Our Digital Black Hole

One of the tongue-in-cheek subtitles Walker Percy gave to his 1983 book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book went like this: “Why is it that of all the billions and billions of strange objects in the Cosmos—novas, quasars, pulsars, black holes—you are beyond doubt the strangest?”

I thought of Percy while I was reading Matt Ford’s “In Defense of the Blurry Black Hole Photo.” Ford is writing, of course, about the remarkable image of a black hole released earlier this week by National Science Foundation. Doubtless you have seen the image, or at least you’ve absorbed some of the online buzz about the image in the day or two after it was unveiled.

Over the last few days, I’ve thought about the image and the varied responses to it. Initially, I was curious whether the image might arouse an interesting digital age variation on the experience of the sublime. The short answer seems to be “no, decidedly not.” Quite the opposite it seems, at least in some quarters.

Ford was not amused by the shrug-emoji level responses he began to read on social media (he was not alone). After citing a few examples, he chided, “This level of cynicism is better understood as ignorance.” Ford then mounts his defense of the image, doing his best to awaken readers from their metaphysical slumber.

“The image itself might indeed seem unimpressive,” he grants. “But,” he goes on,
“judging it as you would any other digital photograph, shorn of all context and understanding, would be shortsighted. One also has to consider the thought and labor behind its creation. The photograph might not depict the horror of galactic destruction as some expected, but it represents something even better.”

What, you ask, could be better than “the horror of galactic destruction.” What could rival the popularity, for example, of the Sweet Meteor O’Death?

In Ford’s view, the wonder of human ingenuity:

Think about it: A group of mostly hairless primates, stranded on a rock circling a nuclear spark, used radio waves to photograph an invisible sun-eater so far away that a person would have to travel for 55 million years at the speed of light to reach it. It’s hard to not feel a frisson of awe at the scale of the feat. This context is vital to fully appreciating the image itself, in the same way that the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is even more impressive when you know that Michelangelo spent three years of his adult life bent over backwards to paint it.

You can feel Ford rhetorically straining to will his readers into an experience of awe and wonder. You can also, it seems to me, feel his efforts falling flat (through no fault of his own, I’d hasten to add). In the context of social media, most forms of naive earnestness are potent anti-virals. It is telling, too, that Ford seeks to save wonder by attaching it to the labor involved rather than to the object itself (more along those lines in this account as well). I suspect that most people moved by an encounter with the Sistine Chapel, when such wonder was still psychically available, did not, in fact, have any need of conjuring up the image of Michelangelo bent over backwards painting it. 

An experience of awe or an experience of the sublime, however conceived, is finally an embodied experience. You cannot think yourself into it. I can’t blame Ford for his obvious annoyance with cheeky cynicism of the responses he catalogs, but he may also be asking for too much in turn

Interestingly, toward the end of his piece, he focuses on a properly embodied experience of the night sky and the starry heavens, an experience that, thanks to electricity’s conquest of the night, is unavailable to the vast majority of Americans.

“Our ancestors,” he notes, “had it easier, at least in some ways. They may have lacked radio telescopes to peer across millions of light-years at far-flung galaxies. But they did not need them to grasp their place in the cosmos. They could simply look up at night.” He notes, quickly, certain measurable consequences of light pollution, on human sleep patterns, for example, or avian migration.

“The existential impact,” he acknowledges, “is harder to measure.” Indeed.

Ford goes on: “A blurred photo of a distant black hole can’t fill the void within. It can certainly help, though.” He speaks of the need to nourish “a sense of cosmic wonderment,” and he leaves us with the following counsel: “There’s still a beauty and awe that can be found in the universe’s stark simplicity—if you’re willing to see it.”

I’m sympathetic to Ford’s concerns. I also happen to think that matters are more complicated than what his piece suggests. For one thing, the piece lacks an awareness of the reduction, or, to put it in a less pejorative manner, the reconfiguration of meaning that already preceded and, in fact, constitutes Ford’s perspective on these matters. It also intuits but does not appear to grasp the full significance of the unfolding reconfiguration of meaning driven by the advent of digital media.

