It’s been a hard week to be living in a foreign country without the support of family and close friends. Not someone who is easily shaken up, I was a bit surprised at how much I’ve wept since the shootings last Friday in Connecticut. When I’m on the phone with people from home I’m okay, but in those moments of aloneness and silence it’s hard to keep it together, even in the office. What I posted on my Facebook was about all I could muster on the topic publicly:
No, no, no. Tears are not enough, but they come. Words are not enough, but let’s speak them anyway. Prayers in the language of any religion or from none can never hurt, let’s lift them. Holding on tight to each other, let’s try it. Demanding laws, debating cause, all of it, anger and grief and love and compassion, feel it, remember, go forward and make it better.
I haven’t written much at all for this blog lately as things have just been too busy. But sometimes the urge, the necessity to write falls upon me like an unexpected storm and there’s no way to hide from that. So after the wordless few days after the shooting, I was a bit surprised to experience the deluge after reading a short piece on Instagram’s recent announcement that it now reserves the right to sell any all Instagram images, without notice. Of course, the outcry was immediate and indignant, and in ways I’ll talk about below, I think it’s broadly related to reflections I’ve had recently about society in general.
So, I’ll just put it all down. While I understand the sentiment of anger against Instagram, I had to think:
First of all, it’s a free service. Even if it weren’t, we can walk away at any time, right? As customers, we have the freedom to choose which products to buy and use. Basic principles say that if a business does something bad enough, it will lose customers, and see its profit margins slip away. But have we become captive to the tools that seek to use, and instead become used by them? It’s naïve to assume that the “free” services we use don’t have operational costs that they must meet. By signing up by the millions to them, and demanding that they stay free, these businesses must seek ways to stay solvent. And yet we are shocked and angered when they do so by mining our data, selling the content we generate on their platforms, and forcing us to look at ads that we won’t want to see.
There have been some examples of consumers changing the unfair or invasive policies of companies – the Netflix fiasco is one, Chic-fil-A’s support of anti-marriage equality groups is another. Hooray for collective action and societal pressure. It was also consumer pressure along with government regulation that ended business practices such as child labor, and demanded health labels on foods and cigarettes, etc. But business models these days are changing rapidly and many services are provided “free of charge” to the user, while recouping costs from other means. The result is that people can now get many valuable things for free.
We demand that nearly everything be free: Spotify gives us our music, Hulu our TV, Facebook our social lives, Instagram the ability to create nostalgia instantly in the present and make everything look prettier, the internet our news, YouTube our videos, and these are only the so-called “legal” services. How do they survive? They have to pay for their existence in some way, and it’s not by charging the consumers for their services and products. They pay for their extremely subsidized or non-existent costs by pushing the real costs onto others: the artists who can no longer make a living by playing music, the environment, commercial advertisers (who are often multinational corporations granted personhood and wreaking political, social, and environmental havoc all over the world), our privacy, and yes, our principles.
The cell phones we use are created at the costs of lives in the Congo. We don’t see them. The meat we eat comes from the industrial factory farming system that perpetrates acts of extreme cruelty to animals and often violates the rights of the human workers they employ. We don’t hear them. The bottled water we drink fills our landfills and oceans. We don’t see it. The lesson is that all of these externalities exist, but behind the scenes allowing us the bliss of the ignorant. If we were forced to understand the real cost of our consumer choices, we might not be so adamant in our refusal to pay higher prices.
Instagram wants to sell our pictures without paying us or even telling us. We can see the injustice in that clearly because it might affect us individually. What else aren’t these companies telling us, or feeding us in language masked in legal terminology that we don’t take the time to read and understand?
We appreciate the whistle blowers on these policies because they help protect us from abuse and misuse at the hands of the commercial sector. But often, people who blow the whistle on multinationals, on lobbies, on governments, on the unethical practices in which we participate through our purchases conscious or not of the repercussions, these people are ignored or berated. This is mostly because they make us feel guilty and demand sacrifices from us.
It is hard to be vegetarian or vegan or eat only family farm-raised meat. It is hard to buy a phone or jewels and ensure that they are not conflict diamonds and minerals. It is hard to watch our hard-earned money go to paying for entertainment that we can enjoy for free. It’s not entirely fair, I agree, for people to somehow make us feel responsible for what companies and governments do. We’re not, in the most direct sense. And it’s hard to feel that one small choice on our part is going to turn the tide of a system so large and powerful.
But every day we’re getting wiser. We’re demanding more. If we do it right, we should be asking it from others, and also from ourselves. Because we are responsible for each other, and ultimately for the society in which we live. Public opinion on gay marriage is shifting faster than any other social topic in history, and it’s largely due to visibility. From individuals having the strength to come out to their friends and family. From the media beginning to present homosexuals as relatable people instead of a fringe element of social outcasts.
In the past, duty to society has been seen as inversely related to individual freedom. It has been played like a zero-sum game. For every freedom you earn, society has to lose a little, and for every improvement in society, we all have to give a little more up. But let’s think more about what we want the freedom from, not just the freedom to do.
We want the freedom from someone else owning and selling our memories and our photos. We want the freedom from society or the government telling us who we can love and marry. We want freedom from the fear that our children will be murdered by mentally-ill individuals wielding weapons that are specifically designed to maim and kill. We want freedom from a commercial system that allows companies to use us and our entertainment or our pleasure or our comfort or our convenience to inflict great harm on other communities and the earth.
For all its ills, I think social media has played an important role in showing us to what extent we are all interlinked. That together we have a voice and we can use it to debate, to heal, to incite, to offer compassion and empathy, to start a revolution, to help elect a president and change laws, and yes, also to annoy one another endlessly with trivialities, boasts, and banalities. It’s up to us all, individually and collectively, to decide how we’re going to use this great tool we have, and to resist allowing it to use us.
So, back to this whole thing about Instagram. Let it make us think twice about the unspoken agreements we’ve entered into. It’s impossible to be perfect, but we have to strive to be the best versions of ourselves that we can. Pry away the grip of Instagram and Facebook and our need to possess things. Take back your power to possess yourself. You may delete your Instagram account. The public outcry may lead them to change their policy. Either way, remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you’re getting something for free, there are probably hidden costs that you are paying unknowingly, or someone else is. We’ve all heard that it is not always easy to do what is right. But sometimes, it’s not actually that hard.