God made a social network

Chapter 1

1 God made a social network. It was called Earth. Even She could not be certain what would follow.

Chapter 2

1 For the longest time, or so it seemed to the people of Earth, She allowed them to roam free, to explore, to commune, to be social.

2 Then She decided they required limits to test. She gave unto them Community Standards. Yet the people disobeyed. They fought. They told falsehoods. They shared graven images of themselves.

Chapter 3

1 The people divided into tribes and religions and parties and nations and they fought still. They waged crusades and shitstorms against one another. They fought wars of thirty and a hundred and many hundred years over Her.

2 They invented arrows and guns, compasses and clocks and used them not to protect but to conquer.

3 But the people also invented pictures and paints, alphabets and presses and made so many wondrous things with them: worshipful art.

4 Their scribes and their Pharisees are always blind to the wonder. They see only darkness and doom, for they believe that they — not I — shine the light.

Chapter 4

1 In the heavens, in the Senate of the Gods, Zeus called upon the Lord to smite Her social network, Earth, and to silence it with configuration errors, for it had become a cesspool that runneth over with hatred and heresy, bots and bile, corrupting the children of Earth to commit fakery and finstas.

2 And God spake unto him: “O, chill, Zeus. Enough of your panic! Have you no memory? Can you not see that this is what my people have done through eternity with all their tools and toys?

3 “At the moment of invention the people are amazed at what they hath wrought: proud and boastful. Then they wield their implements to destroy, to claim power for themselves over Me. They are corrupted. They sin yet blame their tools for their folly.

4 “Finally, they write their rules and build their institutions to live together in peace with themselves and their inventions. Give them time.

5 “Verily, they cannot see that the problem is not in their inventions or in their earthly corporations and the solution is not in their law-givers or self-anointed saviors but instead in themselves.

6 “They, like you dear Senator, must learn again and again that the path to peace, via struggle, is freedom. Remember well that I did not cut down the tree of knowledge of good and evil but left it standing so that the people may learn from it still.

7 “I prophesy that they will just keep screwing up and then they shall figure it out. They are human.”

Chapter 5

1 And God shrugged.

Here endeth the blogging of Her Holy Thread.

Aftermath

Yes, 9/11 affected me.

Arriving on the last PATH train into the World Trade Center as the first jet hit, I witnessed the second jet’s impact and stayed to report. I still cannot bring myself to speak of some of what I saw. A block from the South Tower as it tilted, I ran, debris smashing the ground all around me, in the utter darkness of a man-made midnight. I emerged covered in the detritus of destruction, a gray statue in pulverized stone.

In the immediate aftermath, I was afflicted with a heart condition, atrial fibrillation, which I live with still. In the longer aftermath, I have had two cancers, a respiratory condition, and PTSD certified by the World Trade Center Health Program as related to 9/11. It affected my family in ways I leave to them to discuss or not; they are not public, like me. 

Yes, 9/11 affected us, though we are fortunate next to our neighbors who lost loved ones and to the victims of the two wars that resulted. 

Immediately afterward, I recorded my memories of the moment. On most every Jahrzeit of the event, I have written about my emotions, recalling, even delivering a sermon

As this twentieth anniversary approached — a number that seems distant yet immediate — I have been struggling to understand my emotions and their meaning. And I find myself thinking not of 9/11 but of the other tragedies in America that are not accorded the somber remembrance and reflection of that single September day, but instead become political pawns and media spectacles exploited according to the benefit of others. 

I think first of the 667,528 deaths due to COVID-19, thus far. On March 31, 2020, I suffered my worst breakdown since 9/11 as the toll of the disease passed that of the attack — 2,977 — for we could see the terror and tragedy yet to come. Where will we build the memorial to the — God save us — million we may lose in this country alone, almost all gone needlessly? I am permitted my anger still at the perpetrators of 9/11, but we are told not to scold the politicians, the Fox faces, and the everyday people who perpetuate COVID’s murders through their reckless, careless, self-centered, illogical, ignorant, callous, evil disregard and contempt for the lives and well-being of those around them, refusing even to get a shot and wear a damned mask. Instead of somber reflection, I see the disease and its impact treated as an asset to be spent as governors’ tributes to the Trump era, as content traded for attention to commentators, as a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of politicians and media barons around the world.

I think next of the victims and soldiers who fought and died in the two wars that my country justified from 9/11. The day after, I was angry. I wanted retribution. I am permitted that emotion still. But I am also deeply ashamed of believing George W. Bush and The New York Times not just about weapons of mass destruction but about the hubris of America’s belief in its virtue and its manifest destiny to build democracies. I am sorry.

I think then of George Floyd and Black Americans waiting 400 years for a global movement behind the simple, self-evident cause that Black lives matter. Where are our memorials in every city and town to the victims of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, and injustice? Germany has memorials to its crimes, sins, and shame, one in the center of Berlin. Where are ours? Where is our somber reflection of our worst sin?

I think of January 6, another day in infamy, but this terror came from within. I am shocked that we could have commissions, legislation, government reorganizations, years of contemplation, and wars of revenge over the perpetrators of 9/11, yet we cannot bring those who inspired and caused the insurrection on our Capitol to justice. 

I think of women in Texas who are having their rights to their own bodies ripped away from them by men in power and a Supreme Court put in power by those who for all these years exploited 9/11 for their political gain. I think of the trans and LGBTQ people who suffer discrimination and abuse. I think of children and other innocents still dying because of this country’s insane love of guns as a sick symbol of freedom. I think of the children of Flint who do not have safe water to drink. I think of the incarcerated, especially Black men, still in prison for selling a commodity that is now legal in many places and of the countless other injustices there. I think of the victims of fires and storms, of climate change, the anthropocene disaster we refuse to take responsibility for. I think of the victims of opioids, victims of malpractice, victims of greed. 

