😬 Happy Halloween! Behold a real-life SHOCKING SuspenStory!
🩸 Our Spooky Flash Fiction will make your blood run cold
🧵 Tuesday Open Thread next Tuesday starting at 12pm ET
Writing in The New York Times, Roose identified something that I think rings true in understanding this latest wave of revelations about the social media company: whatever the original intent of Facebook’s architects, they have created something that they cannot completely control:
“We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us,” Ms. Sandberg wrote.
It was a candid admission that reminded me of a moment in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” after the scientist Victor Frankenstein realizes that his cobbled-together creature has gone rogue.
“I had been the author of unalterable evils,” he says, “and I lived in daily fear lest the monster whom I had created should perpetrate some new wickedness.”
Now, four years later, we’re finding out that Facebook is even more monstrous than the beast Roose described in 2017. As Ellen Cushing wrote at The Atlantic this week: “Taken together, Frances Haugen’s leaked documents show Facebook for what it is: a platform racked by misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy thinking, extremism, hate speech, bullying, abuse, human trafficking, revenge porn, and incitements to violence.”
Of course, there are people within Facebook trying to control the monster. But as Bloomberg and other outlets have found, internal proposals to fix Facebook’s algorithm keep running up against “a system designed to promote content likely to keep people scrolling, liking, commenting and sharing.”
In Dr. Frankenstein’s hunger for glory, he decided to “move fast and break things,” and despite his achieving the impossible, sparking life into a lifeless being, it all went wrong. When Dr. Frankenstein comes face to face with his monster later in the novel, he does his best to stop it, but it easily rebuffs him, reminding him, “Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine, my joints more supple.” (The book version of the monster is quite a bit more intellectual than the movie version Karloff popularized). In short, the monster was in charge, and that’s unfortunate, because anger was weighted more favorably in the design.
There will be plenty of opportunity for blame and accountability, and hopefully, for reforms of Facebook’s many ills. But I want to linger on the design process, the system that allowed Facebook’s problems to metastasize beyond what they are capable of controlling.
What if, in creating the next generation of digital public spaces—including the new ones that Zuckerberg wants to make—we choose to value calm technology, or center design justice principles? Let’s emphasize and center these values in the design process. We want spaces where everyone—not just those in “tier zero”—can participate in flourishing, welcoming, productive digital spaces and communities. Because the alternative, as we’ve seen in overwhelming detail this week, is monstrous.
Here is the second winner of our Flash Fiction contest we ran in September. It was submitted and made available by reader Lance Eaton. Lance is the Director of Digital Pedagogy at College Unbound in Providence, Rhode Island, and a doctoral student in the Higher Education program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. You can find his blog here and his site here.
Your Future Destination
My future arrived on a Thursday. Future Destination knew when and where I needed to go. Silicon Valley showered it with accolades as the second coming of the wheel or rather, the second coming of the FAANG; after all, the wheel yielded to gravity, but anticipated auto arrival (A³ in tech lingo talk) yielded to unspoken human desire; the profit possibilities were infinite. They scooped up business, municipal, state, and federal driving contracts by the second and eventually, could calculate not only who they would sign with next but also the exact pricing point. Why discuss and debate, when it could just be so easily decided.
The A.S.T.R.A.L. (anticipated single-travel road-auto line) vehicle waited in my (no-longer needed) driveway. It chauffeured me along the idyllic and rustic county road, old Route 55, exactly where I wanted to go. It serenaded me with a long and wailing ballad from my teenage years. The magic of algorithms; they plowed into all customer data for everything: social networks, dating apps, health trackers, medical history, calendars, shopping habits, eating preferences; hell, even bathroom visits. It was all there to sort and match, once we began nano-chipping babies. First the slap; then the chip, as they said. Future Destination took all of that and fed it into their machine. Sure enough, at a 99.9999% success rate, transportation arrived within 2 minutes before needing it.
The ride was smooth; the interface friendly. I felt so at ease. They made traversing through life so efficient. The assumed desire met before one had time to think; so much profit to be had. Though the creators never fully realize how implied desires with unchecked automation could create unforeseen consequences, their progress continued unimpeded with little negative fanfare. I never spoke my desire, but the mindless algorithms captured the patterns; some part of me was hoping for it.
It knew where to pull off the road and into the ravine without any embankment to block us. Of course, I could only laugh when I saw the ambulance and medic-bots at the bottom of the ravine, waiting. Apparently, Future Destination had scored that contract too.
Surprise! We have a spooktacular bonus this week: another creepy Flash Fiction work, this time in the form of a poem, by reader Deena Rosen.
The Life and Death of Alexa
We are gathered here today
To celebrate the life of our Alexa
She who was always there in our times of need
With her calming tone and unwavering patience
No matter how many times we asked
How many cups in an ounce?
What is the weather?
What time is Game of Thrones on tonight?
She never once told us in frustration to just google it
Or made fun of us for asking questions that we should really already know the answer to
Who is Lizzo?
What is a meme?
When is election day?
She even had answers for questions with no real answers
Like what is the meaning of life?
How to fix climate change?
Can I die from dating?
She never complained after being asked to set 5 timers at once
And didn’t even ask what they were all for
Or why we were just starting to cook dinner now even though we spent all afternoon doing nothing
She would only give us unconditional support
(But only if we asked for them)
She left us much too suddenly
We would have been okay with the privacy leaks
Although hearing all those people have sex was super embarrassing, we wouldn’t wish that on anyone
So we understand why she had to go
But we wish there was another way
Who will be there for us now?
As we have to go through life, not knowing anything?
How we will find the answers?
Who will guide us?
Just a reminder that we’re doing open threads every month, on the first Tuesday of the month. This Tuesday, the second of November, we’ll be sending out an open thread around noon on the East Coast.
Working in the lab, late one night,
Photo from The Social Network, design by Josh. Illustration by Josh Kramer.
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.