The modern world, cultural theorists tell us, has been characterized by the disenchantment of the natural world. In fact, this disenchantment was accompanied by a Romantic enchantment of the social word. Mimesis gave way to poiesis. We can see this more readily when we recognize, following Charles Taylor for example, that enchantment is a matter of meaning as much as it is a matter of magic.

Ford already speaks out of one layer of disenchantment. The kind of cosmic wonderment he wistfully invokes is already a step removed from the pre-modern, pre-Copernican experience of the cosmos:  an experience of a certain at-home-ness in the comprehensible cosmos rather than a feeling of smallness and awe at the dark infinity of the universe, the latter experience being a decidedly Romantic attempt to recover a loss that it cannot quite name except by theorizing it as the sublime. Characteristically, then, this experience Ford defends is not simply given, it is something we must to some degree will ourselves to see. And it is a stark simplicity that we are meant to see.

Then there is the present reconfiguration or unraveling of meaning that is neatly encapsulated in James Poulos’s observation:  digital disenchants.

Modern technology disenchanted the natural world and enchanted the social world. Meaning was no longer a feature of the world to be merely perceived and inhabited by human beings. It became a subjective reality imposed and fabricated by human beings. We necessarily became artists of the self.

Digital technology disenchants the social world and enchants the technological world. Meaning is no longer subjectively experienced. Claude Shannon’s divorce of meaning from information in digital communication is recapitulated in the human experience of digital technology; it is the founding myth that contains the truth which illuminates the world. Meaning is kicked out of the human realm and displaced onto the technological, from whence it is imposed upon us. We can no longer believe in the romantic project of self-making and self-fulfillment. Poiesis gives way to an inverted mimesis. We no longer imitate, we are the imitated, sculpted in data by algorithmically powered “intelligent” machines. 

It turns out then that the image of the black hole was itself consumed by another, albeit digital, black hole whose gravitational pull threatens any enduring experience of meaning or wonder.


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Technology and the Inadequacy of Values Talk

March was a quiet month on the blog front. My apologies for that; other projects and deadlines were consuming the time I’d ordinarily devote to writing on here. The two posts that did make it up, as I noted then, were both surplus thoughts stemming from one of those other projects. Looking ahead, most of my discretionary attention is going toward a talk I’ll be giving in D.C. in late May. So, like the March posts, this one will be an offshoot of what I’m reading in preparation. I will note, though, that while the blog is lagging a bit, the newsletter is picking up. I’ve got a streak of three newsletters in three weeks going, and I’m hoping to keep that pace up. I’m looking to publish consistently on either late Sunday evening or early Monday. If you’ve not signed up, you can do so here: The Convivial Society. There’s a link to the archive there, too, if you wanted to peruse some recent installments.

Now, on to why I began writing this post:  Albert Borgmann has some useful, possibly urgent things to say to us in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. The book is, I believe, Borgmann’s most important work in the philosophy of technology. I recently discovered that Evgeny Morozov listed this work as on of the five books he commended a few years back as the best books on the philosophy of technology (it’s a solid list all around). Of Borgmann’s book, Morozov observed, “it was all hardcore philosophical theory, how to think and evaluate practices, and what to do about technology and what should be done.” Indeed. Borgmann’s work, though now 35 years old, seems to me as relevant as ever. I’ve drawn on his writing a number of times, and you can dip into the archive to read some of those posts if you’re so inclined.

For present purpose, I wanted to simply share a handful of excerpts drawn from the chapters dealing with technology and politics.

Writing about technology and social order, Borgmann observes that “it is widely admitted that there is a problem of orientation in the technologically advanced countries.” Citing a cheery paragraph from Buckminster Fuller, he acknowledges that not everyone is debilitated by the disorientation occasioned by modern technology, but he suspects that Fuller is an outlier. For those who do find modern technology disorienting, he notes that more often than not it is believed that “we can find our bearings in relation to technology by raising the questions of values”—ethics talk, we might say today.

