This week, we’re sharing stories from John Lanchester, Bethany Barnes, Stephen Kearse, Warren Ellis, and Soraya Roberts.
This week, we’re sharing stories from Amanda Mull, Allegra Hobbs, Andrew O’Hagan, Andrew Kay, and Joe Veix.
I feel like most of my reading this past week was preoccupied by power: who has it, who can get it, and what it looks like. The overall arc of the revelation seems to be that no matter how acutely we are aware of the answers to the first and second questions (1. the rich; 2. the rich), the answer to the third can still feel surprising: what power looks like, in the end, is nothing more or less than the ability to keep buying food at jacked up prices during a food shortage. “Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops,” writes Camus in The Plague. “The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing.” “We’re all in this together” becomes a pipe dream for Camus in The Plague almost as quickly as it did for us in 2020; it turns out maintaining normalcy during a crisis is the ultimate show of elite strength — even, or especially, at the expense of the rest of us. In that vein, I found Samuel Rutter’s manual for living a 19th-century decadent lifestyle, as described in the writings of Joris-Karl Huysmans, to be particularly bonkers and provoking; a perfect covid read. After all, a morose eccentric living alone in the countryside and indulging in simple pleasures may feel relatably disheveled and melancholy during quarantine, but of course by the very fact that he can afford not to work, we know he must be quite rich. Only the rich get to drop out of society with everyman style. Sooner or later, for most of us, the other shoe will drop.
Power didn’t only come up this week in reviews of books by dour Frenchmen, either! It’s there in Maisy Card’s description of the way she felt, while conducting archival research for her debut novel, when she read accounts of enslaved women and girls who found ways to rebel against servitude and sexual violence (“They were victims of course, but it was also comforting to know that, as brutalized as they were, many of them still found the strength to disobey”); it’s there in Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, which explores the twisting violence enacted by “federal language” against Native people during the Termination era, a time when the government tried to eliminate tribal existence through bureaucracy and mandates; and of course it’s the constant thread woven through a New Yorker review of the latest book by Mike Davis, whose City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear seemed to presage the Rodney King Riots and the Woolsey Fire respectively, and whose The Monster at Our Door, about the potential for an avian flu pandemic, apparently scared him so badly that he couldn’t keep a copy in his house. Davis’ latest, the memoir-ish Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, is intended as a guide for young radicals, although its lessons are somewhat crushingly framed as a tutorial on failure: “I realized eight years ago… that the experience of that generation had to be recovered, and recovered in a way that would provide lessons and balance sheets to the current generation of activists… To understand what people fought for and what strategies they used and why, at the end of the day, we were defeated in every important sense.”
The fact that nearly every article in the newsletter this week seems to be about power could of course just be my own preoccupations at work, but I also can’t shake this feeling that a leaf has been turned, and we are on a crash course with something brand new — or perhaps very, very old. So much of what has happened lately has been completely unfathomable (even at the same time that it was totally predictable, if that makes any sense at all) but I simply can’t wrap my head around this thing where people are forced to go back to work when the virus is still widely circulating and untraced. This seems untenable? I know Americans are a surprisingly meek people when it comes to doing the bidding of our bosses, but it seems like a bridge too far, even for us.
I think something’s going to happen to stop it. Or maybe I just hope it does.
1. “A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation” by Samuel Rutter, The Paris Review
Samuel Rutter scours Joris-Karl Huysmans’ classic of French decadent literature Against Nature for advice on how to live the way we must now — that is, like we are eccentric recluses “[taking] pleasure in a life of studious decrepitude.”
2. “Pointing the Finger” by Jacqueline Rose, The London Review of Books
Jacqueline Rose revisits Camus’ The Plague and re-examines old arguments about whether it is lax in assigning blame. “Each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know too that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him.”
3. “Artforum” by César Aira, Lit Hub
An excerpt from César Aira’s Artforum. And yes, the entire excerpt is about how one man’s copy of Artforum magazine has gotten very, very wet.
4. “Holy Simplicity: On Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Night Watchman’” by Thomas J. Millay, The Los Angeles Review of Books
This review of Louise Erdrich’s latest novel The Night Watchman situates the book in its historical context of the Termination era, when the federal government attempted to erase Native identity and nationhood by “giving” Native Americans citizenship. Reviewer Thomas J. Millay writes that the novel draws a purposeful contrast between the plainspoken language of the story’s protagonists — members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians — and the deceitful speech of the federal government. “Federal language twists and turns, appearing good on its surface but in fact initiating great evil.”
