Alan Zendell, March 23, 2018

When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was interviewed on CNN a couple of days ago he said he was sorry – kind of. If you’ve ever had a disagreement with a loved one, you know there’s a huge difference between, “I’m really sorry,” and “I’m really sorry this happened.” One is a sincere apology; the other is a statement of regret. Zuckerberg’s was clearly the latter.

He also offered long explanations of how Facebook has been used by Russian operatives and bots to sow discord and disrupt our election process. He admitted knowing these things were happening as early as 2014 and 2015, long before the campaigns were in full swing, and what shocked me most was his assertion that he had dealt with them by obtaining statements from the principals certifying that they hadn’t violated Facebook’s rules. He even said that when people promise to do the right thing he tends to believe them. Really?

That kind of naivete creates things like the outrageous breach of trust, if not of our personal data itself, that Facebook is guilty of allowing to occur. Zuckerberg is a pretty smart guy, smart enough according to Forbes magazine to start a company from scratch and become the sixth wealthiest man in the world in fifteen years. I’m willing to assume that he’s basically honest, too. He didn’t do anything criminal, and probably no one at Facebook did. The problem is much bigger and harder to fix than simply assigning blame.

A hundred years ago, another pretty bright, honest fellow named Albert Einstein figured out relativity and developed the foundation of quantum theory. A lot of other very bright, honest people (Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller, to name a few) used Einstein’s work to figure out how to split the atom. Do you suppose any of them realized or even speculated about the planet filled with nuclear weapons they gave birth to? (Actually, Teller did toward the end.)

The Terminator stories warned us of the danger of automation gone wild, of robotic machines with artificial intelligence that developed self-awareness and decided they didn’t need humans any more. While that may or may not be a bit far-fetched, ever since the first commercial computers were perfected, they’ve grown exponentially in processing speed and number, and the result is a cloud of data whose size is nearly unimaginable. All that data poses two serious problems. One is that most of it is personal – everything anyone might wish to know about you and me and everyone else. The other, is that no matter what anyone tells you, it’s basically unmanageable and dangerous.

We see evidence of that danger every day: computer viruses, hackers, ransomware, identity theft, corporate data breaches. We’re involved in a world-wide cyber war, and it’s not clear we can win it. Our power and communications systems are vulnerable, as are our most sensitive weapons and defensive systems. What’s worse, we are so dependent on computer and data systems that a sudden catastrophic failure in them could throw us back to the pre-industrial age. Just ask your favorite techie what a powerful electromagnetic pulse would do to every device that depends on computer chips, including your car, your phones, and your household appliances.

Did you ever imagine that social media would be weaponized against us? The truth is, many of us did. I’ve long considered Facebook an abomination that could easily spell our doom as a society. Facebook is simply data gone wild without regulation or control, and flooding the media with unvetted, unverified, unsourced information could well destroy us.

Mark Zuckerberg assured us that his stable of geniuses could develop tools based on the same artificial intelligence (AI) as the Terminator, that will tell us just how much of what you read on Facebook is Fake News. But don’t believe him. It’s not that he’s deliberately lying, but he lives in a world in which AI can accomplish almost anything. First, it can’t. It’s only as smart as the algorithms it runs on and those only reflect what occurs to the programmers who build them. And second, if it could, we’d really have reason to be terrified.

If the government couldn’t (and still can’t) protect us from having our emails and elections hacked, how can we expect Facebook to safeguard our personal data? And beyond that, consider the cult of personality that has developed around our social media. We all know people who are so immersed in their Facebook personae, the line between fantasy and reality has been all but obliterated.

The revelations about how Facebook has been used against us by people with ulterior motives is a wake-up call that cannot be ignored. I’m not innocent in all this − I use Facebook to disseminate this blog. But I’m thinking we’d all be a lot better off without it. If we all closed our Facebook accounts and tried living without them for a month, imagine what our lives would be like.

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