Tuesday 13 August 2019

Mark Zuckerberg, you total cnut

The BBC's popular science strand, Horizon, recently covered Facebook and its struggles with the monster that they have created, following "teams across the globe as they attempt to tackle a string of issues from hate speech to scams".

It was an impressive piece, with the behemoth coming across as human, caring and genuinely wringing its hands over the unintended consequences of all the good that it has brought to the world.  And now slap yourself good and proper with something twentieth century and physical, like an encyclopedia or a shovel, to remind yourself that you're seeing exactly what the avaricious bastards want you to see.

That said, I have sympathy for what they're having to do, what they've been forced into doing.  However, I'm not sure as the whole approach isn't wrongheaded.  

Although I have no recollection of it, at some point in my life I signed up to Quora.  It's a brilliant rabbit-hole to get lost down, particularly because my feed seems to consist of hilariously patronising nuggets such as "Are the doctors in the United Kingdom as skilled compared to doctors in the United States?", "Why doesn't the British monarchy become a democracy like America?" and "How do people travel around England?"  

It also brilliantly illustrates the slippery slope that ranges from cultural differences, misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions, often based on rumour, myth or newsworthy outliers being taken as representative (I mean, not all Americans can be that fat and stupid, can they?), through cultural gaucheness, linguistic faux pas - even when nations share a common language - to full on offence.  And this is just from the people minded to ask out loud.

And now that intention doesn't seem to come into it, you can no longer use what the speaker intended in the definition; it can still be hate speech even if the only thing you hate is hate itself.  It also puts a great deal of British comedy in a difficult position, particularly with the majority of the planet too dumb to get it (for a rather inelegant example, see previous clause).

If the game is to find the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, then it's a game with no winner because there is no single objective line.  I have my line and you have yours.  What's acceptable, even trivial, for me may be deeply offensive to you.  My Quora examples compare two very similar cultures.  Try the democratic west versus the fundamentalist Islamic world.  There are areas with very little overlap; necessary rights here are basic transgressions there.

The only way to play the game is to pretend that we (or you, from whatever cultural or religious point of view you're reading this from) have a monopoly on what's right and what's wrong.  That assumes objective ethical truths and deplores cultural relativism.  But even that fundamental basis of the whole exercise will be, by definition, offensive to those who don't sign up to that philosophical point of view.  What to do?

And, anyway, who's the 'we' here?  I posed it in the trappings of a generic western, democratic, market economy-leaning society.  As if the west can have a common set of standards that those in the west, at least, are happy with.  But I've just said that no two individuals can share the same lines in the sand as to what is offensive or not.  And, I'm not sure as mine don't shift according to context - mood, even.  So, it would have to be up to government, 'society', whatever higher power, to set the standards.  Which is what is happening.  Hello groupthink.  Welcome back, Stasi.  Your Orwellian hell is ready and waiting.  God help you if you think at all differently.  And doesn't progress rely on people thinking differently, thinking the unthinkable?

Like King Cnut holding back the waves, I think Facebook is being asked to attempt the impossible.

Here's a minority view - just thinking it probably means that I've crossed the line already - but perhaps the real issue is our ability to hide behind anonymous usernames and cartoon avatars.  If you can't see me and I can't see you then I can say what I really think.  That's freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, nothing apart from the fact that we seem to be reduced to a primal desire to scream from the trees, display our genitals, throw shit.  Perhaps it's human society's dependence on relationships that keeps things offline in check, a dependence that social media does away with.  What if our posts, our comments, our views had our real names, our actual faces, our telephone numbers attached?  Our addresses?  What if we could see exactly which bridge the trolls live under?

Polite thoughts and comments only, please, with your real names.  


(I was contemplating entitling this post 'Mark Zuckerberg, you total cunt' on the grounds that, whilst studying the Vikings at the age of six or seven, I unthinkingly wrote reams and reams on 'King Cunt'.  Years later, I found my lower school exercise books, my feelings a salad of of disbelief, incomprehension... and hilarity.  However, I thought the tale may prove difficult to bring across as a defence against defamation on the stand of some Californian court...)