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5. “Maisy Card: ‘There is this hazy quality to my family history that no amount of research can clarify.’” by Mickie Meinhardt, Guernica
Mickie Meinhardt interviews Maisy Card about her novel These Ghost Are Family, which is based on 12 years of archival research about her family’s history in Jamaica and the legacy of slavery. “I can easily make a character’s anger my own, and I’ll find myself walking around with those feelings after working on the book, as if I forgot that I was writing about fictional people.”
6. “We’re All Living in the Bathroom Now” by Annabel Paulsen, Electric Literature
This reflection on what Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom (an incredible novella about a man who lives in his bathroom and refuses to ever leave it) can teach us about quarantine is, you may have noticed, the THIRD time a sort of nihilistic Frenchman has appeared in the reading list this week. Which is pretty remarkable considering I haven’t even mentioned the Houellebecq thing.
7. “Mike Davis in the Age of Catastrophe” by Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker
Dana Goodyear reviews Mike Davis’ movement history Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties and asks him, the oracle of L.A. apocalypse, what to worry about next. The answer is less than reassuring for Angelenos, I assume: “Davis kept worrying it over, the alternative ending that might reorder everything again. ‘What if the big one happened now?’ he said. I’ve already plundered my earthquake kits for face masks and hand sanitizer. And now Davis has said my midnight fear out loud.”
8. “The Stages of Not Going on T” by Danny M. Lavery, The New Inquiry
A gorgeous piece of writing excerpted from Danny M. Lavery’s Something That May Shock And Discredit You. “Oh, I don’t want to go on T. That’s not what this is. I can see where you got the idea, I suppose, but I’m afraid hormones simply aren’t for me. I don’t even want the ones I have! I’ll never go on testosterone, but it’s simply wonderful for you. You look great. Better than ever, honestly. If I were stuck in a room for the rest of my life and could only look at one thing for some reason, it would be you (I hope that’s not weird to say), but that’s really not the same thing. I just want you to go on hormones and for me to be able to watch you do it.”
9. “Making My Moan” by Irina Dumitrescu, The London Review of Books
Irina Dumitrescu reviews a very scholarly sounding book of absolutely incredible medieval smut, Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “Gloriously, the poem ‘I pray yow maydens every chone’ features a merchant offering his podynges (‘sausages’) to a group of young women. ‘Will ye have of the puddings come out of the pan?’ he asks, and they reply firmly: ‘No, I will have a pudding that grows out of a man.’”
10. “Are We Seeing a New Movement to Organize Publishing?” by Corinne Segal, Lit Hub
An interview with Amy Wilson, who runs the Twitter account Book Worker Power, which she made as a more direct-action oriented response to the emergence of the popular satirical Publishers Weakly account. (You can read an interview with the anonymous people who run that account on Electric Literature. I believe they gave this interview just before their first two cancelings, which came in kind of admirably quick succession.)
As T.S. Eliot said, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” Recently, much whimpering has come from the thousands of infirm people waiting in England’s overcrowded, understaffed hospitals. The sick lay on stretchers in hallways for entire days, or on the floor. Some wait for hours in the ambulances that brought them to the hospital.
For the London Review of Books, James Meek examines the crisis that has struck England’s National Health Service. Preparing for a surge of aging citizens with various ailments and a dependence on caretakers, NHS initiated a transition from an old hospital-based system to a new ambitious system centered around home health care. Unfortunately, the transition has not been smooth, and the future looks uncertain. The reform also has people asking what kind of country they want England to be: one of solidarity and publicly funded health care, or one of privately funded care where, like the United States, everyone fends for themselves.
A whistleblower told the Health Service Journal that ambulance delays in the east of England had led to the deaths of at least 19 patients and serious harm to 21 more. On 1 January, an 81-year-old woman in Clacton, Essex, dialed 999, complaining of chest pains. The ambulance took three hours and 45 minutes to arrive. It was too late. A few days later, a 52-year-old man in Norfolk collapsed with severe chest pain and vomiting. He was taken to the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital, but had to wait in the back of the ambulance that took him there for four and a half hours before being seen by a doctor inside the building. He was told to go home and collapsed again when he got there. Two ambulances sent to get him were diverted to other calls and by the time he returned to hospital, his life couldn’t be saved.
