Facebook’s Organ-Donor Option Sounds Good, but Should We Be Paranoid About Privacy?

Donating body parts on Facebook is fine, but maybe we should be paranoid about making such information public, says Kent Sepkowitz.

Visuals Unlimited, Inc. / Dr. Barry Slaven / Getty Images

Mark May 1, 2012, as the day Facebook ended its stormy adolescence and entered the dismal world of adulthood. For on this day, as reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, Facebook stepped forward and adopted a cause—and a good cause, too. Beginning now, Facebookians, who include about half of the U.S., will be able to donate their organs to those in need.

And many people do need the organs. Estimates suggest that up to 6,300 people a year die in the United States each year while awaiting an organ (usually heart, liver, or lungs).

Facebook has decided to use its considerable reach to make it simple for you and me to declare ourselves organ donors. Previous efforts to promote donation had been centered in the gloomy environs of the Department of Motor Vehicles, where no sane person ever has spent an extra second to sign a form for anything, much less for donating his corneas. Facebook intends to remedy this by making donation a click or two away.

A small but notable asterisk needs to be inserted here: We are not talking about the Good Samaritan kidney donation to your brother or your favorite cop or client; we are talking about cheerfully signing on to donate up to 100 body parts to 100 people if and when you drop dead unexpectedly. As a living person, you are declaring your posthumous wishes.

Professionals involved in organ transplantation, as well as those on the 100,000-person organ-recipient waiting list, are giddy with the possibility of having enough organs to go around. If Facebook’s initiative is successful, not only might deaths be prevented, but dollars too might be saved as hospitals finally will be able to move those very sick waiting-listers toward transplantation, ending costly hospital stays that otherwise might extend for months.

This seems like a wonderful moment no matter how you slice it—almost. See, there’s one nagging issue. With this step, we are embracing a new phase of Dudley Do-Right behavior—one proctored by computers. We have accepted life in the “captology” universe. Captology is a neologism coined by BJ Fogg, director of the very Soviet-sounding Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. (The term “captology” is acronymically derived from their watchword: Computers As Persuasive Technology). He and those like him think the time is ripe for your computer to do some arm-twisting and make us better citizens. Please, HAL, it’s not personal.

Fogg and the gang do seem aware of the creep factor in all of this. They therefore try to soften the blow for anyone entering their brave new world with (rather disturbing) assurances. They write:

“Yes, this can be a scary topic: machines designed to influence human beliefs and behaviors. But there’s good news. We believe that much like human persuaders, persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education. We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

I see. First we get the computers to make us better people—check. Then do it some more and become really good people—double check. Then, um, then we’ll have peace in 30 years. OK.

Isn’t anyone else bothered by this?

Well, perhaps this isn’t 1984 and the Ministry of Truth is not actually knocking at my or at BJ Fogg’s door. But the reflexive wholesale acceptance of people friending their organs to each other and feeling so at ease with the premise says something sad and troubling about the state of paranoia in the United States in the 21st century.

You remember paranoia—that life-giving if altogether inconvenient force that launched investigations, sank presidents, kept you from drinking the cup of soda that made others sick. It was at the heart of all creative endeavors. Indeed, paranoia fully defined the Pepsi generation: I think we are in Vietnam because the Pope told JFK that ... In contrast, the Facebook generation, in addition to giving us captology, has given us, well, Facebook. Why are none of them worried about what it means to put so much personal information out on public display, open game for any nut to consider and digest? Perhaps because they grew up after Gorbachev tore down that wall, or perhaps because they were adequately parented or perhaps because they really are having a nice day, they don’t seem to feel as if their life were a dangerous minefield, a place where only smarts, well-honed intuition, and a little bit of luck from above can promise safe passage.

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The information age has changed the role of paranoia in our daily lives: paranoia, alas, has been relegated to the nutty sideline, to Mom’s basement, to the distant realm where cyber-kooks connect Jesus to alien abductors and birthers cannot stop fretting over the president’s birth certificate. In a world where anyone’s opinion is as good (and as validated) as the next, and facts no longer exist, good, old-fashioned, sweaty-palmed paranoia, that nagging doubt that produced so much itself is viewed only as nutty. Real, card-carrying paranoids are no better than the guy connecting Jesus to alien life.

Seems to me that someone—I don’t know who—has taken the guts out of paranoia. I can think of a few people who might be in on it. It’s up to us to dog in and find out just who.