A new addiction?

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WhatsApp privacy, “Dilemma in networks” and the dilemma of narcissistic individuals

When the internet was taking its first steps in Brazil, I well remember the enthusiasm of certain individuals with the possibility of transforming it into an instrument to combat the monopoly of information controlled by the major media. It was common to hear idealistic comments like: “now those who don't have a voice will have an opportunity to pierce the communication bubble controlled by the mainstream media”. Others said: “Now any of us can make our own National Journal”. Everything naively pointed to a solidary and domestic use of the possibilities offered by social networks. Finally, in the back of our rooms, we would create “journalistic spaces” with complete independence and with the potential to present themselves as an alternative way of thinking. National Journal and Folha de São Paulo, Among others.

More than twenty years later, where are these utopian idealists? They don't exist, they all surrendered to the siren song of capitalism and the easy profit coming from likes and monetization bells. It was something like the rebellious Hippies of the XNUMXs who became the well-behaved and wealthy Yuppies of the XNUMXs. Capitalism captivates. Youtubers, who we thought would be those young rebels who would break the dictatorship of the formal language of the professional media by presenting an alternative communication devoid of the traps of the market and big capital, ended up becoming young millionaires with their hair dyed pink to seduce the unwary " youth followers” ​​to consume rubble that would make them rivers of money. As for those who thought that the freedom of social networks would provide a qualification for the intellectual debate, they were also frustrated with the outcome. What actually happened was just the opposite, a plethora of shallow, obtuse, unscrupulous figures filled this space, transforming themselves into national celebrities, giving them enough visibility and credibility to enter politics and become champions of votes collaborating for the scenario of scorched earth of the current stage of Brazilian public debate. In addition, supposed opinion makers, very well adapted to the logic of monetization, discovered through channels on You Tube the possibility of earning money (some through slot-machine courses), becoming a celebrity, demonstrating a shallow erudition and even posing as a progressive critic of capitalist exploitation. The right-wing counterparts pose as corruption fighters and defenders of Christian values. As for the population as a whole, it surrendered to the atavistic narcissism typical of Brazilians, deliberately choosing to open up their daily lives in the countless applications created exclusively for this purpose. We become deliberate hostages of the algorithm. That little thing that has the potential to make us permanently ask ourselves the naive question “are they listening to us?”. And the weight of this in the course of democracy? Look for information about a Cambridge Analytica and see how it manipulated our desires, even the most sordid ones, and led us to reproduce, as our own, its own worldview. Zuckerbergs and co have intelligently captivated us by what in a world increasingly empty of transformative utopias nourishes us and gives us identity, our egocentric vanity. From the flannel on the corner to the university professor, everyone surrendered to the public exposure of their bodies and the consequent orgasm of the laudatory comments, vanity is democratic and incorporates, without distinction, all socioeconomic segments.

What would be the point of arrival and reflection on this voluntary trap that we have got ourselves into? The world has lately shown itself sui generis and the pandemic has helped amplify the madness. We recently had an ironic example that could lead us to some critical reflection. I am referring to the release by Netflix of the documentary “Dilemma das Redes”. Where's the irony? First, because it was a Netflix production, itself one of those bigtechs that the film supposedly motivates us to criticize. Second, because it was necessary for the criticism in the film to come from a group of white, rich and powerful American men who got rich and became powerful precisely because they were the creators of the central object of criticism of the documentary itself. I mention two of them, Guilherme Chaslot, one of the creators of the video recommendation mechanism on YouTube (who stopped being a victim of it after watching the film?) and Justin Rosestein, who was behind the infamous Facebook like button (certainly many people received multiple likes when suggesting the movie on your page). It was very interesting to see the suggestion on social networks of supposedly progressive people that we watch the documentary, not without first asking for a like and that we press the bell for other notifications. Bingo. For those who don't know, notifications are precisely one of the negative stars of the “Network Dilemma”, they are the first step towards becoming an addicted and dependent user, do you understand the irony?

This is our real dilemma on the networks. The French Guy Debord had already anticipated this when referring to the vocation of becoming a true society of the spectacle. Or the need to have our 15 minutes of fame in life, as suggested by the American Andy Warhol. But not only the audiovisual sector has been interested in discussing the “network dilemma”, some books have been published on the subject and one of them is very direct in its title: “10 arguments for you to delete your social networks now” by the philosopher Jaron Lanier. The book is very interesting and the title of the third argument is self-explanatory: “Social networks are making you an asshole”. Admittedly, things are not that simple to resolve. Social networks are already an intrinsic reality for human beings and it will not be individual initiatives to break with them (as proposed in the documentary and the book cited) that the problem will be solved. However, the reflection resulting from the film and the book can be the starting point for collective initiatives to build a movement for democratization and social control of the internet and social networks. Returning to the “Dilemma of the networks”, it is not enough to watch the documentary, it is necessary to practice it, but who is willing to take such a radical step in their lives. Especially because, I won't be naive enough to demand that people completely break with their social networks, today, they also took on a social dimension that complements our existence in a more fruitful way. But this is precisely the great dilemma to be resolved.

