It’s easy to say Facebook — sorry, Meta — is evil. They do such a good job of proving the point for us.
They routinely violate their own privacy policies, they know what they do is bad for people and bad for society, and they lie when subpoenaed to testify before Congress because they know they have enough fat stacks of cash to pay whatever fines they’re hit with and that their stock price will still go up.
But what if the problem isn’t Facebook? What if the problem isn’t its partners in crime at Google and Amazon and Apple and the under-the-radar data collectors that feed them with far more information than you’d ever be comfortable sharing?
What if the problem is … you?
The emergence of new technology has always been dangerous and destructive. No one got run over before some brilliant human ancestor figured out circular things roll. Far fewer people died in horse collisions than those mangled beyond repair once those newfangled horseless carriages came about. Atoms were doing just fine as unseen, invisible forces at the center of life before we decided to smash them together and pull them apart.
Are Facebook and Twitter and Google and all the other purveyors of technology that news articles loudly declare as the core of our societal downfall really that much different?
I’d argue no, they’re not.
The problem isn’t the technology. The problem is that the technology has jumped so far out in front of our human capacity to compartmentalize it and regulate it — as individuals, parents, businesses and governments.
Because let’s be clear: The technology itself is neither good nor bad. It’s much like a hammer. In the right hands and used the right way, a hammer can put together one of the pieces of the foundations in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — shelter. In the wrong hands, it can bash in a fellow human’s skull.
Facebook and its brethren have demonstrate the ability to unite people, to assist in searches for missing children, to create community and to spark peaceful political change. They also have been used to tear apart families, lead children into sexual slavery, destroy communities and foment an armed attack on our democracy.
If the same piece of technology can be used for such good and such evil, it’s clear the technology has no moral weight to it, that the one causing the good or the bad is the user.
I am nearing the end of a podcast played over Spotify called “Your Own Backyard.” In it, the podcast creator, Chris Lambert, investigates the 1996 disappearance of Cal-Poly student Kristin Smart. This podcast could be no different from the thousands of other true crime podcasts created by dolt amateur sleuths who do nothing but toss around conjecture and speculation and generally hamper the actual investigation. But in the hands of a responsible, intelligent creator, this podcast actually is credited — by the same authorities who bungled the initial investigation — with solving the crime.
Lambert, a singer-songwriter with no investigative background, used the power of new technology — podcasts, Facebook groups and email, chief among them — to take a fresh look at all the evidence that previously had been siloed by different jurisdictions and other interested parties. In doing so, he sparked a renewed interest in the case, which led the perpetrator to start communicating digitally back and forth with his parents about the crime. And by doing that, he opened himself up to a new search warrant that led to his downfall.
Then there’s Philip Markoff, also known as The Craigslist Killer, who used the power of another new technology, to lure a woman to her death.
Brings ya back to earth pretty quickly, doesn’t it?
Technology in general outpaces our ability to handle it. That’s been even more pronounced in the 21st century, as the pace of technological advancement has demonstrably accelerated at a never-before-seen clip
Meanwhile, us dimwitted humans are back somewhere in the mid-1990s trying to apply old models to new ways of doing business and life. It’s akin to trying to put a saddle in a Model T. Sure, you could probably accomplish it, but why would you want to?
New technology needs new regulations, be that by the government or in our own lives. Don’t for a second think that Facebook’s decision to rebrand as Meta has to do primarily with vision. It has to do with the realization that the core product of the entity known as Facebook is, at some point, going to be tackled by regulators who, if they’re smart, are going to break it up into Ma Bell-sized pieces and put strict limits with astronomical consequences on the only thing they sell — your data. Meta is merely Facebook’s play to be bigger than that when the hammer finally falls.
But it’s not just government regulations that are struggling to catch up. It’s our own self-regulation. Do a Google search (or, in the interest of not feeding into the dominant player, a Bing search) on “digital detox” and read all about how we should be treating all this new technology that is at our fingertips. Then go to any public place and watch how many people actually are doing anything close to what those articles say to do in the interest of our best physical and mental health. You’ll have no problem going unnoticed as you do this, because everyone else’s eyes will be buried in their phones.
Parenting hasn’t caught up to the technology either. We’re all out here just trying to do our best while silently hating the parents of the kid in the neighborhood who is given a smartphone first. What’s the right age to give a kid that kind of access? How strictly do you lock it down? What’s the right age to loosen those restrictions? Is the research that says it’s a better idea to never give in and let your kid get hooked on this crap actually right, and if it is right, is it even something you could do as a parent without turning your kid into the target of unrelenting taunts from her peers?
The reality is, we as individuals tend to take cues from the regulations enacted by our government. We always have.
The majority of us don’t speed to a point in which we’re reckless because we know what the consequences of that could be from the judicial system. We want to fly as safely as possible, so we accept that we have to take our shoes off and be wanded by Homeland Security.
No one in government is telling us that what we’re doing to ourselves with this new technology is bad and dangerous. In the name of preserving freedom and allowing the free market to rule, our lawmakers not only allow unregulated new technology to hurt our society, they participate in it themselves. Just turn on CSPAN and watch what legislators are doing while their colleagues are speaking.
We certainly haven’t shown any ability to regulate ourselves, and because that, we’re breaking our children — and ourselves. It’s one thing to say you don’t need your phone and that you’ll just put it in a drawer when you get home and not look at it again until you sit down at your desk for work; it’s another thing entirely to actually do it and not get twitchy or bored.
Is it Facebook’s fault they made a great product that taps into the reward center of our brain chemistry? Is it Amazon’s fault that they ruthlessly built the best customer-service company in the history of the world?
Perhaps. But come on… admit it… you secretly love it.
Sure, you’ll shop the mom-and-pop shop and slap the “buy local” bumper sticker on your car, but when you really need that thing and it’s 11 p.m. or 10 degrees outside? You’re going to Amazon and you’re grateful it’s there.
And when you’re sitting in the doctor’s office waiting room 30 minutes past your scheduled appointment time, you are happy you can pull out your phone to see what your old high school friends are up to.
Unfettered capitalism appeals to the most base human instinct. It’s not good for the majority, and it’s really, really ugly for many. New technology is a good thing — a great thing, even. It just needs the proper restraints to keep it aligned with the overall good of our society and the individuals within it. Until it comes to pass that governments, businesses and individuals have the time to soak in the impacts of all this “new” and tackle the bad and often unintended but sometimes not unintended consequences, we’re going to see these examples of extreme good followed by examples of extreme evil.
The hope is we’ll extract lessons from each and, as quickly as possible, arrive at a point in which we no longer are tossed back and forth by forces we don’t truly understand and instead put the technology to use for our greater good.
John Agliata is a professional storyteller and general weirdo. Reach him at email@example.com.
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