What would Powys have made of Facebook?

Human faces could be alarming to John Cowper Powys. All those passing faces in the street, ordinary people involved in one business or another, were never simple to his eyes. They were portals to other minds and other worlds of consciousness. In his novel Wolf Solent, for example, without knowing a single detail of the life or situation of a man sitting on the steps of Waterloo station, Wolf becomes haunted by what he sees in the man’s face, the possibility of utter despair waiting for any one of us. 

Powys saw the encounter between unfamiliar faces as a moment of challenge. One worldview versus another. Most often, from Powys’s perspective, this was the gaze of ‘normal’ society looking at and assessing anything that didn’t conform to expectations – and was an everyday expression of larger forces: the 20th century dominance of rationality and science, the popularity of psychoanalysis, the idea that anything and everything about the modern world could and should be known, judged and categorised.

Now we have Facebook, a global phenomenon used by more than 2 billion people, that takes this ‘face-off’ to a whole new level. Facebook’s mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”, meaning a great way to share all that’s best or important about our lives. Fronted by the archetypal ‘techie-made-good’ Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook has become an essential part of many people’s hourly routines, their main link to friends and family. It’s also a business worth around $400 billion, making annual profits of something like $4 billion – because, for all its fun and feel good exterior, Facebook was built around a very serious business model. Facebook commoditises human desires – we want to be accepted, we want to show off, we want as many people as possible to see our best side – snaps up all this free information about what we do, what we like, how and when (the kind of knowledge that historically has been so difficult and expensive to extract) and sells it to business.  

Depending on your view, this is either smart 21st century enterprise or something more sinister. The  pressure to conform no longer comes from the occasional gaze of faces in the street; the challenge is set out explicitly and visually in a stream of shared digital content. The world sees far more, knows far more, insists on far more. When they have so much knowledge to tap into, businesses don’t need to advertise in the same way and traditional media and independent journalism is dying. All kinds of human contact and relationships are being replaced (one vivid example being that the use of social media is known to have led to a fall in teenage pregnancies). 

Still we love Facebook. Can’t do without it. And the worrying way it works isn’t being questioned enough – even after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Since then Facebook has acquired WhatsApp, another piece of software with 1.5 billion users around the world for calls and communication, and providing vast amounts of material on people’s lives which is now being eyed for business use.


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