Technology 2018-06-11

Social Media as a Totalitarian Framework

I read an interesting article over at the New Yorker titled “How George Orwell Predicted The Challenge of Writing Today”. One of the points made in the article was that totalitarian societies emphasize the intimate knowledge people have of one another. A sort of enforced closeness and awareness of the other person. Another aspect of totalitarian societies is that people are punished seemingly at random. It’s not so much who the person is or why the person is targetted, it is that anybody can be targetted for any time and any reason.

These two concepts stood out to me because, in essence, social media enforces both these ideas. Much has been made of the Facebook memo which declared that connecting the world is the most important thing, justifying any form of underhanded technique to achieve it. Further, anyone who has been online for more than a few months is aware of just how quickly denizens of the Internet will gang up on someone for the slightest misstep; no offense is too small for an overblown reaction. It strikes me, then that, however unintentionally, the social media tech giants have created a foundation for a totalitarian society. This is a foundation, however, with an important difference.

In previous totalitarian states, there was always a central body at the top. China is a perfect example of this. At the top of the heap is the ruling Chinese party in Beijing, which in turn is ruled by Xi Jingping. With the social media companies, however, there is no ruling party. It’s just a framework. Control goes to those who can game the system the best. Right now that would appear to be Russia. No doubt China will level its power on the world later as circumstances dictate. In the meantime, the tech companies will pursue their own, largely capital-based interests.

Silicon Valley has, for some time now, been in the thrall of a pseudo-Randian, neo-Libertarian philosophy in which making money is the goal and everything else is just a series of data points to manage. Despite outward appearances, Google, Facebook and others will happily make any deal that gives them more profit. Witness Google, which dropped their famouse “Don’t be Evil” slogan recently and only pulled out of a deal with the Department of Defense thanks to a public lashing generated by some of their own employees. Facebook, of course, has shown no such problem with ethics in general and Bezos has employees that pass out on the production line lest they be fired for missing a performance goal.

If the Trump administration were more aware of the possibilities it would quietly engage in back-room deals with these companies to give them the market profits they crave in exchange for access to the raw data that the tech companies have accumulated. Trump could protect them from legislative backlash and in return the companies could supply data, propaganda and surveillance. If the tech companies were smart they would quietly cultivate Trump’s favor. He’s not a complicated man. He likes people who idolize him and he does favors for them. It would not take much to learn how to control his favor. One could take things a step further and see the two forces working together to create a propaganda campaign for Trump as a permanent President.

I don’t actually think things would go this far, nor do I really want it to happen. It just strikes me American society is on the cusp of this idea, even if it is not the direction that things will ultimately travel. Still, one hopes one day some politician makes the same realization I have briefly made just now and works on legislation to prevent this very outcome from occurring. It’s clear things will likely not change without serious government intervention; the tech companies are just too entrenched.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.