As we are completely incorporated into the parallel universe of the internet, with its own rules and values, we end up losing the notion that there is a much larger system called capitalism and that the internet and its “ideological devices” are just cogs in this machine for grinding human beings. . By praising the critical approach that the documentary takes on unscrupulous seduction strategies on social networks, but at the same time by becoming increasingly hostages of these same networks, people do not understand the complexity that exists behind this mechanism. By recommending the film and using their arsenal of social networks to do so, at most, what the individual is looking for is supposedly progressive militancy, without, however, leaving the comfort zone of monetization and narcissism. They do not question what really matters, that is, the trap of social media functioning as a perfect financial and ideological weapon of XNUMXst century capitalism. I don't understand the surprise of some in relation to the use of algorithms to induce our tastes and behaviors, just a basic knowledge of commodity fetishism that has already been presented to us since the XNUMXth century by a certain bearded German. Furthermore, what did they expect – mainly the defenders of the minimal State and the free market – that Facebook, Google and others less voted would behave like Buddhist and Franciscan monks? That they would invest billions in research so that their products, once launched on the market, would prioritize the preservation of the consumer's mental well-being instead of profit? A free market is free competition, and free competition is the right to use whatever weapons are necessary to achieve maximum profit at minimum cost. The capitalist of the XNUMXst century no longer fights only for the monopoly of raw materials and the consumer market, he now needs the monopoly of the individual. The logic is that each consumer behaves like a member of a sect. How do you do this? Turning us into zombies that don't let go of our smartphones even when we're sleeping.

In recent days, another dilemma has taken hold of Brazilians, I refer to WhatsApp's initiative to change its privacy policy. The turnaround date is already set, February 8, and users are already receiving the following message from the company: “after that date, you must accept the updates to continue using WhatsApp.” So far, nothing new. It was enough to follow the movement of Mark Zuckerberg since 2010 when Facebook bought Instagram and in 2014 incorporated WhatsApp for several billion dollars. This is XNUMXst century capitalism working in its most perfect order. Coca Cola was already doing this in the XNUMXth century, buying all possible competitors and I don't remember anyone rebelling against this monopoly scandal. On the contrary, the misguided youth is lulled to this day with sips of the infamous imperialist soda. At the time he acquired the apps, Zuckerberg, as a good handler of people, was keen to assert that the group's apps would work independently. Also like a good capitalist, he lied. Years later, WhatsApp began sharing data with Facebook, but as the user had the right to choose to do so or not, there were not so many complaints. He reminded me of that text by Martin Niemoller: “One day they came and took my neighbor who was a Jew. As I'm not Jewish, I didn't mind (…)” Google the rest of the text. What made Zuckerberg not keep the promise? Capitalism. Since it was bought, WhatsApp has never made a profit and in capitalism we have already been taught that there can be no free lunch. The change will “allow companies to outsource the storage and management of messages exchanged with customers to external providers, which can be both companies specializing in this and Facebook itself”.[I] The end-to-end encryption that gives users peace of mind about their privacy will continue to exist in groups and conversations between individuals, "but will cease to exist in conversations with business accounts."[ii] However, this could be an open door to future changes in cryptography. Competitors like Telegram and Signal are already moving in search of WhatsApp widows. But make no mistake, they are not dream entities with a Buddhist background, they are also cogs of XNUMXst century capitalism. In addition, the reaction to the change in WhatsApp is somewhat exaggerated, not least because there is no absolute security in any application. Therefore, the continuity or not of the user with WhatsApp (or another competitor) will depend on the way of use. For individuals who use the application only to maintain ordinary conversations with friends and family or, at the limit, make one or two more critical comments about Brazilian life, nothing that compromises their status as a free citizen, I see no reason to despair. Especially because, I repeat again, this is just capitalism working within its new rules, either we break with capitalism or we embrace political projects of power that question the moral validity of its new rules. Anything outside of that is frivolity.

But what can we learn from this WhatsApp issue? The first step is that people need to better define what they really mean by privacy. Just by opening our computer or smartphone connected to the internet, we are already handing over part of our privacy to the virtual world. Enraptured in our narcissistic vanity, we didn't have time to realize, for even a minute, that tons of data produced daily by ourselves on our social networks are not incinerated in the virtual world. And cookies, why don't we bother with it? For those who don't know what they are, they are files sent during navigation between our devices and the server of the website we are visiting. Based on these files, it is possible to construct an identity of our preferences and return them in the form of “shopping suggestions”. Many important websites, such as newspapers and magazines, condition the user to accept cookies in order to have access to all of their content, I don't remember any virtual anti-cookie revolt.

The blogosphere is, and as long as capitalism exists, big business. That relaxed photograph of your trip to Salvador or the film of your cute little daughter, when published on social networks, become raw material and are transformed into “desire products” that come back to you in the form of a barrage of advertising proposals that in many cases we cannot escape the consumerist fetish generated by them. Here, the concept of ideological surplus value created by the Venezuelan Ludovico da Silva is very current to explain that capitalism exploits us even when we think we are off duty or having fun. Ludovico wrote thinking about television, he didn't know the internet, imagine if he had. WhatsApp really created a problem with the issue of breaching privacy, but to what extent are we not also part of this problem when we deliberately assume the action of opening our daily lives to the immensity of applications placed at our disposal. With each new application that appears, a flock of people rush to incorporate it into their lives, always eager to further expand the possibilities of seeing and being seen.

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg shot himself in the foot with this WhatsApp privacy issue. It may have awakened a sleeping giant called the user who finally realized that in the marketing universe of social networks, he is the consumer, therefore, he is the real boss. However, before taking such a decisive step, we have to work on the great evil of the century that is within each of us, our narcissistic egocentric vanity.

*Eduardo Borges Professor of History at UNEB – Campus XIV.


[I]https://manualdousuario.net/whatsapp-nova-politica-privacidade/ (accessed January 14, 2012).


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