By Eugène E.
The most surprising thing about the recent Facebook debacle, involving Cambridge Analytica, is that people are genuinely surprised by it. Allegations that Facebook user data may have ended up in the hands of a third party that may have used the data for political purposes have raised the ire of legislators, not to speak of Facebook users, who seem to be appalled by the realization that exhibitionism comes at a price – not unlike a woman who displays herself at an uncurtained window in a state of undress and is then astonished to learn that she’s been seen naked by those in the street.
This kind of user data misuse is unavoidable in a society that seems determined to do away with limits. I have previously written about the parallel growth of the ultraliberal movement and corporatocracy. While one represents sociopolitical interests and the other industry, they have at least one common aim: the destruction of limits. Neither group can accept them; limits are anathema to both bien-pensants and big business alike. For ultraliberals, limits imply curbs on moral laissez-faire, which is highly unattractive for a group that is eager to embrace non-traditional marriage unions, promote nonexistent genders and gender subsets, impose a gender-neutral language, and to otherwise conflate the pathological with the normal by undoing existing moral constraints.
For the transnational corporate world, which wants to turn the planet into one gigantic market, limits typically mean borders, regulations, tariffs, taxes, possible capital controls, etc. – bureaucratic impediments that prevent companies from unlimited profitability and are consequently to be resisted at all costs. What’s more, the conservative burgher is as much an enemy to the ultraliberal movement as he is to World Inc.: fiscally responsible citizens aren’t usually given to licentiousness or hedonism. Big Business doesn’t need prudent savers. Big Business needs, first and foremost, consumers – consumers who can be saddled with debt, preferably starting at a young age, when they’re at their most gullible; consumers who will feel compelled to buy new products, regardless of whether or not these products are needed; consumers who will mow each other down as they storm stores on Black Fridays; consumers who will pay exorbitant interest rates on credit cards they should have never been issued. The “shop ’til you drop” mantra, the lack of any purchasing restraint, dovetails wells with ultraliberal hedonism, according to which moral barriers are relics of the past or signs of a repressed inner self, and anything – or just about – goes. In other words, what’s good for ultraliberalism can be equally good for Big Business, and vice versa. When the two take on limits, they are fighting much the same battle.
We live at a time of unprecedented human reengineering. Here, too, we can see signs of the link between ultraliberalism and corporatocracy. Ultraliberals are trying to bring about a world in which the traditional structure as intended by nature (or a higher sentient being, for those who are deistically inclined) is challenged, where such things as gender, sexual orientation, and family are nothing but loose, flexible constructs; the fact that modern ultraliberal society allows individuals to overcome anatomy and opt out of the binary-gender model shows that ultraliberals have succeeded, if only artificially, in creating a new type of human being, however inauthentic such a creation might be.
At the same time, the corporate world, through its aggressive promotion of fusion between man and machine, is also trying to shape man into something else. While Ray Kurzweil’s “human” of the future is still confined to the future, we’re increasingly exposed to a deluge of gadgets that enjoy ever more intimacy with their users – just think of “smart glasses”, which lend those who sport them a decidedly cyborg-like look, or the phone app that allows users to confirm consent before having sexual congress. The sight of a couple glued to their smartphones, instead of to each other, while supposedly enjoying each other’s company, demonstrates the ascendancy of technology over human interaction.
Privacy is at the core of the human experience. It is also a concept that doesn’t sit very well with Big Business, which is rightly suspicious of it. Privacy is the ability of individuals to exercise control over that part of their lives that is supposed to be unmonitored. By definition, then, it is time that is – or should be – off-limits to marketing departments and sales teams. It is harder to study a consumer’s habits and preferences if you don’t know what exactly he’s up to. Privacy is problematic for World Inc. for another reason: it can promote the concept of solitude and, God forbid, reflection, for this is a time when people might be inclined to think. For Big Business, this is highly undesirable: when people think, they neither spend nor consume. One of the major accomplishments of the reigning corporatocracy is to have inculcated in consumers a fear of solitude – a rapidly growing number of people in our society are no longer capable of being alone with their thoughts. They need their gadgets as they need oxygen. This comes at the expense of their privacy.
Equally, it seems, privacy is a problem for ultraliberals: given the chance to think, people might question those values that have been foisted on society by the high priests of ultraliberalism and, as they spread the enlightenment as interpreted by the bien-pensants, are therefore supposed to go unquestioned. Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook (and its soul, one would add if Facebook only had one), knew what he was doing when he questioned the notion of privacy as a social norm. If it were up to Facebook, privacy would be branded abnormal. Facebook’s profit model is based on indulging people’s need to see and to be seen by as many people as possible – the very antithesis of privacy.
