Mar 302018

As regular readers of this Web log are well aware, my dear sister Rose occasionally makes it known that she would like me to take her out to lunch. The purpose of these repasts is ostensibly to catch up with one another on family affairs – but the fact that it allows her to get away from said family, located as it is in the wilds of Fairfax county, for an interlude of blessed, classy and sophisticated experience downtown certainly figures into the bargain. She always suggests – which in the case of my big sister means, demands – reservations at the best Washington restaurants and today was no exception, as we dined at Fiola in Penn Quarter. After cocktails – two Tom Collins martinis, which she ordered in honor of my upcoming birthday on April 1 (and, of course in honor of my Dad, who invented the drink and named me after it in the first place), and a toast to the Martini clan – Mom, Dad, myself, Rose, my brother Rob Roy Martini, and all the relevant spouses, in-laws and offspring, here or far away, in good standing or in the doghouse, we ordered appetizers. Rose went with the ahi tuna and hamachi crudo with porcini crema, ikura roe and black truffle vinaigrette. I selected the English pea velouté with wild nettles and jumbo lump crab. For our entrées, Rose had the lobster ravioli with ginger and chives, while I opted for the Canary Island brazino and calamari with leeks, prosecco zabaglione and caviar. With that, we split a bottle of Venica & Venica Ronco delle Mele sauvignon, Colli Orientali del Friuli 2016. For dessert, Rose decided on the alba hazelnut gianduiotto with Piemontese caramel. A good choice, I knew, since I have had it there before, but the pineapple and goat’s milk sorbetto won out for me instead.
“Tom,” Rose began as the waiter discreetly departed, “I know we have a lot to discuss, what with Hank and Shannon leaning on Hank Junior for money to finance that crazy survival complex of theirs up in West Virginia; and Arthur developing acute depression after the stock market started tanking everybody’s 401(k) accounts because of this trade war stuff Trump’s dreamed up; and my kids and Arthur’s kids stirring up a Petri dish smorgasbord of flu and God knows what else the last couple of months; not to mention Jason talking about quitting that good software engineering job Rob Roy got him at Whizzonator-YoYoDyne Information Systems to become a professional video game streamer, but I’ve got to tell you, this Facebook thing has really gotten my goat!”
“You and about fifty million other people, it seems,” I replied. “Now you know why I don’t have a Facebook account – or a Twitter account or even a LinkedIn account, for that matter.”
Rose shot me a slightly reproving look over the rim of her martini glass. “No – I don’t. Why?”
“Because,” I explained, “social media has been a ticking time bomb since it became a fad fifteen years ago.”
“A fad?” her eyebrows raised slightly. “How can you call a social phenomenon with two billion participants a fad?”
“It seems to me,” I opined, “that ‘a social phenomenon with two billion participants’ might, in fact, be the quintessential definition of a fad.”
“So you’re putting Facebook on the same level as the hula hoop?” she challenged.
“Actually,” I pointed out, “at the height of the hula hoop fad, factories were producing over fifty thousand of them every day – that’s eighteen million, two hundred and fifty thousand hula hoops a year, and that was in 1958, when the population was less than forty percent of what it is now. The only differences are, people had to go out and buy a hula hoop and then go outdoors in full view their neighbors in order to make complete fools of themselves trying to use it, while today, they can join Facebook for nothing and be observed by the entire world while making complete fools of themselves online.”
“I noticed,” she observed, “that you didn’t say, ‘on the Internet’ when you declared where the people making complete fools of themselves are doing so.”
“That’s because,” I explained, “Facebook is no more the Internet than AOL, Apple applications, the Microsoft Universal Windows Platform or Amazon are. Strictly speaking even the World Wide Web isn’t actually the Internet – it’s a subset. But what percentage of the people on Facebook know that? Most of them think Facebook is the Internet, because it’s the only thing like the Internet they’ve ever known about. And even the ones who know the difference are afraid of the real Internet – they’d rather have this tinker-toy version that scumbag Zuckerberg came up with.”
“All right,” Rose sighed. “I understand. But not everyone’s a tech maven like you, Tom. I admit it – I joined Facebook because I was scared of using the Internet, and I was even more scared of my kids using it. I mean, Facebook is more or less like the real Internet, and I thought that would be close enough and… safer, really, that’s the primary reason – I thought it would be safer for all concerned if we just used Facebook and stayed away from all that other stuff. But why are you calling Mark Zuckerberg a scumbag?”
“Well,” I allowed, “Mark Zuckerberg is certainly not the only scumbag out there – there’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, the original Al Capone and Lucky Luciano of digital tech scumbags. And there’s Steve Case, the ur-scumbag who started off with a 56-K modem porn chat dial-up BBS and, thanks to the ignorance and stupidity permeating major corporate boardrooms, ended up buying Time Warner with stock that paid no dividends and had a price-earnings ratio that would have embarrassed Carlo Ponzi. And there’s Jeff Bezos, naturally, who currently has half the population with IQ’s less than ninety-five thinking that Amazon is the Internet, and Elon Musk, who got rich foisting his insecure and bug-ridden Internet payment software on millions of people who neither wanted or needed it, and Tim Cook, who took the brilliant Internet devices created by a true technological genius and shamelessly used Chinese slave labor to manufacture them for sale in the United States. And there’s Larry Ellison, who turned a well-run relational database company with a decent product line into a junk software pimp-O-rama selling horrible imitations of Microsoft’s already bad imitations of real Internet software products to legions of unsuspecting suckers, and John McAfee, who spread lies and rumors in order to panic the public into paying inflated prices for his ineffectual anti-virus programs, and Garret Camp and Travis Kalanick, who founded Uber, and Logan Green and John Zimmer, who founded Lyft, and Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone and Evan Williams, who founded the most vapid, moronic and malignant Internet business ever conceived, called Twitter, and, of course, there’s Sergey… ”
“Okay, Tom, I get it, I get it,” Rose wearily interrupted in that tone of hers, which she has been using since I was about fourteen, which says, ‘Yes, the evil and dishonest prosper while the good and virtuous are trampled underfoot, and yes, I know that offends you, but the world has always been thus, now quit bitching and get to the point.’” She slowly drained her martini while gazing at me intently as the waiter delivered her appetizer. “I hereby stipulate that Mark Zuckerberg is just another high-tech Internet scumbag. But as you were just telling me, digital technology in general and Internet technology in particular apparently attracts scumbags. Now, why is that?”
