I have never been to the mountains… Or the other face of the Facebook

Commentary: F8 20.. — Facebook Annual Developer Conference

By Gagik Yeghiazarian, Ayrton Bailey, Natus Nee

I have written this article back in 20..: have not published it until this moment. Nothing has changed since then, rather the issues have magnified significantly …

Last week the big news in the Silicon Valley was the F8 conference, an annual developer meetup organized by Facebook. When I realized that my stay extended far enough for me to catch the F8, I joined the turbulent tsunami of developers, journalists and tech geeks that crashed upon the blue pavilions of Fort Mason in search of updates, announcements, famous faces and an overabundance of coffee.

I had attended the Launch Conference at Fort Mason earlier this year, and, to my surprise, FB was able to completely transform this huge space into a new world. Beautiful blue designs, wavy art installations and various slogans and promises of F8 permeated the entirety of the hangar-like structures big enough to house a couple of 747s, and huge pale-white “fabula”-tents with X and Y signs on them, giving the place an overall feel of polished, carefully tailored perfection.

KEYNOTE

My take from the overall message was this: we know where, when, with whom and why you do the things you do, and we will always be there with you. I couldn’t shake the disturbing thought that if this was coming from a man, he would most certainly be committed to a psychiatric institution on the basis of sociopathy, but coming from a huge and incredibly powerful organization, these alarming claims were suddenly shifted into a positive light, welcomed, even marveled at.

After a while I noticed an interesting trend — Zuckerberg, who was supposed to be the Zeus of the whole show, riding onto the battlefield with a flaming set of lightning bolts and instilling awe into the hearts of the simple mortals in the audience, was anything but. Awkward and stressed, he stood on stage and played his pre-orchestrated part of a rad billionaire CEO in a t-shirt, reading off the attractive slogans on the display (and I’m not sure if he even expected rapport with the audience). Perhaps he is not just as good public speaker, but the impression I got was that he has become a small gear in a huge mechanism that was plowing ahead, with or without him. In my mind I made a comparison with Steve Jobs’ appearances at Apple’s events during their historic Mac, iPod and iPhone unveilings, and, surely, the impression he left was starkly different.

My feeling about his “performance” was confirmed by the drastic contrast that the speakers after Zuckerberg brought to the stage. People like Chief Scientist Michael Abrash, whose strong beliefs of “Reality is Virtual” and “We all are part of the huge Matrix” (inspired by Morpheus) resonated deeply with the crowd (and one could say that he never cared about what he wears), or like the CTO, Bret Taylor, who proudly introduced state-of-the-art infrastructure his team was able to build to service the world, were really able to connect to the audience and share with them their passion and excitement. I thought that it is really remarkable what they were able to achieve: when you think of an infrastructure that has to be there to support 24/7 over 1 billion people sharing their life and spending it also within the F8 world…

The artificiality and flatness of Zuck’s keynote was blatantly obvious when compared to the excitement of the members of his crew that followed, and that to me was not strange — you can be excited only as much as you can.

Bread and circuses

In essence, the entire point of the F8 conference was turning to the community of developers and asking their support in making the infinite F∞ a reality. Simply put, Facebook was saying this:

“Come join us and utilize the 1 BILLION users we were able to bring to FB. Use our services and huge state-of-the-art infrastructures, resources and platforms such as Parse and Oculus, among others, to design and deploy thousands and millions of applications that will make life sharing on FB fun, entertaining and CONTINUOUS!”

The message was blatant and obvious — we need to maintain the client engagement and retention with F8 and grow it by doing everything possible. The list of “everything possible” was surprisingly bold, including anything from the development of applications, stickers, games, payment systems, artificial intelligence algorithms and virtual reality environments to seeding internet access to developing countries by utilizing special drones powered by the sun and flying non-stop in circles in the upper stratosphere.

And it was a wonder to watch this all get received by the thousands of people in the audience. Applauses, cheering, celebration of the gigantic efforts put into the inception of F8 rolled around the audience, laughter and whistling and all sorts of displays of approval. Yeah, let’s drag more people into our platform! Let’s cover the entire world!

