Facebook had a very bad week last week. First, Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook assigned to the Civic Integrity group, blew the whistle on her past employer, leaking a cache of internal company documents and testifying in front of Congress that the social media giant is knowingly and repeatedly “paying for its profits with our safety.” Then things got significantly worse when Facebook basically disappeared from the internet for 6 hours on Monday, Oct. 4. This was the biggest outage Facebook had experienced since a 2019 crash that took the site offline for over 24 hours. Facebook has said that last week’s outage was unrelated to news about the leaks and that it was the result of a routine software update gone horribly wrong. The outage, however, affected billions of people who depend on the suite of applications and services owned by Facebook that went offline, including Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.
While Facebook is back online and the news cycle has largely moved on, it’s important to take a step back and examine what these outages tell us about the precariously assembled infrastructure of our digital world, our global dependence on that infrastructure, and the implications of having that infrastructure controlled by private, incredibly powerful, and voraciously profit-seeking entities like Facebook. In this interview for The Real News podcast, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with writer, commentator, and legal services attorney Sparky Abraham, who wrote a 2020 article for Current Affairs titled “A Series of Tubes: Reclaiming the Physical Internet.”
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network podcast. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. So, let’s take a few minutes to talk about Facebook’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. So last week, things started off pretty bad for the social media giant when Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook who was assigned to the civic integrity group, publicly revealed her identity and blew the whistle on her past employer.
As Alex Cranz and Russell Brandom at the Verge reported, “The whistleblower behind the leak of an enormous cache of Facebook documents to the Wall Street Journal, Frances Haugen, went public on 60 Minutes on Sunday, revealing more of the inner workings of the most powerful social media platform in the world. Revealing her identity on national television, Haugen described a company so committed to product optimization that it embraced algorithms that amplify hate speech. ‘It’s paying for its profits with our safety,’ Haugen told 60 Minutes host Scott Pelley.
According to a since-deleted LinkedIn profile, Haugen was a product manager at Facebook assigned to the civic integrity group. She chose to leave the company in 2021 after the dissolving of the group. She said she didn’t ‘trust that they’re willing to invest what actually needs to be invested to keep Facebook from being dangerous.’’” All right. So then Haugen testified in front of Congress about the content and the implications of the information that she leaked to the press and to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Now, in case you haven’t read it, here’s the opening to the blockbuster report based on Haugen’s leaks that has been published by the Wall Street Journal. It’s actually a series of reports, but this is the opening paragraphs on the main page of the Wall Street Journal. “Facebook, Inc. knows in acute detail that its platforms are riddled with flaws that cause harm often in ways only the company fully understands. That is the central finding of a Wall Street Journal series based on a review of internal Facebook documents, including research reports, online employee discussions, and drafts of presentations to senior management.
Time and again, the documents show Facebook’s researchers have identified the platform’s ill effects. Time and again, despite congressional hearings, its own pledges, and numerous media exposés, the company didn’t fix them. The documents offer perhaps the clearest picture thus far of how broadly Facebook’s problems are known inside the company up to the chief executive himself.”
So, that’s how Facebook’s week started. Then things got significantly worse when Facebook basically disappeared from the internet for six hours on Monday, Oct. 4.
This was the biggest outage Facebook had experienced since a 2019 crash that took the site offline for over 24 hours. Facebook has said that last week’s outage was unrelated to news about the leaks, and that it was the result of a routine software update gone horribly wrong. Frankly, I don’t have the expertise to walk us through the specifics of that update and what went wrong and what it took to fix it, but we will be posting some explanatory sources in the show notes for listeners.
For today’s special conversation, though, we thought it was more important to take a step back, zoom out, and talk about what these outages really tell us about the precariously assembled infrastructure of our digital world, our global dependence on that infrastructure, and the implications of having that infrastructure by and large controlled by private, incredibly powerful, and voraciously profit-seeking entities like Facebook. And I could not think of a better person to help us navigate all of this than the brilliant Sparky Abraham.
