Chris Hughes’ bombshell editorial has placed the question of Facebook front and center. Unfortunately, the discussion also shows how much in disarray our language is for naming and confronting specifically moral problems. It is clear that Hughes understands his case to break up Facebook as resting on moral grounds. This is also why he exonerates his friend Mark Zuckerberg as a “good guy,” performing some subjective culpabaility analysis. Mark is not evil, apparently, nor perhaps even willfully malicious. He’s certainly not greedy. Thus, that leaves ignorance. And that is where Hughes lands on Zuckerberg.
But what about the acts themselves? What exactly is wrong with Facebook? Hughes struggles to name it. In fact, he is all over the place. The sheer length of the piece indicates the difficulty in naming Facebook’s sins. While themes of privacy and of excessive power do surface, they are woven in with many other charges – deception, even the employment of low-wage contract labor. Like our political discourse, the case is made by piling on pell-mell, hoping the sheer weight of the problems will “convince” people.
I am no expert in technology ethics – I’m just a concerned user. I hope my colleague Luis Vera, who knows much more, will weigh in. But I wanted to point out that the issue here is that we can no longer clearly name purposes – what is Facebook good for? – and so we are unable to make the relevant analogies to assess them. Everything hangs on purposes and analogies. What do I mean?
It seems to me that Facebook can be compared, in different ways, to two other sorts of media. One comparison is with what might be called “broadcast” media, and the other might be called more specifically “communications” media. In the first, there is largely a one-way transmission, and the most obvious analogies are with things like newspaper and television. The concerns raised here are about the power of someone who has a very large platform. Yet this is surely the easier (though not easy) concern to address. In part, this is because such media can be consumed “privately,” and in part, it is because it is relatively easy for users to switch among platforms. But in the second analogy, more akin to mail and telephone, the concerns are more difficult precisely because the media is designed for two-way communication. What that means is that privacy and switching are much more difficult to manage. My responding is “recorded” and (crucially) my desire to share with the other person means that we have to be able to share a platform. The latter concern makes Hughes’ proposed solution of competition much more difficult to implement. In theory, platforms can compete by offering different deals on privacy, but if my ability to communicate with others hinges on their being on the same platform, my ability to limit myself to one platform (especially if it is a paid one) is much more difficult. Imagine being able to mail cards or call companies being limited by the presence of the other on the same platform.
Because this second characteristic is, I think, essential to social media, the dominant moral analogy must be to things like the phone network and the mail system. These are different delivery systems, although in practice, both systems evolved in the US as monopolies either run by the government or entirely regulated by it. The fact that Ma Bell was broken up and that USPS now competes with private delivery services doesn’t obviate the fact that the infrastructure for both systems was developed under a monopoly regime of universal service – and of course both evolved under very strict legal regimes about privacy. At the very least, the analogy would demand that something like universal inter-platform communication, where anyone can mail or phone anyone else, be developed. But what would this be other than a “meta-platform” that might aggregate material from whatever different platforms each person sought to use? The difficulty in the analogy is that both mail and phone universality depend on a distinction between what might be called the “delivery network” (that is, the physical linkages that enable the communication) and the “user tool” (the mailbox in which it arrives or, more analogously, the device on which I receive the communication). I am sure some technology ethicist has worked out this distinction more clearly, but it is very much what we need in order to grasp this problem. Social media platform kind of destroy this distinction, since the user tool is (at least in part) the delivery network – what dispenses content to me IS the platform I choose to use. I can look at facebook on any number of physical devices, and it matters not at all what device the other is using. But the point of the medium is that we both need to be on Facebook.
Thus, “break up Facebook,” while it sounds good, doesn’t really seem to address the underlying concerns. The question we need to be asking is about Facebook’s purposes, and whether we think they are worthwhile or not. Of course, what we clearly need in our culture is a deeper conversation, a conversation about communal limits on technology. Call it “the Amish conversation.” This is because, frankly, I think we would be better off without Facebook. I would be happy to get rid of it – if I could count on others to mostly do the same. It’s a classic collective action or “commons” problem. Certain aspects of what it does are perfectly fine elsewhere – on a videophone, on email, or even on YouTube (if you must watch silly cat tricks…). And other aspects of what it does – for example, inevitably give us distorted views of other people’s lives, train our children in relentless self-promotion, circulate terrible falsehoods, etc. We can do without those. Look, we have very powerful technologies. We don’t need to reject them. But we do need to reject the illusion – promoted by libertarian individualists – that technology use and management is a purely individual choice. It’s not. It wasn’t with trains, with cars, with phones, with mail, with television. The Amish have always understood: technology use is about the community life. We don’t need to adopt the strict standards. But we do need standards. Or really, it will take over, if it hasn’t already.