Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Zuckerberg

Ugly Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 12, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-two-ugly

Augmented and Virtual Reality

In his “Ugly” memo circulated on June 18, 2016, Andrew Bosworth (Boz), Facebook’s vice-president for augmented reality and virtual reality, argued that connecting people was a paramount goal for Facebook, and justified many of the company’s practices.

“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still, we connect people.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg makes a big thing about Facebook’s mission to connect. One might think of EM Forster’s injunction “Only connect”. This is the epigraph to Forster’s novel Howards End. His character Margaret Schlegel says: “The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them… It’s one of the curses of London.” In his short story “The Machine Stops”, written in the early years of the 20th Century, Forster anticipated the modern evolution of technology.  Forster is not actually talking about Facebook kind of social connection, but about something more elusive and private—the difficulty of connecting our ordinary, conventional personalities with our transgressive erotic desires. Boz was talking about a different kind of connection.

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in their recent book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination: “Boz had already defended his post on Facebook’s Workplace, arguing that he didn’t actually agree with aspects of his own memo and had written it to inspire debate. But employees wanted more. They wanted to know if he had actually considered the lives lost in countries where Facebook had grown at an astronomical pace. They asked if Facebook users from those countries had responded to his post directly, and if he felt bad about what he had written. Boz looked remorseful, but he repeated that he was simply making an intellectual argument and had intended the memo to spur debate.”

International Harm

Facebook has claimed credit for fostering struggles by citizens of citizens of oppressive regimes who have used social media sites for organising protests and creating networks. During the early days of the Arab Spring, many activists used Facebook to organise protests. To this day, numerous media outlets run the claim that “social media made the Arab Spring” and that it was a “Facebook revolution”. However, many academics concluded that there is no significant correlation between internet or social media use and popular unrest. Indeed, despite posing as a force for progress, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started.

There has been much criticism of Facebook being an enabler for the spreading of hatred. Only a year ago the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change, were disappointed with their meetings with Facebook. The group denounced Zuckerberg’s “same old defense of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, islamaphobic, and other hateful groups” that it has “heard too many times before.”

Frenkel and Kang write: “As Facebook employees surveyed what appeared to be a global rise in hate speech, they found the name of their company surfacing repeatedly as a source of conspiracies, false news accounts, and organized campaigns of hate speech against minorities. Trump’s Muslim ban announcement was used by far-right leaders across the world to take more extreme positions on Muslim immigrants and refugees. In Myanmar, several of the country’s military figures pointed to Trump’s Facebook posting through their own Facebook pages and argued that if the US could ban Muslims, Myanmar should do the same. And indeed, human rights activists increasingly linked the platform to attacks against Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority and to the brutal crackdown on civilians by the recently elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte”

In Sri Lanka government ministers complained in 2018 that Facebook was too slow in dealing with incitement of violence against Muslims. The extremist leader Amith Weerasinghe, who was arrested after being accused of helping to instigate the violence, had amassed nearly 150,000 followers on his Facebook page before it was taken down. The chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said Facebook played a “determining role” in the Rohingya genocide. Facebook has been criticized for enabling Islamophobic content targeting the Rohingya people to spread. In February 2021, a Press Gazette investigation found that Facebook had accepted promotional content from Chinese state media outlets such as China Daily and China Global Television Network that spread disinformation denying the Uyghur genocide.

Harm to Individuals

There have been many studies which indicate that for some users giving up social networking sites is comparable to giving up tobacco or alcohol. There was the “World Unplugged” study conducted in 2011, a 2012 study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a 2013 study in in the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. In April 2015, the Pew Research Center published a survey of teenagers which showed 92 percent went online daily with 24 percent saying they went online “almost constantly.” In March 2016, Frontiers in Psychology published a survey showing that the severity of ADHD symptoms had a statistically significant positive correlation with Facebook usage while driving a motor vehicle. In June 2018, Children and Youth Services Review published a regression analysis in Northern Italy which showed adolescents who persistently using Facebook showed ADHD symptoms and negative attitudes about the past and the future. The researchers proposed a category of psychological dependence and gave it the name “problematic social media use.”

Ethan Zuckerman is an American media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist, author of the book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.  

