Are There No Ethically Uncompromised Lunches In The Universe?

Once upon a time a farmer told his neighbors that they could use his land for ‘free’–as a kind of community recreational space. His neighbors were told they could set up little stalls. where they could play music, show off their handicrafts, display family photo albums, and of course, walk over to their friends’ spaces and chat with them. A large sign in small print that hung outside the entrance to the field informed the farmer’s neighbors how they should behave when they were on the premises. Most families stopped briefly to read the sign but intimidated by the number of the words on the sign, and the twisted prose, which appeared to have been composed by committee, they moved on, trusting their neighbor to do well by them.

The community meeting and recreational space soon bloomed; the number of stalls grew rapidly. The local residents got to know each other much better and many enjoyed the opportunity to inspect the personal details of their neighbors’ homes and lives. Indeed, a visit to the ‘meeting space’ became an integral part of most people’s routines; stop in for a bit, ‘check in,’ say hi to a few folk, show off your new baby, brag about your car, your vacation, and so on.

The local folk often wondered why the farmer had been so ‘generous.’ What was he getting in exchange for this ‘gift’? Cynics talked about the impossibility of free lunches, and sure enough, it was becoming clear there wasn’t one to be had in this ‘community space.’ For the benevolent farmer was indeed exacting a price of sorts.

The farmer had many business associates who wanted to sell the locals their goods–fertilizer for their fields, goods that could be gifted to their children on their birthdays, clothes to be worn at their weddings, and so on. To find out what the locals’ tastes were would have required conducting expensive, tedious market surveys; the farmer’s business associates would have had to go from door to door, asking people to fill out forms. But in this space, the farmers neighbors happily gave this information away without being asked. And the reason this information was ‘given away’ was that it was ‘being taken’ as well.

Hidden cameras and microphones recorded their comings and goings and sundry activities: who they met, what they ate at their friends’ stalls, and indeed, what they ate at home, because the locals proudly showed photos of their food at their stalls (you could build some walls around your stall but most people, finding the construction of these to be too onerous, just went in for a wall-less design), what clothes they wore, who their ‘best friends’ were, who they talked to for medical advice, who they asked for help when the going was tough, what kind of music they listened to (and played for their neighbors by way of demonstration.)

When news of the hidden cameras and microphones broke, some of the locals were irate. They didn’t like the idea of being ‘spied on’ and worried that the local potentate, always eager to exert his control over the land just a little more efficiently, would find this sort of information very useful. Yet others thought that the local robber barons, who controlled the potentate in any case, would grow more powerful as a result of knowing so much about them. And some complained that the hidden microphones sometimes reported their conversations and displays to the farmer, who cracked down on them if he didn’t like what they said or what they showed off.

But others hushed their concerns, using that ancient piece of wisdom, which the robber barons themselves had promulgated: How can you look a ‘free’ gift horse in the mouth? You got to use this space for ‘free,’ didn’t you? When the locals said that they hadn’t signed on for this surveillance, yet others told them to read the sign on the entrance carefully, and if they didn’t like it, to leave, and to take their stalls with them. So some did even as they said the sign on the entrance was vague and unspecific. Yet others, finding that the space had become an indispensable arena for communication for matters pertaining to the local village and shire, stayed on.

But many continued to ask themselves: Was it a fair ‘deal’? Indeed, was it a deal at all? Had the farmer really behaved like a neighbor in spying on his neighbors after he had invited them to use his land for ‘free’? Did the non-existence of free lunches in the universe entail that those lunches had to be ethically compromised too?

Evgeny Morozov on the Death of the Cyberflâneur

Evgeny Morozov pens a thoughtful piece on the death of the cyberflâneur – a natural consequence of the customized, walled-off, app-and-Like-and-Tweet-button-infested ‘Net that is staring us in the face–no pun intended–as Mark Zuckerberg and his merry band of Facebook buccaneers ride through town, rolling blunts in thousand-dollar bills. (Morozov runs the inevitable risk of turning off those who don’t like invocations of French notions in contemporary commentary but it is one worth taking.)

The cyberflâneur is animated and sustained by serendipity as he travels through and around the ‘Net. He hopes he will stumble upon the new, the unexpected, the not-immediately-contingent-on-the-past through his travels. He puts his trust in the ‘Net’s ‘community’ to generate content that he might like (not Like); he might generate some of his own to throw into the bubbling mix. He is not guided at every single step by their preferences, their recommendations, their idiosyncrasies. Facebook’s most tone-deaf assumption–as revealed in Zuckerberg’s par-for-the-course infantile insistence that we want to go to the movies with our friends–is that what we consume, appreciate and possibly integrate into our preferences is wholly driven by what our contemporaries do. We are creatures of our time indeed, but we are also capable of, and responsible for, our own distinctive paths and patterns of interaction with the culture that surrounds us. The kind of lock-step marching that appears as a not-too-distant consequence of the kind of ‘sharing’ culture Facebook is preparing for us is truly depressing in its grey conformity and its frightening lack of solitude.

If the Zuckerberg-Facebook assumption–that we always want to be guided by our ‘friends’, that we always want to share, and have tastes shared with us–were true, then we would always visit the most crowded attractions in the world and go precisely where the herds go. But we don’t. Even in a museum packed to the rafters on a weekend, we sometimes take a turn into the obscure side-gallery because something has caught our eye, tickled an obscure part of our imagination, tapped into a part of us that we did not know existed till then. We do not know ourselves fully; to explore by ourselves, guided by our own mysterious inclinations can be an entrancing journey of self-discovery. To be constantly guided, prodded, pushed, recommended, into well-worn and commented on paths is dismissive of our potential for reconfiguration.

The ‘Net was supposed to be Borges’ library. It might be that; but it is a library with all its books marked with little stickers telling us who liked what, with its pathways marked with commentary, urging me to add my own so that I may ‘guide’ the others who follow me. This library’s custodians don’t want us browsing the shelves; they want to guide us into small reading rooms where we will meet those with whom we are already familiar.

In this ‘Net, our past determines our future; our essences become fixed quickly as we lock into trajectories determined by our ourselves and our Friends. Talk about existential crises.

I left Facebook more than a year ago, and have not returned. My decision, in many ways, was irrational: as a writer, I cut myself off from a form of advertising that is increasingly crucial in today’s social media world. I still owe myself a post here that explains my rationale for doing so. All in good time.