But Borgmann is not impressed: “Such a procedure may only strengthen and conceal the reign of what we seek to question.” It would do so chiefly by reinforcing the means-ends distinction that Borgmann finds rather pernicious. “The relative stability of ends and the radical variability of means that again comes to fruition in the device is likewise congenial to values talk …”

Device is a technical term in Borgmann’s work, and a key component of what he termed the device paradigm. The device paradigm (or pattern), which Borgmann argues characterizes modern technology. It’s not an easy concept to summarize. It describes the tendency of machines to become simultaneously more commodious and more opaque, or, to put it another way, easier to use and harder to understand. Borgmann contrasted devices to focal things, and the differences was chiefly a matter of the form of engagement they generated. Basically, Borgmann believed that devices encourage what we might think of as shallow, superficial, ultimately unsatisfying engagement. I’ve suggested that we could get at this distinction by noting how we tend to call those who take up a device users. Such a term does not quite fit for those who take up with the sort of tool, artifact, or technology which Bormann labels a focal thing. It may be better to think of them as practitioners.

One aspect of the device paradigm is the radical interchangeability of means to which he alludes in the lines I cited above. The point of the device, in fact, is to offer us the same end we might have achieved through a focal thing but without the hassle, so to speak. Elsewhere, Borgmann spoke of what devices make technologically available being “instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” In so doing, however, they have radically altered the nature of the end they procure. One cannot get at the meaning or significance of technology by presuming at the outset that means are basically indifferent and inconsequential so long as we arrive at the desired end or goal.

We might begin to see then why “values talk” simply unfolds within the device paradigm rather than challenging it. “No matter how the question of value is raised and settled,” Borgmann writes, “the patter of technology itself is never in question. Technology comes into play as the indispensable and unequaled procurement of the means that allow us to realize our preferred values.”

Borgmann acknowledges both that it is politically useful to resort to values talk and that, for the same reasons, it is difficult to commend focal things. Values talk typically centers on “hard” or “measurable” values: employment, resources, or productivity, for example. These are instrumental values, Borgmann notes, but “one can appeal to them as guides or ends in political controversies because the ends proper that they serve are understood and granted by almost everyone. Those final values are commodities.”

Commodities, he adds, “are sharply defined and easily measured. Focal things, on the other hand, engage us in so many and subtle ways that no quantification can capture them.” This is not a matter of “mysterious unquantifiable properties,” rather “their significance is composed of so many, if not all, of their physically ascertainable properties that an explicit quantitative account must always impoverish the greatly.”

Penultimate thought from Bormann: “When values talk is about [focal] things, it falters, and the object of discourse slips from our grasp. Discourse that is appropriate to things must in its crucial occurrences abandon the means-ends distinction. It must be open to and guided by the fullness of the focal thing in the world, and it can communicate the thing only through testimony and appeal.”

Final word: “In spite of its shortcomings one should, as a matter of prudence and pedagogy, encourage discussions that raise the value question. Without this familiar if inadequate approach, a fundamental analysis of technology remains forbidding. Moreover, values will remain indispensable as ways of summarizing, recollecting, and preparing for our experience with things.”

More from Borgmann forthcoming.

Stages, Structures, and the Work of Being Yourself

I have a half-baked theory, and I’m going to write about here to see where it goes.

My half-baked theory starts with the intuition of an analogy. I’ve been working on a piece for Real Life about the heightened self-consciousness our use of social media tends to generate (it was published today, you can read it here). I leaned a bit on some of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the self to make my case.

In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman suggested that we understand our social interaction by analogy to the theater. When we interact directly with others in their presence, it is as if we are actors on stage. On the stage, we are engaged in the work of impression management—trying to manage how we are perceived by controlling the impressions we give—the particular shape of which depends on the audience. But, in keeping with the analogy, we also have a back stage. This is where we are no longer immediately before a public audience. In our back stage area others may be present, but, if they are, they constitute a more intimate, familiar audience before which we are more at ease, some might say more ourselves. In our back stage area, we are able to let down our guard to some significant degree.

Goffman’s examples are all rather concrete and grounded in face-to-face experience. For example, for restaurant workers the kitchen is the back stage to the dining area’s front stage. Part of what I argue in the Real Life piece is that we can usefully extend Goffman’s analysis to the experience of the self on social media, especially when sustained by ubiquitous mobile devices. The idea is that we are now always potentially on the front stage, relentlessly managing impressions. When the stage is virtual, in other words, it is potentially everywhere. There is no backstage, or, to put it more moderately, the front stage begins to colonize what used to be backstage time and space. What I might’ve done a better job of explaining in the essay is that front stage work amounts to a practice of the self, a practice that becomes habitual and formative. It’s not so much that we internalize any one performance but that we internalize the performative mode. 

