Again, one way Douglass expresses freedom is by wishing he “could commit to paper the feelings with which” he witnessed slavery’s horrors, including the whipping of his aunt. While Douglass seems to regret the inability to adequately represent his feelings in writing, his wish represents freedom in the form of a promise to continue telling his story.
As Zuboff asserts, the creation of meaning from experience is “the foundation of personal freedom.” If experience were immediately meaningful, and if this meaning were instantly known to ourselves and others, Douglass would not “wish [he] could commit [his feelings] to paper” and we would have nowhere to exercise our freedom, nor any space to desire freedom in the first place.
Speaking of the harmful model of Old Social Media—which intends to flatten the space between what we think, feel, say, and do by extracting our present experience to predict our future actions—Zuboff declares, “Our freedom flourishes only as we steadily will ourselves to close the gap between making promises and keeping them.” If Old Social Media preemptively closes this gap before we have a chance to make, keep, or break promises, then we will not be free.
Zuboff writes, “the assertion of freedom of will also asserts the right to the future tense as a condition of a fully human life.” Beyond physical chains and threats of violence, Douglass depicts various techniques which masters used to enslave him, including withholding self-knowledge and denying what Zuboff calls “the right to the future tense.”
For example, Douglass recounts, “[Master Thomas] exhorted me to content myself, and be obedient. He told me, if I would be happy, I must lay out no plans for the future. He said, if I behaved myself properly, he would take care of me. Indeed, he advised me to complete thoughtlessness of the future, and taught me to depend solely upon him for happiness.” To speak in the future tense is to challenge the status quo and exercise free will by making promises about what will be true, even if that truth is yet unrealized (e.g. We will be free).
Alongside the right to speak in the future tense, Zuboff cites the right to speak in the first person as essential to freedom. As noted earlier, this is why Douglass rejects the abolitionists who would prefer to tell his story for him in the third person. However, in the passage above, Douglass strategically uses the third person (e.g. “He told me… He said… he advised me…) to show that the advice not to think of the future rests with Master Thomas alone, and that Douglass himself will not own it by speaking it in the first person.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a triumph of freedom expressed in the first person. And the abundance of memoirs and autobiographies narrated in the succeeding centuries suggests that many people exercise the freedom to tell their own stories in the first person. However, despite the illusion that Old Social Media has empowered more people to speak in the first person, in fact the opposite is true. Zuboff asks, “What happens to the right to speak in the first person from and as my self when the swelling frenzy…set into motion by the prediction imperative is trained on cornering my sighs, blinks, and utterances on the way to my very thoughts as a means to others’ ends?”
Old Social Media’s “prediction imperative” to know what we’re going to do before we know what we’re going to do is not about seeing our future—it’s about confining our possible thoughts and actions to a future pre-determined by others. Though Douglass ultimately liberated himself from his master’s predictions—for example, that learning to read would only bring him anguish, and that his happiness depended on forgetting the future—he still experienced the harm caused by the prediction imperative: “As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish.”
Would learning to read have been agonizing for Douglass if Master Hugh had not predicted it would be so? As literacy gradually increased Douglass’ self-knowledge, and with it his desire for freedom, the pain of his frustrated desire yielded to the power of a fulfilled promise to be free. Master Hugh may have been right that self-knowledge can be agonizing, but he was wrong to withhold the full truth from Douglass: that self-knowledge, though sometimes painful, ultimately leads to freedom.
To be sure, the institution of chattel slavery which Douglass and countless Black Americans experienced is not the same as the mental slavery which Old Social Media inflicts on us today. However, there are striking similarities indicating universal features of oppression, which can enlighten us about our situation before we descend further into bondage. These include, first, asymmetries of knowledge and asymmetries of power.
Recall that Douglass opens his Narrative not with graphic depictions of slavery’s violence but with an account of what he does not know, including his own birthday, because masters have withheld this knowledge from him. Likewise, today Old Social Media companies and those to whom they sell our data, “know everything about us,” according to Zuboff, “whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us.”
As Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, testified before the United States Senate on June 25, 2019,
Essentially what we’re experiencing with technology is an increasing asymmetry of power that’s been masquerading itself as an equal or contractual relationship… The race for attention [causes companies like Facebook] to get more and more aggressive and so it’s not enough just to get your behavior and predict what will take your behavior—[they] have to predict how to keep you hooked in a different way. And so [Old Social Media] crawled deeper down the brainstem into our social validation, so that was the introduction of likes and followers… It was much cheaper, instead of getting your attention, to get you addicted to getting attention from other people…
Old Social Media steals our attention then sells it to advertisers and other third parties without our knowledge or informed consent. Without compensating us, Old Social Media profits by dispossessing us of our most precious resources: our time, experience, and self-knowledge. Is this not a form of slavery?
There is still time, though it is running out, to know ourselves before we surrender our freedom to Old Social Media. Harari warns that “the coming technological revolution might establish the authority of Big Data algorithms, while undermining the very idea of individual freedom.” We don’t claim that data algorithms are inherently bad. Indeed, they can empower us with new ways of knowing ourselves, others, and the world. Still, so long as algorithms serve only a few Old Social Media companies and their clients while keeping the rest of us in the dark, we risk losing our freedom.
The path forward seems daunting, as if we are David and Old Social Media is Goliath. Yet when the struggle feels hopeless, Douglass assures us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Born into slavery, Douglass knows the effort necessary to achieve freedom from those whose power depends on our enslavement. His voice still resounds from his speech on August 3, 1857, with an insight we would do well to heed:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
We will demand our freedom by speaking in the first person, in the future tense, and by telling our own stories. Douglass observes, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” So, we who know a world before Old Social Media, let’s create a better future while we still have our freedom.