As more people understand the implications of enjoying Facebook “for free“–i.e., that they are the product of the service–they also see that its real paying customers are advertisers. As N. Katherine Hayles has stated, the critical question here is: “will ubiquitous computing be coopted as a stalking horse for predatory capitalism, or can we seize the opportunity” to deploy more emancipatory uses of it? I have expressed faith in the latter possibility, but Facebook continually validates Julie Cohen’s critique of a surveillance-innovation complex. The experiment fiasco is just the latest in a long history of ethically troubling decisions at that firm, and several others like it.
Unfortunately, many in Silicon Valley still barely get what the fuss is about. For them, A/B testing is simply a way of life. There are some revealing similarities between casinos and major internet platforms. As Rob Horning observes, Social media platforms are engineered to be sticky . . . Like video slots, which incite extended periods of “time-on-machine” to assure “continuous gaming productivity” (i.e. money extraction from players), social-media sites are designed to maximize time-on-site, to make their users more valuable to advertisers . . . and to ratchet up user productivity in the form of data sharing and processing that social-media sites reserve the rights to.” That’s one reason we get headlines like “Teens Can’t Stop Using Facebook Even Though They Hate It.” There are sociobiological routes to conditioning action. The platforms are constantly shaping us, based on sophisticated psychological profiles.