In George Orwell’s “1984,” the telescreen is the primary tool of totalitarian surveillance.
“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen . . . To wear an improper expression on your face . . . was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: FACECRIME, it was called.”
For most of my life, ever since I read Orwell as a teenager, I have thanked God that I didn’t end up as a citizen of Airstrip One, living my life as a helot in thrall to Big Brother. It was not long after the actual year 1984 that I made my first visit to the Soviet Union and realized that a significant part of humanity was in precisely that situation. How relieved I felt to return to capitalism and democracy.
Little did I know that the freest society in history — that of Northern California — was already hard at work on the technology that would not only match but exceed the telescreen as a tool of surveillance.
The Internet and the World Wide Web were supposed to create a libertarian paradise, where netizens could roam free, beyond the reach of Big Brother and his ilk. As for making money . . . dude, the whole idea was just to connect the world.
The mission statement handed to new Facebook employees states: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.” In an interview with The Harvard Crimson in 2004, just five days after the launch of Thefacebook, Mark Zuckerberg explicitly said he had not created the site with the intention of making money. “I’m not going to sell anybody’s e-mail address,” he said.
Five years later, by which time Facebook had 175 million users, Zuckerberg was asked by the BBC: “So who is going to own the Facebook content? The person who puts it there or you?”
He replied: “The person who puts the content on Facebook always owns the information.”
BBC: “And you won’t sell it?
MZ: “No, of course not.”
As I explain in my book “The Square and the Tower,” this was a disingenuous reply. To be sure, Zuckerberg has not — strictly speaking — sold Facebook users’ data. But he did not become a multibillionaire because all 2 billion users mailed him $20 to say, “Thanks for making the world more connected!”
Beginning in 2007, Facebook allowed users to build apps within Facebook — a decision that proved hugely popular as Facebook-based games such as Farmville proliferated. At the same time, users were allowed to sell their own sponsored ads.
As with Google, it was advertising that made Facebook money. The crucial difference was that Google simply helped people find the things they had already decided to buy, whereas Facebook enabled advertisers to deliver targeted messages to users, tailored to meet the preferences they had already revealed through their Facebook activity. Once ads were seamlessly inserted into users’ News Feeds on the Facebook mobile phone app, the company was on the path to vast profits, propelled forward by the explosion of smartphone usage.
The smartphone is our telescreen. And, thanks to it, Big Zucker is watching you — night and day, wherever you go. Unlike the telescreen, your phone is always with you. Unlike the telescreen, it can read your thoughts, predicting your actions before you even carry them out. It’s just that Big Zucker’s 24/7 surveillance isn’t designed to maintain a repressive regime. It’s just designed to make money.
The only law of history is the law of unintended consequences. Is anyone — apart from Zuckerberg, that is — really surprised that, during the seven-year period when app developers had free access to Facebook users’ data, unscrupulous people downloaded as much as they could? Do we seriously believe that Cambridge Analytica are the only people who did this? Can you give me one good reason why, after Barack Obama and his minions smugly boasted about their use of Facebook in his 2012 reelection campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign was not entitled to try similar methods four years later?
So it goes, Mark. You set out to make the world more connected. You end up helping elect President Trump, whose goal is the exact opposite. And all because you got greedy. You took Trump’s money. And you took Putin’s, too.
The reputational damage has now been done. Regulation is coming, not to mention hefty fines. (As Zuckerberg himself said last week, “I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated.”) But the big question is how many people will actually leave Facebook, as opposed to just tweeting #leavefacebook.
In “1984,” only members of the Party elite are allowed to turn off their telescreens. For everyone else, they are compulsory. But our iTelescreens are different, for we are addicted to them. It took torture — followed by copious amounts of gin — finally to convince Winston Smith, “He loved Big Brother.” In that respect, too, Zuckerberg has gone one better than Orwell:
“It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He Liked Big Zucker.”
Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook.”