In the following episode of PBS’s animated series Blank on Blank, Brave New World author Aldous Huxley warns against falling prey to the insidious uses of developments in technology. In particular, he notes:
“We mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology. This has happened again and again in history. And suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn’t foresee and doing all sorts of things they didn’t really want to do… All technology is in itself morally neutral. These are just powers which can either be used well or ill. It’s the same thing with atomic energy—we can either use it to blow ourselves up or we can use it as a substitute for the coal and the oil which are running out.”
Amidst the fallout from the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and with Huxley’s cautionary words ringing in our ears, it’s well worth thinking about how we use our various technologies. Facebook, by its very nature, is an especially passive user experience. Think of the way you scroll through the items in your news feed: baby picture, old yearbook photo, Hillary’s a crook, how to lose five pounds in a week, wedding picture, seven low-carb one-pot dinners, Trump’s a racist, beach photos, sunset photos, etc., etc., etc. Everything blends together. We hardly take the time to distinguish between political mudslinging, clickbait, photos of people we care about and photos of those we don’t.
At least on television—also a very passive medium—advertisements create a noticeable break from regularly scheduled programming. They are an interruption; we are angry about the distraction and suddenly on guard that someone—whether politician or used car dealer—is going to try to sell us something. That’s not to say that television ads don’t work. It’s just that we seem to be more aware of their existence and intent and more prepared to tune out or resist their messages.
In other words, we often initiate television use passively but often watch it actively. We often turn it on as a matter of habit and leave it running in the background. But when we sit down to watch a specific program, we are there for the entertainment. Commercials are noticeable; they provide time to go to the bathroom, fix a snack or, if the program is prerecorded, fast-forward to the resumption of the program. In contrast, we often initiate social media actively but consume it passively. We might choose to open Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to see a friend’s update or a certain piece of news. But once we’re there, we aimlessly peruse our feeds until we no longer distinguish between the various forms of content.
Technology, as Huxley rightly observes, is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad, neither active or passive. We can use it for a positive or negative purpose. And we can consume it actively, with intention, or passively, with ignorance. When we use technology passively, we not only sacrifice an opportunity for productivity and creativity for hours of acquiescent lethargy. We also let down our guard against those who would use technology for manipulative or malevolent purposes.
Obviously, the primary blame for the Facebook data privacy violation rests with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. But we consumers of social media ought to take responsibility for how and why we use it. We can make some change through informed participation in a democratic society. We can make far more change by monitoring our own behavior.