What does it profit someone to gain marginal technological conveniences, but forfeit their soul? The answer may depend on whether or not the costs of such conveniences are, conveniently, passed on to others instead.
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Surveillance, policing online spaces, and the power of platforms to shape users are just some of the unseen costs of the current online world. Although Facebook and other tech companies encourage us to think of the internet as a digital public square, actually what most offer are private squares open to the public – in the case of Facebook, nearly 2.5 billion active users.
If such companies want to play at being a public good, they have a responsibility to put people above profit. They do not.
Although some of us are starting to feel the need to reflect on the costs and benefits of Facebook, as Christians we may feel this even more strongly. Just as the gospel demands we bring a distinctly gospel-formed witness to our participation in all spheres of life, it demands we bring that witness online.
Is it possible to like, comment and post to the glory of God on Facebook? It’s complicated.
SELLING DATA ABOUT US
The first unseen cost of Facebook is a direct result of its business model – surveillance. By now many of us have heard how social media users are not customers, but instead are the product sold to advertisers. This, of course, is how Facebook can offer free services.
Many of us shrug our shoulders about advertisements given how common they are and easy access to ad blockers, but the new economics of surveillance goes beyond pop-up ads. Harvard business professor Shoshana Zuboff defines the new economic imperative as "the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data." This means users function less as a product and more as a resource. Our raw material then becomes "prediction products" sold to those with "a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon and later."
Facebook’s surveillance-based business model, along with its start-up ethos of "move fast and break things," prioritizes profit over all else and consistently contradicts its public mission to meaningfully "bring the world closer together." The result is a platform that offers useful services as a trojan horse for pervasive online surveillance – a deal whose true costs have yet to be accounted for.
But very few people are willing to cut ties with the site. People have forgotten how to live without it, not least because half the online alternatives are owned by the tech giant.
HOW WORKERS ARE TREATED
The second unseen cost is that of drawing users to, and keeping them on, Facebook where they are most valuable. The plight of the contractors who keep the depths of human evil off our newsfeeds was recently exposed, and has broadened our understanding of what we’re dealing with and hopefully also the scope of our reflection.
Now asking, "Is Facebook good for me?" isn’t enough. We have to ask, "Is Facebook doing more good than evil?" There is a real human cost to keeping that clean blue and white page scrolling along, and it is steep.
Among the shocking statements of former content moderators was this:
There was nothing that they were doing for us other than expecting us to be able to identify when we’re broken. Most of the people there that are deteriorating – they don’t even see it. And that’s what kills me.
This is a peek behind the curtain at the machinery that runs a growing share of online life, and it’s bleak. It’s worth reading a couple of longer articles about this, not despite its darkness, but because of it (just search online for "Facebook moderators").
The algorithmic ease of platforms like Facebook is oversold and the lopsided deal – for users as well as mistreated contractors – shouldn’t be ignored.
COMPULSIVELY CHECKING STATUS
Next to the suffering of Facebook’s underclass of contractors, those of us who struggle with compulsive checking for notifications may seem to have a minor problem. But keeping users on the platform, and coming back, is the foundation of the whole enterprise. Facebook functions by harnessing users’ attention. All the platform’s "features" exist to keep users on the platform, liking, commenting, posting.
The quantification of online interactions with Likes more than a decade ago was a stroke of business genius. It harnesses people’s need for social affirmation and, along with notifications, creates a feedback loop meant to draw users back to the platform, producing more and more data for Facebook’s business.
Facebook’s size, and its control over former rivals Instagram and WhatsApp, means it dictates the direction of the social media space by sheer force of gravity.
Quantification inevitably leads to commodification, it seems. And the quantification works both ways. I run a small Facebook page to promote my work and start discussions, and Facebook restlessly sells me the opportunity to "boost" and "extend the reach" of my posts. Facebook offers me a larger audience and potential interactions for a price.
Because this method is now a proven way to make money, people are already creating Facebook-style knockoff social apps. It won’t be long before most of the world’s biggest celebrities each offer their own private social app offering their fans and followers the privilege of paying for intimacy with them. Instead of selling products, on vanity apps created by companies like Escapex, people sell themselves. This is the logical end of commodifying community.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So what are Christians to do in the face of a seemingly unstoppable force? Personal moral choices are essential, but to forgo slaves in an age of slavery is not equivalent to campaigning against slavery, despite the costs of making such a decision. The challenges of holding a distinctly Christian position on Big Tech go beyond digital sabbaths and other personal actions.
The costs of uncritically embracing Facebook and other social networks are mounting. Something has to change, but what?
Withdrawal jumps to mind – that’s my first instinct. Nobody needs Facebook, but I’m not quite willing to close my account, and I’m not the only one. Two years of scandal haven’t dented Facebook’s activity numbers much.
It wouldn’t be wrong to #DeleteFacebook and move on, yet a gospel-formed approach calls for more than retreat.
RETREAT AND THE LONG DEFEAT
How then ought Christians to approach the toxic practices of a platform like Facebook? I don’t think it’s enough to behave kindly in online discussions because the problem is bigger than individual responsibility.
The digital commons are sown with salt and the health of everything that grows there is affected. Sin can’t be ignored as the root cause of our problems on- or offline – it is the problem. However, a desire to wisely avoid sin isn’t an excuse to ignore the need to bear a coherent Christian witness to these unjust arrangements.
I’m a member of a handful of useful Facebook groups, including one that hosted a lengthy discussion on these questions in the days after the Facebook moderator exposé. One commenter in particular offered valuable insight.
