Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: Facing it

Without reflection we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences. — Margaret J. Wheatley

It seems to me that humans have a lamentable track record when it comes to anticipating “unintended consequences,” especially in all areas technological. 

Here’s a few recent examples: The Industrial Revolution, The A-Bomb, Television, the sexual revolution, the personal computer/cell phone, etc. In our species’ defense, given the tiny sliver of time — 300 or 400 years — that constitutes the back end of our already brief evolution, there’s only room for “recent examples.”

For its first several millennia, human development proceeded at a slow, human rate. I guess we never noticed that things were picking up speed.

It seems to never have occurred to Henry Ford that the noxious fumes from his increasing army of horseless carriages would eventually add to the growing pollution of the planet, or, though Truman did wrestle for a few days with the idea of using it, it didn’t seem to occur to the certifiable geniuses of the Manhattan project that their A-Bomb would unleash destructive forces that would run roughshod over humans in perpetuity.

If storied statesmen and scientists didn’t pay enough heed, can it be a surprise to us that a hormonal college boy, looking to find a digital way to rate the desirability of potential co-eds, wouldn’t have paid much mind to unintended consequences when he accidentally spawned technology’s bad seed, Facebook, now number six on therichest.com’s  “Most Valuable Companies List,”  and which includes Instagram, the “smartphone photo-sharing service” that it acquired in 2012. 

Well, neither did Congress and neither did we, and now nobody knows how to fix the nasty and dangerous problems which have arisen from the hormonal college boy’s brainchild.

Full disclosure: I’m on Facebook, too. Instagram’s way beyond me, thank goodness. Twelve years ago, it seemed like sort of a cyber-scrapbook, a way to get in touch with old friends, to see one another’s cute kids, grandkids, kitties and puppies and scenic photos, all of which seemed so friendly, so harmless. Interestingly, from the beginning, my older daughter was never tempted by the seductive opportunities for self-promotion the site seems to offer.

“I don’t need to have all my business shared publicly,” she says. “Why would I think that everyone needs to see and hear every element of my life?” 

But, apparently, millions of us did and do. It seems to provide a means of self-affirmation, maybe. And who needs affirmation more than young people? So, what does our society provide them with, thank you Mr. Zuckerberg? Peer pressure on steroids.

As a teacher, I noticed early the negative impact these sites had on some of my students, the way they began to market themselves for public consumption; how they began to develop an insatiable appetite for “likes;” and how the company managed to twist the idea of what “friends” were; an how they began to “curate” people’s memories for them.

Creepy stuff, really, but more serious concerns began to arise as well, such as election interference, misuse of our personal information to benefit advertisers and, even more egregious, the mis- and disinformation that they’ve permitted on their platform about life and death matters like the global pandemic.

But perhaps the worst allegations have come from former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. Part of her testimony to Congress on October 5 was included in an article posted that same day by Rishi Iyengar, on cnnbusiness.com: “’I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy,” she said during her opening remarks. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help … we still have time to act.  But we must act now.”

Haugen’s identity as the Facebook whistle blower was revealed on “60 Minutes.” 

She previously shared a series of documents with regulators and the Wall Street Journal, which published a multi-part investigation showing that Facebook was aware of problems with its apps, including the negative effects of misinformation and the harm caused by Instagram, especially to young girls.

I think back to who I was at 13, and at 15, how deeply insecure and painfully aware I was of not being enough. I think of my daughters as teens — sensitive and vulnerable in an increasingly competitive, image-conscious world. I thank my lucky stars that Facebook wasn’t around then.  But I have grands now — what of them?

I have to face it, that it’s not just Facebook, it’s all the unintended consequences to come from all the thoughtless choices my society may make in the future. Someone has to start taking responsibility.