What's Tony Thinking

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington


There’s something strange about the Congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg that have been going on this week. I’m not sure quite what it is. Maybe that Zuckerberg in the halls of Congress seems somehow like a visitor from another planet?

True, he’s exchanged his usual T-shirt for a dark suit and even a tie, but he still doesn’t fit. Maybe that’s because he’s young enough to be the grandson of many of those asking him questions.

But to me it comes down to this. The Senators and Representatives who are questioning Zuckerberg appear, and appear to think, they hold the power here — in this case power over Zuckerberg and Facebook. Maybe not? Perhaps he is the one who really holds the power in this match up.

Or is it a face off of new power and old power? Different types of power, rooted in different realities.

And then there’s something weird about all the apologizing, about all the times he has said, “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry.” It’s as if the bad boy has been hauled to principal’s office. If he just says “I’m sorry,” it’s all better. We’ll all feel better, right?

But the issue isn’t really Cambridge Analytica or even Russian trolls, although those are a real concern. The real issue, which may not be named or even addressed in the hearings, is one pointed out by Zeynep Tukekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in technology.

On the NPR Newshour on April 9, Tukekci said, bluntly and starkly, that, “Facebook is a surveillance machine.” Those billions who use it, including me, are essentially under surveillance by this huge corporation. Our data is captured, without our consent (unless you consider signing up for a FB account consent), and then sold to advertisers and other interested parties.

All under the guise of creating relationships, connections, interactions and community. Moreover, Facebook presents itself as a unique and unusually idealistic company. It is all about empowering and connecting people in entirely new ways. Based on a year of reading about new tech/ big data and AI, these claims for a wondrous new Tech-Topia are quite common and characteristic of those who inhabit this world.

Well, there’s some truth to all these claims, but it certainly isn’t the whole story. Was it Jung who urged caution when the face an individual presents to the world is just too bright, too shiny? Look behind the persona. Facebook has another side, a shadow side. It is a surveillance machine.

So the congressional testimony may feature many mea culpas by Mark Zuckerberg, pledges of new awareness and awakened responsibility. He has promised to sift out the trolls and hate groups. Fine, but the real issues are bigger.

If you click on the link with Zeynep Tukekci, she’s toward the end of the broadcast segment. Tuckekci offers sound and serious proposals about what Congress can do beyond hosting a media spectacle. There are ways to rein in Facebook and other “surveillance machines,” operations which we’ve come to accept as part of our lives and landscape with really no protest.

And for a more theological take on Facebook and smart phones, check on Quinn Caldwell’s fine piece today on the UCC Daily Devotional.

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