But it wasn’t Goffman’s analogy to the theater that I spoke of intuiting at the outset of this post, rather it was the analogy between Goffman’s dramaturgy and medieval carnival. Briefly stated, certain medieval festivals and carnivals had the function of relieving, if only temporarily, the burden and pressure of living a holy life. During these festivals or carnivals traditional roles were reversed, conventional pieties were overturned, even the sacred was profaned. All of it, mind you, ultimately in the service of the established order, more or less.

Charles Taylor, who discusses medieval carnivals at some length in his history western secularism, cites a medieval French cleric who explains the inversions and apparent profanations of carnival this way:

“We do these things in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels ….”

As Taylor notes, the French cleric did not think in terms of blowing off steam, a metaphor more at home in the industrial age, but that’s essentially his point as we might put it today.

In his discussion, Taylor draws on Victor Turner’s discussion of carnival in his work on the ritual process. In Turner’s view, medieval carnival is just one manifestation of a wide-spread phenomenon:  the relationship between structure and anti-structure.

Taylor summarizes what Turner means by structure this way: “the code of behavior of a society, in which are defined the different roles and statuses, and their rights, duties, powers, vulnerabilities.” Consequently, Taylor writes, “Turner’s point is that in many societies where this code is taken perfectly seriously, and enforced, even harshly most of the time, there are nevertheless moments or situations in which it is suspended, neutralized, or even transgressed.” But why?

Taylor notes again the “blowing off steam” hypothesis. If you don’t find a way to relieve the pressure within the relative safety of semi-sanctioned ritual, then you will get more serious, uncontrolled, and violent eruptions. But Taylor also notes an alternative or possibly complementary hypothesis present in Turner’s work: “that the code relentlessly applied would drain us of all energy; that the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Coming back, then, to my intuited analogy, it goes something like this:  carnival is to the ordinary demands of piety in medieval society as, in contemporary society, the back stage is to the front stage relative to identity work.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Indeed, I confess that I may be stretching a bit to make it work. It really only focuses on one aspect of the backstage experience as Goffman theorized it:  the backstage as a space to let one’s guard down, to relieve the pressures of a constantly calibrated performance before an ill-defined virtual audience, to blow off some steam.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something useful in the approach. The main idea that emerged for me was this:  in our contemporary, digitally augmented society the mounting pressure we experience is not the pressure of conforming to the rigid demands of piety and moral probity, rather it is the pressure of unremitting impression management, identity work, and self-consciousness. Moreover, there is no carnival. Or, better, what presents itself as a carnival experience is, in reality, just another version of the disciplinary experience.

Consider the following.

First, the early internet, Web 1.0, was a rather different place. In fact, a case could be made for the early internet being itself the carnivalesque experience, the backstage where, under the cloak of anonymity, you got to play a variety of roles, try on different identities, and otherwise step out of the front stage persona (“on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, etc.). As our internet experience, especially post-Facebook, became more explicitly tied to our “IRL” identity, then the dynamic flipped. Now we could no longer experience “life on screen” as anti-structure, as backstage, as a place of release. Online identity and offline identity became too hopelessly entangled. Confusion about this entanglement during the period of transition accounts for all manner of embarrassing and damaging gaffs and missteps. The end result is that the mainstream experience of the internet became an expansive, always on front stage. A corollary of this development is the impulse to carve out some new online backstage experience, as with fake Instagram accounts or through the use of ephemeral-by-design communication of the sort that Snapchat pioneered.

Indeed, this may be a way of framing the history of the internet:  as a progression, or regression, from the promise of a liberating experience of anti-structure to the imposition of a unprecedentedly expansive and invasive instrument of structure. Many of our debates about the internet seem to be usefully illuminated by the resulting tension. Perhaps we might put it this way, the internet becomes an instrument of structure on a massive scale precisely by operating in the guise of an anti-structure. We are lured, as it were, by the promise of liberation and empowerment only to discover that we have been ensnared in a programmable web of discipline and control.