Now, by day, Sparky is a legal services attorney in California, and he does exceedingly important work providing those legal services to working people who desperately need them. But Sparky is also an amazing writer and commentator. Listeners probably know of Sparky’s great past work at the magazine Current Affairs, including a fantastic 2020 article called “A Series of Tubes: Reclaiming the Physical Internet.” And I will never get over how much I love that title, but anyway, I’m honored to be joined on The Real News Network podcast by the one and only Sparky Abraham. Sparky, thank you so much for joining us today, man.
Sparky Abraham: Thanks, Max. That was far too kind, but good to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m going to make it a running tradition to embarrass the hell out of all of our great guests, but–
Sparky Abraham: Consider yourself having succeeded.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay, good. Well, I’m not blowing smoke up anyone’s ass, right? If you haven’t read that article by Sparky, you definitely should. I think it is something that we’re really going to dig into here. I think it was one of the first things I thought of when all this news about Facebook’s horrible week started coming out. And I think it’s important to also add, as we get rolling here, that it’s important to start off from the fact that this is much bigger than I think a lot of people, especially in North America, are thinking about.
Just to throw in one more quote from Yulia Talmazan at NBC News, Yulia writes: “More than 2 billion people in over 180 countries use WhatsApp, while Facebook has more than 3 billion users worldwide, according to WhatsApp and Facebook (Facebook owns WhatsApp. It also owns Facebook, Facebook messenger, and Instagram). A recent GlobalWebIndex report on worldwide social media users showed that in countries like Kenya, Argentina, Malaysia, Columbia, and Brazil, more than 90% of those aged 16 to 54 used WhatsApp.” So, before we get really into the meat and bones here, Sparky, I’m curious what your sort of initial impressions were last week as this was all unfolding?
Sparky Abraham: I think that my initial initial impression, before I really thought of it, was a little bit of humor. It was kind of funny. I think that upon some further reflection and if folks haven’t seen, Max, your appearance on, was it, Rising on the Hill, talking particularly about sort of this WhatsApp issue, I think that it does turn the humor into a sort of horror. On the one hand, I think that a lot of people around our age are mostly off of Facebook as a social media platform at this point, or many are at least in…
Sparky Abraham: It’s kind of got its own characteristics, but it really is hard to overstate the extent to which WhatsApp in particular is basically a central communications infrastructure now in a lot of the world. And so, I think that Facebook going down has consequences for people and things within the United States, but it’s very easy to adopt a sort of myopic view of how big of a deal it is and how many people are dependent in how many areas of their lives on this one particular company.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I guess we’ll link to that as well in the show notes, but for folks who didn’t see, I went back on the show Rising over at the Hill last week, and the Facebook outage was one of the subjects of one of our two panels. And that panel got pretty heated, because I eventually blew my fuse when it was clear that the discussion was really getting incredibly myopic as we were talking about, oh, what are Frances Haugen’s political or financial motivations for making this leak? What is she trying to get out of it? And then even one of the co-panelists had the audacity to say, oh, Facebook went down for a few hours. Was anyone actually negatively impacted by that?
That’s when I blew my gasket because I was like, we are talking about a suite of services that aren’t just the kind of Facebook social media platform that we’re all kind of accustomed to here in the United States. But we are talking about a company whose services and applications have such a deep reach into the basic infrastructure of social and economic life in countries around the world. Like I just said, the users of Facebook is in the billions. And we can’t talk about this just as a United States or North American problem and kind of slough it off as like, oh yeah, our crazy uncles couldn’t post some conspiracy theory bullshit for six hours, how bad is that?
But when you’re talking about doctors in India saying that they couldn’t communicate with their staff because they use WhatsApp, or business owners saying that they couldn’t process anything because in a lot of countries, Facebook is the internet, or WhatsApp is the primary mode of communication. It really did signal this outage, and the 2019 outage, really did signal how deep Facebook’s control over that essential infrastructure across the globe really is.
And this is again why I really wanted to bring you on Sparky, because I think that in order for us to wrap our heads around that central question, of, like, what that infrastructure is, what Facebook and other private companies’ control over it means for our daily lives, we have to first stop and think about infrastructure as such. And this is what you do so beautifully in that article that we mentioned, “A Series of Tubes.” So I was wondering if we could start there and try to give listeners, I guess, a sense of the enormity of this infrastructure’s place in our lives. Like what it actually is, and how deep Facebook’s tentacles are in it.
