Facebook just became the ultimate dystopia
When constructing a dystopia, it takes some doing to be both Orwellian and Huxleyan at the same time. But with the changes he just announced to the Facebook News Feed, Mark Zuckerberg seems to have managed this extraordinary feat.
The nightmare worlds of George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) are in many ways polar opposites. One is a surveillance state that controls what people see of history by literally rewriting newspapers. The other controls its citizenry by blissing them out on a dissociative drug called soma.
In his ongoing effort to “improve” Facebook, Zuckerberg is now trying both tactics. He’s reducing your access to real news — in the 20th century, we used to call that censorship — while increasing the likelihood that you’ll only see the outrageous fake news posted by your crazy uncle. Because hey, content posted by family makes you happy, and we only want you to be happy, right?
The algorithm, we already knew, watches you as closely as Big Brother ever did. Every friendship, every like, the length of time you spend reading a story, whether you interact with it — all of this goes on your permanent record. (At least with the telescreens, Orwell told us, you knew they weren’t watching the whole time.)
The fact that Facebook is going to simply show you less news makes it more efficient than Orwell’s totalitarian state. Party bosses at the Ministry of Truth must be slapping their foreheads: get billions of people to consume their news via social media, then simply eliminate that news content? No rewriting of The Times, no memory hole required, just make the news vanish digitally? Why didn’t we think of that?
A brief reminder of why this matters. As of August 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans got their news on social media — a 5 percent increase from the previous year. On Facebook, 68 percent of users got their news from the site. For the first time in the Pew survey, a majority of Americans older than 50 turned to social media services for news.
To become such a major source of information so fast, and then to simply yank that news away, isn’t just an outrageous abnegation of civic responsibility. It’s straight out of the dystopian playbook.
An oft-forgotten part of Orwell’s oft-mischaracterized classic: the vast majority of Oceania’s society, the Proles, weren’t given any news at all, not even the fake kind. They were kept happy on a constant diet of cheap songs and lurid stories. Facebook has now gone the Party one better: feeds will likewise be full of equally crappy, thin-gruel content, but the Proles will be producing it themselves. And Facebook gets to monetize it!
Brave New News Feed
“The warm, the richly coloured, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday. How kind, how good-looking, how delightfully amusing every one was!” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Replace “soma-holiday” with “social media,” and you can see why Huxley was even more prophetic than we’ve given him credit for.
The fictional drug soma made you social. It made you feel connected with friends and strangers alike — in a supremely false way. It took you on what the book’s characters repeatedly describe as a “perfect holiday.”
The Facebook that Zuckerberg now seems to be envisioning will do the same. People present their best selves on the service; they post carefully curated photos of their “perfect” vacations. And now they will be able to do so without any of that nasty news intruding!
“The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote. He forgot to mention the research that shows Facebook actually makes you more depressed when you’re looking at other people’s vacation snaps or pictures of their perfect babies.
Like in some kind of twisted experiment, however, we keep hitting that lever
No matter how much you care about the person in question, Facebook invites comparison — which in turn leads to status anxiety. We may post “congratulations” in the comments, which the algorithm counts as a huge win. Major engagement points! But what we’re really thinking or feeling in the face of these richly colored snapshots — the sudden amping up of our envy, our self-loathing, our depression — stays hidden from Facebook’s all-seeing eye.
Like in some kind of twisted experiment, however, we keep hitting that lever. Let the soma of Facebook help us annihilate ourselves and carry us away on the perfect holiday of others — how kind, how good looking, how delightfully amusing they are.
Now Zuckerberg wants us to stay in that mental state without the horrid intrusion of “passive experience” — his words for what happens when you’re reading or watching anything that makes you sit and think, rather than mindlessly typing “congratulations!”
The worst of it is, Zuck thinks he’s being noble. He literally thinks he’s “doing the right thing.” He wants his infant children to look back one day and say that Facebook saved the world.
Perhaps they will. Because with everyone consuming content on Facebook, with media companies that reach for objective truth driven out of News Feeds and out of business, there will be no one left to point out the inanity of all this fake connection. The next generation of Zuckerbergs may well spend their lives on endless soma holidays.