Two full days of testimony in front of Congress by Mark Zuckerberg have produced plenty of tense moments and viral exchanges that have lit up Twitter. But the takeaway of the charged hearings should be about more than legislation. And that’s because the problem is much bigger than Facebook and how the company treated its users’ data in the run-up to the 2016 election.
As I watched the hearings, it was striking how angry the senators and House members were. And, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, the tone was the same on both sides of the aisle. And that’s not surprising, since one of the most essential survival skills for any politician is to be a weathervane for their constituents. And their constituents are angry – everybody is angry. The question is, about what?
Yes, as Mark Zuckerberg admitted on both Tuesday and Wednesday, Facebook erred by not informing 87 million of its users what had happened to their data and how it was being used by Cambridge Analytica. “ I think we have a responsibility to be able to prevent that and be able to take action sooner,” he told members of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees.
But as bad as that episode was, I think the anger that the lawmakers questioning Zuckerberg were channeling was about more than Cambridge Analytica, more than whether or not Facebook is a monopoly, more than how clear or unclear Facebook’s privacy guidelines have been, more than fake news and more than Facebook itself.
What people are angry about, and what’s truly fueling this moment, is that we no longer feel in control of the technology in our lives. That feeling of losing control has been building steadily for the last several years, as our lives have become both more dominated by technology and more dependent on technology. It’s the feeling that the pace of our lives, and the next thing on our to-do list, is no longer up to us. It comes via the endless screens and algorithms we’re immersed in. And we know that the feeling of autonomy is one of the single most important factors in our happiness. But we’re feeling less and less autonomous.
And right as this feeling is hitting the tipping point, along comes the Facebook story. It’s not only a compelling narrative about how our lives were taken over by technology, it’s one that already has several legislative fixes in the works. Which isn’t to say the anger at how data was misused during the election isn’t justified. It surely is. Or that it’s not worth debating the Honest Ads Act, introduced late last year, or the CONSENT Act, introduced just this week.
But the danger isn’t stopping there. And it’s important that these hearings are not a stand-in for the larger discussion we need to have but a springboard. That’s because the tectonic shifts in our relationship with technology go way beyond Facebook, and won’t be stopping even if the perfect regulatory fixes are passed.
The evidence for that shift – and the need to have a much broader conversation – is all around us. It’s changing our families. According to one survey, 98 percent of parents said that unplugging from devices during meals is important to maintaining their family bond, and yet 42 percent couldn’t even remember the last time their family had eaten a meal with no devices present.
It’s changing how our children are growing up. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” writes Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of iGen. She also notes that rates of depression and suicide have dramatically increased in recent years.
It’s changing our social interactions. In a recent Pew study, 89 percent of phone owners said they’d used their phones in their last social gathering, but 82 percent felt that when they do this it damages the interaction.
And you can see the hidden role technology may be playing in other trend-lines, like the loneliness epidemic, the fact that 300 million people globally suffer from depression, and the opioid crisis, which, as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, in the last year alone has claimed more victims than the entire Vietnam War.
The unintended consequences that ended up bringing Mark Zuckerberg to Washington aren’t limited to Facebook. Technology is all about unintended consequences. In February, a 100-page report called “The Malicious Use of AI” was released by a group of 26 experts from both the tech world and academia. One of the themes was the theme of “dual use” – the same technology that can be used for good can also be used for bad. That’s true not just of AI, but of all technology – as we’re seeing in the Facebook story.
In addition to looking back to see what exactly happened with our data in the election of 2016, and fixing what we can, we also need to be looking forward. We won’t be able to fully predict all the unintended consequences of the new technologies that are in store for us, but by widening the discussion and thinking hard about what role we truly want technology to play in our lives, we can regain control of that relationship. And that’s what’s ultimately needed to address the anger that’s at the heart of this week’s hearings.
That discussion has to be both collective and individual. Independent of what Congress decides to do with Facebook, we can take action in our own lives. “It’s going to take the companies way longer than it would take you to do something about it,” Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, told WIRED in February. “If you hold your breath and wait, you’re going to suffocate.”
And that applies to waiting for Congress to act. So let’s keep the debate going long after the gavel has come down.