Sparky Abraham: Yeah. So, I think there are a number of different ways to talk about this, and a number of different places to start. I do think that oftentimes when you hear these discussions, they tend to focus on a few important, but not whole-picture, aspects. So people, when they talk and think about the internet, they often think of their experiences of the internet. So they’re often talking about the user-facing features and websites, how they function, what their features are. Or maybe sometimes they think in terms of the major companies that they know and have interactions with. And so that’s going to be Facebook, Google, Netflix.
It might also be companies that provide their home internet service, internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon. I think what all of that misses is the sort of vast universe of companies and processes and actual physical things that exist beneath, within, between, all of those interacting pieces. When you are looking at Facebook, you are not just interacting with Facebook.
You are interacting with a myriad of different pieces of technology, and different companies, and different owners that all run between you and wherever the information that you’re accessing lives, like, physically lives. And that itself is a worldwide, almost exclusively privately owned, network that has become completely essential to the way that we live our lives, but more or less has completely divorced itself from the ability to be controlled or regulated or democratic in any meaningful sense.
Maximillian Alvarez: And this is where the “Series of Tubes” line comes from, right?
Sparky Abraham: Yeah. I mean, just to kind of put a point on this. So, Max, you’re in Baltimore right now?
Maximillian Alvarez: Yes, sir.
Sparky Abraham: Okay. So you’re in Baltimore and I’m in Oxnard in California, and we’re talking to each other. And the thing that allows us to talk to each other is that there is actually, like, a physical wire that runs from my house out to a telephone pole outside the back of my house. And then that wire runs to, basically, a switching box down the block, and that switching box has wires that run to a switching center. And then those wires run to a larger switching center, and then those run to another large switching center. And there’s a continuous string that leapfrogs from place to place all the way across the country, and ends with a wire that runs to your house, to where you live.
And so what we’re talking about when we’re talking about interacting on Facebook is kind of this very surface layer of the appearance of the information that we’re sending back and forth as it manifests on our screen. And that’s obviously very important. There have to be ways for me and you to be able to interact with our devices, such that we’re sending information to each other that’s readable. It’s also the case that there’s a lot more going on there, and so many places where something can go wrong.
And so many places where it often does go wrong, and [these are] very delicate systems, and companies that own these things go bankrupt and have problems and they lobby for legislation, and it’s all a very large, very contingent system that I think we take for granted in ways that are really weird. It’s weird the extent to which we take Facebook for granted such that somebody can go on TV and be like, oh, Facebook goes down, what’s the big deal, and like you said, meanwhile, is actually potentially causing people to die, or to lose their livelihoods in other places that we just happen to be able to not think about.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I mean, that’s why I really wanted to bring you on and sort of unpack this. Because I think that in so many ways, the task at hand of first kind of understanding the scope, and scale, and intricacy of that infrastructure, it’s such a large task. Because it is by definition the thing that is designed to be out of sight. It is designed to be the thing that we don’t think about, all of that physical infrastructure that makes the appearance of seamless communication and commerce like you were just describing.
The fact that we’re talking here, you sound clear as day, but you are thousands of miles away, that seamlessness is part of the product. That’s what it’s designed to do and we don’t think about all of those cables, all of those switch boxes, all of those servers, all of that energy and genuine physical material, to say nothing of the labor that is involved in keeping that thing running.
And then we also scale that out to think about not only satellites in space, but the fact that this is a global network. It’s almost as hard to compute as the size of the universe itself. But every now and then we get these little reminders, some more ridiculous than others. The one I’m thinking about, which I was reminded of by our great managing editor, Jocelyn Dombroski, is that–
Sparky Abraham: Tell me you are going to the sharks. Tell me you are going to talk on the sharks.
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m going to the sharks.
Sparky Abraham: Yes!
Maximillian Alvarez: In 2014, we had sharks attacking the internet. There are fiber optic cables between the United States and Europe, the United States and Japan, that sharks were literally biting and attacking on the ocean floor. And it seemed like such a dumb problem to have where we were like, look at the human race at the pinnacle of civilization, we have created the means for communicating instantaneously across the globe on these sleek computers and smartphones. Oh shit, here comes a shark biting the very thing that makes that happen. What do we do? But we got that reminder of actually how fragile and interconnected that the physical infrastructure is, and how dependent we are upon it.
