I am suspicious of any ideology that deals in absolutes.
I am suspicious of any cause whose sacred principles require others to make a sacrifice.
But we'll come back to that.
Facebook went down without warning yesterday.
To be honest, I was busy and didn't really notice until I started getting messages from various friends and family asking what was going on. Yes, I'm that guy. I've got a couple of degrees in CompSci and nowadays I make a living via the internet, so I'm the one in my circle people call when they're having problems with The Google.
I looked into it, mostly by checking other social media sites, and assured them it wasn't on their end. Likely things would be back to normal in a few hours or so.
But, it got me thinking about my dad.
When he was young, my dad was the most active guy I knew. He was a veteran, a Navy man, restless, always going, full of energy, he had a million friends, and he was always eager to learn new things.
But you get older.
The horizons get closer and closer as the years go by.
You live long enough, you start to lose people, friends, family. You lose connections. Your eyesight goes and your hearing. You hurt. Goddamn, how you hurt after a while. The world speeds up and you slow down, things change, complexity increases, it gets harder and harder to keep up until you just can't any more. You become more and more distanced from the world.
His health went to hell. The things he used to love doing, he couldn't do any more.
But there was the internet.
Wait, what? Birds?
My dad became a birder. A bird watcher. He loved birds, always had. It was something he could do. Something he could still enjoy without reservation. He'd walk slowly downstairs every morning in his old ratty Navy sweats (later riding the chairlift the VA installed in my folk's farmhouse when he could no longer manage the steep stairs), and shuffle out to the sunroom to see who might be visiting his feeders. I think he spent more on food for those birds than he did on feeding himself. On cold Michigan mornings when he hurt too bad to do it himself, my mom would fill the feeders for him. There he'd sit in his old easy chair, watching intently. He knew them all, the various species, the colors, male and female, their songs. When he was able, he'd sit out in his woodshop and make birdhouses. He could talk about birds all day and my folks' property was often a riot of wings and color and birdsong.
He had my old film cameras set up inside the glass. And he'd spend the day happily snapping away. He'd get the film developed and laboriously scan in the images to his computer -- why not a digital camera? Because he knew how to do film and that's what he was comfortable with and what business is it of yours?
And then, well, then he'd spend hours sharing those pictures with other birders on social media.
He was one of Cornell University's legion of bird watchers, carefully tracking migrations and sightings and another data points in a vast global web of science and information. In the last years of his life, it was what gave him joy. It gave his life meaning and purpose. It mattered to him. It was something he could do. Every day. He looked forward to it.
But see, there's something I haven't told you.
My dad was prone to depression, as a lot of older people are.
When he was cut off from those things that mattered to him, it affected him badly. When his internet connection was down or the software didn't work or he couldn't connect to the things that gave his life joy, well, it was depressing. He'd muddle on, find something else to do, but still it hurt him.
And that's what I was thinking about yesterday when Facebook went down.
My dad's been gone for longer than I like to think about now, my mom lives alone in the old farmhouse. She's a thousand miles away. We talk. She's got her friends, a lot fewer now than there used to be. But there's been a pandemic for two years now, social distancing, services shut down, the things people like her do to maintain their social lives have gotten a lot harder in recent years -- and it was already hard enough before.
If you live long enough, loneliness becomes a looming ghost in your life.
And so social media, Facebook, is important to a lot of people. It's part of their lives. Just as other forms of technology are, TV, phones, electricity.
Now, I can already hear the righteous rage, because people have been righteously screaming rage at me for going on 24 hours now.
So, before we go any further, I suppose this is where I have to make a disclaimer:
Yes, it does.
Facebook sucks giant festering donkey balls.
I'm not talking about Facebook the platform, though that sucks too.
I'm talking about Facebook the monstrous, multi-tentacled, poorly managed, juggernaut of a company.
Those who have followed me for more than a few minutes know, or should know, my opinion of Facebook. And Twitter. And massive global multibillion dollar corporations in general.
And that opinion is not high.
Facebook, Twitter, et al are very often churning cesspools of the very worst of humanity.
