Editor’s Note: Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist, author of the book “Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus” and professor of media studies at City University of New York, Queens College. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Anyone expecting bombshell revelations from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress may have been disappointed by repetitive questions and circular responses. But that doesn’t mean we learned nothing important.
We did: When it comes to Facebook, everyone is clueless. And that’s too dangerous a situation for us to allow to carry on.
The cluelessness first made itself apparent when Sen. Chuck Grassley began reading questions obviously prepared for him by his Net-savvy staffers, but which he, himself, clearly did not understand. As most of his colleagues would prove over the hours that followed, it’s hard to know what technology is doing if you have no idea how it works.
But it’s not as if the panel of clueless senators were facing an evil genius. The most surprising thing about Zuckerberg’s answers was not the complexity of his team’s fascinating defense strategy, but his own apparent lack of knowledge: not just about Facebook’s technological capabilities but also about the history and dynamics of the internet.
The strategy was for him to act like the innocent Harvard dorm inventor who is just as surprised as any of us by the way his homespun platform has grown, and who is now ready to grow up himself and make sure his digital behemoth becomes a force for good. But his ignorance of the internet’s bias toward surveillance – if not feigned – is a glaring reason to doubt if he can rise to the occasion when it comes to self-regulation.
When Sen. Maria Cantwell – the most digitally literate person in the room – asked Zuckerberg if he knew what Total Information Awareness was, he said he did not.
Huh? He doesn’t know about the original effort by John Poindexter and others to sweep the entire data universe to do predictive modeling of people and weed out potential terrorists? Right: that was back in 2003, when Zuck was only 19 and still in that dorm room.
Ignorance may not be a defense, but it means the problem we’re facing isn’t malice – just a lack of knowledge and context.
Zuckerberg is less the reason the internet went bad than he is the product of an internet running on the wrong business model. But since he didn’t get to the internet until so recently, he doesn’t know any different.
For example, everybody seems to agree that “fake news” and Russian misinformation are bad. The only question seems to be how to get rid of it. The senators suggest regulation – but this could backfire, particularly since Facebook is the only player at the table, and will push for regulations that cement its position.
Zuckerberg has always depended on users to identify and flag bad content for him, but this plainly isn’t working. He offers instead that the company is now working on artificial intelligence that can distinguish between real and fake posts. With enough machine learning, he says, this should fix things.
So the problems created by a website built by a college kid, which subsequently grew out of control because of an internet he doesn’t understand, will be policed by algorithms whose ramifications he’ll understand even less. And all this techno-solutionism seems to satisfy the senators, who don’t even understand the technology that’s causing all the trouble.
Ignorance is just the rule of the road, at this point. As if to relieve himself of any culpability for the ongoing compromise of our privacy online, Zuckerberg kept repeating that Facebook users have the choice of what they share.
They can opt in or opt out of whatever they choose. But that would require users to understand their options a whole lot better than most actually do. The fact that they don’t know what they’re signing on for is at the core of Facebook’s business plan.
Facebook’s problems can’t be solved by more algorithms – or even better regulation. This is because its underlying business model is to extract value from users’ data. Yes, it’s easier for poor people to pay for internet access with their data (and psyches) than with cash. But, as we’re learning, the cost of this bargain is much higher than the price.
Given the power of digital technology to promote the interests of the corporations it serves, asking the company to work against its core programming seems futile. The only real answer – the seemingly unthinkable one – is to build an alternative network that has a different funding model, be it a public utility, sustainable nonprofit or paid service.
If you doubt the reality of such a proposal, consider Zuckerberg’s one seemingly vulnerable moment of the hearings. When Lindsey Graham asked if Facebook is a monopoly, the CEO replied, “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.”
Let’s take him at his word and build an alternative that promotes its users’ interests instead of everybody else’s.