One doctor in a major A&E department in the east of England told me he’d witnessed short cuts taken by staff under pressure. For a time, ambulance crews had been allowed to leave patients in a hospital area that wasn’t technically A&E reception. One elderly patient with abdominal pain was diverted within the hospital from emergency medicine to a GP-style consultation, sent home, returned to the hospital a few hours later, and died. “What I’ve seen is the relentlessness of the shifts,” the doctor said. “The intensity. The feeling of higher and higher accountability. And then a lack of investment in staff. Asking them to do more and more and more, to cover more and more patients. There’s no give and take. The staff they should be investing in get more and more demoralized. You’re at risk of creating a Mid-Staffs environment where people don’t really know who they’re working for and start accepting risk that previously would have been deemed unacceptable. They stop reporting things because they reported them before and nothing happened. It’s creating a dangerous culture.” What should be done? “Stop decreasing capacity. Build capacity and build staffing. The party line is always ‘it doesn’t affect patient care.’ Of course it fucking does.”
“The pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick, the way a fire close to dry and oily things will set them aflame. And the evil of the plague went even further: not only did talking to or being around the sick bring infection and a common death, but also touching the clothes of the sick or anything touched or used by them…” —Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
“At the beginning of the plague, when there was now no more hope but that the whole city would be visited;…you may be sure from that hour all trade, except such as related to immediate subsistence, was, as it were, at a full stop.” —Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
When the pandemic comes, the usual thing is for people to stop talking to one another. I’ve been consulting my small collection of plague books (a normal thing to own), and I’m getting the impression that this has always been the case. Talking and touching are, after all, biologically indistinguishable; to communicate, you have to get close to someone. Close enough to catch whatever it is they’ve got.
Or anyway that used to be how it went. It used to be that, when a plague came around, if you were worried you couldn’t live without other people and their stories and all their little habits and funny dances and things, you had better secure a few charming young noblewomen to take with you into seclusion at your country villa for the duration of the epidemic. Nowadays the script has been flipped. Clubbers can go to “cloud raves,” bored teens can post funny videos, and I can write and publish this month’s books newsletter from the comfort of my living room — I can communicate myself to thousands of you even though I haven’t left my house in like 90 hours, having been a little too spooked by the specter of “community spread” in New York to see First Cow at the Angelika this weekend even though I already had tickets.
(Not, to be honest, that I don’t always write the newsletter from my couch! But it’s a little different, obviously, working from home as opposed to actively avoiding other people.)
The coronavirus is “the first pandemic in history that could be controlled,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday. What he meant is that it’s the first pandemic for which we’ve had a whole host of technologies at our disposal that can allow society to screech to a grinding halt without totally collapsing — arguably the most important of which is the internet. Solitude without loneliness is, incredibly, achievable on a wide scale. We can all quarantine alone, together, in one big villa in the cloud. No need to recruit the noblewomen. The Decameron is online.
With that in mind, here’s a round-up of nine not-to-be-missed book-related stories from all around the web this past month, communicated from me to you with zero physical contact. And, while reading, if you happen to get tempted to go out into a big crowd and breathe other people’s air and feel the heat from other people’s bodies, remember this important piece of advice: don’t.
1. “Sex in the Theater: Jeremy O. Harris and Samuel Delany in Conversation” by Toniann Fernandez, The Paris Review
A remarkable conversation on sex, art, and so much more between acclaimed playwright Jeremy O. Harris and sci-fi legend Samuel Delany, whom you may or may not know is also, in the vein of his childhood inspirations Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade, a writer of erotic novels, such as the “unpublishable” Hogg.
2. “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer If You Can Afford It” by Lynn Steger Strong, The Guardian
Novelist Lynn Steger Strong examines the damning economics of authorship.
3. “The Post-Traumatic Novel” by Lili Loofbourow, The New York Review of Books
“What I have found myself hungering for, in short, is literature that stretches past legal testimonies and sentimental appeals toward what, for lack of a better phrase, I’m calling post-traumatic futurity.” Lili Loofbourow reviews three recent books reflective of the Me Too moment and outlines a new approach to the survivor’s story.
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4. “Jericho Rising” by Allison Glock, Garden & Gun
A profile of the incredible Jericho Brown. “In person, Brown is an explosion of life, magnetic, boisterous, a one-man carnival ride. Simply put, there is no scenario where one would be unaware that Jericho Brown is in the room.”
