I didn’t actually watch Mark Zuckerberg: Inside Facebook, but I caught a couple of minutes when I was channel hopping. The programme’s mainly of interest, I’d guess, to people who use facebook (i.e., not me), and people who are fascinated by the mega-rich (i.e., not me), and people who don’t understand how this whole internet thing works, and how can they make money offering something for free anyway (i.e., not me – my lack of interest doesn’t preclude a basic understanding of facebook’s business model, which is essentially the same as google’s: eyeballs on their website = money from advertisers). The contributor who caught my eye wasn’t Mr Zuckerberg himself, but one of the hundreds of millions of people who use his site.
This was an obviously intelligent woman, a professional musician (possibly, I think, a violinist – my memory is a little hazy – but an orchestral player, anyway), and she was describing one of her favourite activities on facebook, which was playing a game. The game involved pretending to run a virtual restaurant. There was a nice irony, I thought, to the idea that people who want a career in a creative profession like music often end up working in catering, and here was a person with a successful creative career who was fantasising in her spare time about working in catering. So far, so cute.
But what astonished me – caused me, in fact, to speak out loud to the TV, saying “Are you insane?” – was that this particular game includes timed penalties that kick in if you don’t log in to supervise your restaurant. In other words, people who play this game are – voluntarily – submitting to the demands of a machine. This is not a machine standing by, ready to play with you whenever you want; this is a machine punishing you – actually punishing you – for not playing with it when it thinks you should. And there are people who think this is fun. Perhaps you begin to understand my sudden urge to ask a rhetorical question of an inanimate object. I mean, seriously: are these people insane?
I realise this isn’t a completely new phenomenon. Tamagotchis were basically the same thing, and similarly difficult for me to understand. So far as I could see, they provided all the hassle and inconvenience of owning a pet, but with none of the rewards. (For evidence, I offer you one sentence from the Wikipedia article on Tamagotchis: ‘A “toilet” icon allows the player to clean up after the pet’.) But this idea of timed penalties is even worse – at least Tamagotchis could be paused if you couldn’t be bothered with them – and just so alien to the way I think about technology.
I still think of myself as a technology enthusiast, but for me the point of any piece of technology is that it is, essentially, a tool – it exists to let me do what I want to do, when I want to do it. I’ve experienced dark misgivings about the extent to which people seem to be ready to take on a subservient role to the machines they own for a while, but the realisation that there are significant numbers of people who are so ready to cede control to machines that they even think it’s fun to be punished by them may well turn out to be my Wonko the Sane moment:
“Ah yes,” he said, “that’s to do with the day I finally realised the world had gone totally mad and built the Asylum to put it in, poor thing, and hoped it would get better.” […] “It seemed to me,” said Wonko the Sane, “that any civilization that had so far lost its head […] was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”
Yes, you’re right, this is yet another post about something I saw on TV. Sorry. But it’s this awful, desperate, shitty, bleak time of year again: watching the telly and stringing together a few semi-coherent sentences about what I’ve seen is pretty much all I’m capable of. I’m drowning again, just like I was drowning in December last year, and the year before, and– so on.
Nothing to be done about it but haul myself through, by sheer force of will, to mid-January, when the tide will begin to turn and this endless grey ocean will start to ebb. Just four weeks, and counting…