Sparky Abraham: Yeah. Let me ask you, so, one thing that’s got me thinking about is the little that I know about the history of electricity generation in the United States. And one of the things that I’ve been reading about is the way that electricity, when electricity generation started, it started more or less as a novelty. And there were private companies that started generating electricity and then distributing that out very, very locally on a block by block basis.
But as the use picked up, the public policy debate emerged of, oh wait, this might be something that’s very important, that’s very useful. How are we going to deal with it? And a large part of that debate basically shuffled down to, well, we can have kind of two models. One of them is a public ownership and electricity generation model, and one of them is a private ownership and electricity generation model, but in a way that is heavily regulated to ensure that its sort of public central nature is continued and it’s reasonably priced, et cetera, et cetera.
And those were the two camps and that was the big fight, and it played out in different ways in different places, which is why some places have municipally owned or otherwise publicly owned electricity companies, and other ways have investor-owned utilities, and it all ends up with this big messy mishmash. It’s kind of interesting to me that now with internet companies, companies like Facebook, or companies that actually own wires like AT&T, we’ve kind of gotten to the point with the internet where the argument isn’t even that.
We’re not even arguing about whether we should have highly regulated internet services or publicly owned internet services. It’s both way bigger than power was when we were having that argument, and the radical position that gets any traction at all is just regulation. And we haven’t even been able to get that. It’s crazy to look at it in the historical context of how we’ve dealt with, essentially, very similar if not identical problems before, and see just how limited our imagination and options are in terms of dealing with this stuff.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I mean, I think that bringing up the kind of rise of electricity in the electrified world is really instructive here. In a past life, I was a media scholar and media history scholar. And so as you were talking, I flipped around and pulled a book off my shelf that I would encourage folks to check out. It’s a book by Carolyn Marvin called, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. And Marvin, I think, does a really beautiful job.
It does get a little academic and jargony at certain points, but I think once you get into the meat of the main chapters you really get some great historical analysis that proves the point that you were just making. Marvin goes back into the 19th century, looks at not only how the invention of electricity, how the creation of that infrastructure to electrify homes and businesses across the United States, developed, but she also looks at how people around the country were thinking about this, because there were a lot of fears about this.
I think we’ve all seen the old cartoon about the dangers of electricity lines in neighborhoods and people even thinking about the systems of control, the ways that we could communicate better with the spiritual world. There’s a whole interesting history there in the 19th century of what futures people imagined with the unlocked technology of electricity.
Sparky Abraham: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: Then you kind of zoom forward, and so much of what that imagined future has become in reality is, like you said, the result, not of the potential of this technology, but in fact eliminating of that potential and a corralling of that potential into a social and economic system that serves the needs of the rich and the powerful.
There are even, like, great anecdotes here about how electricity really developed as something that only rich people had available to them. A lot of what came to be central functions of our electric infrastructure were developed because rich people wanted to use electricity to better safeguard their homes against the unwashed masses, and creating electric fences and lighting to keep vagrants and working class people away from their properties and stuff like that, but there is this sort of way that when we take stock of what our technologies are today, we just kind of assume that this is the only form that they can take and in fact, this is the best form that those technologies can take. But, in fact, every technology is sort of socially constructed.
Everything is the result of decisions that are made and not made, potentials that are encouraged and/or disincentivized. I don’t want to get too abstract here, but I guess to maybe bring it back down to the question about Facebook and social media and the internet, think about all the promises that were made 20 years ago, or 25, 30 years ago, about what the internet age would be, what it would allow us to do. Some of those have come true. As we were saying, it is now possible for us to communicate this seamlessly across thousands of miles and then publish that and present it to people all around the world. That’s really cool.