5. “Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today” by Shannon Chamberlain, The Atlantic
Get this: Henry Fielding made a smutty fanfic of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and he called it… Shamela.
6. “Killing the Joke: On Andrea Long Chu’s Females” by Elena Comay del Junco, The Point
Like pretty much everyone, I take perverse delight in a good takedown. There have been a lot of spicy takedown reviews already this year— Lauren Oyler on Jia Tolentino, Emily Gould on Meghan Daum, Jennifer Szalai on Katie Roiphe — and I suppose that, technically, this not-exactly-positive review of Andrea Long Chu’s Females could be seen as something like a takedown; but in the end Comay del Junco’s approach is so thoughtful that it just makes me more interested in the book. Sometimes disagreement is not discouragement.
7. “Behind the Green Baize Door” by Alison Light, The London Review of Books
A review of Feminism and the Servant Problem, a history of the political tension between the suffragettes and their maids: “Employers protested against interference in the relations between mistress and maid. Some believed that their servants had it easy — novel-reading was a particular irritant. One cautioned against leaving the suffrage paper lying around the house: it was too sexually explicit and political discussion might give servant girls the wrong idea.”
8. “Opportunity Costs: On Work, Idealism, and Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley” by Eryn Loeb, Guernica
Eryn Loeb reflects on her own work history while reviewing Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of selling out in Silicon Valley.
9. “The Beats, the Hungryalists, and the Call of the East” by Akanksha Singh, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Singh reviews Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury’s The Hungryalists, a book that explores the connection between Allen Ginsberg and the eponymous group of radical Bengali poets. “Their name is in reference to Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of ‘hungry’ in ‘in the sowre hungry tyme’ in his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.”
Happy reading, and good luck! Stay inside if you can!
When compiling the reading list this week, I was struck harder than I have been so far by the sensation that time has compressed, or flattened, or leveled out, or I’m not entirely sure what the right spatial metaphor is here, but what I mean is that the time I inhabit feels in no way appreciably different from other times that other people have inhabited. When I read about George Washington fleeing Philadelphia to escape the yellow fever, that doesn’t feel meaningfully different from now. When I read that Emma Goldman co-owned an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, it doesn’t feel uncanny, it just sort of feels like, “Yeah, well, one has to make a living! Anarchist or not, the rent is always due!” Or when I read in A Distant Mirror about the general dismay caused by the corruption and dumbing down of the clergy that resulted from the selling of church appointments to the highest bidder in the 14th century, I feel like I am on the exact same wavelength as Henry of Hereford, who wrote, “Look… at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” They had child bishops; we have Jared Kushner. It’s all one; it’s all bad.
And it seems like a lot of critics are in a similar headspace. Over the weeks, I feel like I’ve watched essayists dig deeper and deeper for “moments to which this moment compares” and what they’ve inadvertently proven is not just that this moment can be compared to so many others, but that all those moments can also be compared to each other as well! George Washington’s enlightened 18th century, Camus’ disastrous 20th, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th: they’ve all got one thing in common. The secret history of the world rears its ghastly head to reveal what we almost forgot: disease is king.
1. “Pandemics Go Hand in Hand with Conspiracy Theories” by Frederick Kaufman, The New Yorker
Frederick Kaufman writes that when yellow fever hit the newly united States in the 1790s, it led to the development of a new literary style — the American gothic, pioneered by the grieving Charles Brockden Brown in “a million words [that] poured from his pen” from 1798 to 1800, including Wieland, a book about a disembodied voice that drives people insane — as well as a new political style, the much written about “paranoid style” of American politics. Just after the fever ravaged New York in the late 1790s, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, which had formed in Bavaria in 1776 and been officially banned in 1784, began to proliferate, building into a sort of public panic. Charles Brockden Brown likewise contributed to this new trend; his novel Ormond; or, the Secret Witness, sounds like a Bourne Identity for the 18th century, with the Illuminati playing the global-conspiratorial role of the CIA — or, in this year’s paranoia parlance, the WHO.
