particular knows the answer. There is surely some balance. It will be found now that it seems like Facebook has seen its best days. And sure enough, traffic is exploding on the alternatives, which are not only the known places like Instagram and Twitter, but also the messaging apps with privacy features like Signal and Telegram.
I’m particularly impressed by the networks such as MeWe and Minds.com. Both promise privacy as a main feature. Minds.com is taking it to the next step, flipping the traditional model by using blockchain technology to tokenize. You actually get paid for the content you are creating, while building out a serious community of friends and intellectuals. Also, Minds.com is completely open source, meaning that you can inspect every bit of code on the site, and know fully how the algorithms work. After years of waiting for viable alternatives, it finally seems to be happening.
That said, I seriously doubt there will ever be another Facebook. The solutions of the future will be decentralized. Already, most of us run a half dozen – or maybe several dozen – apps in our suites of software that allow chat, sharing, conversations, groups, and so on. The competition will never end, and we will all learn to find joy in the ongoing process of innovation and choice. This is how it should be. Maybe at the end of this, we’ll find the right balance between the privacy we desire and the notoriety we crave.
For impossible jobs such as this, I wouldn’t trust the FTC to fix the problem. You have to leave it to the market.