The Autocracy App
By Jacob Weisberg OCTOBER 25, 2018 ISSUE
The New York Review of Books
A review of:
...A professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, Vaidhyanathan is a disciple of Neil Postman, the author of Amusing Ourselves to Death. In that prescient pre-Internet tract, Postman wrote that Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, portrayed the dystopia most relevant to our age. The dangers modern societies face, Postman contends, are less censorship or repression than distraction and diversion, the replacement of civic engagement by perpetual entertainment.
Vaidhyanathan sees Facebook, a “pleasure machine” in which politics and entertainment merge, as the culmination of Postman’s Huxleyan nightmare. However, the pleasure that comes from absorption in social media is more complicated than the kind that television delivers. It encourages people to associate with those who share their views, creating filter bubbles and self-reinforcing feedback loops. Vaidhyanathan argues that by training its users to elevate feelings of agreement and belonging over truth, Facebook has created a gigantic “forum for tribalism.”
...What would the world look like if Facebook succeeded in becoming the Operating System of Our Lives? That status has arguably been achieved only by Tencent in China. Tencent runs WeChat, which combines aspects of Facebook, Messenger, Google, Twitter, and Instagram. People use its payment system to make purchases from vending machines, shop online, bank, and schedule appointments. Tencent also connects to the Chinese government’s Social Credit System, which gives users a score, based on data mining and surveillance of their online and offline activity. You gain points for obeying the law and lose them for such behavior as traffic violations or “spreading rumors online.”
Full implementation is not expected till 2020, but the system is already being used to mete out punishments to people with low scores. These include preventing them from traveling, restricting them from certain jobs, and barring their children from attending private schools. In the West online surveillance is theoretically voluntary, the price we pay for enjoying the pleasure machine—a privatized 1984 by means of Brave New World.