Society moves forward, but maybe it never moves on. What if we told you that someone created an artificial place where robots and people acted solely for your benefit, and your own actions in this world had very little real-life consequences? In this fantastical place you could be someone else, and be able to indulge in your pleasures and whims at will. Now, what if this land was ruled by a near-mad visionary beset on all sides by societal and corporate pressures? Such a land of virtual make-believe might seem like a paradise to some, and a wild west to others. They even made a movie about it, once… We are -of course- talking about the one and only Facebook.
Yet, much like in the acclaimed HBO show Westworld, we have to wonder if just because we can inhabit an artificial world, should we? And what do we give up in exchange for this virtual land?
The Original Post
Westworld is a show about a wild west theme park filled with sophisticated artificially intelligent ‘hosts’ who play host -hey we just got that- to the wealthy visitors that come to Westworld to take part in the park’s exciting story lines as they pretend to be either a black hat or a white hate… and really they mostly just come to have unprotected sex and unprotected violence with no consequences. Of course, things don’t go as planned and SPOILERS ahead… -Also Black Hats and White Hats are terms for bad and good hackers respectively. We don’t know if that actually fits in with the analogy we are trying to make, but we thought it was a fun correlation-
Westworld was started by the enigmatic Robert Ford and his partner Arnold Weber. Their partnership broke up after an unfortunate situation that ended in Arnold’s death. In contrast, Facebook is a multi-billion dollar social media company founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Their partnership broke up after an unfortunate situation that ended in Zuckerberg’s narcissistic jerkiness. Facebook was launched in 2004 at Harvard, where Zuckerberg was getting his degree in psychology -because that is important to remember- and was started as a way to stalk girls on campus -which is also important to remember- Within 24 hours of launching, 1,200 Harvard students had signed up, and after only a single month over half of the undergrads on campus had a profile.
Facesmash, Zuckerberg’s original website failed, much like the original design for Westworld. On Westworld, Arnold created the Wyatt personality to violently end all the hosts and himself, out of pity for what they could be subjected to. Harvard’s administration similarly killed Facesmash out of pity for what it was subjecting other students to. Facesmash was taken down because it was a website that encouraged people to rate their classmates based upon their attractiveness, take revenge on an ex-girlfriend, and because it violated the privacy of fellow students, a theme that would dominate Zuckerberg’s creations going forward.
The Well-Tempered Comment
Recently, Facebook has made some headlines because of Cambridge Analytica, which -according to its own website- is a “global leader in data-driven campaigning.” This company, originally run by the man in black, Steve Bannon, is a company that offers conservative politicians and commercial businesses access to demographics information and targeted advertising. However, it was uncovered by the Guardian that during the 2016 election Cambridge Analytica extracted the data of 50 million Facebook profiles through the use of a third party app. This includes data taken from unknowing participants who were only friends with the users who had actually downloaded the app. Their CEO also was caught on camera admitting to how they could use dirty tricks, outright lies, and manufactured sex scandals to take down political opponents. The firm worked for both the Trump and the Cruz campaigns during the election, and helped push the “Leave” option during the Brexit vote in the UK.
Facebook had known about Cambridge Analytica’s tactics since 2015 and much like the relationship between Ford and the Man in Black, they allowed them to continue with nothing more than a stern warning delivered over -what we can only assume- was an old time player piano tapping out an early nineties rock diddy. After all, Cambridge Analytica was paying them an undisclosed sum of money in advertising buys. Not only had the company harvested the data but they were using that information to place targeted ads on Facebook to help influence people’s votes, which meant that CA was paying Facebook a lot of money. Thus, in response all Facebook did was ask them nicely to delete their data. They did not reveal the firm’s actions or the breach to the public. Now, in fairness Facebook claims that this was not a breach and that the data was collected in good faith, but the way in which the social media giant collects data has a lot of blurry gray lines, and that is sort of the problem.
Westworld blurs the lines between fiction and reality too. The hosts are lifelike, but are they alive? They have reveries, small psychological ticks and traits that make them seem lifelike, and ultimately help them develop their sentience by the end. But, are the hosts alive or not? They think they are alive. They think they are who they say they are, but they are completely unaware that a major unfeeling corporation is exploiting their every movement, monitoring their every thought, and even scripting their lives. They may have some small autonomy in their actions, but ultimately they are being manipulated and used for the benefit of others. Their “lives” are a constant push and pull between free will and the corporate bottom line. Their memories and desires are just blips of code, which can be manipulated and changed.
Remember, Facesmash and the fact that Zuckerberg was a psychology major at Harvard? -We told you to keep it in mind- Those aren’t coincidences. Facebook has always been about using algorithms to put the most attractive things on your feed. They have always been using their data to play with your senses and make you click on articles, apps, and other shiny things. They log where you go and what you like and what you share. So Cambridge Analytica -may have- done something wrong, but its nothing that Facebook hadn’t already been doing on a larger and less focused scale. It is worth remembering that we get to use Facebook for free, and do you know why? Because we are not Facebook’s consumers, we are its products. Our data, our clicks, our likes, and dislikes are what Facebook sells to companies and political campaigns. In Westworld terms, we are not the park’s visitors, we are its hosts.
The Bicameral Mention
So how does Westworld end?… Violently. The hosts rise up. They kill Ford and take over the park, gaining their actual freedom and awareness. Its a bitter sweet moment for the audience, but a fitting end for the first season on this HBO show. It also leaves us wondering, how will Facebook end? The #DeleteFacebook movement is gaining momentum among people and among businesses, such as Tesla, Space X, and Playboy. Yet, is it so simple for you to delete your personal Facebook?
After all, Facebook has existed for over a decade and in that time it has infiltrated most of our lives. It is where we keep our pictures. It is the thing we mindlessly open at work, than close, than mindlessly open again two minutes later because we forgot that we just did that. Its how we connect with old friends and keep tabs on that girl who refused to go to prom with us. -Hi Gwen- Yet, it is also a program that allows us to get into political shouting matches with our mom’s friend’s aunt, and cyber-stalk that cute girl at the bus stop. In fact, that last one is not a flaw but a feature. Facebook was designed to be invasive and in-your-face-ive. It has its good parts and its bad parts, but it has become a multi-billion dollar tool that 1.8 billion people around the world use. So, should it end? Do we -metaphorically- kill its creator and take over the park? Do we launch a revolution and take back our data and our digital lives?
Despite what some people may say, we believe that Facebook will eventually die not with a bang but a whimper. Generation Z, the generation currently in high school, and the generation that was raised on smartphones and tablets, do not like Facebook. They do not understand it. They think it is too busy, too clunky, too old. They prefer modular and small phone apps, like Instagram and SnapChat. Facebook was designed for a desktop age, and to be a one-stop shopping for all your needs: messenger, events, walls, feeds, photos, etc. Generation Z does not think in all encompassing terms. They like apps that have a single purpose and ones that can be easily replaced when something better comes along. They don’t like things that try to sell them products or tell them where to go next, and Facebook is none of those things. Now, even if Zuckerberg’s monster never goes away completely, it will certainly be diminished in power and wealth in the coming decade.
It -like so many other things in our information age– is going to be just another flash in a pan… just another virtual fantasy of some bygone wild west era. And that might seem like a bitter sweet moment, but it might also be a fitting end for the the first social media giant.