I have said so. Many times over the years.
I moved my content back to here because of it.
I've written over and over about the damage these unregulated platforms are doing to our civilization, about how internet billionaires like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are essentially spoiled maladapted children who've been handed a loaded machinegun, and about how our enemies are demonstrably using these communications systems every day to wage information warfare on our democracy in a manner most of our leaders are ill-equipped to even comprehend let alone counter with any degree of effectiveness -- I mean, you only have to look at Senator Blumenthal on your TV right now doddering on hysterically about the "The Finsta" to see that.
And there's always a but isn't there?
But, the very things that make these platforms so dangerous are also the things that give meaning and joy and purpose and opportunity to many people.
People like my dad.
They aren't trying to destroy the world, they just want to talk to other people who enjoy looking at pictures of birds.
And in that regard, well, Facebook is their world.
And that's what I was thinking about yesterday when Facebook went down and I said on Twitter:
I'm literally texting with older family members right now who are suddenly isolated due to FB being down. It's hugely frightening for them to be cut off from their primary means of social interaction.
I don't think some of you really understand what this is like for some people.
Now, please note that I did not say: Facebook is awesome!
I said that for some people who I was talking to, the sudden unexplained outage of their primary means of social interaction was terrifying, disorientating, depressing.
But I didn't say: hey, Facebook is awesome and we should have more of it and please let me gargle Mark Zuckerberg's tiny hairless balls.
What I said did not seem controversial to me.
A day later, it still doesn't.
I said that for many people, ordinary people who have little other means of social interaction, Facebook is important. And maybe a lot of us don't realize just how important until it goes down and they call you up worried that they did something wrong. And those people are not monsters, they just regular folks, old, confused, lonely.
And that, predictably, did not sit well with a lot of very, very righteous people.
I'm eager to watch this person spend the day talking 90-year-olds through the download, installation, and setup of Zoom software, along with the requisite video conferencing hardware, and get them all connected and chatting via some sort of coordination process that doesn't involve social media or long distance international charges and yet somehow magically functions on a global scale.
But it's more than that.
Do you see the assumption in that comment? Start a zoom party! Set up video conferencing! This assumes everyone can not only access the necessary technology and can afford it, but that audio and video are suitable mediums for them. I guess if you're hearing or vision impaired, you're just shit out of luck. More, it assumes everyone you socialize with is online at the same time you are. Oh, and here's a thing you might not be aware of: not everybody has the bandwidth. My mom? That farmhouse I mentioned? Rural Michigan. Farming country. No cable service. No fiber. No broadband. You can't even get copper DSL anymore because it wasn't profitable for the local phone companies. So, she accesses the internet via a cellular connection and she's lucky to get that because the cell tower in the cornfield behind her house is only a few years old -- a lot of areas near her don't even have that. So, she's got a cell connection and a limited number of bits each month. And beyond that things get very expensive very fast. Even in the local town, access is limited. Remember when Biden was talking about broadband as infrastructure? That's why. Because there's a lot of America, probably more than you care to imagine, just like this.
Some people can't just go outside and "meet people in real life," and it takes a hell of a lot of unconscious privilege to think that's some sort of solution for everyone -- especially when you're condescendingly suggesting it on social media.
Some people can't just easily switch to other platforms. They don't know how. Or those platforms don't work for them. Or those platforms don't connect them to the world they need -- not you, not your needs, theirs.
And then there's this idea, shouted at me over and over these last 24 hours about how people existed before the internet, before Facebook, they can do it again. Like my 90-year-old mom is going to roll outside in her walker because Facebook is down and take up skydiving or something. Oh, man, if only I hadn't been socializing on The Facebook all these years, look at what I missed! Woohoo, Imma try some rodeo next!
And it's worse than that because for the last two years we've been telling these people to stay home, to avoid physical contact, to isolate. And now -- now -- here you are shouting for them to go outside and meet people?
I mean, can you even hear yourselves?
A lot of these people lived full lives. Some of them were skydivers, or racecar drivers, or scientists, teachers, pilots, doctors, adventurers, veterans... But, here you are telling them to go outside and do stuff because it's just that easy when you're 90 years old and dragging an oxygen tank behind your walker.
