Facebook Complicity & Its Rituals

Today King’s University College and Western’s CSTC along with the Department of Sociology hosted Franco Bifo Berardi who gave a lecture “Abstraction and Poetry in the Age of Financial Capitalism,” where he spoke about the process of abstraction-automation that has marked the 20th century. To sum it up, here’s a brief description that was provided, where he specified his notion of abstraction-automation: “In particular, economics has been structured by the process of abstraction, which culminates in the financialization of capitalism. This abstraction results in automation of decision and the submission of daily life and cognitive activity to the abstract dynamics of money.” He called for creation of spaces away from technology, but without becoming techno-phobiacs: “Art, and particularly poetry, can provide alternative spaces of experimentation, of emancipation of the sign from the referent. The social movements of the last few years, particularly media-activism and the international movement of Occupy, have attempted to open the way for a comeback of the body, poetry and art.”

Berardi concluded by saying that the problem of control and automation of cognitive work of the Internet (as “us,” users) by capitalist power poses totally new problems such as the ultimate enslavement of human activity (memory, language, etc.); and this is where, he said, the real fight of the next 50 years would be. He described the shift from “net” to “web” (or rather, web 2.0) as an “automation of passive connection.” Which I especially appreciated. 

Here Berardi’s talk resonated with my own recent interest, the case of users’ complicity with the system that I sometimes think through Sloterdijk’s notion of cynical reason and its model of tactical thinking and pragmatic maneuvering that reveals “the impotence of knowledge” (instead of Bacon’s “knowledge is power”). Another way to describe complicity is by borrowing Žižek’s term “interpassivity,” which I rethink within the context of “programmed sociality” of the network culture, where it differs from what was originally implied by Žižek in his discussion of the relation between the “interactive” toy tamagotchi and its owner. The function of pretense and the foreclosure of awareness in both cases is quite peculiar.

Such complicity with the system takes many forms. One of them is continuous re-posting of this massage on Facebook:

“Due to the fact that Facebook has chosen to involve software that will allow the theft of my personal information, I state: at this date of November 27, 2014, in response to the new guidelines of Facebook, pursuant to articles L.111, 112 and 113 of the code of intellectual property, I declare that my rights are attached to all my personal data drawings, paintings, photos, video, texts etc…. published on my profile and my page. For commercial use of the foregoing my written consent is required at all times.”

This contagious sharing of users’ privacy concern repeats at least every year, if not more often. Everyone knows Facebook is not going to change its attitude towards users’ privacy, it will keep investing in developing the algorithms of data processing which goal is to “interpret” the relation between very different pieces of information about a user and this user’s network despite what one conceals from the eyes of others and beyond what one posts: a user’s network reveal enough about a user (for example, see this short investigation).

As it’s explained on Snopes (again), “Facebook users cannot retroactively negate any of the privacy or copyright terms they agreed to when they signed up for their accounts, nor can they unilaterally alter or contradict any new privacy or copyright terms instituted by Facebook, simply by posting a contrary legal notice on their Facebook walls. Moreover, the fact that Facebook is now a publicly traded company (i.e., a company that has issued stocks which are traded on the open market) or an “open capital entity” has nothing to do with copyright protection or privacy rights. Any copyright or privacy agreements users of Facebook have entered into with that company prior to its becoming a publicly traded company or changing its policies remain in effect: they are neither diminished nor enhanced by Facebook’s public status.”

Have not it always been a common knowledge? But if so, why have users been sharing this empty message before and now? For the same reason they will do it again. They do it instead of leaving Facebook. In this sense, such sharing of concern is not entirely meaningless. It is an enactment of a ritual that serves its purpose of scarifying uncomfortable knowledge about Facebook. Everyone, it seems, is fed up with Facebook (remember that recent Ello hysteria as another similar symptom?), everyone knows it’s bad, but nobody leaves it. We will keep feeding the tamagotchi.

UPDATE. On Dec 7, the NYT published a piece “We Cannot Trust Uber” by media scholars Zeynep Tufekci & Brayden King that addresses the abuse of sensitive data by the app’s owners: there was “the apparent threat from a senior vice president of Uber to spend “a million dollars” looking into the personal lives of journalists who wrote critically about Uber. The problem wasn’t just that a representative of a powerful corporation was contemplating opposition research on reporters; the problem was that Uber already had sensitive data on journalists who used it for rides.” It also touches upon Facebook’s data collection and it’s data science strategy along with thousands of other experiments, which is worth reading. The authors conclude:

Codes of conduct developed by companies are a start, but we need information fiduciaries: independent, external bodies that oversee how data is used, backed by laws that ensure that individuals can see, correct and opt out of data collection. The European Union has established strict controls on personal data that include provisions of privacy, limited and legitimate use and user access to their own data. That shows that accountability is possible.