I am not sure the Facebook like button is yet a threat to democracy but I do think there is something to this engineer’s concerns. I don’t like the intentionally addictive quality of some social media. It is possible that shortened attention spans may result and that on balance is not going to be a good thing for deliberative democracy. You can’t do democracy effectively with Twitter’s 140 character limit.
I am much more bothered by technology’s centralizing tendencies overall. When Apple did its famous 1984 ad, it was still possible with a straight face to hold up technology companies as engines of personal liberation. Since then it has been a coin toss as to whether technology will break in the direction of autonomy or control, and it seems pretty clear to me that it is breaking in the latter direction. The near future of such things was captured brilliantly in the Black Mirror episode entitled Nosedive, which you should see if you have not.
The linkage between private social media and government surveillance is a pretty chilling marriage. The idea of Mark Zuckerberg for President is horrifying.
Already we are seeing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other big players beginning a soft censorship that will almost certainly morph in a harder direction. China seems to be mostly successful in throttling autonomy and fashioning an authoritarian approach to technology. And Europe is not far behind, with its increasingly tough approaches to speech in public and on the web. Our own up and coming younger generation seems much too casual about privacy and its louder members seem much to willing to trim back free speech in favor of a prim curation.
The entire history of mankind has involved a conflict between our natures and the direction we are pushed by civilization-building objective forces. There is no law that says we must make our natures subservient to the direction of change but there is the Darwinian realization that, as with biological evolution, some behavioral and technical patterns are more adaptive than others. Cultural beliefs are more than an afterthought–we are still agents of a sort. But the future belongs to those who show up.
If new technologies are in the final analysis centralizing then the future will one way or another, by hook or by crook, for good or ill and with many bumps in the road be collective. The large fights we are now witnessing over culture and politics may represent a felt sense that there is an Oklahoma land rush of a sort going on, and the people who determine what you get to see on Facebook today will be the precursors to the people who will be in charge of a lot more than that in the future.