At this point another rebellious thought popped into my head — my God, I’m sitting in the middle of a very high-tech, very well-camouflaged cult. Sure, they don’t sacrifice goats anymore, but it is a “system of veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object”, word for word… Back to reality!

40 carefully picked applications already deployed to the new Messenger Platform were there to prove that it is already working, and Zuck, along with his hero-of-the-hour David Marcus, the head of the Messenger team (who actually came onto the stage as Zeus with a lightning bolt, albeit one printed on his shirt), volunteered as the first “guinea pigs” trying this out. Jumping from cliffs, playing guitars, making funny faces, watching videos. Every once in a while Marcus suggested that this or that or another feature were his favorite, but it was clear — this was certainly not made for folks of his age, but rather totally directed at the complete and unreserved engagement of the unsuspecting youngsters.

“This must be very old a strategy”, I thought: to control the masses, one has only to give them food and entertainment.

WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger

The 1st day was crowned by the final panel of 3 F8 “giants” — WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger — all on one stage answering hard questions and forming their future vision for the world eager to learn and expand.

For me it was interesting to see three competing products owned by the same company on the stage. WhatsApp’s main concern was how to get better with weak bandwidth to bring voice to its services so that they can win the battle for the developing world. This was coupled with thought that Messenger for quite a long time already has had a voice service, and apparently they have already taken at least 10% of the VOIP market as they suggested.

WhatsApp was praised for being cost efficient, and fast, huge, and focused, Instagram was sharing stories of how difficult it was to overcome technological/development/coding problems and how joyful it was to see the result, Messenger was there to suggest that it is taking over the world and integrating whatever is developed, deployed, appreciated, liked, under the same roof.

I am sure Apple and Google visionaries were also there along with large delegation from Amazon (which had their brand name proudly displayed on their clothes): better know what your competitor is doing or, more importantly, is thinking of doing.

A true war of giants for the control over the virtual world that is becoming the very Reality…

LUNCH BREAK

Following the call of nature, I grabbed some chicken with rice and joined a small table right under the bright and pleasing San Francisco’s sun. Right next to me was Vincent, the young man whom I met up with in the morning, and so, seeing that we didn’t get to chat during the presentations, I decided to strike a conversation and get to know him a little better. Vincent, a freshman, reminded me very much of my son Alex, who is in Germany trying to pass his Chemistry test to enter university. After the initial small talk, we started discussing some of the habits of the new generation, and the conversation went something like this:

G — How much time do you spend on the Internet every day?

V — I can’t say for sure, but it is a lot. Too much sometimes. I’d say at least 5–6 hours a day (besides his ordinary duties, I thought of studying, or maybe coding), sometimes more, sometimes less, but lately it’s been increasing.

G — What makes you stay up? Do you work?

V — Mmm… yes and no. Oftentimes I like to zone out and just browse, you know. There’s a lot of stuff to do on the web (laughing)

G — Do you sleep well?

V — Also depends. I have a hard time with this if I’m sitting in front of the screen too long, but hey, I like that more than I like sleeping, so it works out (smiling)

G — You probably go to bed very late?

V — I don’t really have a set time to go to bed, I find that works best with my unpredictable schedule. Sometimes really late, sometimes really early. But if I miss sleep, I sleep long hours afterwards.

G — Do you have issues with keeping focus on a particular thing?

V — (laughing) Yes… often. Coffee’s my friend.

G — Do you have headaches?

V — Often… (looks out to the skies, sighs…)

G — When was the last time you were in the mountains enjoying fresh air, or went hiking? Do you get away at all?

V — You know, I have never been to the mountains…

All of a sudden all of my excitement about the conference vanished: I realized that throughout all the sessions I attended, not one FB or other executive or decision-maker brought up the issues, the “collateral damage” that results from the explosion of the digital age. It seems that this rapid, manic expansion, driven by numbers, quotas and statistics, has completely clouded people’s judgement of what is reasonable and what isn’t. They sell and push and yell out about their products so efficiently, and have developed so many tools and structures necessary to get into the unsuspecting brains of men and women, youngsters, children and even babies, that now it is hard for the people using their stuff to even realize what they are doing all day long and wake up from the horrid virtual dream.

