Facebook and the Database Society

What Facebook has created cannot be undone. Though Zuckerberg and his business may fade into obscurity, the database society they helped create is here to say.
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According to reviewers, the upcoming movie The Social Network describes how Mark Zuckerberg used Facebook to turn his life -- and ours -- into a series of ones and zeroes. In other words, Facebook and other similar services herald the rise of a true database society. Civil libertarians are alarmed. Critics of the digital age are disgusted. But in a generation, those accustomed to database technologies will find it difficult to believe that there was ever a time before Facebook.

The dominant metaphor of the Cold War era was cybernetics -- the study of closed, self-regulating systems. At its heart, George Orwell's 1984 is a depiction of a giant cybernetic system, like the Soviet bloc countries David Ronfeldt describes in his paper "The Prospects for Cyberocracy." Some critics of current movements in science and technology such as Jaron Lanier denounce the legacy of cybernetics as something that gave rise to "cybernetic totalism" -- a system of beliefs that views all of the processes of life as interactions of information. So is Facebook a realization of Orwell on the level of the individual? Not really, but the reality of the database society is hardly comforting either.

If there is a "cybernetic totalism" in Facebook, it lies in our own desire to make our own lives closed, self-regulating systems. The emerging database society reflects individualism, a desire for personal control, and hyper-consumerism. Facebook gives people the ability to categorize, organize, and experience the raw data of their social worlds. These qualities are by no means unique to social networking -- it is embedded in the lived experience of everyday life. Everything from iPods to online dating have evolved similar search, sorting, tagging, and categorization mechanisms.

We want to data-mine our social world, mirroring with simplified search optimization functions the very methods governments use for security purposes. As Hiroki Azuma originally observed about the anime consumption habits of Japanese otakus, popular culture also reflects database logic. Movies and music are less original products than pastiches of pre-existing traits selected for consumer pleasure. We want our products to perfectly reflect our desires, not the personal vision of an auteur filmmaker.

It is easy enough to vilify Mark Zuckerberg but difficult to recognize that Facebook is a reflection of the progressive managerial culture of America, and could not have emerged anywhere else. Zuckerberg is to the information age what the managerial science of Frederick Taylor was to the industrial era -- perhaps future history textbooks will coin the term "Zuckerbergism" for the mode of organization the Harvard graduate helped pioneer. Both created a new style of production, organization, and control, although Taylor focused on the assembly line and Zuckerberg on the social and consumptive lives of individuals.

Just like Taylorism, "Zuckerbergism" is a powerful engine of modernity. Dozens of books, the latest of which is Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus, describe benign and beneficial effects of the database society and the simplified collaboration it allows. However, social critics also claim that Facebook engenders depersonalization, fake "friends," and erosions of public/private distinctions. Some of this may be true, but it's also irrelevant.

What Facebook -- and the desires, collaboration, and everyday content of hundreds of millions of users -- created cannot be undone. Though Zuckerberg and his business may fade into obscurity, the database society they helped create is here to say.

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