2. “Graciliano Ramos and the Plague” by Padma Viswanathan, The Paris Review
Padma Viswanathan writes about coming to the realization that Graciliano Ramos, the giant of Brazilian letters whose novel São Bernardo she recently translated, was motivated to return as a youth from Rio to his remote hometown of Palmeira dos Índios not by disappointment in his lackluster career in journalism, as she originally assumed, but because plague had broken out at home, killing four of his family members in a single day. This insight led Viswanthan to consider how the rest of Ramos’ life’s work — in local government and in literature — was driven by notions of good hygiene, including his translation of Camus’ The Plague.
3. “The First State-Approved North Korean Novel in English” by Esther Kim, Lit Hub
Esther Kim interviews Immanuel Kim, translator of Friend by Paek Namnyong. Immanuel Kim made it his mission to find and translate a popular, non-propagandistic (as in not state-related) North Korean “bestseller” (as in widely read, not widely bought — in North Korea, print runs are limited, but worn copies of Friend, first published in 1988, continue to be passed from hand to hand). “When I started my PhD at UC Riverside in 2000, I was reading South Korean literature minus the colonial period [1910-1945]. All of my colleagues were doing the same, and I wondered, What more can I add to this field? What about North Korea? It was a crazy jump. All my friends were like You’re crazy, man….I started making a personal database of authors that moved me….Then I started looking for stories that were more relatable to the English-speaking world. I read almost a thousand.”
4. “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A.’s Greatest Poets” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
Dan Chiasson writes about the life and work of poet Wanda Coleman. A new volume of her selected poems, Wicked Enchantment, was published last month. “Coleman…was one of the great menders in American verse: she found the extra wear in old forms like the sonnet and rummaged for new forms in everyday material, like aptitude tests, medical reports, and want ads. Poets sometimes brag about their fearsome powers of transformation; Coleman, beset by hardship for much of her life, kept her boasts closer to the bone. ‘I scrape bottom,’ she wrote…”
5. “Food for Thought: Ben Katchor’s Paradise Lost” by J. Hoberman, Bookforum
Ben Katchor’s books are exquisite in an old-timey way that books generally aren’t anymore, sometimes to the point of baroque bewilderment. In this review, J. Hoberman gamely attempts to explain what this latest one, The Dairy Restaurant, is “about.” As with many of Katchor’s books, the gist is that Katchor uses his deep knowledge of niche histories — in this case, Jewish-owned dairy restaurants in New York City and all tangential topics (for instance, did you know Emma Goldman was in the ice cream business?) — to create an almost-alternate history: as in, you’re pretty sure everything Katchor says is true, but the emphasis, the rhythms of history, become fixated on something so deeply unusual — radical dairy consumption — that you become possessed by an alternate vision of what has already transpired.
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6. “At the Clinic” by Sally Rooney, The White Review
A perfect short story by Sally Rooney, which was originally published in The White Review in 2016, and features characters from her novel-cum-show-cum-thing-people-love-to-hate-for-clout Normal People. The Review made the story available online for the first time last week. “People love all kinds of things: their friends, their parents. Misunderstandings are inevitable.”
7. “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” by Jodi Dean, The Los Angeles Review of Books
Jodi Dean contemplates a question posed by McKenzie Wark in Capital Is Dead: “What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse?” Welcome to neofeudalism, fellow serfs!
8. “We’re All Preppers Now” by Heather Souvaine Horn, The New Republic
Heather Souvaine reviews Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, a book about prepper subculture, and finds herself understandably more sympathetic to the preppers than the author probably expected the reader would be when he was writing the book. “How do you decide what response is ‘too much,’ when everything we’re currently doing would have been considered too much a few months ago?”
9. “Bournemouth” by Andrew O’Hagan, The London Review of Books
A long, lovely, melancholy essay about the friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. “I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,” James wrote after Stevenson’s death, “but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him … He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.”
10. “How ‘Jakarta’ Became the Codeword for US-Backed Mass Killing” by Vincent Bevins, The New York Reviews of Books
An excerpt adapted from Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method, which makes the argument that the mass murder of communists in Indonesia and Brazil in 1964 and 1965 was a decisive turning point in the Cold War (and a turn for the worse in the history of the world, laying the groundwork for many genocides to come) that is little remembered today because “the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the cold war was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.”
Every week I make a list on our Bookshop page of all the books and authors mentioned in all of the readings in the newsletter this week. If you feel like taking a look-see, here is this week’s massive reading list.
