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It will come as a surprise to many, particularly given its prominence in the never-ending facebook news cycle, what a recent invention “privacy” is. The right to live as a stranger among strangers, with an inviolable sanctity of personal affairs against government or corporate intrusion, is a relatively new concept. The Oxford English Dictionary cites our current definition back to only 1814, and the first serious legal review of the concept—the now-classic The Right to Privacy—was written by Louis Brandeis in 1890. Google Books, which has scanned and digitized a canon of books going back centuries, doesn’t show much usage of the word until the 1960s.
This relatively recent interest in, and legal defense of, privacy was a result of industrialization, rapidly growing cities, and the fraying of a local social fabric that once enmeshed (to not say ensnared) everyone within a set of expectations and possibilities. Privacy was and is a coping mechanism, a sanctuary from the increasingly anonymous and policed world to which modern man has migrated, and the technologies he confronted there. Brandeis cited the rise of newspapers and cheap photography as the motivating factors for his study, and the soon-to-be-enforced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) from the European Union, aimed squarely at Google and Facebook, is another such reactive piece of jurisprudence.
Antonio García Martínez (@antoniogm) is an Ideas contributor for WIRED. Before turning to writing, he dropped out of a doctoral program in physics to work on Goldman Sachs’ credit trading desk, then joined the Silicon Valley startup world, where he founded his own startup (acquired by Twitter in 2011), and finally joined Facebook’s early monetization team, where he headed its targeting efforts. His 2016 memoir, Chaos Monkeys, was a New York Times best seller and NPR Best Book of the Year, and his writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, The Guardian, 和 The Washington Post. He splits his time between a sailboat on the SF Bay and a yurt in Washington’s San Juan Islands.
However, in the hunter-gatherer tribes where humans evolved, or in the small towns where most Westerners lived until relatively recently, there was no notion of privacy. If you tried explaining privacy to a !Kung tribesman of the Kalahari Desert, or a late 18th-century French villager, they’d have no idea what you were talking about. Family sleeping arrangements were often communal and on a single bed until the Victorian Era, and generation after generation of families were born and buried alongside each other in ancestral townships that harbored few secrets. Meeting a stranger was likely a memorable event, and most pre-modern Westerners rarely interacted with anyone for whom they did not have a lengthy oral rap sheet.
I’ve experienced what’s left of this communal life myself. In 2016, to write my memoir about building part of Facebook’s monetization machine, I moved to a small, remote island in the Pacific Northwest, just shy of the Canadian border. After years adrift within the atomized, flaky world of San Francisco tech (where two people sitting 10 feet apart message each other via their smartphones), small-town life was a revelation. There, Facebook was completely unnecessary. Checking into a bar was automatic; the one you were at was the one open for business, and everyone who was not home was there. Every encounter involved a 10-minute recap of everything going on with your mutual friends, an impromptu, real-life news feed. What need was there for Facebook?
Most notably, there was no privacy: Everyone knew who the drunk, the cheat, or the adulterer was. News flew almost as fast as Wi-Fi signals, and I met strangers who’d already gotten the download on who I was and what I was doing there (as one Facebook-stalks an online date).
Deep down we hunger for that sense of community, and we’ll find an outlet for it no matter what. If a platform can create the feeling of community—and Facebook is nothing if not an ersatz version—then the lack of privacy is fine, as it was on my island and throughout most of human history. Ultimately, nobody really cares about privacy, except media elites, under-employed Eurocrats, and zealots who’ve made it a career. Everyone else would sext you their privates for a fleeting feeling of human connection. And they do.
(Don’t agree with me? Think people really care about privacy? Here’s a pop quiz: When, during the past year, did Facebook’s app have its highest ranking in the Google Play store? Answer: In late March, immediately after #deletefacebook went viral. People deleted their Facebook app in a fit of indignant fury—and then re-installed it in droves, like a smoker quitting for a day and then buying a carton of smokes. There’s now a privacy-industrial complex that strives relentlessly to keep itself relevant, but almost nobody’s behavior really changes.)