He is now an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts. Zuckerman has led efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces. “For better or worse, Facebook is an incredibly important platform for civil life, but the company is not optimized for civil life,”

Frenkel and Kang write: “We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

That includes me. I am not getting on a high horse here and looking down on lesser mortals who are worse at coping with Facebook than I am. I have always hated cigarettes but many years ago I did sometimes smoke even though I knew it was futile, dangerous and gave little pleasure.  Now that I have achieved senility, I find that I do not have much taste for alcohol and not much capacity. That does not prevent me from irrational behaviour and consuming the poison when it seems pointless. I have tried to wean myself away from Facebook but I still get distracted. I have cut down my dose but I still allow myself to be diverted from more important or satisfying pursuits and feel unhappy afterwards.  Facebook was down for about 30 minutes one Friday morning in 2014 and Los Angeles officials said their lines were overwhelmed with emergency calls. This cannot be right.

Ugly Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 30 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/ugly-truth

This is a review of a book by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang called An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. The book gets its title from a memo written in 2016 by Andrew Bosworth (Boz), a vice-president who had been at Facebook since the early days. The memo, entitled “The Ugly”, was leaked to BuzzFeed after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”  The memo was circulated the day after the death of a Chicago man was shown live on Facebook.

Inside Dirt

The authors claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. There have been many books about Facebook, and I have read quite a few of them. Do we need another one? This one is better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre and I found it a gripping read which made me think deeply about the bizarre world that Facebook (along with Google, Apple and Amazon) have placed us in and what they have done to our heads.

The villains of the drama are Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer. In late 2007, Zuckerberg met Sandberg at a Christmas party.  A marriage made in hell. Sandberg was then working at Google where she was responsible for online sales of Google’s advertising and publishing products. During her time at Google, she grew the ad and sales team from four people to 4,000. In March 2008, Facebook announced the hiring of Sandberg as COO. Frenkel and Kang believe, “they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today. Through their partnership, they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth—with $85.9 billion in revenue in 2020 and a market value of $800 billion—and entirely deliberate in its design.” 

Mendacious from the Start

Zuckerberg launched the Facebook social networking service from his Harvard dormitory room on February 4, 2004. It was originally targeted on colleges but expanded rapidly beyond that, reaching one billion users by 2012. Even in the Harvard days, there were complaints that Zuckerberg was behaving unethically and producing something different from what he claimed. Even at the very beginning the site was ostensibly about connecting people but its main purpose was data-mining.

Extraction Industry

On November 6, 2007, Zuckerberg announced Beacon, a social advertising system that enabled people to share information with their Facebook friends based on their browsing activities on other sites. The program came under scrutiny because of privacy concerns from groups and individual users. To quote Frenkel and Kang: “Zuckerberg had not asked permission from Facebook account holders to use them as sales agents; Beacon enrolled them automatically. Facebook was widening its data net, exploiting insights about its users in ways that crossed ethical lines.”

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy. Chester was quoted in the New York Times describing behavioral advertising as a “digital data vacuum cleaner on steroids.” Everyone knew to be wary of the government’s reach, but in Chester’s estimation the danger wasn’t what the public or law enforcement knew about you. It was what commercial enterprises and advertisers did. It was what Facebook knew. He claimed that Facebook’s business model hijacked attention for commercial purposes, “inducing people to give up their autonomy.”

Open Graph was a program that allowed outside app developers to gain access to Facebook users’ information. In return, Facebook got users to extend their sessions on the site. In the first week after Zuckerberg announced the creation of Open Graph at the F8 developers’ conference in San Francisco,50,000 websites had installed Open Graph plug-ins. Facebook offered the apps access to users’ names, email addresses, cities of residence, birth dates, relationship details, political affiliations, and employment history.

Disconnection, Discord and Deceit

Profit seems to entail secrecy and unethical practices, suppression and punishment of whistleblowers. In 2012, operations manager Sandy Parakilas, alerted senior executives to the dangers of Open Graph which left users exposed to data brokers and foreign state actors. Parakilas later noted in a Washington Post op-ed that in his sixteen months working at Facebook, he never saw “a single audit of a developer where the company inspected the developer’s data storage.” He believed the explanation for lax enforcement was simple: “Facebook didn’t want to make the public aware of huge weaknesses in its data security.” The executives scoffed. “Do you really want to see what you’ll find?”

Shoot the Messenger

It is ironic that the Frenkel and Kang’s book shows us that the reality of a company whose stated mission is to create a connected world of open expression, is a corporate culture which demands secrecy and unquestioning loyalty. There was a corporate atmosphere which made people unwilling to bring the leaders bad news.

For an organisation that is predicated on communication FB has a tin ear for how it is itself perceived. Zuckerberg seems to be on an autism spectrum.  Sandberg does not know how to conduct herself appropriately. When she appeared before important committees, she tucked her feet underneath her and chatted casually as if she were having a chat with friends. For all the talk of her vaunted political instincts, time and again, she misread situations and revealed herself to be curiously oblivious and overconfident.

