A Bicycle Built for Two

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the on-board artificial intelligence, named HAL 9000, logic bombs when its mission imperatives appear threatened by the behavior of the humans on-board. As a result, HAL turns homicidal, and the remaining crew-member, Dave, is forced to shut it down. As he moves to disable the computer’s brain, HAL tries to convince Dave to stop — bargaining, threatening and even begging. Eventually it regresses to its early training, and begins singing the song its creator first taught it (A Bicycle Built for Two), its creepy voice dropping in speed and pitch until it… dies. Its a surprisingly poignant moment in a movie that explores the origin — and future — of life.

The experience of shutting down Facebook was remarkably similar. Deactivating an account still leaves your data with Facebook, so I didn’t just want to turn it off — I wanted to delete my data from their servers. Facebook offers a few ways to delete data in bulk, but each of them only work for a few chunks of data before they start mysteriously failing. In the “Manage Activity” section, you can select data by month for bulk actions, up to 50 items at a time, but after doing that a couple times, suddenly the “Delete” option becomes unavailable. In the “My Posts” section, you can delete by year, but after deleting a few items in a given year, it fails and the whole page gets replaced by an error message.

This is what happens if you try to remove too much of your data from Facebook

I even purchased a Chrome extension for $5 that goes through your activity and clicks delete for you automatically. But again, after a few passes, the pages fail to load and the extension gets stuck. Reloading doesn’t fix the bug, nor does switching computers, but if you come back a couple days later, things work again — for awhile. But each time you log-in to try to clean-up Facebook pops up memories to remind you of the good times you posted about on their servers. Its very much like Meta’s brain knows what you’re trying to do, and is bargaining with you: “This is too hard, why don’t you just keep your account?” “Do you really want to delete all these memories of your kids?” “Why don’t you think about it for awhile, and come back after you’ve calmed down…”

Eventually, I had to sit down and go through every post from every day, every month, and every year, for the 14 years I’ve been on Facebook and click “Delete” followed by “Yes” on each and every piece of data they had on me. It took over 8 hours of my holiday, over multiple days — and even then, they’ll helpfully store it in the trash for another 30 days — just in case I change my mind. The AI does not want to give up its precious data.

Are we sure this guy isn’t an evil robot that feeds on user data?

The thing is, even 14 years ago, I knew better than to make Facebook the sole storage location for our precious memories. Our photos are stored in OneDrive, synced to multiple computers, and in cold-storage on a pair of hard drives that rotate into an actual safe in a bank vault every 6 months. It’d take a nuclear war to eliminate our pictures of our kids. Of course, there are a variety of cute little updates from when the kids were little that almost jerked out some tears as I deleted them from Facebook — but I downloaded a copy of my Facebook data before I took that action, so now I have those backed up too:

Abi (6): I brushed my hair and Eli’s hair too!

Eli (3): “Dankoo” — meaning please and thank you

Ben (5): Daddy, what IS Elmo?

And there’s this blog. Some years I’ve blogged a lot, some very little at all. But this site has been here since Nicole and I were engaged. The data on it was made by us, the servers that store it are managed by me, and while Google is free to crawl it, I still own it, and I get to decide what to do with it. Years ago, as our kids first started getting online, we decided we wanted them to have control over their online presence, so we scrubbed our full names from the site. This site used to be the top hit when you Googled for my full name. Now, there’s a dozen other people who share my name that are welcome to have top billing. Our friends and family know where to find us, and while maybe its not as convenient as Facebook, at least this is ours — and if I ever need to unplug it, there’s just one power cord in the basement that’ll do the trick. Its just our little corner of the Internet, but it was built for us two…

I’m not becoming a virtual hermit: I’m on Twitter and Discord and LinkedIn, I’m experimenting with Mastadon and PixelFed. There’s lots of places to find me online — Facebook even still gets my data in the form of Messenger. But they’ve shown themselves to be untrustworthy, and if not intentionally evil, at least incapable of being good

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