Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Oh Well, Orwell

“Unlike Vegas, what happens in Facebook doesn’t stay in Facebook.” That’s how Lori Andrews gets the ball rolling in her latest book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did. The subtitle makes clear the book’s slant: “Social Networks and the Death of Privacy”. Drawing examples from various sources (one-fourth of the book is dedicated to citations), Andrews tells the reader that there’s more to the social networking sites than meets the eye.

Even banal status updates like “I had the best burrito of my life today” or “OMG! this red light is long!” mean potential cash-earning opportunities for an advertiser. Each Google search by you can come back to haunt you. Every update that you “like” on Facebook is being added to your online profile even without your knowledge. But then, didn’t we sign up to Facebook knowing well that a moment of madness (an inappropriate picture or a one-line rant) could prove catastrophic? Andrews says you never know when a digital trapdoor can open beneath your feet at once.

Of course you can disable cookies to not reveal your online information, but try getting past the login page of Gmail and Facebook without allowing a few cookies and you will get a medal. This ham-fisted manner of extracting information about us – political views, sexual preferences, relationships, tastes, workplaces, attitudes – should raise our hackles, according to Andrews. Take a look at a few of the part-gnomic part-idealistic chapter titles and you are made to believe that a digital nightmare is round the corner: “Facebook Nation”, “George Orwell... Meet Mark Zuckerberg”, “Technology and Fundamental Rights”, “FYI or TMI?: Social Networks and the Right to a Relationship with Your Children”. “It’s like a post-apocalyptic scenario where the roads are there, there just isn’t any traffic,” is one of the quotes that Andrews cites.

Andrews’ chatty style and meaty distillation of social networking faux pas across America make for nice reading, at least for a while. The author is vocal about the fact that advertisements are visible next to our emails. It’s as if someone else is reading our mails apart from us. Regarding social networking behaviour Andrews raises an important question: “We don’t let students drive until they are 16 or drink until they are 21 because of the dangers of such behaviour. But we encourage children to acquire computer skills when they are as young as age four.” If a father mentions Silence of the Lambs as one of his favourite movies he can be denied custody of his kid if he opts for a divorce.

I Know Who You Are is a fierce testament to the paranoia that grips Americans. The reader is told about an 18-year-old’s expulsion from school for writing obituaries of his living friends on a blog. A high-school teacher was excoriated repeatedly for an innocuous status update: “Had a good day today, didn’t want to kill even one student”.

Andrews tackles these issues quite formidably in three standout chapters: “Freedom of Speech”, “Lethal Advocacy” and “Privacy of Place”. In “Lethal Advocacy” she talks about the antiquated laws that protect cyber trolls from any prosecution. One terrific example is of a man who eased someone into a suicide pact though he had no intention of killing himself. He derived perverse pleasure from knowing that his correspondent was killing herself, and never thought to call the nearest police station. He was saved from prosecution because he never incited the person physically.

But these are only flashes of brilliance in a book that highlights the "less" in "hopeless”. Andrews harps on the same things with different examples that has been done with much more precision and insight by Eli Pariser and Evgeny Morozov (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You and Net Delusion, respectively).

It’s a sad commentary when anything remotely clandestine is branded “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque”. Andrews wants the reader to believe that Zuckerberg’s jackboots are on the face of every Facebook user. Yes, they did goof up big time once when all private accounts were made public. But then, did British Petroleum shut shop after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Andrews’ book is based on the premise that social networking sites are in the business for the love of it.

Zuckerberg needs to monetise Facebook to afford the ginormous servers that can accommodate our dozens of pictures of our pets and foreign trips. The veins at the back of my neck really constricted when, at the end, Andrews came up with a grandiose manifesto titled “The Social Network Constitution”. Alcoholics Anonymous it is not. The 10 principles are reductive and hardly thought-provoking. This book evokes an old Groucho Marx joke that goes something like this: “Will you believe your eyes or mine?” The reader (also a Facebook user) will choose the former.

Lori Andrews
Simon and Schuster
253 pages; Rs 699


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