Facebook, should we just be friends?

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This article was written by Mat Lebowitz, designer and technophile.

Am I the only one feeling a little ambivalent about separating from my technology? Facebook is rumored to track and collect 52,000 data points on every user, and not just while we’re on Facebook. Facebook’s tentacles reach after us as we journey to other parts of the world, digital or otherwise, always observing, always monitoring, always gathering data.

So when Apple recently raised its sword in defense of privacy and announced that it would require all users of its devices to “allow” app tracking or “ask app not to track” (rather than continue the need to seek out hidden preferences to control this) it felt like a no brainer and a big win for humanity’s right to privacy. In the last few days, whenever I’ve opened a social application on my iPhone, the opportunity to “ask app not to track” appeared. Who in their right mind would choose otherwise?

And yet … why did I feel uncertain about the decision? Why did I pause when reading the disclaimer and the final appeal by Facebook to keep our relationship entwined?

It wasn’t only that part of me worried that Facebook might begin charging money if I didn’t allow it to track me. Nor was it the much ballyhooed “targeted advertising” that I would, in theory, lose without Facebook’s deep penetration into my shopping habits. Maybe I felt FOMO of losing the optimal Facebook experience if I rejected full engagement with the app. Facebook knows so much about me, surely it delivers a robust, multi-faceted, bespoke environment in ways I don’t even notice. If I keep it at a distance might I be consigned to a chilly, aloof, sterilized version of the platform?

But there’s more to it.

Yes, it’s true that Facebook follows us wherever we go and watches whatever we do, but is this a bad thing? Or is it, perhaps, exactly what we want: someone (or some thing) always with us, endlessly attentive, serving us, fascinated by all of our quirky habits, devoted and ready to engage with us at any given moment? I looked deeper and found the root of an uncomfortable truth: I think I enjoy the companionship. Without it, the digital universe — or, in fact, the corporeal universe — becomes a cold, indifferent place, in which I float and navigate alone.

I doubt anyone really believes that we’ll have success holding technology at bay. Barring some major hiccup that brings down the entire grid, our virtual assistants and companions and platforms will only become more ubiquitous and sophisticated. Our relationship to them will only become deeper, tighter knit, and more economically, medically, socially and, perhaps, spiritually entwined. So why not embrace it? Apple’s effort to help users maintain their privacy might be a setback for the big social media companies, but providing an opt out feature is not a selfless act. Apple will gain a market and public opinion boost as the “privacy company,” but it’s a temporary gain for them and a temporary setback for Facebook. We claim to value our privacy, yet we increasingly sacrifice it in the quest for expedience, convenience, safety and entertainment.

Track or Don’t Track. That was the question. As my finger hovered above the popup toggle, I had the impulse to turn to some objective source for advice. I wanted to understand the potential repercussions of this decision, to ask some omniscient authority if severing ties with Facebook’s tracking was the right decision for me, considering the specifics of my online behavior, social preferences and user habits. Unfortunately, the only authority who knows me well enough to give an informed and helpful opinion is Facebook.

Mat Lebowitz is a designer, a technophile and obsessive Futurist, partner in a hybrid global mobile app development company (mindbowser.com) and writer of speculative fiction that explores our relationship with increasingly sophisticated machines and AI. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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