The disclosure that Facebook shared personal information on 50 million users with data firm Cambridge Analytica was received with disproportionate amount of shock and dismay. Privacy had long been dead. Edward Snowden had revealed in 2013 how governments are accessing data from social media sites and search engine companies. As far back as in 2009, Google CEO Eric Schmidt had openly said there wasn't a thing called privacy any more.
The shock is the product of the blissful ignorance that Facebook was much more than a social interaction site. That it had long become a social market place and then a mighty surveillance tool. The people in deep shock are probably those who believed that Facebook was a harmless -- and most importantly FREE -- platform that helps them merely to connect. They should have known that it was in the business of selling their data to those sold on the intoxicating idea of selling everything for profit.
This is not a dark, cynical view of things and there isn't probably much sense in feeling morally violated by how technology companies are tampering with and trampling on our lives. Probably what's right is to take an impersonal view of the history of scientific advancement. Science runs on the premise that if something is technically possible, someday, someone will make it.
Probably one has to blame Charles Darwin for cutting man lose from a divine scheme of things -- the right to be the inviolable self directly connected to God and existing in peace for ever.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologised for the lapses. He said he regretted the "breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it". It's funny that he thinks that vast hordes of people on Facebook expect it to keep their data secure. If a lot of people did expect that, they were asking for too much. Social media sites, multitude of apps and search engines are not free commodities that the user consumes; rather they are the smart market places where you are traded as a commodity, for profit.
Blue pill and red pill
To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, there is no such thing as individual anymore. And that's just a trade-off. The price the individual pays for a whole lot conveniences -- finding friends and dates, spotting food and leisure, being instant publishers, going on ego trips at will, being fed on a constant flow of free news and fake news, and the like. In return you let the machine create your own doppelganger. Slowly the concept of individual autonomy dies a quite death.
As it happened with Cambridge Analytica, the Big Brother even decides who you should vote for. The funny thing is that there's no force involved as in those banana republics where there's only one candidate. The deceit is telling as you think you are the master of your mind but in fact you are a victim of cognitive conditioning.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton were among technology heavyweights who would delete Facebook in view of the data breach revelations. That reminds one of a scene in cult classic Matrix, where Morpheus offers a blue pill and red pill to Neo, saying he can either choose to experience the Matrix or sleep and wake up to a normal life.
"You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes," says Morpheus. Musk and Acton, along with thousands of others took the blue pill. Millions have chosen the red pill, for now, to stay in the wonderland.
But what difference does it make? What moral conclusions are to be drawn? How much of a Luddite resistance to invasive technology is possible and viable?
You are a slave, Neo
"That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind...." Morpheus goes on. Data has taken over and soon there will be no individuals, only abstraction of the individual self.
The truth emerges if you turn Thatcher's quote on its head: There is no such thing as individuals; there is only the neoliberal market place and then the corporations and the big governments. The data creates avatars of you, it can tell the governments if you are a political risk just the same way it can tell the banks and the hiring manager if you are a misfit.
"If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines - including Google - do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities," Schmidt said years ago.
Much is made of Analytica's efforts in putting President Donald Trump in office. But years earlier, Schmidt had teethed the Obama campaign with the razor sharp analytics edge. And then there were reports that he was offering the same help to Hillary Clinton campaign as well.
Google critic Alexander Hanff put the same thing in stronger perspective when he said: "You might have forgotten what you did at, say, 9am on 17 July back in 2011 ... Google hasn't. It knows more about you than you know about yourself." Facebook certainly knows much more than this.
Interestingly the 'grid' of entrapment and total surveillance that Issac Asimov painted in his Second Foundation is already here, much before the perilous inter-galactic travels he visualised came true.
"The grid will descend. None of you will move outside your square until the grid is removed, as otherwise we will be forced to use our neuronic whips," booms the 'loud metallic words'. The grid then descends, glimmering in the air "simply a series of cross-hatched and tight radiation-beams that set the air aglow in a harmless network of flashing light."
Yes, the glimmering grid!