Neither does Facebook intend to stop there. To use the dating app Tinder, for example, users need to have a Facebook account. One wonders about the extent of the arrangements made by Facebook and Tinder, and the strength of the walls between the two companies – if there are any. What and how much does Facebook know about the private life and sexual preferences of Tinder users? And where does it all end? Probably nowhere. In an environment that neither places nor recognizes limits, there is no end. The sky is no longer the limit – precisely because there’re no limits; and indeed, at a time when tycoons send privately owned rockets into space, the whole idea of the sky being the limit is rather quaint. As one financier says in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, in response to a question about how much money would be enough for him to walk away from it all: “more”. “More” might well sum up the appetite of companies like Facebook. It is no coincidence that Zuckerberg seems to be LGBT- and BLM-friendly — if any political doctrine can seduce a Zuckerberg, it is bound to be ultraliberalism.
In fact, Facebook has been busy developing an entirely new type of product: the consumer. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown (and as many observers have known all along), Facebook users are not just consumers; they’re also products, to be packaged and resold like any other merchandise. In this paradigm, people are not simply offered “stuff”; they are “stuff” themselves, to be offered to other market participants. This consumer-product is the new man representing the brave new age of no limits: a sexless, inchoate creature unencumbered by any kind of identity except the one that determines his “user habits”; a product to be marketed and sold; an entity whose individuality is asserted by his virtual existence.
This new man has been stripped of his privacy: his relationships, friends, tastes, and career history are available for display to all and sundry. Since privacy is inextricably linked to the human experience, its dismantlement constitutes an attack on what it is to be human. One Russian film director said some time ago that the problem with the people designing video games and such is that they’re, for the most part, ignorant when it comes to aesthetics. That is to say, they might be brilliant mathematicians or computer scientists, but they have no foundation in the field of the humanities, which is that branch of human knowledge that deals with all those sticky things known as ethics and morality. Computer science, for all its indispensability, has nothing to say on the subject of what it is to be human, or on the difference between right and wrong. The point here is that the architects of cutting-edge technology may not have a moral compass that will give a moral texture to their inventions. The creators of technology that is supposed to change our world may not know whether these changes will be good or bad; what’s worse, they might not care.
Make of this argument what you will, but the Facebook controversy, along with some other events, lends credence to the director’s argument. Recently, an interview with the founder of Ethernet (incidentally, also a Russian) appeared in the press. Reading this article, it is hard not to feel that, while the very young bitcoin wizard is extremely bright and highly intelligent, something crucial is missing – the sense that there is a belief system in place and, if that’s the case, what that belief system might be. There are some vague intimations of wanting to do what’s good, but that’s neither here nor there – Facebook doubtless also wants to make the world a better place, while Google’s avowed mission to do no evil verges on parody. It is possible that age is a factor, particularly as the journalist who took the interview is also in her mid-twenties; but the thought that it can’t be reduced to that alone is not a comforting one.
There was a time, about which I do not intend to wax nostalgic, when people had photo albums. The sum total of their memories was stored in the safety of their homes, away from prying eyes and lurking voyeurs. While these memories were always at the risk of being destroyed by a fire or some other such calamity, there was one thing that people enjoyed then and that they don’t have today: privacy. Social media have empowered people to share their lives, no matter how vapid, with an unlimited number of people – theoretically, with the entire planet. That is extraordinary empowerment. It is also an extraordinary opportunity for abuse – as much for those users who can now find an audience for all sorts of views, including the most violent ones, as for the social networks themselves, which now have access to vast pools of user data and which know how to keep one step ahead of the regulators. However strong the assurances provided by a social media platform in its terms of service, when you willingly submit your private life to another party, you’re relinquishing some of your rights to privacy – and, consequently, a part of your humanness.
Should Facebook users have known better, or should the regulators have shown more initiative? The question of whether, and to what extent, lawmakers need to protect citizens from their worst instincts is an eternal one. Recent controversies, however, only confirm that, while some companies might be too big to fail, no company is too big to be unregulated. There will be calls for greater regulatory oversight, and it is likely that these calls will be at least somewhat heeded by the authorities. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether it is possible to rein in industry juggernauts the likes of Facebook without renouncing some of the ultraliberal values that have accompanied the rise of the corporatocracy – a scenario that will be completely unacceptable to the torchbearers of ultraliberalism.