Facebooked, Googled And Recovering Imagination

This essay begins in frustration. I’m looking for something but cannot find them. I know they were here among my things at one time but now that I need them, want to press them into service, they are gone. “They” happen to be a couple of books I read some years ago which I was certain would hold the keys to making sense of my now. When I read them around 2010 or 2012, they were pivotal for me (or so I imagine).

So there may be a delicious kind of irony that precisely these two books are missing.

One book is Googled: The End of The World As We Know It (2010) by Ken Auletta and the other is The Facebook Effect — The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World (also 2010) by David Kirkpatrick. (This is the point at which I actually found the books right next to each other, left corner, middle bookshelf 3rd row, obscured by a mid-sized photo album containing real family photos.)

I remember reading these books around the same time, maybe it was 2011, and being amazed at 1) how young both companies were and 2) how remarkably influential both had become in shaping the digital landscape we now take for granted. At that time I had and used e-mail and regularly searched via Google. I did not have any social media accounts, I only had a single e-mail account, and no one owned a smart phone yet. I had friends, however, who swore by Facebook and sang its praises at nearly every turn. From the outside looking in it didn’t sound like anything I needed and that initial assessment proved correct even once I joined in 2013.

The curiosity that led me to buy and quickly read these two corporate biographies was born of a desire to grasp the dynamics in progress, regardless of my personal involvement. It was clear that both Google and Facebook possessed outsized influence in my social circles and beyond and I wanted to understand how and why. Looking back into these pages, there may be answers but at least in the Facebook tome, it’s an ongoing personality saga. He said, she said, they did, he didn’t, and so on. It certainly bolsters the cult of personality around Mark Zuckerberg. The prologue to the book appeared in the New York Times and provides the general tenor of the text to follow: starstruck amazement coupled with an uneasy curiosity about possible implications which are then put aside in favor general adulation for the size, scope and degree of influence in the hands of a small group of mostly young men under 30.

In this prologue Kirkpatrick raises questions such as:

“How will repressive governments respond to this new form of citizen empowerment? Should a service this large be regulated?…Are we risking our freedom by entrusting so much information about our identity to one commercial entity?…”

To arrive at the answers he explains:

…you can only understand how Facebook became such an amazing company and where it might go if you understand how it all got started in a dormitory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the brain child of a restless and irreverent nineteen year old kid. (p.17)

Yeah. And the real answers to those thorny questions are in by now.

Ken Auletta’s portrayal of Google may not be quite as fawning as Kirkpatrick’s take on Facebook but in some spots it comes close. That said, Auletta seems to apply more analysis of the phenomenon of Google and its mixed mission of “making the world a better place” and being “in business to make money” than Kirkpatrick does in The Facebook Effect. He writes:

Brilliant engineers are at the core of the success of a company like Google. Drill down, as this book attempts to, and you’ll see that engineering is a potent tool to deliver worthwhile efficiencies, and disruption as well. Google takes seriously it’s motto, “Don’t be evil.” But because we’re dealing with humans not algorithms, intent sometimes matters less than effect. (p. xiii)

It’s interesting to dig into these books 8 years later and notice where we are. That heady enthusiasm for all the change potential has brought us into a new reality that turns out to be a whole lot harsher, disturbing and frightening than we were able to imagine back then. Now that we are seeing first hand how governments and powerful political entities are able to harness the capacities of these huge platforms to restrict freedoms, wreak havoc on democratic institutions and police whole populations with astounding powers of surveillance, we cannot claim we didn’t know going forward.

This tweet captures this point in time so very well:

The latest reveal of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the Trump and UK’s leave campaign by using profile information of over 50 million Facebook users may unsettle but it should not really surprise us. The capitalist imperative turned oligarchic practice to make the maximum amount of money for a very small number of people is thriving in the digital landscape we currently inhabit. We continue to throw our attention towards that vanishingly small number of influencers, pounding at the doors of their empires demanding change: privacy protection, data security, good faith. And in response we get tweaks and updated terms of service which only dunk us in our own gullibility for signing on in the first place.

I wish there were a way to not become cynical and to and extent, defeatist. And what I find lacking in my own repertoire of useful responses is genuine imagination. I am suffering a full blown failure of the imagination to envision a better day, more just conditions, a society that works for more than just a handful of people. I recently discovered this in an exchange on Twitter:

Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture) is someone who offers vision, who seeks possibility where the status quo is suffocating. On another occasion, I caught wind of an initiative on Chicago’s South Side, Ujimaa Medics which is a black health collective which trains people to assist each other in crisis. The example I viewed was of Journey Jamison, who saved a man’s life after he suffered a gunshot wound. This kind of community response is born out of imagining better. It comes from having a vision of meeting a need on the community’s own terms.

I miss a similar capacity to imagine solutions at the moment. My processing of invention feels clogged by the steady deluge of messages which suggest or narrate a certain political, social and/or digital helplessness. In such a state it becomes all the more imperative to pause, pay attention and look up.

Looking up means seeing the March For Our Lives happening all over the US and in cities around the world and knowing these were powered by young people insisting on change. It also means noticing differences in how different groups of young people were given a platform and praised while others have been considered violent and dangerous.

Paying attention means following people who will give you both a critical eye on what is happening and also consider what can be done about it. Bonnie Stewart set an excellent example recently in hosting an open online course: Engagement in a Time of Polarization. Check out the hashtag #EngageMOOC on Twitter to find resources which are more likely to boost your sense of agency rather than dampen it.

Pause is something I can certainly afford to do more of. Sitting, staring, walking, dreaming -stepping off the hamster wheel on info churn seems to be a healthy pursuit, too. (I’m writing in a hurry right now in order to go take a break — my life runs on irony full time these days.)

I’m glad I found the books I thought were lost. I’m glad we know better now than we did then. Google and Facebook are not our friends. They don’t live in our neighborhood, they ARE the neighborhood we happen to inhabit differently and distinctly. Nevertheless, they comprise a good chunk of the context we’re living in. That’s worth both understanding and resisting at the same time.