August 14, 2018

Evading A = A

Evading A = A

Are you seeking to know what is wrong with the world? All the disasters that have wrecked your world came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A.

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Though Ayn Rand has authored many noteworthy books and timeless quotes, the quote above is one of my favorites and in many ways speaks accurately to our current point in time.

Another way to say this is “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck!” Most importantly, it speaks to saying what things honestly are, with extreme focus on an as objective evaluation as possible. This is not to say we can’t debate the criteria for these assessments—or even change them—but the point is not to avoid what is objectively true.

The sky is blue. Blue light is scattered in all directions by the tiny molecules in Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. This is why we see a blue sky most of the time.

Objects fall from high to low elevations. We label this gravity, the force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth, or toward any other physical body having mass. For most purposes Newton’s laws of gravity apply, with minor exceptions that take the general theory of relativity into account. There have been no scientifically proved exceptions to date.

The default sex of a human embryo is female. While we can debate the bimodal distribution of the ultimate sex at birth (e.g. female, male,) science tells us that female is the zero state.

Now, if we spend ten years hearing one thing and experiencing another, what would we call that? If it was intentional, we’d call it a “lie” and we’d show little deference to the individual or organization propagating it. Furthermore, we’d show increasing intolerance for their lack of honesty, integrity, and earnestness in perpetuating this lie. 

Enter Facebook.

Natasha Lomas of TechCrunch has done a great job documenting Facebook’s various privacy violations over the years here. Suffice it to say, we’ve been hearing the same old litany of excuses from the leaders of Facebook when these violations get called out:

“Oops…”

“We were just trying to make the experience better…”

“Users always have control over their data…”

On and on, even today, who in the world hasn’t seen Facebook’s commercials professing to “do better” with its “Here Together’ campaign.

And who can forget the endless memes of Mark Zuckerberg trying to answer questions from politicians about his data mining practices?

The point is, he’s lying.

The fact that he is lying is so well-understood that the writers of Silicon Valley made an entire episode in parody of the lie. Mr. Zuckerberg likes to say he made Facebook to connect the world in hopes of making it a better place, but companies do not reach the size and scale of Facebook in pursuit of altruism. At its core, Facebook is an advertising company.

According to the last 5 years of public reporting since the company’s IPO, Facebook has one, and only one, revenue source: advertising. People believe that Facebook is giving them access, but in truth, it’s the other way around. They make money when you give them access to your personal information. They profit from the words you write, the pictures you upload, your “friending” and “liking,” your location, your interests, and your moods. (Oh, and by the way, they also have access to your phone’s microphone, whether you consent or not.)

It’s not about connecting the world. That claim is patently and objectively false. They care about money and they make a lot of it. They make it by mining your data and leasing it (they don’t sell your data, says Zuckerberg) again and again to any and every bidder. They enable data mining by offering you services that tantalize, inspiring long hours of dopamine-driven scrolling, while they consume your feed, package it, and charge higher and higher prices for as detailed a profile of you as their algorithms can create. Why else would they need to turn on a mic on your phone? Why create a super-cookie that tracks you whether you are on their platform or not? Why would they pay $22,000,000,000 USD (that’s BILLION in case you lost count of the zeros) for a messaging app? It’s not because they want to provide free in-app messaging out of the goodness of their hearts; it’s because tracking those callers, their mobile numbers, their mobile number’s contacts, their mobile number’s locations, and the other apps on those mobile phones gives them even more valuable data. All to make the world a better, more connected place? Please.

So, here we are: A=A. Facebook is an advertising company that uses technology to fertilize its product—YOU—to reap richer and richer profits. Nothing shameful about that if they were honest about it. But, of course, they can’t say that. It would be tantamount to admitting that the last 10 years were a ruse. An elaborate fiction designed to quell the masses into mindless consent and obedience.

Does any of this make Facebook or Mr. Zuckerberg objectively bad? Well, it depends on your point of view with regard to lying, but I’d say, at the very least, it should make us question things that come from Facebook.

Serving us better: If you want to serve us better, come clean about your business model and give us a choice. Not a coercive option to join without ads. Give us an ad-free, tracking-free, data-mining-free subscription option.

Judge and Jury: Either the forum is a freedom of expression, pursuant to the terms of service as explicitly documented, or it isn’t. Both options are ok, but saying you are in fact a free and open forum and then actively censoring one side of the discussion is a blatant lie. You are perfectly within your rights to dictate terms to your users—by all means do so. But do not “bait and switch” the public. Free speech is free only when we can tolerate dissenting points of view, no matter how dumb, vile, or wrong. And if it’s not free, that’s ok. Just say that.

Fake News: Given the track record of dishonesty, as described above, I am extremely uncomfortable with that same platform being the arbiter for what is true and not true. It’s beyond laughable to think that the platform that is unwilling to own up to its own irrefutable intent would claim the authority to tell 2,000,000,000 people what truth looks like.

Although the arguments presented above may lead you to believe otherwise, I honestly have immense respect and admiration for what Mr. Zuckerberg has built. The world has never seen anything like it. My bone of contention is simply the duplicity and lack of transparency. Say it, Mr. Zuckerberg. You’ll feel and sleep better. You’ll leave pundits and politicians nowhere to go. “Of course we’re an advertising company. Of course we mine people’s data. How else do you think we’d be able to pay the ridiculous hosting fees?”

Just say it. A=A.

Additional Notes