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Oct. 28 2009 - 7:14 pm | 324 views | 3 recommendations | 4 comments

Facebook: Where Huxley beats Orwell

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Facebook, and other social networking sites, just may be where the dystopian nightmares of Aldous Huxley will beat out the horrors imagined by George Orwell.

In Orwell’s familiar, overdue vision Big Brother rules. A totalitarian government takes away all privacy and freedom (hard to believe, but the  1984 he envisioned would have been before many readers/writers on T/S were born).

But in Huxley’s more nuanced dystopia we willingly exchange freedom and liberty to experience a few easy pleasures. As reported this week in an excellent series on National Public Radio about online privacy, many who play around on social networking sites just may be proving Huxley prophetic in the way they trade individual rights for a little fun.

Chris Conley of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is particularly concerned about the quizzes that circulate on Facebook.

“These quizzes are very common,” Conley says. “If you go on Facebook you see all your friends have taken a quiz or several quizzes, depending on how much time they spend online.”

What people often don’t realize, Conley says, is that these quizzes are applications. Just like games and other entertainment, they’re programs that run in a user’s Web browser.

via Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think? : NPR.

It may look  innocent enough, a quiz about 70’s pop-stars or  a horoscope application you can enjoy with a private group of selected friends. But Huxley’s trade is right there: you give up valuable and potentially damaging personal information and get a little entertainment in return.

That means your photos, political views, even sexual preferences can be sent back to the stranger who wrote the quiz application.

via Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think? : NPR.

OK, but people don’t have to take these quizzes. No one is forcing them to do so. And don’t people have to explicitly agree to all these terms and conditions when they decided to use the application? Well, sort of. Despite the side effects of “soma” in Huxley’s story, like a shorter life-span, still the claim is made that is has “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”

Look at a screen shot I pulled from the most recent version of something coming into my FB news feed.  While the screen does indeed say the application will pull profile information if you give it access, it does so accompanied by a cute little picture (imagine a skull-and-crossbones or even a sign saying “Warning – Potential Loss of Privacy”). There is also a completely uninformative, misleading statement suggesting the application will be taking the minimal information that the program “requires to work.”  It also says nothing about what it will then do with that information it takes.

Permission screen for a Facebook App

Permission screen for a Facebook App

But the problem is not just with Facebook.

Nathan Hamiel of the Hexagon Security Group has demonstrated how third-party programs could also collect information from MySpace accounts.

To him, the real problem is the false assumption of security on social networks.

“There’s a perceived safety,” he says. “People are a lot more loose with their information because they don’t realize the trust they’re putting into this application developer.”

People tend to open up about themselves on social networks, and that kind of candor is worth money. There are now companies that mine social sites for data to sell to marketers.

via Is Your Facebook Profile As Private As You Think? : NPR.

We’re blinded by the fun that is always there, just a few clicks away; “there is always soma, delicious soma.”

Of course, Orwell still may win should governments decide they too want to mine the rich veins of personal data now being collected primarily for marketing purposes. But for now, we are willingly sacrificing our rights for a few drops of techno-soma. Huxley rules.


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  1. collapse expand

    Great post! This is one of my pet topics as well — what we willingly–though often unknowingly–give up to be entertained. You’re right, Huxley wouldn’t be surprised by what’s going on now. we have so many versions of ‘Soma’ available, Huxley’s original Soma seems quaint by comparison. My add-on to this is that part of what makes our privacy such a commodity is the saturation of media — we’re deluged to the point of not being able to track where our information is going, who we gave it to, etc. It’s like brining a cup of water with you for a swim in the ocean.

  2. collapse expand

    Hum…I guess we can scratch the phrase “Man of Mystery” from our vernacular.

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