September 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

[Visualisation of the world’s Facebook relationships. Click image for large version.]

This article is taken from the Winter 2011 issue of I, Science.

Douglas Heaven reviews Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget (Penguin, 2010) and the BBC’s documentary Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook (December 2011).

In You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier – computer scientist, virtual-reality pioneer, and ‘scholar-at-large’ for Microsoft Research – describes the rapid rise in computing power and the exponential growth of the internet since his early programming days in the 1970s: “It’s as if you kneel to plant a seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole village before you can even rise to your feet”. Lanier is a technological visionary who witnessed the web explode from being the bespoke tool of a niche community, into the multi-purpose platform on which everybody does everything. But he believes that “the internet has gone sour”.

“The early waves of web activity were remarkably energetic and had a personal quality. People created personal ‘homepages’, and each of them was different, and often strange. The web had flavour”. Part of the problem is the massive commercialisation the web has seen: “Commercial interests promoted the widespread adoption of standardized designs like the blog, and these designs encouraged pseudonymity … instead of the proud extroversion that characterized the first wave of web culture”.

Despite how that sounds, it is not a matter of nostalgia but of choice. Lanier’s point is that there was an arbitrariness to the web’s inception – Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, was just one man working at CERN, looking for an easy way to share research materials across the internet. Currently, despite the impression that Web 2.0 is largely controlled and created by us, its users, the vast majority of its content is channelled through homogenizers like WordPress, Facebook, or Google.

Lanier wants us to be aware of lock-in. Arbitrary design decisions can stick around – most especially in complex and interdependent software systems, where layers are built on top of layers and choices once made with little thought to the future become fossilised. This is a problem for the software industry in general, but on the web it underpins a new online society. Facebook alone has 800 million users (20 million of them in the UK) and at its peak recorded half a billion online at once – that’s more than the population of the US and EU combined.

Recently, Lanier appeared in BBC2′s Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook, where he talks of the “flattening” effect of social network interfaces, where “everybody’s just filling out a form”. The choices made by Facebook’s designers – ‘relationship status’, ‘philosophy’, ‘music’, ‘books’, ‘movies’, etc – became the way we express an identity: “If you want to know me, know my forms!”

Lanier’s book is a manifesto for engineering, a salutary reminder not to miss out on a technology’s full potential – even its full meaning – because of a limiting design. “It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed”, he writes. “Therefore, crucial arguments about the human relationship with technology should take place between developers and users before such direct manipulations are designed”.

Is it too idealistic to assume this kind of dialogue could take place? At times it looks as if Facebook listens. Outcries over its tinkering with privacy settings, rights to uploaded photos after users had removed them, and innovations like Beacon, which alerted your Friends to what you’d been buying online were all met with appeasing U-turns.

Of course, Facebook needs our trust to survive. We cannot forget this is a company with an estimated value of $100 billion, despite Zuckerberg’s way with faux-naive pronouncements: “If you go back, most people had no voice, no podium where they could share things. Now everybody does”, he says in an interview in the documentary. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO – a Google executive brought over to show Facebook how to make the most of its advertising opportunities – pushes a similarly utopian line: “When you put technology behind the power of who we are as people, the world changes. That is the power of what we do”.

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s VP of Public Policy, pauses for a full 15 seconds – an age in TV time – during a quibble over the difference between capital-L Liking a brand and implicitly agreeing to advertise it, as in the Sponsored Story sidebar where the click of a button can make you the new face of Coca-Cola. “You’re asking a profound question”, he finally manages. “What’s advertising? On the Facebook system when I click a Like button I’m affirmatively communicating that I’m associating myself with whatever I’m Liking”.

Of course, Facebook is paid each time somebody clicks that button. Our online identity and behaviour are what it sells. “It’s not that people don’t care about privacy”, Zuckerberg says. “But people are seeing every day [that sharing is] awesome and that’s why the world is moving in that direction”. Is ‘awesome’ enough?

Image: Mashable