Updated: Jul 27, 2020
I unfriended Facebook years ago. I had, and still have, a fundamental issue with an unaccountable company owning my personal information and then selling it on to unknown companies. Not to mention the spirit in which our friends at Facebook avoid paying taxes locally, expatriating vast profits so they can continue their aggressive growth.
The head of this giant wants to abdicate responsibility for monitoring what appears on the social network. He would prefer to externalise the cost of the world’s biggest clean-up and the abuse of people’s data, by making governments responsible for a new set of policies and controls – to pass his mess onto someone else, everyone else. He questions why Facebook should be expected to censor the internet. My retort is that Facebook is not the internet. It’s a vast walled city where the social interaction inside has become twisted, manipulated by faceless algorithms that drive “monthly active users” above everything. And we have blindly rewarded this company’s machine-learning priority to expand by linking Facebook’s share price to its user base, regardless of the wider social impacts of “growth hacking”. However, the bigger issue is not my personal issue of my personal information being owned and sold by someone else – it is the issue of bigness.
Every human life, society or organisation has its seasons. There are times for growing and acquisition and times for cutting back and simplification. Both should occur over the natural course of events and both are needed to achieve a balanced outcome. Too much growth or too little pruning invariably creates a problem later as scale and complexity overwhelm our ability to recognise and address the issues arising from excess. The problem is not growth itself but when growth has exceeded a safe scale and proportion.
We see this manifested in Facebook, as the complex and long-distance problems that this distended organisation faces are simply beyond the ability of its employees, management or local governments to solve. No amount of market correction, governmental regulation or organisational change can compensate for the pace with which the problems of excessive size outdistance the efforts to catch up with them. Such entities have blind spots because of their bigness and internal drive for endless growth, that make them operate in ways that are detrimental to the world outside their walls. And these fault lines become ever more visible as they continue to grow beyond a human scale.
Whenever someone says an institution is “too big to fail” then alarm bells should be ringing loudly. No company is too big to fail, the fallout is often not as painful as the dire predictions and, in the medium to long term, economies benefit by permitting their deadweight to die and giving oxygen to green shoots instead. Humans did not evolve to think naturally on very large scales, which is perhaps one of the reasons why we reach these unstable tipping points. There is a remedy to this gigantism – on a corporate scale or at the level of nation states – and it is grounded in the people and places around us, by the things we can control or experience personally.