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Big Zucker is watching you: Facebook has realised Orwell’s dystopian vision, and we like it

Niall Ferguson says Facebook tracks our data, our smartphones track our movements, and Mark Zuckerberg has become filthy rich from that information

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 6:19pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 8:28am

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the telescreen is the primary tool of totalitarian surveillance. It is, in Orwell’s words, “an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the wall ... The instrument could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely.

“The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment ... You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

Winston Smith (“6079 Smith W”) knows to keep his back to the telescreen as much as possible and, when facing it, to wear an “expression of quiet optimism”.

“It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen ... To wear an improper expression on your face was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called”.

For most of my life, ever since I read Orwell as a teenager, I have thanked God that I didn’t end up as a citizen of Airstrip One, living my life as a helot in thrall to Big Brother. It was not long after the actual year 1984, when I made my first visit to the Soviet Union, that I realised a significant part of humanity was in precisely that situation.

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The Soviets lacked the technological skill to create the telescreen, but their system of surveillance – based on countless concealed microphones and cameras – did the job. Everything else about Soviet life was straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four, particularly the disconnect between the strident propaganda (the pig-iron statistics and the military parades) and the dispiriting shabbiness of everyday life. How relieved I felt to return to capitalism and democracy.

Little did I know that the freest society in history – that of northern California – was already hard at work on the technology that would not only match but exceed the telescreen as a tool of surveillance.

The internet and the World Wide Web, according to Silicon Valley pioneers such as John Perry Barlow, were supposed to create a libertarian paradise where netizens could roam free, beyond the reach of Big Brother and his ilk. As for making money ... the whole idea was just to connect the world.

Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” wrote Mark Zuckerberg, its chairman and chief executive, on the eve of its initial public offering. “It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.” He had told The Harvard Crimson in 2004, only five days after the launch of Thefacebook, that his aim was not to make money: “I’m not going to sell anybody’s email address.”

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Five years later, by which time Facebook had about 200 million users, Zuckerberg was asked by the BBC: “So who is going to own the Facebook content? The person who puts it there or you?” He replied: “The person who puts the content on Facebook always owns the information.”

BBC: “And you won’t sell it?”

MZ: “No, of course not.”

This was a disingenuous reply. To be sure, Zuckerberg has not – strictly speaking – sold Facebook users’ data. But he did not become a multibillionaire because all two billion users mailed him US$20 to say: “Thanks for making the world more connected.”

In 2007, Facebook allowed users to build apps within its site – a decision that proved hugely popular as Facebook-based games proliferated. At the same time, users could sell their own sponsored advertisements.

Zuckerberg’s pursuit of advertising revenue nearly backfired with the introduction of Beacon, which gave companies direct access to the platform. It was Sheryl Sandberg’s job to make the transition to an advertising revenue model a success, as she had already done at Google.

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The crucial difference was that Google simply helped people find the things they had already decided to buy, whereas Facebook enabled advertisers to deliver targeted messages to users, tailored to meet the preferences they had already revealed through their Facebook activity. Once adverts were seamlessly inserted into users’ news feeds on the Facebook mobile phone app, the company was on the path to vast profits, propelled by the explosion of smartphone usage.

The smartphone is our telescreen. And, thanks to it, Big Zucker is watching you – night and day, wherever you go. Unlike the telescreen, your phone is always with you. Unlike the telescreen, it can read your thoughts, predicting your actions before you even carry them out. It’s just that Big Zucker’s 24/7 surveillance isn’t designed to maintain a repressive regime. It’s simply designed to make money.

The only law of history is the law of unintended consequences. Is anyone – apart from Zuckerberg, that is – really surprised that, during the eight-year period when app developers had free access to Facebook users’ data, unscrupulous people downloaded and used as much as they could? Do we seriously believe that Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Analytica are the only ones who did this? Can you give me one good reason why, after US president Barack Obama and his minions smugly boasted about their use of Facebook in his 2012 re-election campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign was not entitled to try similar methods four years later?

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So it goes, Mark. You set out to make the world more connected. You end up helping to elect Trump, whose goal is – as we saw last week – the exact opposite. And all because you got greedy. You took Trump’s money. And you took Vladimir Putin’s, too.

The reputational damage has now been done. Regulation is coming, not to mention hefty fines. (As Zuckerberg himself said last week: “I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated.”) But the big question is how many people will actually leave Facebook.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, only members of the party elite are allowed to turn off their telescreens. For everyone else, they are compulsory. But our iTelescreens are different, for we are addicted to them. As Sean Parker, the company’s first president, recently admitted, Facebook was set up to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology” by delivering “a little dopamine hit every once in a while”.

It took torture – followed by copious amounts of gin – to finally convince Winston Smith that “he loved Big Brother”. In that respect, too, Zuckerberg has gone one better than Orwell: “It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He liked Big Zucker”.

Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower will soon be available in paperback from Penguin