Alex Stamos

Alex Stamos had a reputation for blunt speech and high standards. When he left Yahoo to join Facebook as Chief Security Officer in 2015, it was seen as a sign that there was something deeply wrong at that company. His move indicated that he saw something at Facebook worth working for.  However, it did not turn out well for Stamos. The book gives us a fly-on-the-wall access to a shouting match at a Facebook board meeting over Russian election interference. There was resistance to a proper investigation. Stamos and his team had filed report after report about Russian activity on Facebook, but no-one responded. Stamos got no kudos for his findings. When the issue hit the fan, he was blamed.

Conclusion

“None of the revelations so far of Facebook’s foibles have harmed the company financially; in June, it became the fastest-ever company to reach $1 trillion in market value, validating Zuckerberg’s grow-at-all-costs strategy. We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff wrote, Facebook’s success “depends upon one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity.”

One gets the feeling that we have lived with and for Facebook forever and it is part of our natural world immoveable and indestructible. I remember my history teacher, Mike England, commenting in 1963, that the Russian socialist project had withstood so many vicissitudes over 46 years that it would probably endure forever. By 1991, it had gone. Facebook has been with us for only 17 years and it seems unlikely that it will endure forever. However, even if regulators, or Zuckerberg himself, decided to one day end the Facebook experiment, the technology and the warped thinking and behaviour they have unleashed upon us is here to stay.

More next week about how Facebook has warped us.

Cursed Work

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 15, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/cursed-work

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

I have just finished reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. Graeber makes a distinction between “bullshit” jobs and “shit” jobs. I have done both in my time but in my old age have the privilege of not having to work at all.

Adelphi

Graeber defines a bullshit job as “jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, to really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, or the sort of people (very familiar in academic contexts) who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.”

My most depressing job was in the luxurious environment of The Adelphi (an elegant art deco building just off The Strand in which much of David Suchet’s Poirot was filmed). I had a funny and congenial boss, friendly , witty colleagues and a glamorous St Lucian lady who took an interest in me and draped herself across my desk in fishnet stockings. In spite of all that I used to arrive at Charing Cross station every morning wondering if I should throw myself in front of a train. What was wrong with me?!

I regret that I do not have a photograph of the opulent lady in her fishnet stockings, but here is a picture of the opulent Adelphi instead.

 

David Graeber writes: “Once, while serving time in exile at a Siberian prison camp, Dostoyevsky developed the theory that the worst torture one could possibly devise would be to force someone to endlessly perform an obviously pointless task.”

The main problem at The Adelphi was that I knew, and all my colleagues knew, that overseeing staff training policy for Department of Social Security HQ was not a proper job for a grown man still possessed of most of his faculties . I was neither use nor ornament. There was nothing to do except draw up futile “memoranda of understanding” in which no-one was interested.  And to ogle Margaret in her fishnet stockings. The need for such MOUs had been created by the pointless fragmentation of public services through privatisation and outsourcing that was part of the voodoo philosophy of neoliberalism. I had been recommended for promotion a number of times and was usually able to make a good case to the interview board for the usefulness of the work I was doing at that particular time. I could not do that as overseer of DSS HQ training policy. That interview was a humiliating experience and a step on the way to the early retirement that liberated me.

Graeber writes: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Gloucester Royal Infirmary

One of the many shit jobs I did was hospital porter at Gloucester Royal Infirmary in 1969. The building had once been a brewery. It was built in 1755 from a design by Luke Singleton and was financed by gifts and legacies. The timbers were donated by King George II and came from the Forest of Dean. It was demolished in 1984. My duties including cleaning lavatories, scraping out the incinerator in which amputated limbs had been burnt, carrying patients up and down stairs when the lifts were being replaced, assisting at operations and postmortems, taking corpses to the morgue in the middle of the night by myself. On the whole, I enjoyed the job. I got invited to parties by doctors and nurses and was given a lot of leftover food before the pigswill man came to take it away. The main satisfaction was that it was a necessary job, and I could feel the direct satisfaction of the patients for my efforts. The hospital manager persuaded me to apply for an administrative job and was angry with me when I fluffed the interview. I sensed even then that he was trying to steer me into a bullshit job.