But at the same time, a company like Facebook really shows that we don’t have all that much control over what these technologies look like and the changes that are made to those technologies, those platforms, those things that impact us, whether those be changes to the algorithm, whether that be Apple taking out the goddamn headphone jack in its phones. There are so many decisions that are made about the technologies that we depend on that we are not really making ourselves, but we kind of take for granted. There’s this sort of conceit that, well, this is just what progress looks like. We entrust the direction of progress to the people who have historically had a vested interest in taking these technologies and using them for their profit-seeking and power-hungry ends.
Sparky Abraham: I think that when this stuff emerges you often have people with a lot of very imaginative creative ideas for what might happen. You immediately get, like, an explosion of future utopia. I expect this is what happened with electricity, and certainly it happened with the internet. The early internet gave rise to so many utopian sort of cultures and subcultures in terms of the open source community, and there was this idea that we were going to create this sort of, like, frictionless, beautiful world of understanding.
So my dad had a bunch of weird stuff, among which was, like, the electricity pain healing machines, which were basically just tubes with a little bit of gas in them such that if you run a current through it, like not neon, but it gives you, like, a little purple electricity effect, like a little purple arc. And so you basically turn the thing, and this is like some magical concoction from the 1890s that’s going to solve your pain, or get rid of your double chin and make your hair grow back. Or when people were kind of first turned on to radiation as a thing, radiation was going to be a miracle cure for a bunch of stuff.
And they had radium-lined water jugs, so you could leave your highly radioactive water jug overnight and then drink it in the morning for health. And similarly you kind of see, like you were talking about with electricity and electric fences, and then, where does nuclear technology take us? Well, it takes us first and foremost to nuclear weapons. It seems very clearly true that the first and most prominent uses of most technology does manifest within the class and imperial struggle.
And to say that as obviously, also, not to lose sight of the fact that the first instance of the internet was ARPANET, which was a defense advanced research project. Kind of interesting, but I guess the question, and maybe this might be a question you have for me but it’s also a question I have for you is, if we find ourselves in this situation, here we are. We have a global system that is essential for many aspects of life for billions of people around the world. Mostly in terms of communication, but in terms of all kinds of stuff, a lot of our very essential other infrastructure is also necessarily connected to the internet at this point.
And it is essentially privately run for profit by companies, including Facebook. And I think that part of the conflict that you had and that you got rightfully frustrated about on that Rising clip that we mentioned is this idea that, well, it kind of must be good and let’s not mess with it. Let’s not mess with those companies. We need to be real nice to them [laughs] because they’re now sort of in control of us. What’s the path out? What can we do here and how can we get people to do it?
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I mean, this was I think a question that Ryan Grim at the Hill posed to me. He was like, so Facebook has said in response to Frances Haugen’s leaks that it’s like, hey, at least we are a company that cares. At least we conducted internal research into the harm that our products are doing to people. Other companies don’t even do that. And now because of these leaks making us look bad, other companies may be disincentivized from doing this kind of research.
And I was like, well, big fucking deal, that means that you should not be in charge of researching and regulating yourself. That’s like, we’re kind of missing the forest for the trees here, and Facebook does not and should not get credit for basically researching how harmful its products are on its users, only to hide that research from the public and keep doing the harmful thing in the first place.
I don’t know exactly what sort of commendation you want for that, but I mean, the real larger point here is that, as the Wall Street Journal series of reports says, they know damn well what they’re doing, they know damn well that it’s harmful to individuals, that it’s harmful to democracy. But what Haugen kept saying is that they don’t care, because ultimately Facebook as a private entity is out to make profit, is out to dominate as much of the market as possible.
And so that’s going to be its north star. It’s going to go where that profit motive leads. Where that profit motive leads is keeping people more engaged on its platform, more addicted on its platform, and using that engagement to siphon off as much data and value as possible. This is, again, one of the things that I think is so important for us to wrap our heads around now that we’ve been in this new media age for at least a couple of decades now. We approached things like Facebook.
I mean look let’s remember, when, like, 20, what was it? 15 years ago Facebook was still the social media network for people in college. I remember when I finally got my acceptance and university email as an undergraduate to the University of Chicago, I was in that kind of select group of people who could now sign up for Facebook, and it was really cool. And it was really fun and it was new, and I approached it as kind of a user, as a consumer of a thing that had been made and was presented to me.
