In defence of Facebook

I like Facebook but I’m not an apologist for the social media giant.

Facebook has done things wrong. They failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from gathering detailed information of millions of users. The method used was especially disturbing. They developed a quiz in which 270,000 people responded. Then the response snowballed to 50 million as data from friends was gleaned.

However, while Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were sneaky, they didn’t get anything more than what they could have obtained through a paid ad. Facebook says they are going to make the source of those ads transparent. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says: “People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.” About time.

Last year, Facebook admitted that Russian provocateurs bought 3,000 ads.  The ads were insidious because they generated anxiety over social issues: immigrants, gun rights and the LGBT community. This disquiet played well in the hands of the populist Donald Trump.

Facebook’s mistake was that it didn’t do enough to prevent such abuses. Zuckerberg said so on CNN: “This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data.”

Facebook performs a valuable service. It connects me to friends and family and a larger community of Kamloopsians. I have found friends from decades ago through Facebook. I can correspond in Spanish with Mexican friends with the help of Google translate.

Grassroots action groups are made on Facebook. I learn of musicians and artists coming to town through Facebook. The city posts notices on Facebook. Small businesses can advertise by just starting a Facebook page. I can send complaints to big businesses by just posting on their page.

Russian ads are not unique. All Canadian political parties pay for ads on Facebook that target specific groups, and all have detailed information on voters.

It’s not just Facebook. Every time I use a “points” card at a store, information is collected. Any time I use Google services –the browser, Gmail, or YouTube- my behaviour is tracked for the sake of advertisers.

Such a wealth of intimate data can be used for good or evil. It could be used to determine the democratic will of citizens. It could be sold to the highest bidder. Facebook needs to be regulated.

Zuckerberg himself admits it; although his reservations are revealed in his double negative: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he said. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?”

When Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message,” he meant that nature of media affects society more than its content. Just as the printing press changed our perception of the world, so has social media.

The content of Facebook is staggering; more than just kittens and social agitation. It embraces our global digital collective consciousness. Embedded in the algorithms are the wishes and desires of one-third of the world’s population.

But more than the content, Facebook represents a new media which is altering our perceptions in ways yet to be discovered. Resistance to social media is simply an indication of how disruptive and new the technology is.

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Books are vehicles of insight

If it seems odd that I would defend print media by using this digital media that you read on a screen, let me explain.

Conceptual Books

We might be reading less print media but we are not reading fewer words says Dr. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We are reading more than 100,000 words a day,” she told CBC’s Spark, “but it is fragmented; not the immersive, sustained, deep reading of our past”

According to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” and internet media are designed to be distracting through the interjection of various animations, popups and social media that create a “cognitive storm,” says Dr. Wolf. Kindle and other book readers are a bit better but not as good as the immersive media of a book.

Media on the internet involve an evolutionary mechanism of “what’s next.” It’s a state of mind that’s useful in scanning our environment for potential dangers and opportunities. In evolutionary terms, it’s useful to know when food becomes available or when a poisonous snake is on the path. But multitasking is not a good mental state for quiet contemplation.

Reading is not something we have evolved to do. We are not born to read, Dr. Wolf told TVO on YouTube. A child will naturally develop other skills like vision and speech but reading is an acquired skill in which mental circuits have to be reassigned from vision and language in order to read. It’s a window that opens to take us beyond what we were originally programmed to do.

Because reading is not innate, it requires effort to develop. Even then, there are complications. As the mother of a dyslexic child, Dr. Wolf is acutely aware that reading development of cannot be taken for granted. Parents have to expose children to books at an early age. By ages five to seven, mental circuits have been sufficiently integrated to develop an automatic system that accesses the deep reading process.

Slow, deep reading requires focus.

“The book is an amazing vehicle for the elicitation of our critical intellectual processes and our own, if you will, vehicle of insight,” Dr. Wolf says. “It’s an amazing invention because the book as we know it is something that we can turn to, and be completely by ourselves, and with nothing else be transported literally, emotionally, socially, intellectually, into the perspective of another.”

Writing is the opposite. In preparing this column I listened to a radio program, watched a video, and read online references. That these words on your screen have any meaning at all is a testimony to the power of the written word. If all goes well, the ideas will unfold as you read.

While these ideas may be thought-provoking, I have no illusions that this column requires deep concentration. The value of short articles such as this is to introduce ideas that can be explored at depth in books (which I don’t read enough of). From my own experience of reading online, I suspect that you are already looking for “what’s next.”