Again, if you live long enough, the horizons close in and there comes a day where you just can't anymore. Before the internet, before social media, when that happened a lot of people just sat and waited to die. No matter how attentive and caring, their families have lives of their own. There can't be someone there all the time. A lot of their friends are gone. Their spouses. Their families. There can't always be someone who understands. Who shares your interests and experiences. Social media, Facebook for good or ill, provides a means to connect to others who do share your history, a place to still be able to interact and be part of the world. These things matter.
Those who are suddenly cut off from that, well, it's frightening, it's lonely, it's unsettling, even if it's "only" for a few hours and it shouldn't take a lot of empathy or imagination to see that.
Should there be a better way? A better company? A better platform? One that's not destroying the country too?
Sure. Of course. Why not?
But here's the thing: Facebook is like a coal-fired power plant.
Yeah, it's terrible for the environment. There's going to be consequences. It's poisoning people. It's destroying the future. It's polluting the air and water. It is. No argument. But, it also provides power. It keeps the lights on, it keeps thousands of homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer, it provides the juice to run industry and schools and hospitals. Without it we'd freeze or starve or have to squat in the dark and shit in a hole. We need that energy. People die without it.
Right. You're that guy. The one up above in those tweets. People existed before technology, they can do it again. Learn to grow their own food, pump their own water, milk cows, make candles, ride horses or walk, live their allotted time and die. Life was better then. Right?
Civilization existed before electricity.
We could go back to that time.
But there are unpleasant side effects and quite frankly I don't want to live in the fucking Stone Age.
Could we do better than burning coal to power our civilization? Of course. Obviously. There's something between caveman and murder the planet.
But you can't just burn down the powerplant without having an alternative in place.
Well, I mean, you could.
In point of fact, that's exactly what certain people demanded of me yesterday. Shut it off. Burn it down. Old people were fine before Facebook, they'll be fine without it now. LGBT people found ways to communicate before social media, they'll go back to that. Shut-ins should just get up off the couch and go outside, learn to skydive, make their own candles, tan leather, meet real people! Shut it down. Do better.
Yeah, that's not better. That's not a plan. That's arson and people die in a fire.
It's not just old people.
It's not just disabled people and the shut-ins.
It's not just those who use social media to keep in contact with loved ones deployed overseas and who have family far away.
It's not just the introverts or those with crippling social anxiety.
It's not just those who have reason to hide their identity in the real world for fear of violence and hate and who without social media would have no social interaction where they could be themselves.
It's not just those who find joy in a larger world they would have never known outside of an online global community of people who share their interests -- like birds.
It's not just people who have built businesses and a living around these platforms.
It's not just about writing letters or using a phone or reading a book or going outside to meet people.
It's all of those things and much, much more.
And if you can't see that, then that says a hell of a lot more about your lack of empathy and imagination than it does about those who use Facebook.
Can we do better? Can we regulate these companies? Can we limit the power of those like Zuckerberg and Facebook? Can we prevent these platforms from becoming weapons aimed at the head of our Republic? And can we do it without marginalizing those who need it most?
Of course we can.
But burning it all down isn't how you do any of that.
When I described an analogy on Twitter yesterday similar to the power plant metaphor above, this guy showed up:
Sorry about the people, but my principles are more important.
Collateral damage, someone else said. Dismissing those innocents who might be lost when we bulldoze that big polluting company. We've got to think about the bigger picture, the country, sacrifices have to be made.
Sorry about the collateral damage, but this is war.
It's funny, ironic, that those liberals who are most eager to sacrifice others to their crusade against Facebook are the very same people, almost name for name, who were outraged when the Republican Lt. Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, suggested those very same old people should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the economy.
I pray to the gods of technology to grant me the confident assurance of every mediocre tech bro on Twitter.
I am leery of any ideology, left, right, or other, that deals in confident absolutes.
And I am suspicious of any cause, no matter how noble, that requires others to sacrifice for your principles.
If you want a better world, be a better human being.