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Tech savvy

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The news of late continues to be profoundly weird, demoralizing, relentless — the world upending and reordering itself in unpredictable ways, amidst the usual goings ons, all with the backdrop of the ongoing and (hopefully, finally) waning pandemic, to say nothing of climate change and the erosion of liberal democracy.

There are two big-ish stories that, though unrelated directly, have aligned to highlight for me some of the underlying dysfunction of our world. I’m afraid I don’t offer much in the way of optimism here, but for me, thinking through all of this over the past few weeks has provided some sense of hope.

The first of these is the debt ceiling. As James Fallows has covered in his excellent newsletter, the debt ceiling is a “problem not an issue”, a bit of political spectacle that has been invented from nothing by one political party for the sole purpose of creating government dysfunction.

In reality, as nearly everyone reporting on this issue understands, this is not a “showdown.” It is not even a “disagreement.” Those terms might apply to questions like the size of the infrastructure-spending bill, or prospective judicial nominees, or what to do about Haitian refugees.

Instead, this is a naked threat. It has exactly zero legitimacy as a “policy” for either party to espouse. I’ll explain why in a moment—in the course of arguing that reporting that fails to convey the fraudulence of the issue, is diminishing rather than increasing our awareness of the truth.

Alas, plenty of the reporting on the debt ceiling followed the familiar pattern of not calling out Republican intransigence and irresponsibility, and has instead framed a wholly manufactured crisis as just another example of a broken American political system. It’s telling that one of the best pieces of the debt ceiling news cycle had to be shunted to the opinion section.

This is a failure with many fathers, one of the more pernicious being what Jay Rosen calls the cult of savviness:

In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane. Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

To be savvy is to cover politics like it’s a sport, to be forever focused on who’s “winning” or “losing” on any given issue, regardless of the outcomes. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with endless commentary that turned out to be disastrously wrong — not to mention being so obviously wrong at the time! — may well be the low point of American media savvy, with very same people still gainfully employed twenty years later to make the same wrong pronouncements over the final withdrawal from Afghanistan.

I was thinking of Rosen’s definition of the savvy style in the context of the second big story of the past few weeks: yet another revealation that Facebook has continued to fail to take responsibility for itself. The latest was reported in The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” series, based on a document dump by former-employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, who then revealed herself to be a rather adept and insightful critic in an interview with 60 Minutes and a testimony before congress.

In one sense, “The Facebook Files” doesn’t reveal much the world didn’t already know. The data trove Haugen meticulously collected shows the company understands better than anyone, via their own internal research, there is a direct conflict between how they design their products and the general wellbeing of the world at large, and they have chosen time and time again to prioritize growth over doing what is right in any ethical sense.

Satisfying though it may be to see this hard evidence in support of over a decade of sustained criticism, from Facebook’s own research, it’s the reaction to this latest scandal that feels the most clarifying. Facebook at first responded by trying to smear Haugen, which was of course as desperate as it was ineffective, before shifting to an old standby. The real problem, according to Facebook and the company’s defenders, isn’t their algorithms or the design of the apps that connect and then amplify the worst of humanity, but humanity itself.

This is Rosen’s savviness brought to tech, a locus of power every bit as consequential as politics. The savvy response is to say everything that’s bad is a humanity problem, or an internet problem, not the result of deliberate choices made by a massive corporation. In the same way that savvy political reporters refuse to acknowledge that, for example, the biggest problem facing the United States is actually the Republican Party, savvy tech commentators won’t take it as a given that Facebook is actually uniquely irresponsible.

“The internet” is as much a concept as it is a technology or even a place; it’s protocols and infrastructure, built by individuals, governments, and corporations. Facebook is one of those corporations and it’s extracted massive profits by privatizing the online commons. Claiming the problems at the heart of Facebook’s massive unregulated platform, effectively under the control of a single individual wholly unprepared for taking responsibility for his creation, is “an internet problem” is like saying the rise of authoritarianism in the United States is “a politics problem” when it’s plain the real problem is the Republican Party. Ignoring that reality is absurd, though it certainly is savvy.

Because the savvy analysis is inherently reactive, it shifts constantly, like the Overton window. To stake out a definitive position, like “the Republican party is committed to minority rule” or “Facebook is a corporation that has corrupted the internet” is to be unambiguous. The savvy response is to say “you might not like it, but it’s smart politics” or “do you expect Facebook to solve all of humanity’s problems?”

