Notes Antic Disposition

Privacy is a Distraction

I wrote most of The Shock of the Now in February, but there were too many unresolved issues at the time, and I needed to let it sit. It turned out, the missing link in my understanding was the idea that games are creeping out, and they’re going everywhere. This was really important for understanding how web design is evolving. So it seemed timely to publish something like that on May 1st... what I didn’t understand at first was just how timely it really was.

This week, we’re seeing perhaps the biggest critical backlash at Facebook that has ever occurred. Hundreds of blogs, magazines, newspapers, media channels are expressing the same sentiment: Facebook has gone rogue. This excellent visualization explains in part, how this has happened.

Concerns about privacy are a subset of what we should be concerned about. In a way, Facebook is a symptom, not a cause. We should be concerned about the wider context of the culture where Facebook has emerged from and the growing likelihood of a panopticon surveillance society powered by ubiquitous urban informatics. Without fail, marketers and authoritarians are seizing upon the potential of these emerging technologies before the greater public wake up. These developments might be driven by high technology, but socially, many of these forces are anachronistic. Censorship and sanitization are the desired norm of those who wish to sustain a wasteful industrial consumer society, which will continue eroding and polluting the planet until it runs out of resources.

So many people still refuse to accept the concept of climate change despite the very obvious fact that more and more land area across the planet is being developed into energy intensive cities. This is driven by fear, by a feckless acceptance of industrial society as the only good, and a refusal to comprehend that other forms of organization are possible and desirable. People feel threatened by critiques of capitalism and consumerism because their whole existence is based on it.

It’s a very awkward and difficult situation to write about, because of the immense contradictions and confusions at play. The world is simultaneously getting much better and also much worse. Compared to 100 years ago, democracy is rising and war is on the way out, but there is still a huge legacy of human hell and a massive imbalance of wealth and justice.

People have rightly criticized me for being too utopian about the internet. Technology won’t save us, that must be understood. But I do think that it’s counter-productive to assert this as a given, and overlook the enormous capacity that technology does have for improving conditions. Take the recent earthquake in Haiti as an example – not only was technology like geo-location and mobile computing enormously useful tactically on the ground helping the emergency response teams, but also strategically, where web and internet social networks around the world responded en masse with donations to support the relief effort. Even 10-20 years ago, this kind of mass spontaneous coordination would have been remarkable and revolutionary. Now, we accept it as just the way things are, and it’s hard to argue that this is not a very positive thing.

Perhaps this is the main reason why Facebook is so disappointing and mediocre. If Mark Zukerberg had genuine vision for the betterment of the world and a social consciousness he could be contributing to an incredible improvement of conditions – but he doesn’t appear interested in this path. He’s a dishonest opportunist with an appetite for money and a megalomaniacal streak. Contrast the global reach and power that Zuckerberg has with the contributions of amazing leaders like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and others who dedicated their lives to fighting for the powerless and improving the existence of a huge group of people around the world. In this mass connected 21st century, inspirational people like these have ceased to exist. We all believe we’re free and autonomous, everything must be folded inwards and meta-wrapped in a thousand layers of irony, or else we won’t pay attention. The so-called ‘Third World’ doesn’t exist anymore – inequalities manifest across all societies, a mass scramble in the dust for dollars, with no sense of a past or future.

Some of my friends have taken to describing the present demographic of 20-somethings as the “TED generation” – we all know more than ever, what is going on in the world, how science and art are opening up new frontiers of understanding and consciousness within our consumer society. The question is whether we will use this awareness to contribute something greater to the world. Whether we will jump the leash of our radical individualist socialization, and reform society with a new arrangement of values and ethics that are compatible with this understanding.