FOR FURTHER READING: DISRUPTIVE WITNESS BY ALAN NOBLE (IVP, 2018), A BOOK ABOUT HOW THE ATTENTION ECONOMY AND DISTRACTION IS FORCING CHRISTIANS TO CHANGE HOW THEY PRACTISE AND SHARE THEIR FAITH. HE OFFERS PRACTICES AT THE INDIVIDUAL AND CHURCH LEVELS TO CULTIVATE A DISRUPTIVE WITNESS WITHOUT ADVOCATING FOR TOTAL RETREAT FROM FACEBOOK AND THE LIKE.
"We face what feel like insurmountably great challenges today because of technology and what is made possible by technology," she said. "But Christians are called and placed to engage, minister and care for the public square – whether in person or online."
She went on to warn against abdicating our important but often competing roles of speaking out against evil, caring for the mistreated (like those Facebook moderators) and protecting our own families and communities.
She likened this struggle to how the elves in The Lord of the Rings talk about fighting a "long defeat." The battle can’t be won because of the ever-evolving nature of technology and the ever-slippery hearts of fallen people, but we’re still called to do something.
Starting from the gospel, the Christian’s task in this age of toxic tech is, in her words, to "find practical ways to steward technology well with the time, resources and the knowledge that we have."
Some may be called to abandon Facebook outright, especially if they find themselves caught in unhealthy cycles of engagement, such as compulsive behaviour, the troubling tendency of users to dehumanize in disagreement, or even anxiety caused by notifications and an endless newsfeed.
Others will be called to stay and model digital charity and long-suffering. But we will all be tasked with calling for better practices and fewer risks, even if everyone should be logging off a little more.
MAYBE #DELETEFACEBOOK, BUT #RECONSIDERFACEBOOK FIRST
One appeal of a mass exodus from social media giants is its simplicity. It is a clear solution, even if it comes with its own difficulties. Unfortunately, I don’t have a long list of obvious solutions to the question of how Christians ought to approach the toxic practices of Big Tech. What I do have are some thoughts on what should animate any such approach.
First, no technology is neutral. Online platforms aren’t lumps of clay to be shaped by our best intentions. They are created things and are already shaped by decidedly mixed intentions. We don’t yet know the consequences of quantifying human interaction with likes and invisible rules, or surveillance economics. But it is clear that someone somewhere saw how these practices favoured a balance sheet and stopped asking questions. Someone needs to start asking the right ones.
Who is on the hook for these questions, though? Politicians, users, Mark Zuckerberg? L.M. Sacasas, a tech critic and scholar, writes that we’re "stuck in an unhelpful tendency." We imagine that "Our only options with regard to how we govern technology are, on the one hand, individual choices and, on the other, regulation by the state."
What’s necessary, Sacasas suggests, are mediating moral communities willing to do the work of asking difficult questions. Groups willing to ask, "Is this good?" and then follow through on their convictions, and hopefully demonstrate viable alternatives. Churches, unsurprisingly, have some experience here. But this is where things get bogged down in the extremes of individual choice and government regulation.
Sacasas effectively summarizes:
Our problem is basically this – technologies that operate at the macrolevel cannot be effectively governed by microlevel mechanisms, which basically amount to individual choices. At the macrolevel, however, governance is limited by the degree to which we can arrive at public consensus, and the available tools of governance at the macrolevel cannot address all of the ways technologies impact individuals. What is required is a cocktail of strategies that address the consequences of technology as they manifest themselves across the spectrum of scale.
The problem, of course, … is that the further up the scale we move, the more unlikely we are to find a relevant moral community with either the prerequisite coherence or authority to effectively grapple with the problems we face. We lack those communities, in part, because of the moral and political consequences of existing technology, so it would seem that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of sorts.
This is a reminder of why it’s tempting to advocate for retreat. That very well could be a wise choice, but I’m not convinced it’s the answer Christians are called to. Framing the struggle as a "long defeat" is helpful because it places good means above self-serving ends.
My friend captured why it’s imperative for believers to push back against tech platforms that amplify human sin:
The complications of the public square of the internet are vast, and made more complicated by the technology with which we must grapple, but at the heart of it all are the same people who are our neighbours.
People, our neighbours, are on the other end of profile pictures and Twitter handles, and are paying the hidden costs of living under Big Tech. Because this new technological order is becoming impossible for some people to opt out of, believers ought not retreat without serious reflection.
Wherever that reflections leads, the Church should help believers take up the work of the garden – naming the weeds, yes, but also cultivating and caring for the sake of our communities and the world.
Habits of attention
ADVICE ON HEALTHIER USE OF SMARTPHONES AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Notifications from people only
Fine-tune notification settings on your mobile devices to turn off notifications for nearly all the apps. Only receiving pings and buzzes from calls, texts and messaging apps will cut down on notification anxiety. People-only notifications are also a good reminder of what our phones are best used for: communication, not consumption.
Give up social media apps
Don’t worry, you can keep your accounts, but ban them from your phone. It’s particularly helpful to limit your use to a particular (fixed) device, like a laptop or desktop computer. If you’re having trouble giving it all up on mobile, download something like Feedless for iOS. It’ll block your Facebook newsfeed in your mobile browser, which means you can focus on communicating with friends. Feedless offers similar options (paid) for Twitter and Instagram.
Schedule DND time
Even with tightly controlled notification settings, sometimes total silence is required. Scheduling the Do Not Disturb setting on your phone for periods in the morning, midday and evening sets healthy boundaries. If a phone doesn’t buzz before 8 a.m., must it be picked up? You decide. Scheduled DND periods are also a great way to set aside time for prayer and meditation.
Need more ideas to curb bad habits of distraction? The Center for Humane Technology has a helpful resource page – and a mission to demand better design from technology companies (www.HumaneTech.com/Resources/Take-Control). – MC
Matthew Civico is a freelance writer in Montreal and blogs at www.MattCivico.com.