Second, maybe the analogy that occurred to me is more straightforward than I first imagined. My initial focus, given the essay I was working on, involved the experience of hypertrophied self-consciousness. So the analogy in this light operated at a sort of meta level. No real moral code was involved, only the psychic burden of constant identity management. But maybe there is a moral code involved. Of course, there’s a moral code involved! Our experience of social media can be an infamously surveilled and policed experience. Undoubtedly, there is pressure to conform to ever-evolving standards regulating speech and expression, for example. This pressure manifests itself through blunt instruments of enforcement (blocking, harassment, doxxing, etc.) or more tacit mechanisms of reward. Either way, it is not a stretch to say that we negotiate the demands of an emerging, perhaps ever-emerging moral code whenever we use online platforms. We might even say that the disciplinary character of the social media activity takes on an oddly ritualistic quality, as if it were the manifestation of some ancient and deep-seated drive to cleanse the social body of all forms of threatening impurities. 

But it’s one thing to conform to a standard to which you more or less assent and arising from a community you inhabit. It’s quite another to conform to a standard you don’t even buy into or maybe even resent. This is basically the case on many of our most popular digital forums and platforms. They gather together individuals with disparate, diverging, and conflicting moral, political, religious stances, and they thrust these individuals into meta-communities of performative and competitive display. Not surprisingly, interested parties will take recourse to whatever tools of control and discipline are available to them within the structures of the platforms and forums that sustain the meta-community. The result, again, a disciplinary experience in a space that was assumed to be liberating and empowering.

[Taylor is helpful on this score as well. He tells a long and complex story, so I won’t do justice to it here, but one key concept he deploys is what he calls the nova effect. The nova effect, in Taylor’s analysis, is the explosion of possible and plausible options regarding the good life that emerge in the modern world. The result is, of course, experienced as freedom and liberation, but also as fragmentation and fragilization of the self. Social media, it seems to me, dramatically intensifies the nova effect. It brings us into a space where we become aware of and interact with an exponentially greater variety of perspectives, stances, and forms of life within structures that foreground the performative experience of the self, which only accents its sense of fragility.]

Think, then, of the dark perfection of a structure that has convinced it is really an anti-structure, a front stage that invites us to think of it as a back stage. We end up unwittingly turning to the very source of our exhaustion, anxiety, burnout, and listlessness for release and relief from the same. The result is recreation without rest, familiarity without intimacy, play without joy, laughter without mirth, carnival without release—in short, the feeling that society is on the brink of exploding and the self is on the brink of imploding.


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When the Service Is Free, Your Life Is the Work of Art

Thoughts that arose as a surplus of sorts from a piece I’ve been working on over the last couple of weeks:

  1. There seems to be a trajectory implicit in documenting technology that we might gloss in this way: First to remember, then to express. The thought occurred to me, when thinking about how we have come to use photography over the last fifteen years or so. I was recently going through a box of old photographs taken during the 1980s and early 90s. The point of these photographs, almost without exception, was simply to record or document a moment. It’s true that we still snap images to document our lives, but this function of image-taking seems to be eclipsed by the degree to which our images are also means of self-expression, self-marketing, or simply acts of mundane communication. Instagram, it seems to me, is not chiefly a platform we use merely to document our lives for memory’s sake. The threshold is crossed, it seems, when the apparatus of documentation becomes cheap, accessible, and, consequently, ubiquitous. Compare the costs and limitations of 35-mm photography with digital photography.
  2. My old photographs had a vanishingly small audience. It is hard to overstate the consequences of having an audience in our pockets all the time. It’s hard to turn anything toward the work of self-expression if there will be no audience to receive it.
  3. Benjamin famously theorized how the work of art lost its aura in the age of its mechanical reproducibility. But the photograph, one of those means of mechanical reproducibility still retained an aura of sorts. Think of Barthes’s refusal to display a particularly personal photograph of his mother. The digital image retains no aura of that sort. Breaking free of the aura appears to be a prerequisite for becoming a means of self-expression.
  4. Of course, there is fine if not porous line between documenting and expressing, perhaps it’s simply a matter of emphasis. There have always been artists who have turned the tools of documentation toward imaginative creation and expression. When the media of documentation and expression become ubiquitous, one’s life becomes the work of art.

