It seems likely that regulators will come for the tech giants. The Australian Taxation Office has already wrestled Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook to the mat, forcing them to stop offshoring their profits while hitting up local taxpayers to cover all of their expenses. Paying your tax like some poor working schlub hurts, but it’s never going to hurt as much as lawmakers deciding that your business model is a clear and present danger to democracy and you should be broken up with the corporate equivalent of sledgehammers.
In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, all of the big social media platforms released statements and statistics about how hard they had worked to make sure copies of the mass murderer’s livestream didn’t go live on their sites, but tens of thousands of copies were uploaded and viewed. Legislators around the world, especially in the English-speaking democracies, have begun to look hard at the platforms, not just to make sure they pay at least some nominal amount of tax, but to determine whether they should even be allowed to operate in their current form.
One US presidential candidate , Senator Elizabeth Warren, has released her policy: Break them up. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, will probably move on Facebook as soon as she has finished banning semi-automatic weapons. And in Australian the government is threatening to imprison social media executives who allow their platforms to be used by extremists.
These headline-grabbing moves are not the only threat to Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg yacht collection, however. There also exists a smaller, quieter resistance to the big social media networks, a push back that has nothing to do with punishing regulatory responses to borderline criminal, and outright criminal behaviour by tech companies, their executives and hostile foreign governments.
Computer scientist and productivity evangelist Cal Newport describes the growing movement as a ‘digital minimalist resistance’. The Resistance has made no deadlines, given no testimony at hearings, published no manifesto, and yet it grow every week and its growth is an existential threat to the likes of Facebook.
Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism, an instant New York Times best seller is both a philosophy text, a contemplation on living quietly in a raging world, and a practical how-to-guide, a series of steps Newport recommends to escape the Orwellian gaze and soul-sucking power of modern social-media platforms. He doesn’t claim to have invented or discovered some new way of seeing and being in the world. The digital minimalist resistance was already there and growing.
It’s tools were furnished by developers who saw a market in site blocking software to keep terminal procrastinators out of their Facebook timeline, or in gameifying self control via apps like Forest, which grows a little tree on your phone screen for every half hour or hour you stay off the phone and focussed on work. (Pick up your fondle-slab to check Twitter and your tree dies, horribly). It’s the low tech response to the high tech neural engineering practised by Zuckerberg’s minions (and the Russian secret service), by ditching smart phones for dumb phones, or music streaming for turntables. Even the culprits are getting in on it. The cellular Apple Watch is specifically marketed as a way of freeing you from your iPhone.
The interesting, or potentially lethal thing about digital minimalism if you own Facebook shares, is that it does not deny the existence or even the attraction of social media. The new minimalists recognise the power of the platforms to actually increase our productivity if they are used mindfully.
And there is the danger.
User growth is not the most important metric for new giants of online advertising. Engagement is. And by engagement, social media means constant, low grade, uncritical consumption. One more swipe. One more scroll. Just a few more minutes that turn into hours. If the minimalist insurgents can get traction for their reimagining of the social media platforms as something you approach with great caution, and exploit only for immediate measurable value, they will pose much more of a threat to Mark Zuckerberg than any Senate inquiry.