He is a professor in media studies at the University of Virginia, where he also directs the Center for Media and Citizenship. Disclosure: he has also written for The Baffler and is currently a member of the board of The Baffler Foundation. He told me about his winding path to a career as a media scholar. After he studied history at the University of Texas and then continued at UT to get a PhD in American Studies, he found himself teaching at New York University, where he was a colleague and friend of the late Neil Postman, an acerbic critic of the role of media in American culture.
Vaidhyanathan had specialized in literary and intellectual culture at the turn of the twentieth century. But as the internet became a new force in the s, he began to see some of the same concerns about monopoly, culture, and democracy at the turn of the twenty-first century. This is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length. Siva Vaidhyanathan : Largely because Facebook is valuable to too many people. The campaign to delete Facebook was one of wealthy, connected Twitter-savvy North Americans.
That renders it politically ineffective. But it also renders it counterproductive. By removing yourself from Facebook, you remove yourself from the concern. If you are active on Facebook and you watch how people relate to each other and how it affects you, you can be sensitive to the larger condition. DD : At the same time, I know plenty of people who feel a great sense of relief in just getting away from it. To be political is to be engaged, to have a stake. To remove yourself from having a stake is to be apolitical.
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SV : And you know what? I applaud that. I think if something is bad for you personally, by all means, get away from it. But Facebook brings value and satisfaction to more than two billion people. However, I take breaks from Facebook, as well. I take thirty-day, sixty-day breaks. To get steady, to pull back from the noise and the turmoil. Often to finish a writing project. But no one should pretend that those are political acts. And this is my larger point here. Facebook demands political responses. And these—I hate to even use the word boycotts—these soft, individualistic removals, or recusals, are not boycotts.
SV : I think so. But I think there was a clear distillation, or a clear realization, of two things. One: Mark Zuckerberg is a deeply sincere and concerned person. He is not duplicitous; he is not manipulative. And that was really clear. His sense that we could solve all problems through the magic of artificial intelligence? That needed to be said in that public forum, so he could be exposed for his naivete.
That was an important move. It was also really important for people to hear his mantras. To hear the mantras of artificial intelligence, to hear the mantras about Facebook meaning well, being responsible, trying to connect the world, trying to improve the world. All of that is fundamentally nonsense. But Zuckerberg truly believes that stuff—that by connecting human beings we will all start behaving better.
Thousands of years of human history to the contrary, he thinks that the mere act of connection contains some positive force, without anything else being present. Without ideological change, without spiritual change, without a sense of flesh-and-blood recognition. He has this bizarre idea that the Facebook profile will make some sort of positive difference in the world.
Mark Zuckerberg is an evangelist.
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He is deeply committed and has always been deeply committed to an ideology of global uplift through digital connectivity. He has seen his members, or his Facebook users, instrumentally, right? So he has never seen us as full human beings. He sees us as producers of data.
But he wants us to be happy, the way that someone might want a cage full of gerbils to be happy. The problem is, his sense of what is best for us may not be our sense of what is best for us. And, he has never come to the conclusion that we gerbils can be really nasty to each other. That seems to have escaped him. The potential for human cruelty never seems to have factored into his vision of what he is producing. What do you do? The thing he built is now too big to govern. DD : Getting back to Congress, I like the anti-trust idea.
SV : It would help to break the company up. Retrospectively, we never should have allowed Facebook to buy Instagram. And we never should have allowed Facebook to buy WhatsApp.
These are two competitive businesses. These are two very successful social-media systems that are now Facebook products, and Facebook shares all the data of all the users of Instagram and WhatsApp. It has the potential for therapeutic applications. So in that field, we should want multiple companies experimenting, [and] strong regulation upfront, to make sure the powers of virtual reality are not abused. And the last thing we should want is for a data-sucking company like Facebook to be monitoring everything we do in virtual reality.
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Because there are going to be people who are going to want to use virtual reality for medical and psychological treatments. There are going to be people who are going to use virtual reality for sex. We cannot have that mixed in with all the other data that Facebook has about us. Why does that hurt me? Why does that hurt people? It is other companies that profile us and that gather this data. In the campaign, the Barack Obama campaign managed to scoop up Facebook data on every American. It had better, richer, more comprehensive data than Cambridge Analytica did.
If you care at all about civil liberties, if you care about the act of profiling based on religion or ethnicity or affiliation, you should care that the head of state had access to all this data. The difference is—almost nothing.
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The difference is that the Obama campaign worked for the president of the United States, a person who has the power to kill people. Around the world, Cambridge Analytica works for people who are willing to do that. They worked for [Uhuru] Kenyatta in Kenya.
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Cambridge Analytica worked for all sorts of nasty authoritarian nationalists around the world. What happens when Facebook data about millions of people in Kenya ends up in the hands of a political consultant who is working for an authoritarian nationalist political force in Kenya?
Then things get bad. DD : Are the two campaigns, the Democrats and the Republicans, in going to be able to tap into this data successfully the way that Obama and Trump did? SV : Obama and Trump used Facebook very differently. By the time Trump came along, Facebook was no longer letting campaigns have this data. Facebook decided to take it all in-house, and do it all for them. So in , Facebook embedded Facebook employees with major campaigns around the world.
It embedded people in the campaign of Narendra Modi in India. In early , Facebook embedded people in the campaign of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. In mid- to late, Facebook embedded its people in the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They relied on conventional wisdom, all of the data sets that the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign had given them.
And they had their own independent software platform that was created to track voter sentiment and motivate people.
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