So Alex Stamos is apparently kind of a big deal. He’s been with info security at Yahoo, at Facebook, at Stanford (is this supposed to be a list in his favor?) and is the guy chosen by Zoom to try to help them launder their way out of having the street find its own use for their technology and along the way exposing it as one step above malware. In any event, he was on Kara Swisher’s podcast talking about Zoom and Facebook and misinformation in the context of life in the hell mouth of 2020, and he made the case that you don’t want Facebook to be in a position to decide about speech.
The point he utterly missed (and god bless Kara, she is the last Spartan in the pass at Thermopylae, but she missed it too) is that ship has sailed. Facebook’s already deciding. Has been, for years. So has Twitter. So has Instagram. So has YouTube. Every time the algorithm surfaces one post and not another based on who knows what. Every time you see content from someone you don’t follow only because it was liked by someone you do. Every time you see social media content other than a chronological list of every post from everyone you follow, something was decided. And once you decide, you are responsible for that decision. Facebook and Twitter can blather all they want about free speech, and certainly people can type whatever they want into those geysers of awful, but when that content gets surfaced to you without you choosing to seek it out, that’s 1000% on them. Because their systems made a decision. The fact that they want to deny responsibility for that decision says more about the kind of person in positions of power in Silly Con Valley in 2020.
(God, let me not get started on Elon Musk, who somehow managed to grow up fabulously wealthy in South Africa yet leave in 1992 and never go back, bought himself a foundership at Tesla as a condition of funding, and apparently spends all his time getting higher than giraffe testicles while blathering galaxy-brain contrarian horseshit on Twitter and periodically tanking his stock, while coming up with one grandiose solution to urgent problems after another – none of which is ever actually a solution, as it happens. Phony Stark is mostly useful as an existence proof that taxes aren’t high enough in America.)
Elon and Facebook and Twitter and the whole ecosystem is complicit in a kind of normalization of a maelstrom of bullshit – fake news, deliberate misinformation, ideological rantings and astroturfed protest – that has defined the 21st century. When I was in college, the militia movement was small, atomized, organized mostly through the mail and mimeographed flyers and late-night talk radio and the occasional USENET spam. Now, the same sorts of people who were tiny clusters in the era of the OKC bombing can be rallied up in a couple of days to storm the Michigan statehouse complete with loaded weapons (which begs the question, why aren’t most of them in body bags on the sidewalk? Who the hell is handling security in Lansing?) because social media will gladly maximize and amplify the kind of stuff that was difficult to run across in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1980s, of all places. And the thing is…I don’t remember hearing about this kind of thing being chockablock on MySpace, or Friendster, or LiveJournal, or Vox (the REAL Vox, back in ’06). Poor social media decisions are making it worse, but I don’t remember it being as big a thing in the first few years of the 21st century, oddly enough…strange that it jumped off once we had a black President.
Postwar America had a sense of solidarity, that we’re all in this thing together, right up until the early 1960s when “all” began to include black people. Then it started to break down, especially (but not exclusively!) down South. And then it flipped on its head throughout the 1970s. Before long, by the Reagan era, the “anything goes, i am an individual” had suddenly gone from being a politics of the left to one of the right, and has stayed there ever since. And the notion that you know there’s other people became a political quality of the left. Smarter people than me have classified this as “white socialism” – the GI Bill and Social Security and a 91% top marginal tax rate were fine as long as the principal beneficiaries of that were white people. But there was a clear divide between people who were willing to countenance “y’all means all” and people who would rather be starving on a slab of cardboard under an overpass so long as the colored people next door didn’t even have cardboard. This pandemic, like September 11, delivered a short sharp shock that caused us to instinctively pull together for a moment in the confusion…and then, as soon as the shock was over, it became yet another source of fear and resentment for those who thrive on exploiting such things. And the same sides wound up in the same places: one saying “come let us reason together and brave this out as one” and one saying “the blacks and the poors have to be willing to die because I want my business open and my wife wants to get her hair done.”
And now we pay the price. Without a vaccine, we need solidarity. Because the people who go around braying about “herd immunity” haven’t done the math – 60% baseline for herd immunity, with a mortality rate of even just 1%, means almost two million dead. More than the city of Phoenix, more than the city of Philadelphia, more than every American military casualty death in the history of the United States combined, just for the sake of not having to take any precautions or change your lifestyle in any way. Assuming, of course, that you survive, which everyone always takes for granted they will. And so we’re about to have the usual suspects – the ammosexuals and the anti-vaxxers and the truthers and the birthers and the entire Axis Of Stupid-Worship – all denying that they have to account for the existence of others, with tens of thousands of lives hanging in the balance.
Rest in peace, Lars-Erik Nelson: there is an enemy, and it is bullshit. Bullshit is the common threat that links Elon Musk and Alex Jones and Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks and the anti-anti-pandemic marchers and Fox News and Peter Thiel and the dirtbag left. The common ideology, if you can call is that, is a resolute belief that nothing matters and the truth is whatever you demand it to be, irrespective of whether other people accept your version of the truth. Karl Rove’s dismissal of the “reality-based community” in 2004 should have been a fucking tornado siren, because creating your own reality and denying anything you don’t want to admit the existence of? That’s it. That’s the endgame. That’s Gaventa, level 3, for the whole world, in a way that our traditional frameworks simply can’t cope with.
Maybe it’s better I washed out of political science. Either an install package deploys, or it doesn’t. The device connects to the network or it doesn’t. There’s no room for opinion, and no matter how hard you believe you’re on the WiFi, if you aren’t, you aren’t. I worry if I’ll ever again live in a society with that much of a grip on objective reality. I don’t know how a society survives without one.