Facebook and your bones
By Mark Hurst • August 20, 2020

Before I start, two updates from recent columns.

• On May 7 I wrote Why the Amazon VP should quit his job, referring to Brad Porter, who was in charge of Amazon's warehouse robotics. A few days ago, Geekwire reported that Brad Porter has, in fact, resigned from Amazon. I wish him well in whatever he chooses next.

• Last week's post, Kamala Harris and the ascent of Silicon Valley, brought in the highest number of negative emails I think I've ever received for a column, as well as a large number of unsubscribes, many from readers based in Silicon Valley. Just to clarify: I will vote for Biden/Harris this fall, and given the alternative, I hope they win. But it's important to acknowledge where their funding is coming from. If we're not allowed to criticize our candidates, we're in a heap of trouble.

Now onto this week's column.

Facebook and your bones

Writing in Gizmodo this week, Shoshana Wodinsky made this request: Please Keep Mark Zuckerberg Away From My Bones. The news is that Facebook's AI team, partnering with NYU's Langone Health Center, has created a new type of MRI that cuts the procedure time down to mere minutes. The system, called fastMRI, will effectively give Facebook access to the most intimate details of your body. Mark Zuckerberg will, indeed, be peering into your bones - and everything else.

Predictably, Facebook has issued assurances that they definitely, double-swear, for reals this time, are not planning to extend their surveillance-capitalist practices to your health data. Wodinsky is skeptical:

there's still a ton of reasons that you shouldn't want this company anywhere near your medical data. This is a company that's shown again and again that it'll put its profit margin before the safety of its users, no matter how much it tries to pretend otherwise. . . . the same day that Facebook put out this AI research, reports emerged that the company is still witholding evidence about its role in the wave of genocides in Myanmar back in 2017.

I'm with Wodinsky on this one. (Indeed, I have trouble imagining when I would actually be on Facebook's side in any launch of a new data-gathering service.)

What's more, in a strange coincidence, I talked about "Facebook and bones" in my Techtonic show a few days ago, when I interviewed Elaine Kasket, author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of your Personal Data. (You can listen to the interview here, starting at 10:25.) Kasket, a UK-based psychologist who studies how people relate to data around end-of-life issues, pointed something out in her book that I had never considered:

Facebook is the world's largest cemetery.

So many deceased users still have active accounts or memorial pages on Facebook that, in many cases, it has essentially replaced the role of funeral homes and cemeteries. People's lives are remembered and celebrated on Facebook. Grieving happens on Facebook. Memory lives on, on Facebook. And so it will remain, as long as this role continues to serve Facebook's needs for profit and growth at any cost.

As Kasket points out in our interview, services like Facebook and Twitter make it much harder than it needs to be, to export data by and about the deceased. Keeping that data in their walled gardens, after all, boosts engagement and maintains "stickiness."

Zuck wants your bones . . . because they're sticky. Ugh.

To be fair, I'll note that in both cases - about the MRI and about Facebook-as-cemetery - I've read quotes from Facebook team members who toe the company line: I'm shocked, SHOCKED that anyone would suggest we're motivated by profit!

• From a WSJ article about fastMRI, a scientist who works at Facebook claims that their gathering of immense amounts of health data has NOTHING to do with financial motives: "There is no product or financial motive for Facebook."

• From Kasket's book (p. 159), a contractor on Facebook's so-called Compassion Team reassures us: "Money's not a factor here."

Maybe these folks believe, or strongly desire to believe, their own words. And if they don't, I shouldn't fault them for trying to maintain their employment status. But for those of us not in the pay of Facebook, it's perhaps a bit easier to take a clear view of the company. We should be very concerned that Facebook wants our bones, both physical and digital, now and forever. (Just be sure to read the terms and conditions: "forever" defined as "the amount of time the data continues to throw off profit for Facebook, after which point it will be shut down.")

What I can't square, though, and it's a larger question well beyond Facebook, is why we so often see this unholy alchemy in the tech industry today: something good (quicker MRIs = a good thing!) combined with something deeply concerning (Facebook growing its domination into our intimate health data). Why can't we set aside the toxic sludge, just once, and build something good?

It's a question for another time. (And please email me if you know the answer.)

Until next time,

- Mark Hurst
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Email: mark@creativegood.com
Twitter: @markhurst
Podcast/radio show: techtonic.fm

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