Variations On A Utilitarian Theme

Read along, if you will, as I tell a little story of sorts through a series of excerpts. It is essentially a story about the links among prevalent trends involving surveillance, data, security, self-documentation, and happiness.

Jeremy Bentham in Deontology, or The Science of Morality:

It were to be wished that every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door. It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed that every man’s house were made of glass …

The more men live in public, the more amenable they are to the moral sanction. The greater dependence men are in to the public, that is, the more equality there is among them, the clearer the evidence comes out, the more it has of certainty in its results. The liberty of the press throws all men into the public presence. The liberty of the press is the greatest co-adjutor of the moral sanction. Under such influence, it were strange if men grew not every day more virtuous than on the former day. I am satisfied they do ….

A whole kingdom, the great globe itself, will become a gymnasium, in which every man exercises himself before the eyes of every other man. Every gesture, every turn of limb or feature, in those whose motions have a visible influence on the general happiness, will be noticed and marked down.

Lewis Mumford in The Myth of the Machine:

“In the end, no action, no conversation, and possibly in time no dream or thought would escape the wakeful and relentless eye of this deity: every manifestation of life would be processed into the computer and brought under its all-pervading system of control. This would mean, not just the invasion of privacy, but the total destruction of autonomy: indeed the dissolution of the human soul.”

Stephen Wolfram, Seeking the Productive Life:

I have systems that keep all sorts of data, including every keystroke I type, every step I take and what my computer screen looks like every minute (sadly, the movie of this is very dull). I also have a whole variety of medical and environmental sensors, as well as data from devices and systems that I interact with.

It’s interesting every so often to pick up those Wolfram Data Drop databins and use them to do some data science on my life. And, yes, in broad terms I find that I am extremely consistent and habitual—yet every day there are different things that happen, that make my “productivity” (as measured in a variety of ways) bounce around, often seemingly randomly …

Perhaps all that data I’ve collected on myself will one day let one basically just built a “bot of me”. Having seen so many of my emails—and being able to look at all my files and personal analytics—maybe it’s actually possible to predict how I’d respond to any particular question.

Hugo Huijer, Engineering a Happiness Prediction Model:

Over the last 5 years, I’ve tracked my happiness every single day. I’ve now used this data to build a happiness prediction model. That’s right. I’ve built a model that can accurately predict how happy I will be on a scale from 1 to 10, based on what I plan to do that day.

This model features over 80 happiness factors. Below is a sneak peek of these happiness factors. This shows how much certain factors – like running, my job and my relationship with my girlfriend – influence my happiness.

________________

I first came across Ursula Le Guin’s well-known short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in an anthology of readings in ethical theory. It was included in the section on utilitarianism or consequentialism. The story, as many of you will know, is about a city called Omelas that is a citadel of peace, prosperity, and happiness without artificiality. But, we soon learn, all of this is somehow connected to the suffering of a lone individual, who is kept isolated in a dark, putrid cell, his human faculties barely developed. At a certain age, everyone who lives in Omelas must witness the condition of this individual and so come to terms with the cost of their happiness. The title of the story, of course, tells us about the choice at least some of the citizens of Omelas make. You should read the story, this summary obviously does not do it justice.

I bring the story to mind, however, as a way of framing this last piece: “The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America.”  It is an account of a the kind of work that poorly compensated Facebook moderators do in an effort to keep Facebook’s newsfeed relatively pleasant and devoid of the very worst of what human beings are capable of doing to themselves and to one another.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

She spent the past three and a half weeks in training, trying to harden herself against the daily onslaught of disturbing posts: the hate speech, the violent attacks, the graphic pornography. In a few more days, she will become a full-time Facebook content moderator, or what the company she works for, a professional services vendor named Cognizant, opaquely calls a “process executive.”

For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office.

If you are not keen on reading at even greater depth and detail about the work these “process executives” do out of sight for the sake of Facebook’s user experience, there is a sidebar near the top of the piece with bullet-pointed summary of key points. At least glance at those.


H/t to Neil Turkewitz for the Mumford quote.