But really, I think, 15 years on, what we should hopefully have realized by now is that Facebook is not a service, or it is not designed to be a service that people use as consumers. What Facebook is—I think about the reporting that I did this past summer in rural Wisconsin on industrial agriculture and factory animal farms. In Wisconsin, the factory animal farming industry is really dominated by dairy.
And so you have tons of dairy cows in these CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, that are in circles, and humongous, like, rows of dairy cows that are all hooked up to these machines that are pumping milk out of these cows. So it is a machine designed to extract that which the cows are going to produce naturally, but it’s extracting as much of it as possible and it’s, like, pumping these cows full of growth hormones, and yada yada yada, to keep that milk coming.
This may seem like an extreme analogy, but in a large part that kind of like, in form, what we’re talking about with Facebook. Facebook is a machine that has been designed to latch itself onto that which human beings naturally need to do to live, which is communicate, which is be social. And it has found a way to extract as much of that sociability and communication as possible. Not because it’s doing us a favor, but because it found a way to make money off of that.
It found a way to get people to give up this sort of data for free, and then use that data to make shit-tons of money in a bunch of complex ways. And we need to realize that in fact we are not the users, we are not the consumers, we are the product of what Facebook has built. And then on top of that, bringing it back to the panel that I did on Rising, the question that was posed to me is just, like, Facebook has said that it has adjusted its newsfeed algorithm to be less harmful to people.
It’s saying that it has downgraded news, which hurts very much outlets like ours here at The Real News Network, and it has increased visibility on people’s newsfeed’s shares from friends and family over negative news that impacts people’s moods and stuff like that. But, what that has effectively done is leaned into, kind of, people’s hate sharing tendencies. It’s all the worst angels of our nature.
Facebook can extract the most amount of data by keeping us most engaged with content that pisses us off, that makes us scared, that makes us feel like we are at the precipice of oblivion. And that’s how it keeps us hooked in, that’s how it keeps extracting data from us. But again, it’s so hard to break ourselves out of that initial understanding of what this platform is, what we are using it for, because what we’re using it for is such an essential part of human and social existence.
Sparky Abraham: Yeah. For my part, just personally, I think the thing that has been the most helpful for me and thinking about this stuff has been just to continually try to step back. Just go one level up in abstraction and try to see what’s happening, and try to think about not how much weight should likes be given in Facebook’s algorithm to deliver content for X, Y, Z, but step back, step back, step back.
And this is kind of how I got to the internet article, was just kind of sitting around and wondering like, oh, there’s a squirrel running on that wire that goes from the telephone pole to my house. What is that wire? Oh shit, that’s my internet. And just trying to think about what all of this that we’re trying to accomplish is. The internet is not significantly different from, like, semaphore.
It’s a symbolic system for communicating. And then what do we want to use that for? And we find ourselves in this situation where by a sort of combination of, I think, public complacency and extremely well-resourced and strategic private lobbying, we have decided that the internet is mostly for advertising. Right? It’s advertising and porn, is what the internet is. And that’s neither inevitable nor necessary nor good.
There are a lot of very good and socially beneficial aspects of a network like Facebook and everything that underlies it, from the front end code, to the back end code, to the physical infrastructure that Facebook owns in terms of its own servers and wires, to the physical infrastructure that it leases, to the physical infrastructure that others own and lease that it uses to get the information from one place to another. That all is good and potentially useful, and I think that what has happened over time has happened with all this technology is we’ve lost vision.
We’ve forgotten all of the different ways that we were planning or hoping to use stuff. Some of which might have been crazy or impossible or unrealistic, but not all of which were. And we’re now sort of locked in where we’ve got a big status quo vision problem, where now we’re arguing about Facebook’s algorithm that will affect its advertising revenue. I just wish that people felt a little bit more empowered to think more broadly about what are the things that they like and find useful, and that they think are beneficial to society about, not just Facebook or not just the news feed as it’s constructed, but the internet.