Stakhanovite

I lived and worked through that awful time in the 80s and 90s when you had to be a Stakhanovite and work all hours to the detriment of family and personal life.  One particular job I had involved travelling all over England staying in seedy hotels and missing meals, working long hours with little social contact. The awful nature of that life was eptomised by one incident. I was at home working on a report in the small hours of the morning. My bosses had given me a tight deadline which I was determined to meet. The phone rang. It was a nurse at Gloucester Royal Infirmary calling to tell me that my mother had died. I put the phone down and finished writing my report. When dawn broke, I set off for the station to go to Gloucester to make funeral arrangements. I stopped off at the office and placed the report on a boss’s desk. When I returned to the office about a week later after my mother’s funeral I was angered to discover that no-one had looked at my report.

My  first marriage broke up while I was doing that job. I cannot blame the job but it did not help. My boss at that time was a strange character who seemed to really like me on  a certain level. We were both working class lads from an Irish Catholic background who shared the same taste in music and politics. We often got on well socially but that did not stop him bullying me relentlessly and brutally when it suited him. He was very supportive when my wife left me. “Mikey Boy, it’s a good job your mother died, because this would have killed her.”

 

There was one good aspect to that job. We did not have mobile phones or iPads. We were not under constant surveillance. I recall downtimes when I could escape and wander around an art gallery and nobody knew where I was or what I was doing. Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming argue that work today exploits workers not only during their time in the workplace, but also but in their very lives: “our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness of the office, but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us.”

Passionate Overworkers

Miya Tokumitsu writes in Jacobin: “The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.” Journalist Sara Robinson traces this culture back first to the cold war defense industry and then to the tech industries in late twentieth-century California. By the 1980s, “passionate” overworkers like Steve Jobs became icons to the culture at large. We all had to try to be passionate overworkers but did not get the financial rewards of a Gates, Jobs, Bezos  or Zuckerberg.

We all know people who are tiresome in their constant boasting about how busy they are. As Tokumitsu puts it, “Passion is all too often a cover for overwork cloaked in the rhetoric of self-fulfillment.” Kierkegaard was only thirty when he wrote this: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”

Less Pay for Useful Work

Health workers (other than doctors) seem to be thought of as people who should accept low pay because they get moral satisfaction from doing useful work. As Graeber writes: “There is a sense, it would seem, that an ethos of collective sacrifice for the common good should fall disproportionately on those who are already, by their choice of work, engaged in sacrifice for the common good. Or who simply have the gratification of knowing their work is productive and useful.” Lying politicians encourage the public to applaud NHS workers and then saddle them with what is effectively a pay cut.

Keynes

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that advances in technology and automation would lead to a situation where people would have more leisure time and work a fifteen-hour week. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher destroyed manufacturing industry so that she could emasculate  the trade unions. The UK does not actually make much anymore; that task is left to China, Japan and South Korea. Productive jobs have, as Keynes predicted, been automated or outsourced. However, technology has been exploited to make everybody work harder.

Shirking

There is an old saying, “work is the curse of the drinking classes”. Graeber notes that the art of skiving has a long tradition in England “but proper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk. In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing”. The kind of people who complain about welfare benefit cheats generally assume that most people would be happy to be parasites and, like me, be paid to do nothing. I am certainly very comfortable with getting paid to do nothing but I am old and have served my time. . Graeber concedes that many are not cut out for a nine-to-five routine but, “Human beings certainly tend to rankle over what they consider excessive or degrading work; few may be inclined to work at the pace or intensity that ‘scientific managers’ have, since the 1920s, decided they should; people also have a particular aversion to being humiliated. But leave them to their own devices, and they almost invariably rankle even more at the prospect of having nothing useful to do.”

Precariat

I do feel somewhat guilty about my own current privileged position. It easy for me to revel in the fact that I do not need to work to earn a living. There are many today who are desperate to work and cannot do so because of the pandemic. I do my humble best to help out where I can. Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Automation has not made life pleasant for workers in Amazon’s warehouses. Workers are scheduled by algorithm, their tasks timed automatically, and their performance supervised digitally. Going to the toilet is seen as theft of company time. Workers are expected to produce more without expecting their productivity to be reflected in their pay or to expect any job security. The precariat has to endure the humiliation of demeaning work that does not enable them to secure a decent home or the welfare of their children, while the “risktakers” pile up obscene amounts of profit.

The idea of a post-work world has proved to be an elaborate con-trick. Collaborative human-friendly labour is part of what makes people feel they are valued and secure. The current order means fragmentation, passivity and political stagnation. The present order has brought us a distracted, demoralized culture of compliance. The global market, privatisation, the dominance of data-mining behemoths has reduced human workers to automatons staring into their smart phones.

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