Iain Sinclair, in the London Review of Books, mourns his constantly-transforming city. There was never just one London, but for Sinclair, London as he understood it is crumbling, and his essay is a loving, fascinating, melancholy, rollicking look at how technology and globalization are transforming urban spaces.
Drifting in a lazy, autopilot trajectory, my own cloud of unknowing, down Bethnal Green Road towards the pop-up shopping hub by the London Overground station at Shoreditch, I register a notice in a window that says: ‘No coffee stored overnight.’ Once upon a time, white vans (for white men) were nervous about their tools and ladders, but now the value is in coffee, barista coffee, gold dust: the marching powder of the shared-desk classes who are hitting it hard in recovered container stacks and bare-brick coffee shops glowing with an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration. Why do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?
That coffee sign was a border marker, preparing me for a series of designated smoking areas, puddles of stubbed-out cigarettes, and a chain of opportunist businesses promoted by oxymorons: FREE CASH, IMPERIAL EQUITY, CITY SHEEPSKINS, RESPONSIBLE GAMBLING, TAPAS REVOLUTION, PROPER HAMBURGER. And of course Sainsbury’s Local. When, in truth, there is no local left. Those signs confirm the dissolution of locality. The last London, Smart City, is nervous about unreformed localism, nuisance quarters with medieval borders clinging to outmoded privileges, like schools, pubs, markets or hospitals hungry for funds and resistant to improving the image of construction.
“And now it feels, in the addiction and vertigo of the digital revolution, as if this ancient organism is wheezing, drawing its final breaths. We were never more than an extension of the geology of the Thames Valley.”
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly about the role Russian trolls and fake news on Facebook played in shaping public perception and influencing the presidential election. The company has since changed its mission statement from “making the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” The timing is no coincidence. The slogan’s also hogwash. Facebook is concerned with its brand, and with two billion monthly users (there’s 7.4 billion people on earth) and an 18% growth rate, Zuckerberg does not want bad publicity to disrupt the lucrative company’s continued expansion, which is based on the acquisition of free content from users, which it then uses to target users with advertising. Calling Facebook users ‘users’ is fitting, since it was always the public that was being used.
At the London Review of Books, John Lanchester examines three actual books to look closely at what Facebook really is on the inside and how it goes about its data-collecting business. It’s essentially an advertising business, which means, in Lanchester’s words, “Facebook is in the surveillance business.”
Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.
Now that the public knows how Facebook’s fake election stories have created more reader engagement than top New York Times stories, Zuckerberg has a social responsibility to use his powerful platform in a way that doesn’t further erode its users’ society. Instead of factoring in the social costs of social media, though, Facebook remains committed solely to growth and monetization. Google’s public maxim is “Don’t be evil.” Even if you doubt that maxim’s veracity, as consumers, we have to ask ourselves: when a company cares more about monetizing users’ data than about protecting users from a Russian misinformation campaign, why should anyone use their service? In Capitalist America, too many people see it as un-American to say that businesses have a social responsibility. But when it comes to capitalism, we consumers ultimately wield the most power: we can choose not to spend our money or time on businesses who ignore the social costs of their operations. If you’ve been on the verge of deactivating Facebook, now is a good time.
The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. An illuminating YouTube video from Kurzgesagt, a German outfit that makes high-quality short explanatory films, notes that in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. It has two priorities, as Martínez explains in Chaos Monkeys: growth and monetisation. It simply doesn’t care where the content comes from. It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.
Zuckerberg himself has spoken up on this issue, in a Facebook post addressing the question of ‘Facebook and the election’. After a certain amount of boilerplate bullshit (‘Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people’), he gets to the nub of it. ‘Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.’ More than one Facebook user pointed out that in their own news feed, Zuckerberg’s post about authenticity ran next to fake news. In one case, the fake story pretended to be from the TV sports channel ESPN. When it was clicked on, it took users to an ad selling a diet supplement. As the writer Doc Searls pointed out, it’s a double fraud, ‘outright lies from a forged source’, which is quite something to have right slap next to the head of Facebook boasting about the absence of fraud. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and founder of the long-read specialist Medium, found the same post by Zuckerberg next to a different fake ESPN story and another piece of fake news purporting to be from CNN, announcing that Congress had disqualified Trump from office. When clicked-through, that turned out to be from a company offering a 12-week programme to strengthen toes. (That’s right: strengthen toes.) Still, we now know that Zuck believes in people. That’s the main thing.