What should we be doing with it, and how should it be controlled? I guess another thing that occurs to me is just—especially with school having moved online for much of the pandemic. Communication, means of communications, have often been kind of like an essential government service, and one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve privatized more and more government services, just taken more and more aspects of our life out of democratic control, paltry as that democratic control might often be in the United States. But we’ve been creating private governments, which is why I also find some of the arguments about the First Amendment stuff with Facebook kind of interesting, because I don’t know. Facebook, it’s—in some ways kind of is… [laughs] We’ve created private governments for ourselves over which we have very little formal control right now, and it certainly doesn’t have to be that way.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Well, I think that’s very well put. This is one of the things that always drives me nuts, is that I think one of the greatest tricks capitalists ever pulled, and the politicians who serve that system ever pulled, is convincing us that government and the market are these two diametrically opposed entities. And I’m like, no, the market and private entities like Facebook are a form of government.
We just don’t call it that. And I guess that was the long point that I was trying to get to, is whether we believe Facebook has good intentions in the tweaks that it makes to its algorithms, whether its intentions are good when it decides to research the harm that its products do to people and decides what to do about that, if it does anything. The bare fact is that this is a private profit-seeking company that we have no democratic control over that is literally making decisions on how to tweak the knobs on what our reality is, what we see, what we don’t see, who we can communicate with, and how. Those are essential parts of our daily life in the 21st century.
And a company like Facebook has so much power to determine, first, whether or not you have access to those, and then what your experience on those platforms is. And I think that that’s, if I could maybe make one more larger conceptual point here, and then, I know, I’m going to let you go, and I’ll get your final thoughts and then I’ll release you. But I mentioned that in a former life, I was a media and technology historian, historian of radical politics. And I looked at how the two things intersected. And there’s a common trope in media studies, that the point of the medium is to make itself invisible. And so I guess to give listeners a sense of what I mean, think about all those old paintings.
The kind of Renaissance paintings, those beautiful paintings by the “masters” that look so lifelike, that look so real, and that the artist’s skill was judged on how realistic their paintings were. Essentially what we’re talking about there is that the value of that art was in how little you recognized it as a medium. It looked so much like reality that it almost was, and that was kind of what you judged it on. The same kind of concept does apply to so much of what we call media, is that the job of a medium, whether that be radio, whether that be the internet, whether that be paintings, is to not remind you of the medium itself. We tend to only think about that physical infrastructure of the medium, the machine that the medium is, when it breaks.
If the radio isn’t working, suddenly it’s not that seamless thing that’s transmitting messages from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s a dumb box that isn’t doing what it’s supposed to and I have to go get it fixed. If a painter is not good and you can very well see that they are not painting an accurate depiction of the world, you’re going to be less impressed with what they produce until you start getting revolutions in artistic form that really show the creativity of the artist, and so on and so forth. Point being is that, I think that this is a useful sort of concept to understand where we’re at here, because to hook it all the way back to where we started with Sparky’s past investigations into the physicality of the infrastructure that makes our digital world possible, as we said, that is designed to be out of view.
It is part of the promise of the digital world that we don’t have to concern ourselves with the physical wires, the cables along the ocean floor that are being attacked by sharks, the labor of content moderators who are being subjected to torturous content and making sure that you don’t see it on your news feed because it’s traumatic and violent and there’s child porn and all that stuff.
There’s so much unseen work and unseen material that makes this sort of seamless world of the digital ecosystem possible. And in order to understand our reliance on that and the catastrophic consequences that can come if we ultimately have no democratic say over who controls that infrastructure, what is done with it, yada, yada, yada, we get those sorts of reminders.
Like last week when Facebook goes down and suddenly millions, if not billions, of people cannot perform the daily functions that they depend on to live and to make a living. And this is kind of what, I guess, capitalism as a system has always been designed to do. I think about the fact that—I remember working at warehouses in Southern California, kind of over by where you are, Sparky. I was working at a warehouse as a temp 10 years ago, at a warehouse that supplied a lot of the raw materials to big box stores like Sears, and Walmart, and so on and so forth. And it’s funny, I can still walk into a Bed Bath & Beyond and I can point to pillows and shower curtains and say, that came from the warehouse that I used to work at.
