Christopher Wylie rose to fame when he blew the whistle on Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica affair, which ended up costing Facebook $5 billion in fines. He has just published a book called, “Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America” in which he denounces Facebook’s practices and its impact on society.
In an interview with Yahoo Finance, Wylie laments the sheer level of power Facebook has attained over people’s lives. He characterizes it as an unfair battle in which Facebook’s users are inevitably the unwilling (though also quite often willing) victims.
Given Facebook’s presence and power over people’s lives, society as a whole finds itself in a position of weakness. “You are more vulnerable, because there’s an imbalance in power, because one entity, or one person, knows a lot more about you than vice versa,” he says.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The ideal and most eagerly sought situation for anyone with a taste and a reason for wielding power, the most common reason being to extract money from people who have no choice and no ability to counter their power
Wylie is a true whistleblower intent on pursuing his mission to help people understand what he sees as the threat Facebook represents to the fabric of civilized society. That may sound extreme, but if the idea of democracy is to retain any credibility, Wylie’s thesis merits serious discussion. Watching the video of the complete Yahoo interview can be instructive.
Wylie begins by mentioning Mark Zuckerberg’s “habit of avoiding scrutiny.” Citing the Facebook founder’s defiance of the legal authorities in the UK and Canada, he opines that Zuckerberg may feel “more comfortable at Congress because he can lobby it more effectively.” As everyone in the business world knows, corporate money talks in Washington, often tending to drown out other voices.
After considering the hubris behind Facebook’s planned launch of a universal cryptocurrency, Wylie sums up his criticism in these words: “I question the wisdom of allowing a company to concentrate so many aspects of our society into one product.” While some people defend Facebook’s right, as a profit-making enterprise to innovate in its own interest, Wylie sees its strategy as an effective attack on the cultural integrity and sovereignty of society itself.
The author focuses on the true political implications of the issue, not just the electoral ones. Influencing elections is bad enough but, according to Wylie, Facebook has been undermining public discourse. He complains that Facebook is “relegating our democracies around the world and relegating our media and our public discourse to a private company, which is not accountable to people.” In other words, in its adherence to capitalist orthodoxy, Facebook has achieved a position of virtual cultural monopoly, with the sole aim of making a profit.
His interviewers in the Yahoo team, intent on defending the principles of capitalism, remained unconvinced. They expressed a point of view that can be summed up in the idea that if it’s only about profit, then it shouldn’t be considered about abuse.
One of the interviewers asked Wylie whether he shouldn’t take into account the fact that there’s “a benefit to this as well,” on the grounds that Facebook’s capture of data allows it to deliver more personally appropriate information and advertising. “It’s all about transparency, it’s all about disclosure,” he replied. “It’s all about us understanding how this game works in the playing field.”
In his view, if Facebook informs people about how they are being manipulated, no harm will be done. Attempting to show that he wasn’t about to let Zuckerberg off the hook, he identified Facebook’s crime as simply not being transparent enough. To cap his argument, Wylie offered the classic cliché: “It’s all a question of a level playing field, isn’t it?”
Wylie countered with a telling analogy about an architect who designs a building without fire exits but posts a notice at the entrance “transparently” explaining in technical detail the lack of that essential safety feature. The main interviewer then resorted to the “opt-out” argument, claiming that there isn’t a problem if the consumer can make another choice and go somewhere else. Wylie said that the choices are limited and perhaps nonexistent. A person’s online identity has now become an essential feature of their social and professional life. Opting out is tantamount to running away to live in the wilderness. It’s possible but self-destructive. “To exist in modern society,” he tells us, “you don’t really have a choice but to use these platforms.”
He then repeats his essential point: “The internet is part and parcel of democracy now, whether you like it or not … Do we need rules that we as a society agree on, with independent regulators who are on our side, not on shareholders’ side?”
Christopher Wylie’s attack focuses on Facebook, but much of what he says concerns the entire historical evolution of social media and the internet and, to some extent, capitalism itself since the 18th century. Much of what he says converges with the description of current trends offered by Shoshana Zuboff, author of the recently published book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff defines the phenomenon that Wylie calls “imbalance” as “institutionalized asymmetries of knowledge unlike anything ever seen in human history.”
Critics like Wylie and Zuboff present what may be called a traditional, pre-capitalist or humanist view of society that has now been overtaken by late-stage capitalist ideology. It has elevated aggressive profit-making and monopolistic thinking to the rank of essential public virtues, to be admired and emulated. The two authors appear to heretically believe that society can benefit from balance and symmetry, or what in Chinese and other Asian cultures people call “harmony,” the highest of their core values. What Wylie and Zuboff demonstrate is that the working principle for successful companies today — a principle that most people tacitly approve of and the ambient culture has accepted — is imbalance, asymmetry and extreme dissonance.
We can situate the origin of the current respect for dissonance, disruptive emotions and polarized thought in the triumph of an increasing radicalized economic ideology that has, over time, consistently and progressively rewarded the accumulation of power. Capitalist apologists cite the 18th-century Scottish economist Adam Smith as the founder of their ideology. Smith described the workings of national economies in his time, at the very beginning of the industrial revolution, when outside of trading companies — such as the East India Company — economic and political power was rarely concentrated.
Over the next two centuries, the growing respect for concentrated power undermined and imperceptibly perverted Smith’s original premise. Smith’s vision reflected his adherence to the idea of a well-regulated society that, because of its internal harmony, could benefit from the famous “invisible hand,” a natural effect of local competition that permitted continual adjustment and optimization of the roles of rational economic actors. He could not imagine the degree of concentration of power that would be enabled by future industrial development. He equally could never have imagined that modern ideologues would use his theory to justify the obsessive concentration of power we see today in both politics and business, elevating the principle disharmony to the level of a coveted ideal.
Today’s big tech companies cultivate the science of creating and defending monopolies. It has become easier than in the past because superficially they do not appear to be as absolute or easily identifiable as the monopolies and trusts that early 20th-century reformers attacked and often successfully dismantled. Tech companies have to work hard to achieve their monopolistic status. Defense suppliers and banks have an easier time occupying their monopolistic niches because they depend on governments and governments depend on them. The 18th-century virtues of fair and efficient competition were basically phased out over the next two centuries.
The Yahoo interview demonstrates how thoroughly the media, and particularly its specialists of finance, have bought into the outdated capitalist ideology and use it to avoid thinking about modern problems. They believe there is “choice” when there is none. They cling to the idea of homo economicus, man as a rational decision-maker who will make the decisions that guarantee a “level playing field.” They voluntarily ignore the cynicism of monopolist leaders such as Mark Zuckerberg, even when he spells it out in his leaked audio.
As a final illustration of how good theories (Smith’s) can be turned into their opposite and benevolent intentions turned into malevolent ones, in his book, Wylie describes what happened when Steve Bannon became associated with Cambridge Analytica, at a time when Wylie felt inebriated after having discovered the wonderful powers of data collection that he imagined could be mobilized to solve identified social problems, including detecting and defeating terrorism: “When Steve Bannon got introduced to the company, he realized that a lot of that work could be inverted. And rather than trying to mitigate an extremist insurgency in certain parts of the world, he wanted to essentially catalyze one in the United States.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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