Writing long before Mark Zuckerberg was born, and anxiously gazing towards the computer dominated future, the social critic Lewis Mumford tried to understand why people would willingly (even eagerly) embrace technologies with severe downsides. To Mumford there were two types of technologies: democratic ones (such as bicycles) that strengthened personal autonomy; and authoritarian ones (such as computers) that ultimately came to exert total power over their users. In seeking to explain why people, and a society, would opt for authoritarian technologies over democratic ones, Mumford argued that authoritarian technologies (which he also called megatechnics) operate as a wonderful bribe. What this bribe represented was a way in which these technologies, in exchange for acquiescence, offered people a share of the impressive things these technologies could produce. Writing in 1970, Mumford warned that accepting the bribe gradually led to the elimination of alternatives to it, and he noted that for those who accept the bribe, “their ‘real’ life will be confined within the frame of a television screen” (Mumford, 331) – though today we might just as easily say “within the frame of a computer or smartphone screen.” And as he glumly continued, “to enjoy total automation, a significant portion of the population is already willing to become automatons” (Mumford, 332). Granted, as Mumford also noted, it was not that everything offered by the bribe was rubbish, rather “if one examines separately only the immediate products of megatechnics, these claims, these promises, are valid, and these achievements are genuine” but what Mumford highlighted was that “all these goods remain valuable only if more important human concerns are not overlooked or eradicated” (Mumford, 333).
Facebook is an excellent example of this bribe at work.
Platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, and the like are all the bribes that convince people not to war against computerized control by offering them a little share of the goodies. A turn of phrase that Mumford returned to repeatedly throughout his oeuvre is the difference between “the good life” and “the goods life” – and he argued that things such as the bribe were the tools by which people came to mistake “the goods life” for “the good life.”