I recognize that brand. But again, when you walk into the Bed Bath & Beyond, it’s like everything is sleek. Everything is presented to you as just a smorgasbord of consumer choice that is presented to you, the great consumer. It is all meant to make you feel like this is a world designed for you. And it is all meant to eliminate your vision of all of that sweaty exploited labor, all of the transportation that was involved in getting that product in front of you with a price tag on it.
Just like labor as the driving engine for the consumer economy and the economy writ large, just like that labor is invisibilized by this sort of system, so too has the digital world, and all of the infrastructure and labor and everything that makes it possible, has been kind of invisibilized to make us feel like we are just kind of using these services that are always going to be there.
And that’s where my long-winded point is sort of ending up, is we recognize from events like last week with Facebook that that may not always be the case. And we can’t look at this as entitled North Americans who only see a service like Facebook or a company like Facebook as providing some sort of social media platform that we can live without for six hours. There’s so much else at play here.
If you’ve got your medicine in the mail, you know damn well how terrifying it is if there is any sort of disruption in that supply chain. We have a similar disruption in the digital infrastructure that happened last week, and I guess the real question is, this is my kind of final question for you Sparky, is like how do we not just kind of say, oh, well, thank God that got fixed. Now let’s keep doing the same thing.
Sparky Abraham: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s really hard, because it takes effort to see the invisible medium behind all of this. But I would say I love your sort of Bed Bath & Beyond warehouse example. Because even I, when I am not thinking about it, I kind of think about a pillow and it’s like, oh, that’s probably, I don’t know. Maybe robots put it… Like, no, no, somebody actually, a person stitches the seams on the pillow and then other people… So I sort of feel like when we’re trying to deal with these, one of the things that worries me about dealing with the Facebook stuff directly with Facebook is, that’s trying to address… We’ve decided that this pillow is a site of major injustice.
And so we’re going to address that injustice only by interacting with Bed Bath & Beyond, or reforming Bed Bath & Beyond, or regulating Bed Bath & Beyond. When you take that approach, when you think that Bed Bath & Beyond is the only… They’re the one selling the pillow, so they’re the problem. You totally miss all of the other people and aspects and power points and leverage, and all the rest of the money, and the global shipping industry that is actually behind and exerting leverage over what’s happening here.
And I would just encourage people to try to take a similar view with the internet. This is something I talk about a little bit in the article in terms of the push for municipal internet service providers to replace Comcast or whoever else. I think that’s good. That’s right. Municipal internet service provision is important. But again, it’s this sort of endpoint focus view, where you’re like, the people that I interact with are my internet service providers, and so that’s where I’m going to focus my efforts to make change.
Well, that’s all well and good, but you know, you can kick Comcast out of your municipal internet service provision, but that public entity that you set up is still going to have to pay Comcast to use its long range wires, which you didn’t even know about, you didn’t even think about. I would encourage people to try to take that broader view here. Who all has interests in things working the way that they do with Facebook and sort of with advertising-driven internet more broadly? What are their incentives, and how are they exercising power?
One of the things I talked about in the article was the fact that a lot of states have laws that forbid public agencies from providing internet to people. And, surprise, those laws were lobbied for and drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the private companies that currently own the internet. So, the Facebook problem is a Facebook problem, but it’s also an everything problem.
And to the extent that you fix Facebook within Facebook, you are going to have additional issues in that this model is going to crop up somewhere else, or multiple other places, where there are going to be other people sort of down the “internet supply chain” who are going to be exercising their own power to shift Facebook in the direction that they want in a way that you can’t even see. So, it’s obviously not an easy or quick answer, but I do think that I would encourage people to do the thing that I try to do and maybe do it better than I did, even, which is to try to imbibe the internet for what it is, in its entire physical, global, worldwide multifaceted existence in order to think about this stuff.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is writer, commentator, and legal services attorney Sparky Abraham. If you haven’t already, check out the article that we link to in the show notes that Sparky wrote in 2020 for the magazine Current Affairs called “A Series of Tubes: Reclaiming the Physical Internet.” Sparky, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your thoughts on this, man. I really appreciate it.
Sparky Abraham: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Max. It’s great to talk to you,
Maximillian Alvarez: Likewise, man. And to all of you listening, this is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for joining us. And before you go, please head on over to the realnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you more conversations and coverage just like this. Thanks so much.