Zadie Smith and Jaron Lanier On Tech

I finished the latest Zadie Smith book “Feel Free” that I was hyperventilating about the other week. Expectations were high, but I thoroughly enjoyed the essays, some of which I had already read before, but which always withstand another read (such as my favourite on Brexit). I’ve been aware that Smith is wary of social media and so the essay “Generation Why?” did not surprise – it was picked up as one of the teasers for the book anyway.

I wrote about people oversharing stuff on Facebook a few months ago in an attempt to highlight the gender bias that the social media algorithms have. Since Facebook changed some of their algorithms again some weeks ago, the topic of personal data has interestingly popped up in many media. Why is everybody picking on Facebook?

They say that whoever has access to the most data, has won all the future wars already. What started as a prehistoric dating app for college kids has become world’s biggest (personal)data-hub for advertisers. I am reading at least one warning a day about “cool quizzes” (What would you look like as a movie star? What’s your spiritual animal? How bitchy are you? Which Frozen-character are you?) that people should not take but actually do, and while they click away, they also give the companies running these idiotic quizzes access to their FB-friends’ email addresses. Now, by show of hands, how many of you would share your friends’ contact details with a random stranger you meet on the street?

I know I sound like a middle-aged loser who doesn’t get that no-one in this world cares about their email addresses anymore, because we’ve already handed out our credit card details along with absolutely everything else remotely useful to the wizards of the interwebs (hoping for the best). Also Facebook is such old news that no one under 40 actually even uses it anymore (yet we’re all still there, taking infantile quizzes and sharing holiday snaps), also, if you scroll down this page you will see that the comment section of this blog is plugged into Facebook. So what is my problem?

Consider this for a second: How much information about yourself are you willing to give Facebook compared to what you would give your government? If Facebook were to fail – and if we consider it a company rather than a utility, this must be an option –  companies would lose connections with their customers. People around the world would risk losing old friends, contacts and possibly medical records. When gigantic remote companies own peoples’ digital identities, they become “too big to fail”. That would degrade both markets and governments. Who should have the exclusive right to your data or identity? Should anyone have the exclusive right?

And speaking of identity, “everything about Facebook is reduced to the size of its founder… We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?” writes Smith.

Lanier continues in the same vein “thinking about people in the terms of components on a network is – in intellectual and spiritual terms – a slow suicide for the researchers, and slow homicide against everyone else. If the world is to be engineered as a place where people are not particularly distinguished from other components, then people will fade”. 

And finally, in the world of misinformation and fake news, while we say that we are using the social media services, what actually happens is that the systems are using us. Do we know what is happening? What is the process of information exchanging owners on social media and it eventually becoming the truth?

I am not a techie geek and my technological understanding is quite limited. I still consider these issues worthy of anyone’s time – artificial intelligence, algorithms and (personal) data protection are topics that are not going anywhere, quite the contrary. I warmly recommend Smith’s essay “Generation Why?” (obviously you should read the whole book) as well as digital guru & virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s two books “You Are Not a Gadget” and “Who Owns the Future?“. 

It’s certainly not necessary to become anti-anything, especially the social media, but it is interesting to have a think every now and then of exactly which direction we are going to with artificial intelligence development. Both Smith and Lanier are very good starting points for critical thinking. For a more feminist view on technology, I urge you to read Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s “Technically Wrong”.

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