You see, even though today we take pride in our ability to consciously make logical decisions, we are not perfect. There is a curious phenomenon in the field of psychology that is sometimes referred to as “cherry picking”. In essence, humans tend to perceive only that which they want to perceive, and at times willingly ignore blatantly obvious facts in favor of maintaining their pre-constructed mirages intact: reality is virtual.

The modern world of advertising and marketing lives off of this aspect of the human psyche. Marketers carefully stuff the entirety of our attention fields with certain aspects of the products or services that they are selling, and by doing so leave no space for any counteracting information to enter our brains. Every kid knows that if you stuff your mouth full of marshmallows, you won’t have any more room for the hot chocolate.

These techniques have been around for as long as humans have had doctrine to preach down people’s throats, and although the art has been perfected over the centuries, it isn’t new. However, something has changed over the past couple of decades that puts us in a very scary position — scale. Whereas before only small aspects of our direct human experience were subjected to these methods, today it seems like our entire way of life, our humanity, has become the subject of silent, effective and hardly discernible propaganda, thanks largely to our quickly developing technological means of achieving such results. Humans all over the world, people with real lives and real friends and real hobbies, are sucked into the toxic and artificially friendly realms of the virtual world, and left to roam it endlessly. And that is tragic.

The industrial era brought with it the concept that if you sell your time to somebody else you will make money. Work hard, work long hours, and work tirelessly, and you will be rewarded. Today, it seems that this artificial constraint has gone even further — humans are now willing to GIVE AWAY their time, spend long hours and slave off tirelessly in front of a machine, and instead of getting paid, they just convert their time to make money for the big players like F8.

ENDNOTE

If I were to ask any kid or teenager the questions I asked Vincent, I am sure I would get similar answers from them, too. How are people not terrified of this? The new generations subconsciously spend large portions of their time, their very LIVES, in the virtual reality created by those who want to profit from these precious minutes and hours. Just think about the reality we have PROUDLY created today: kids lost for days in online games, social networks, messengers, video sites, with shaking hands, quickly dropping mental faculties, growing indifference towards the rest of the world. Kids not being able to concentrate, not eating normal food rather chewing chips and sweets as they nervously strike their gadgets, constantly drinking energy drinks to stay awake to perpetuate their addictive practices, but largely out of energy for anything else. The culture cultivated in these hubs of virtual “life” promotes negligence of judgement or critique, promotes a fixed, selective field of attention. And so they battle — they fight us, they fight common sense, they fight for their “freedom” from life and friendship and social duty in favor of the comforting imprisonment in the virtual realm. They want to be left alone in their worlds, alone forever.

We all feel that something is awfully WRONG. We all tell this to each other, warn each other, we constantly read about the rising number of autism in kids, rise in learning disabilities, ADHD, infertility and other deadly diseases caused by the constant exposure to all the waves that radiate through us from the thousands of devices we are more intimate with than with our loved ones. And yet we do NOTHING.

We just find ways to excuse ourselves by citing that we were also different from our parents, and that we do not have another choice.

We all have forgotten the simple truth: we are all one and thus share the responsibility for our environment, our society, our families and kids. We avoid doing minimal work that could result in any sort of difference. Rather, we have left all of the important things for “others” to decide and act upon, i.e. nobody. Just as the tech giants that produce this plague, when confronted with the devastation they cause on a regular basis, write it off as bad parenting, we have been conditioned to write off our responsibilities as faults in the “system”, and entrust our social duties to a magical, all-mighty donut in the sky that will solve all of our problems and get us out of this mess. But there is no donut in the sky, and the problems still remain.

So what is the solution? It’s very simple. We need to turn to ourselves, our families and kids, our community and our society, we need to leave the insane dance floor and get to the “balcony”, to see the larger picture of the real world and think carefully what really matters, devise what really takes precedent. We all need to get back to work — find something we can start doing today to become better parents, better husbands and wives, better citizens, better brothers and sisters and friends, to bring us and our kids back to our families, back to life. Mark and his team are doing their job, doing well and there is no point in blaming them: it is up to us to take action.

We need to take the time to go back to the mountains, because soon, very soon, it will be too late.

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