My Best 16 Hours Ever on Facebook

The ads running in every movie theater were the final straw. They start with a montage of happy people enjoying each others’ company, and a voice-over talking about connection. About friendship. About people connecting with each other. And then the narrator says,

“Then something happened…”

And I reflexively shout back at the screen,

“Yeah, Facebook’s business model happened. Dickhead!”

Unlike crack, every hit is “free.”

And while Facebook can’t be blamed for the fact that a large swath of Americans are weak on critical thinking skills, the social network is happy to capitalize on the opportunity to take advantage of widespread ignorance while continuing to contribute to the collective cognitive deficit that results from living in a dopamine-fueled addiction where AI algorithms optimized to maintain attention and produce advertising click-throughs control the dosing.

A few weeks ago, I erased as much of my Facebook history as the platform would allow (as well as my presence on other social media). I was able to do this relatively efficiently using a nifty little Chrome Extension called Social Book Post Manager.

Why, you might ask?

I did this due to my deepening reservations about the present and future vulnerability that our thoughtless, implicitly trustful sharing of highly personal data exposes us to in the hands of actors about whom we know little and should make no assumption of trustworthiness. It took me about 16 hours to become nobody on social media, and they were the best 16 hours I’ve spent in a long time. The feeling when I finished was one of accomplishment. Relief. Liberation.

You’re a Luddite!

People who know me know that I’m about as far from Luddism as anyone can be. The reason I’m so much more concerned than most of my friends about the potential, and the nearly irresistible temptation, that someone will abuse the power that these data combined with machine learning create is precisely because of my long embrace, fascination, and study of every new technology I encounter.

My smartphone rarely leaves my side. My laptop travels with me virtually everywhere. I enjoyed my Facebook soapbox while I used it. I use and value my LinkedIn and Medium.com profiles. My livelihood depends on me living and breathing technological innovation.

This fascination and embrace of technology has begotten my ability to synthesize the bigger picture surrounding the technologies that pervade our everyday lives. It has enabled me to formulate my concern in rational terms.

At this very moment, and throughout our every waking moment, algorithms are combing our every Gmail message, collating our every geospatial movement, cross-referencing our every internet search and web page click with our every credit card purchase and our every social media behavior (not just content, but the order in which we click, post, share, literally move our mouses, and — yes, of course — purchase), to provide us with “a more meaningful experience,” “more relevant content,” reminders of when the dump closes, suggested wording of notes to your friends, you name it.

To make us happier?

All of this activity is purportedly in the interest of helping us see only ads for that which we really want to buy. It’s to tailor us a more pleasing experience. To make us happier.

Prying eyes, listening ears

If you use Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or The Google Assistant…they’re also listening to every word. What they’re capable of doing with your every word begs the question “Who is actually using whom?” What behaviors can be manipulated by these technologies?

What story about you can sparse data make others believe?

Humans are amazingly good at inferring complex patterns from sparse data. But they are remarkably poor at correctly inferring such patterns from sparse data. When was the last time you witnessed a big argument between two people over inferences made by one about the motives and thought processes of the other based on some small behavior? And how wrong were they?

What narrative about you can be convincingly shaped by the process of selectively assembling otherwise random snippets of your life out of context, for which you have no means to contextualize because you don’t have access to the data that provide the real context? What false tales can be spun and backed up with apparent evidence to convict you in the court of public opinion should your political activism or mere insubordination ever become an inconvenient impediment to total societal dominion?

The data required to do just that are the same data about our lives that we give away every waking minute to Facebook, Google, AT&T, Gmail, Amazon, Visa, Verizon, and a much longer and more anonymous list of intermediaries and data aggregators whose names we wouldn’t even recognize. How long will it be before a data breach, or simply cooperation with a seemingly legitimate government “investigation,” results in a scenario like that envisioned above? In which the rather ordinary actions, movements, and behaviors of an ordinary individual are cherry-picked into a sparse data set that is convincingly invested with nefarious intent? With terrorist intent.

This hasn’t happened yet…as far as you know. But if and when it does happen, how will you respond? If it happened to you, what would be your defense? Who will provide the context required to dispel a false narrative, when all the data I listed above is under someone else’s control and out of your reach?

Spend 16 rewarding hours of your own, like I did, with Facebook. 
With Twitter. With Instagram. 
Turn off location services when you’re not using them. 
Search using StartPage. 
Surf using Firefox. 
Pay with cash.

Reduce the data overhang. 
Remove the temptation.