“Because legislators and regulators are always five to ten years behind technology,” I explained. “So if some scumbag can figure out a clever way to rape the public’s wallets, culture, productivity, dignity and /or minds using it, then they can amass enough money to hire enough lawyers, generate enough fawning media adulation and accumulate enough fame to get them out of any consequences of the laws and regulations which are eventually put in place to keep them from running completely amok. The scumbags even have a word for it.”
“What’s that?” Rose asked.
“Disruption.” I replied. “Whenever a scumbag has some scam or racket they can implement with digital technology, well then, that’s not theft, that’s not fraud, that’s not invading privacy, creating uncontrollable compulsive addictions, destroying attention spans or endangering society’s peace and welfare, hell, no – that’s ‘disruption,’ and watch all the sycophantic fools in the media fall all over themselves praising that scumbag and his latest ‘disruption,’ because ‘disruption’ is so hip and cool, and besides, how could anything that generates such big piles of cash be bad?
“I think we’ve seen how,” Rose murmured as she contemplated a fork of ahi tuna. “My cousin fills out some stupid survey for Facebook and all my personal data gets stolen and given to Cambridge Analytica.”
“Who use it to make up lies that are specifically tailored to your world view and tell them to you,” I continued. “For a price, paid for with Russian oligarch money that’s been provided by Vladimir Putin, funneled through an FSB agent and custom laundered by Paul Manafort.”
“Hmph!” Rose fretted. “There’s no excuse for it! Where does this Zuckerberg character get off, treating Facebook’s customers like that?”
“There’s your key fallacy,” I quickly pointed out. “You and your cousin and the other fifty or one hundred million other people who got their personal lives scraped off their Facebook walls aren’t Zuckerberg’s customers and never will be. Facebook’s customers are the advertisers who pay him billions to get the data necessary to afflict you with perfectly targeted pitches artfully constructed to sell you things. In reality, Facebook users are just a product Zuckerberg sells to his genuine, paying customers.”
“You mean,” Rose huffed, “that the stories of our lives are just something to be ripped off and hawked like rutabagas and fish heads being sold on a street corner in some third-world market bazaar?”
“Actually,” I replied, “I’ve been told that if you read the Facebook Terms of Service agreement all the way through, you’ll find that the exact words are ‘vended like cheap falafel off the back of a gypsy food truck in Brooklyn.’”
“Okay,” she relented, “let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re right – its users are just a source of information that Facebook has been selling like commodity soy beans for swine feed. Couldn’t Zuckerberg do something about it, now that this Cambridge Analytica mess has finally revealed what the problem is? After all, they say Facebook is going to revamp the privacy settings now, don’t they?”
“Sure,” I allowed, “Zuckerberg can fiddle around with the privacy settings, and Facebook can mount a campaign to educate users about how to configure their account security. However, what Zuckerberg can’t do is make any significant changes to Facebook’s fundamental business model. Maybe, in the future, Facebook might be able to keep certain entities like the Russian government, the NRA or the Republican Party from employing users’ private data to target them with slyly fabricated customized propaganda, but no way is Facebook going to stop collecting its users’ private data and selling it to someone, because that’s the scumbag way Facebook makes its money and if Facebook stops selling your private life on the open market, then Facebook doesn’t make doodly-squat.”
“But, gee, Tom, I don’t know quite how to put this,” she confessed, “well… um… I’d hate to have to quit Facebook, you know? Because I kind of like using my computer to share my life with my friends.”
“Back when the Web browser was invented,” I reminded her, “people used their computers to do just that. They’d set up their personal Web sites and correspond using email and FTP. They’d even set up special common Web sites where everyone could log in and visit with one another electronically. And nobody got their personal data stolen and sold off to the highest bidder while they were doing it, either.”
Rose gave me a surprised look as the bus boy quietly whisked away her empty appetizer plate and the sommelier began uncorking our wine. “They did?”
“I’m certainly not making this up,” I assured her. “There have been Internet communities as long a there has been an Internet. They just weren’t walled gardens like Facebook. I mean, really, when you think about it, aside from some juvenile, asinine features such as “friending” and “liking,” there’s nothing Facebook can offer you that wasn’t already available on the World Wide Web years before Mark Zuckerberg sprouted pubic hair. But suppose, as you said, for the sake of argument, that you wanted something like Facebook, only it would be something that functioned without you having to surrender your soul in digital form to use it. How would that strike you?”
“Very positively,” she opined as the waiter elegantly served her entrée. “Um… I think. What’s the catch?”
“Let’s say you’d have to pay eight dollars a month for it,” I posited. “Consider the proposition – exactly the same as Facebook, only instead of it being free and some greedy advertisers being the customers and you being the product, you’d fork over a little dough and presto! You’re the customer!”
“Yeah, but for ninety-six bucks a year?” Rose frowned. “I don’t know, Tom. Isn’t stuff on the Internet supposed to be free?”
“That right there, my beloved sister,” I proclaimed as I tucked in to my brazino and calamari, “that’s the question which has made Mark Zuckerberg the richest little snot that ever dropped out of Harvard’s pimply behind.”