Facebook and gas

Dear President Trump,

Ok, so here’s the letter I’d already mostly drafted before the Vindman revelations hit yesterday’s news cycle….

There might have been moments during Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony last week when he sounded like he knew what the hell he was talking about. He’s a smart guy, so surely he didn’t sound like a halting lame-ass the entire time, but in the clips I saw of him attempting to respond to Katie Porter and to AOC he struggled. Porter grilled him about both privacy around people’s personal data and about the content screening that contracted workers (i.e., not FB employees with all the FB-employee bennies) are doing and would he be willing to use some of his time to do that work to see what it’s like? Answer: no, using his time in that way wouldn’t best serve “the community” – chicken. AOC asked whether FB would take down political posts that give some users incorrect election-day dates and when he responded that FB would take down such posts, she asked him whether they would take down fake posts where she claimed that various Republican Representatives supported the Green New Deal. To this he just sputtered. You could almost see the “Oh sh*t!” thought bubble form next to his right temple.

When he did manage to string together semi-coherent sentences, he offered nothing but platitudinous sound bites, which they handily spit back at him. For a nanosecond I felt sorry for him. Someone else (I can’t remember who now) posited that his genius lies in saying nothing substantive about a whole lot (as in dozens and dozens) of different problems so that no one can get a handle on what the hell is going on and so nothing comes of these ceremonial grillings. Seems spot on to me.

I came away from those clips and from all I read about his testimony feeling sick to my stomach and sick at heart that so many people (as of June 2019 the number is approximately 2.41 billion monthly active users or “MAU”s – sigh) are entrusting not only their data to this company, but their minds. No one has time to fact check everything suspicious, and really, no one has the wherewithal to consider what is and isn’t suspicious much of the time. And because FB has managed in a short 15 years to offer its MAUs things that have become absolutely essential to them, it’s been able to get away with doing things that aren’t centered on their MAUs’ best interests nor on the common good, but rather on FB’s growth and profit, all the while touting their awesome power to connect the world. It’s super slick. And scary.

If we are so enthralled with a thing and have become so dependent on it that we cannot step away from it even when we see how harmful it has already been and have a good sense of how much worse it can get, then this is fairly called addiction. This is not to say that there aren’t demonstrable positives about FB services, it’s just that people haven’t (thus far) been willing to make sacrifices (like boycotting it) to force them to change their business practices.

Same thing goes for oil and gas. Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout isn’t painting a pretty picture of that industry regarding community-mindedness, moral scruples, or environmental stewardship – holy cow, it’s scary what we’ve allowed to happen on that front. I was nominally aware of the trade offs and stakes before, but reading this book has me thinking about my very real reliance on substances that I know make things much easier for me in the moment, but that have negative environmental impacts.

I know we all have to take responsibility for our actions and our contributions to these big problems, but it’s also clear that this is on such a grand, huge scale that we’re going to need more than random individuals choosing to walk to the grocery store sometimes or deciding to swear off FB. We need wholesale systems changes to address our cultural addictions to all this stuff. We aren’t crazy for wanting to be connected to loved ones or wanting to see our preferred news feeds and we aren’t horrible for wanting to get places quickly or to be comfortable without 3 layers of wool – these things are not evil or irrational. And still and yet, we can’t keep going the way we’ve been going because democracy has been sorely tested by our willingness to give poor stewards passes and the planet is clearly letting us know she’s had more than enough of the changes we are putting her through.

May we be safe from profit driven corporate models that fuel addictions.
May we be willing to step back and rethink just about everything.
May we see that our current course is neither sustainable nor healthy.
May we make peace with the idea that less is more.

Tracy Simpson

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