In Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Bernard Harcourt assays the deeply troubling implications of pervasive surveillance in our age of lives lived online, and the degree to which we willingly trade our privacy for the fleeting rewards of digital affirmation. To Harcourt, a professor of law and political science at Columbia University and the author most recently of The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress last week was a pageant that will do nothing to address the perilous dynamic of our society of exposure. Meaningful reform will come only when we recognize the libidinal allure of today’s digital platforms, as Harcourt explains below.
The Facebook hearings last week were quite the spectacle. Mark Zuckerberg deftly deflected his inquisitors and misled them, while share price rose 4.5% in a single day. Senators and representatives postured for their constituents and got free prime-time media exposure. Privacy experts crowed and gloated that they had always been right, but unfairly ignored. The media and the Internet harvested abundant costless content. And social media lit up, abuzz. Between the schadenfreude and the glee, and the plain-old gawking and goggling, everybody seemed to pleasure themselves. It was win-win—except, perhaps, for the ordinary digital subjects who were left high and dry: pleasantly entertained, but totally exposed.
In the end, the Facebook hearings were nothing more than another tantalizing but anxious digital distraction. The greatest paradox, perhaps, is how much personal data and digital exhaust we all emitted and how many digital traces we shed watching Zuckerberg and simultaneously fretting over our privacy.
If anything, the Facebook hearings confirm the dreadful bind in which we find ourselves: social media and the Internet companies have us all in the palms of their hands because the digital experience itself is so seductive, consuming, and self-gratifying. Their Faustian business model works because their platforms tap directly into our pleasure centers and trigger deep reward circuits. Seeing our selfies online, tracking our likes and shares, counting our followers and retweets—these stimuli are almost more reinforcing than food or sex. We find ourselves going from one digital platform or device to another, swiping and clicking, pressing the levers like a rat in Skinner’s box, desperately seeking more stimulus and gratification.
And unless and until we come to grips with the place of desire and of our libidinal and at times narcissistic urges in relation to these new digital technologies, we won’t make any progress, we won’t get anywhere. Yes, the #DropFacebook campaign just gained Susan Sarandon and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. But the vast majority of the users of Facebook—as well as Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, etc.—will stay put because these platforms satisfy their desires, provide the gratification, and remain the easiest way to enjoy social relations today, even when they do make us anxious about our privacy.
The fact is, power circulates differently in the digital age, and the social media powerhouses have tapped deep into our pleasure centers and egos. The dark analogies to George Orwell’s 1984 or to Foucault’s “panopticon” just do not capture the present moment, nor will they alone stop us from sharing and liking.
Today, we are no longer being coerced to give up our privacy, as Winston and Julia were by Big Brother. We are no longer confined to a panoptic cell, naked before the all-seeing guard tower. There is no telescreen forcibly anchored into our apartment walls. Instead, today we share our personal information jubilantly, out of love and desire, and for self-affirmation. We post selfies on Instagram, status updates on Facebook, screeds on Twitter. We invite Echo into our homes. We build personal websites open to all. And it feels so good, it’s so pleasurable, that even when we are warned about how much of our private information the social media and Internet companies have, we cringe but go on.