According to the New York Times, a grim report recently issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change depicts “a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040.”
Questions ensued. About regulation, foot-dragging, and — surprisingly — whether anyone had even read the report. (When the Daily Beast asked an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson about it, she reportedly replied, “What report? I haven’t heard of it.”)
Meanwhile, others had questions about what they could do on a personal level.
Some news outlets, including CNN, offered advice. Recommendations included traveling less, using car-sharing services, traveling by more efficient means (trains instead of planes), installing smart thermostats, and not eating animal products.
Asking “What can I do?” is an understandable reaction to a revelation like this. Depending on the situation, we do have the ability — albeit limited — to change things. It’s as true of climate change as it is of democracy or terrorism. We can vote according to how we think society ought to be governed. We can say something when we see something. We can demand that a company — a manufacturer or polluter — change its ways.
The power of an individual to effect change is so familiar that we rarely give it much thought. It’s become axiomatic in the last few decades, beginning somewhere in the 1970s and strengthening through the ’80s and ’90s. Our ideas about who we are and the roles we play in society have become more aligned with a powerful narrative of a free market linked to freedom of expression and choice. Whereas we once believed in “people power” as an effective tactic for systemic change, a more narrowly focused culture of the self has since taken hold.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Silicon Valley. Over the last few decades, a so-called Californian Ideology — a belief system centered on technological determinism, which melds hippie values with those of Ayn Rand-ian libertarians — has been baked into the mythology of internet-based innovation. As Richard Barbook and Andy Cameron wrote in 1995 when they coined the term, the hippies and the squares of the 1960s found common ground in the belief that they could “create a new ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ where all individuals would be able to express themselves freely within cyberspace.”
We see echoes of this philosophy today in the language and aspirations of big tech — the idea that unencumbered freedom of expression and a platform of endless choice can be a gateway to global peace and prosperity. Facebook, for example, is a wet dream of the Californian Ideology. “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote last year.
But as compelling a narrative as this is, it has its limits. Unlimited freedom of expression can only go so far before it begins to turn in on itself, closing us off and limiting our perspective when it comes to making larger structural changes.
Even as our individual choices change, the system itself remains in place.
In other words, it doesn’t take much for the question “What can I do?” to sound less like a query of individual empowerment and more like a lament of total powerlessness.
Take a systemic social problem like climate change. Framing climate change mitigation as an individual pursuit can only go so far, because it largely becomes a question of consumer choice. Effective only to a point, consumer-focused climate change mitigation works in many ways to reinforce a certain status quo — one wherein the very same polluters causing climate change are left in charge of figuring out how to stop it. We’re able to express our desire for better, more environmentally friendly products or services, but the extent of how environmentally friendly they become remains limited by motives beyond our control — namely, corporate profit and growth. Even as our individual choices change, the system itself remains in place.
Thus, in a strange paradox, increasingly dire outlooks for the effects of climate change on our planet do not cause complete systemic overhaul, but instead work to reinforce the system. The worse it gets, the more we turn to consumer-level solutions, and the more reliant we become on the people or groups that create those products. And the harder it becomes to think of alternative ways to solve these issues.
A week after the IPCC released its report on climate change, Facebook confirmed a New York Times report that Myanmar’s military leadership had purposefully “turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing.” That news landed only days after Facebook admitted that, via a bug in its platform’s code, as many as 30 million people might have had their personal data stolen from the site.
We are now months removed from spring’s push to #DeleteFacebook, and while some data show that the backlash against Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal prompted people to either delete the app or take an extended break from the site, Facebook remains largely unchanged.
A lot of attention cast on Facebook lately has concentrated on groups — particularly how some influence or threaten others — but fundamentally, Facebook has always focused primarily on the individual.
Climate change and Facebook are different, but related, threats. One is a genuine existential threat to humanity; the other is a problematic social networking platform that will not, on its own, cause catastrophic weather patterns, droughts, floods, and mass extinction. Still, Facebook cannot be separated from the debate over how to mitigate the effects of climate change — or how to prepare ourselves for it. Facebook is a powerful tool that shapes opinions and perspectives. It warps our understanding of major issues, including climate change.
As it happens, our approach to “fixing” Facebook — ridding it of the attributes that allow it to be used to distort facts, or to spread propaganda and misinformation — runs aground in exactly the same way as our efforts to “fix” climate change.
A lot of attention cast on Facebook lately has concentrated on groups — particularly how some influence or threaten others — but fundamentally, Facebook has always focused primarily on the individual. It’s our personal page. Our personal information. Our personal thoughts and comments. Our personal likes and our personalized news feed.
Nothing changes when it comes to mitigating Facebook’s problems. It’s up to us as individuals to monitor and flag offensive content. It’s our responsibility to protect ourselves from fake news and propaganda. And, Facebook stresses again and again, it’s the responsibility of each individual user to adjust privacy and security settings.
Yet, much like buying or avoiding consumer products to fight climate change, no matter how much we do each of the things Facebook recommends — no matter how vigilant we are in spotting and flagging fake news, no matter how high we set our privacy and security settings — all we’re ultimately doing is changing our personal experience. Meanwhile, the entire structure remains largely the same. Even if we spot fake news and refuse to engage with it, thus eliminating it from our own news feed, this action will not necessarily change the overall experience for anyone else. Structurally, Facebook stays the same.
This is all the more true if you simply delete Facebook. Great for you, but nothing changes for anyone else.
Increasingly, social media platforms are the prism through which we are exposed to democratic choice and interpret its efficacy.
The argument against this, of course, is that with enough action on an individual level, we can make greater change. That might be true. However, the difficult question is: How much individual action does it take? Because of Facebook’s structure — and that of other major tech platforms like Uber, Amazon, and Twitter — answering this before it actually happens is next to impossible. It’s a goal that feels unreachable, and demoralizing.
Upon entering the platform, we’re atomized by its design. We’re treated as isolated nodes, primarily because, as such, we’re easier to target and influence. But this also means we’re largely prevented, no matter how many groups we join, from truly understanding the scale of action needed to create real change.
We’re isolated in much the same way when we approach mitigating climate change strictly as consumers. We can change our ways — buy different things, in one case, or insulate ourselves from misinformation in the other. These actions feel good, but it’s never clear whether any of them are making any difference.
So what can we do but more of the same?
Which brings us to the real sticking point: When we never see the results of our efforts play out in a larger way — not when we’re still unsure whether anything we’re doing is helping, but when we become convinced that nothing we ever do will amount to any significant change — the worst thing happens. We give up.
Ideally, the solution to each of these problems, separate and together, is democracy — pushing for the right regulation at a national or international level. But the democracy has itself become ever more reliant on social media and technology. Increasingly, platforms are the prism through which we are exposed to democratic choice and interpret its efficacy. On the internet, we’re more likely to be aware of democracy’s failings than its successes. Maybe this is why, despite obvious examples of voting changing the course of history before our eyes, some people — for one reason or another — still believe their vote won’t matter.
In the wake of the IPCC report and in response to various Facebook scandals that have made headlines all year, again and again, the call has been for more regulation, or perhaps just the right kind of regulation. But the problem might actually be a lack of imagination. We have built these individually focused structures in such a way that we are completely incapable of imagining a different way of doing things.
Whether fighting climate change or fixing social platforms, we need to rediscover our imagination, before it’s too late.