As it turns out, Mark Zuckerberg mostly agrees with this Facebook-as-community metaphor, though he’d express it more delicately. In February 2017, he published an unusual 6,000-word manifesto that, unlike most of his somewhat bland posts, is worth reading. There, he very immodestly proposes that Facebook occupy the social nexus vacated by the disappearance of churches, unions, lodges, and other local associations that once served as core of American civil life. This resurrected public forum would be as abstract and mobile as a Facebook group, and would no longer be restricted by the pesky limits of distance or national origin.
This Facebook-as-community proxy is not without its problems, though, and it’s where the smartphone version deviates from the real-world version that we encounter our modern pathologies. First, there’s the issue of overuse. Facebook is to real community as porn is to real sex: a cheap, digital knockoff for those who can’t do better. Unfortunately, in both instances use of the simulacrum fries your brain in ways that prevent you from ever experiencing the real version again. But we’ll take what we can get.
The second major bug is geography. That slim piece of glass, metal, and silicon we keep in our pockets is like our own mobile Pacific Northwest island. Dunbar’s number, the 150-or-so people that anthropologists have found most humans maintain as a social community, now lives in an easy-to-carry package.
But that intangible network exists across space or even time, and therein lies the political problem. The fault lines of our new online polities run under and through the borders of the old, legacy ones. They don’t respect the colored boxes on the map, boxes that used to refer to a common set of values, laws, and identities, but no longer do.
Take the Blue State #resist voter as an example. That person is nominally a citizen of a continental nation-state that stretches “from sea to shining sea,” but more often sees herself as an inhabitant of an urban archipelago (and accompanying mediascape) stretching from Vancouver to Berlin. On the other side of our great divide, the Red State #MAGA voter from the Deep South has more in common with a UKIP-voting Brexiter in Leeds, or a Putin-supporting Russian nationalist, than with his metropolitan compatriots.
This whole Facebook fracas is really the earthquake resulting from the realignment of these tribal tectonic plates underneath legacy states. Which is why so many citizens of Western democracies (e.g., the #resist crowd) look at some political Others (e.g., the #MAGA crowd), who are nominally part of their own nation, and ask, “Who are those people and why am I sharing political power with them?”
The underlying tension of online tribes joined by now-dated political unions will persist until either the political borders are redrawn to reflect the virtual ones (e.g. Brexit, various secessionist murmurs among US states), or we somehow manage to unwrap our political identities from our online personas (unlikely). The pro-regulation crowd who argue Facebook is a utility (and therefore should be regulated like one) is partly correct; we’ll no sooner part from our online identities at this point than we would from electricity or running water.
What’s the alternative?
Some will retreat to atavistic revivals of earlier living arrangements: the organic farm, the militia compound, the anchorite “Benedict Option,” whereby conservative Christians isolate themselves from venal and corrupt modernity. There’ll be escapees for sure. I myself ended up buying a raw patch of woods on Orcas Island, where I am learning the messy arts of composting toilets while (occasionally) enjoying the authentic community.
But like so many things in our coming dysfunction, most people will have to resort to a knockoff of an erstwhile original. And that’s where Facebook will thrive as crutch, the opiate of the socially precarious and atomized masses, the Band-Aid on the social wound that’s festered to bursting.
Zuckerberg is ultimately correct in his vision of “A More Open and Connected World,” and has been relentlessly capable of making it a reality. As examples, take some recent headlines: Teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma organized the biggest labor strikes in recent US history via Facebook groups, organizing for increased school funding more aggressively and effectively than their unions. Then there’s the bad: In Sri Lanka, anti-Muslim riots were organized via Facebook, requiring the government to do what Facebook was unwilling to do: shut Facebook down. Similar bad news comes from Myanmar 以及该 Philippines.
Facebook, and social networks like it, will indeed provide the makeshift community for those whose worlds are being destroyed around them, even as it also serves as megaphone for those doing the destroying. Promoting the former while discouraging the latter is the fundamental challenge that companies like Facebook face. Whatever the various national or political contexts where it may occur, that battle is the media battle of our age.