I have a certain understanding of, if not sympathy for, the savvy style. Humans, after all, respond to incentives and both politics and now the tech industry are massive centers of power; reporting on those power structures requires a certain degree of access and perceived authority. How much access can a reporter expect if they take it as a given or even dare to report out the obviously true that fully one half of our political system is committed to anti-democratic obstructionism? To suggest a corporation used by half of all internet users is as bad for humanity as cigarette or oil companies is to invite a reaction that you can’t be serious or must have some kind of anti-tech agenda, even if it’s something we all understand to be true.

The biggest problem for writers seeking to honestly asses what are admittedly big, thorny problems is that anything short of “well, both sides do have a point” gets automatically written off as an opinion. Saying the Republican party is committed to minority rule, when all evidence points to exactly that, becomes just, like, your opinion, man. Starting with the premise that it’s bad to allow Facebook to privatize huge swaths of the internet, surveil their users, and sell advertising against that is, according to the savvy take, lacking in nuance and just proof the media hates tech.

No one — literally no one — is arguing that genocide or depressed teenagers didn’t exist before Facebook. Of course these problems existed before today’s incarnation of tech and that also makes it all the more damning: Facebook should have known, or at least paused for a second to consider, that their tools could be used to malicious ends because that’s literally the story of all of human history. I don’t expect Zuckerberg to read the library’s worth of criticism aimed at his company — though he really, really should — but is it too much to ask that he browse the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein?

I can understand why Nick Clegg has to humiliate himself for the sake of Facebook — his paycheck, as Upton Sinclair reminds us, quite literally depends on it — but for years I’ve been genuinely vexed as to why anyone else would. Why do random blogger, tweeters, and otherwise smart analysts and reporters commit themselves to this project? I’ve come to understand it as an inversion of Facebook’s tired and tiresome self-defense: Facebook isn’t a mirror of humanity or an indictment of the internet, it’s an endgame of neoliberalism1.

Facebook is in many ways a platonic ideal of the neoliberal order. As much as we might associate it with central bankers, or Wall Street, or management consultants and their powerpoints of mass destruction, Facebook has brought neoliberalism to a final state.

When Andrew Bosworth, who was recently named Facebook’s CTO, lamely excused their model of growth at any cost, that “connecting people” is an ultimate good even as it reduces people and whole nations to nodes on a network, it’s not hard to read that blithe ends-justifying-the-means as a rearticulation of Hayek’s notion of a market free from interference. Neoliberalism reduces the breadth of humanity to mere transactions, morality and ethics to just another incentive, human expression to mere commerce. Facebook’s algorithms on top of their database of humanity take these theories of the dismal science to their natural conclusion without even the pretense of politics.

So to say “actually, Facebook is bad” is to say that the neoliberal order — the status quo — is bad. It suggests the supremacy of markets and the primacy of the individual over society isn’t actually a universal truth. It says all that wealth, and the effort it took to produce it, does not, in fact, outweigh the genuine harm caused by the obvious dereliction of duty that comes with amassing so much power.

The savvy class fires back with “this is the world as it is — you cranks may want a Republican Party of Nelson Rockefeller instead of Barry Goldwater, you may want to live in a world without Facebook, but get over it. This is the world we live in.” Nothing about this is inevitable, though, it’s merely a part of the world that reflects the desires of people with money and power; we all have a right and responsibility to think honestly about how that world came to be and to work to make it better. To accept the view from the savvy cynics is to give in to nihilism. As the great Ursula Le Guin reminds us: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

  1. Let me just be the first to say no one hates the way “neoliberalism” has been so throughly deployed to be practically useless in any kind of conversation. I get it!

    But just because the term enjoys nearly bipartisan support as a conversation ender and rhetorical neutron bomb doesn’t mean the concept is wholly useless.

    I’m trying to be deliberate when I refer to neoliberalism, first as a specific 20th century concept that reordered economic and political thinking to ultimately produce Reagan and Thatcherism, and everything that’s come in the reaction and response to that.

    But also the cultural ramifications of neoliberalism, especially since the end of the second world war: the rise of consumerism and its own self-justification, the transformation of art from an expression of human potential to a pure commodity, the triumph of marketing and advertising to continuously induce demand for ever more products. These are complex issues, with definite downsides that seem to be increasing in scope at a faster rate driven in no small part by the people who brought Facebook into existence and are now shuffling on to what’s next. ↩︎