Virtually everyone has used toothpaste. Ok, virtually everyone in the First World, who isn’t homeless, addicted to meth, or otherwise disenfranchised, and understands the need and usefulness of toothpaste. Mind you, while there are some interesting new trends in the post-millennial world like brushing with charcoal dust and baking soda, most of us would agree that using toothpaste is an everyday occurrence and hopefully at least twice a day.
Have you ever had the experience of squeezing just a little too aggressively on the tube (maybe on a Monday morning) and had too much toothpaste come out? We all have. And what do you do? You wipe it up, rinse it down the sink, or otherwise dispose of it. In no case has anyone ever successfully put all the extra toothpaste back in the tube. Literally. Has. Never. Happened.
Hence, the quote “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” Now, I have no idea where this came from, but a cursory search told me H. R. Haldeman coined the phrase at the height of the Watergate scandal, during a hearing in front of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities of the United States Senate: Watergate and Related Activities (1973). Mr. Haldeman was the White House Chief of Staff for then-president Nixon, and seemingly at the center of what became the malfeasance that led to President Nixon’s resignation. I can only guess the specifics for the quote, which by the way, are attributed to him as “once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is awfully hard to get it back in.” But I would bet he was referencing that what started out as a small, relatively inconsequential campaign against political enemies, ended up with a sitting president having to resign his position for the first time in our 242-year history.
I open with this long-winded introduction because, like toothpaste, trust should be considered the paste with which we polish our lives … with friendships, colleagues, business associates, brands, and governments. And, like toothpaste, when that trust is handled carelessly, when it’s used as lip-service to cover up real intentions and not backed by authenticity, its effectiveness is lost—and impossible to put back. That’s right, impossible.
Let’s extend the above example to politicians or governments that have betrayed our trust. Any student of history can recall endless examples, large and small. In the United States, examples of recent events provide the richest anecdotes. The Vietnam war proved to be a catalyst for those who view our political leaders’ intentions with a skeptical eye. Certainly the rush to America’s longest standing war—Afghanistan—can be seen through a lens of questioning legitimacy. We were told that going to war was in our national interest and we committed our military and precious treasure. for two-plus decades. How’s that going?
These are egregious examples, but history is rife with many more. Remember the doctors who smoked cigarettes, or the CIA working on mind-control techniques or the publishing of propaganda in our domestic news organizations, or that asbestos was safe for our buildings? How about the Tuskegee Syphilis study that killed 200 African-Americans? Or the Downwinders in Nevada and Utah that died as a result of nuclear bomb testing. In all cases, these revered institutions—doctors, politicians, and the US military, blatantly abused and betrayed all of us. These were institutions we were taught to blindly trust in our civics class. Has that trust been recovered? Has it ever been remedied? Sure, money and apologies have been doled out. Maybe— usually an exception—someone was even held accountable. But did those affected ever regain their trust?
Think about the large, faceless, all-powerful companies we put so much of our trust in today. In the United States, 80% of our corn and soybeans come from one company. Six companies control 90% of all media. Oh, and how can I forget who controls 90% of everything you think, thought, or ponder? “Hey Google, what am I thinking right now?”
So basically, I have to trust the cleanliness of the food supply, right? Although, as of this writing, there’s yet another recall on ground beef and the CDC says don’t eat any lettuce. Any idea how many food recalls there have been? Of course the news is always “reliable” right? Err, ok, fine, but Google will never lead me astray…right?
How about my bank? Do I trust it to protect my money? Am I assured that it will be there in a crisis, that they won’t do things like sign me up for accounts I didn’t want or ask for, and charge me fees that I can’t decipher? I’m sure we should all be able to sleep well at night knowing they’d never take risks with our money and put our national economy at risk, our jobs in jeopardy, and our children’s future in question.
Yet, we’re told to trust them.
So here we are in 2018, two billion people walking around with personal tracking devices, with applications that track everything we do; logging our locations, likes, and loves…our most intimate thoughts tracked by companies that have repeatedly and with great rapaciousness, violated our most private moments. “Trust us, we only need this data to better serve you,” we’re told. This information is critical to the services they provide us, or so we’re led to believe.
Facebook has been a serial liar when it comes to privacy. The most recent example sums it up: listening to their users’ demand for two-factor authentication, Facebook, under the guise of “concerns for its users’ safety,” prompted its 2B users to add their mobile phones for “added protection.” Guess what? They also used those mobile phones to monetize those very users they were purporting to protect.
Google, when they do show up to be questioned in Congress, has be found to creepily track users across all of its products. From most recently requiring users to log in to google accounts—for their protection—to insisting on tracking across mobile and desktop to better serve you. All for better monetization.
Now you might be thinking “everyone harvests my data. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t opt out of the modern digital age!” I’d say your wrong, maybe lazy, but definitely naive.
Take Apple. They have 2B users, have most of the users in their cloud, sending messages, images, emails, listening to music, and searching for coffee shops. Who should you trust? Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook? I say Tim. Before you call me a fanboy, hear me out. I know Tim Cook is intensely private and Mark Zuckerberg—ironically—bought up all the property around his Palo Alto home, “for privacy.” So on some personal level, they care about privacy…at least their privacy. But the great thing about them is I don’t need to know them personally in order to trust them. I just need to follow the money. Where does Apple make its money? Where does Facebook? Apple makes 0% on advertising and Facebook makes 99% of its revenue on ads. I think the other 1% is interest on its massive cash surplus. The point is, one company MUST have your data shared to survive and the other simply allows you to CHOOSE which data is shared. “Who to trust” is now a very easy, straight-forward decision. Just follow the money!
I’m not lobbying for Apple. In fact, I’m quite disappointed in their hardware and software quality of late. Their innovation is confined to not screwing me over on battery life and a “new and improved” iPad (for which I’m still trying to find a use). But I know they’re not monetizing my personal information. Certainly they’re robbing me blind, charging me $1000 for a phone, but they’re definitely not harvesting every piece of my digital exhaust.
What does all this have to do with toothpaste? Simple: Facebook, Google, and the rest of the social manipulators trying to pretend like we have control and direction over our information have violated our trust. And that trust will never, ever be regained. It’s too little, too late. That is the sad reality and in today’s political environment, we’re seeing what that means for all of us. Doubt, deceit, and damage to our way of governing, let along the loss of civility are all causalities in the political world. We’ve never been more tribal, more divided, and more unhappy.
Now, translate that loss of trust into the social media realm. A world where all of us look down at our phones during dinner, where we have to put “no texting” signs at crosswalks, and even the providers themselves have added “screen time” features to tell us to get off those damn devices! What’s the result of being under constant surveillance, knowing the Panopticon is always watching, having the pressure to answer that email, respond to that text, get that notification?
Fundamentally, the world becomes one where anyone can say anything knowing they have a tribe that will believe them and one that won’t. A world that leads to less civility, less discussion, and less compromise. A world where we’re miserable.
Facebook and Google are facing the consequences of years-long deceit. Instead of just saying they harvest our data, being honest and transparent about it, they hid, denied, and tried to obfuscate this fact. They told us our lives would be better with them in it. That the more we shared, the better the world would be. They lied. They betrayed us. Thanks (I never thought I’d write this) to the 2016 election and some forwarding-thinking folks in Congress, they regret that. They want our forgiveness. They promise to do better. But guess what? It’s too late.
The point is that the toothpaste is out and it’s never coming back. These companies are calcified with conceit and their contrition is disingenuous. They are blatant in their attempts to say one thing and do another and they’ll never be able to wash away that stain. It’s indelible.
And just like the toothpaste that gets out of the tube, it’s really time to wash the social manipulators down the sink and start over.