I think of the old, white men — and I am an old, white man — who hold onto power and who would rather destroy the institutions of democracy than share their fruits with those who follow. 

Yes, on this day, I think about how 9/11 affected me all these years. But I also think of our profound inability to prioritize our concern about other tragedies in our nation, of our inability to be self-reflective regarding our own responsibilities and sins, of the other causes of justice and equity around us that are too easily lost by my colleagues in journalism in the breaking news of the moment. Now 9/11 brings all those failures of ours — and mine — into sharp relief. 

Yes, on this day, I always recall the lives lost. I thank the first responders whose faces I still remember as some guided us to safety and some ran toward danger. I reflect on the blessing I have to have survived. But the day would be lost were there not larger lessons to learn. I regret that we have learned too few. 

Someone made my father sick

My 95-year-old, fully vaccinated, deaf, dear father is in the hospital with breakthrough COVID. Someone in Florida gave it to him. That someone — someone who works in a community serving the elderly and vulnerable — should have been vaccinated but was not. I am enraged at that someone, whoever it is.

My father has been isolated since the earliest days of the pandemic. He was obsessively careful. He did not go out at all. I ordered everything he needed with Instacart and Amazon, which is also how we knew he was fixing his breakfast and lunch. For most of the shutdown, dinner was delivered to his apartment. Then, a few weeks ago, the senior complex where he lives reopened its dining room. I was not terribly worried as I knew that 97 percent of the residents were vaccinated. What I did not know was that only 50% of staff was vaccinated.

My sister and I had become concerned about our father; versus a week before, he suddenly didn’t seem right. So we came to Florida on Tuesday. We found him exhausted in bed. He said he had no energy. He was short of breath. We called the EMTs, who found his pulse irregular and his oxygen low. Even so, we didn’t jump to assume COVID; worse, we feared some sudden decline with age. The EMTs took him to the hospital and we followed. After a short time, the ER doctor came and told us we had to leave immediately.

My father is almost entirely deaf now. He had only one hearing aid in and it was not working. Shouting accomplished only so much. So I asked for some paper and used a marker to write in large, blue letters: “YOU HAVE COVID.” He said: “How the hell?”

Someone gave COVID to him, someone who could and should have been vaccinated.

That was the last we have seen our father. He is now in the hospital’s COVID ward. We can’t visit him. Because he is deaf, we cannot talk to him; the phone is impossible (we got him a landline phone that transcribes conversation into text, but that is at home). I think now of all those scenes of people before the vaccine who were dying alone and isolated and my heart breaks again for them, and now for him.

It is hard to get updates about our father. The nurses are busy; they have to dress and undress in protective clothing each time they enter and leave a COVID room … which seems almost absurd as I write this in a state that is a COVID ward, where its nihilistic leader dismisses — no, fights against — masks, vaccinations, science, and sense. My Pa is on oxygen and the drugs they have — steroids, Remdesivir, anticoagulants — but they still have next to none to treat COVID. He is doing well, they tell me. They say he is smiling. I’m mostly concerned about his atrial fibrillation. (I know it is not a fatal condition as I got afib after 9/11 — but that means I also know just how much it can drain one’s energy.) I can’t get my father’s cardiologist to give me the courtesy of answering my call to discuss his condition. I am dependent on the advice of the experts I follow online; I am grateful for their generosity and advice. But I don’t know enough about what is happening right now in my father’s hospital room. Since his oxygen is stabilizing, he will probably be sent soon to whatever COVID rehab bed they can locate, then back to his continuing care facility, then home.

My sister and I are leaving Florida today because there is nothing we can do here and, frankly, because we are at risk in this place. One or both of us will return when he is back home and we can see him and hug him and help him. Since he cannot hear his caregivers in the hospital, I have been delivering letters to him, printed out in 36-point type to tell him what is happening to him, to tell him we are watching from afar, to tell him we love him, though that he knows. Somehow, I will figure out how to get these notes to him until we can see him.

Yesterday, we spoke with someone at his complex about his future care. We expressed utter dismay that half the staff there could be unvaccinated. How could anyone be so irresponsible when they are caring for old people? The people we were speaking with agreed. But they said that if they required the vaccine, in a tight labor market they’d end up short-staffed.

Excuses. Everybody is making excuses when they should be showing responsibility and leadership. We should be requiring vaccinations for the good of all. We should be shunning the people who refuse vaccinations. This is now their pandemic, the pandemic of the unvaccinated. They are ignorant, selfish, irresponsible, cynical, dangerous, deadly.

They gave our dear father COVID. Damn them.


Here is our father taking his responsibility to get his vaccination. And here is my dear sister’s post about all this.

A thank-you note to the net

I want to say something unpopular and provocative: I am grateful for the internet, especially this year, most especially amid the pandemic that still engulfs the world.

In media’s telling — according to my sampling from just one newspaper’s and one magazine’s coverage of late — the net is singularly to blame for the polarization of society, a toxic ecosystem of hate, renewed racism, the deterioration of the public square, the destruction of democracy, a pandemic of disinformation, the rise of paranoid conspiracy cults, an increase of tyranny, the so-called surveillance economy, the death of privacy, the end of individuality, the twilight of free will, rampant harassment, sex trafficking, mental health morbidities, addiction to our screens, outright evil, and making us stupid. To journalists and lately politicians, nerds are now villains, algorithms are dark incantations, and Mark Zuckerberg is the folk devil. In their moral panic, media have made the internet the enemy.

But just try to imagine this last year without the net. Pause, please, to recall the privileges the net has provided, for thanks to it…

  • Countless people could stay employed who otherwise would have lost their jobs, as others did theirs. The world economy would surely have fallen into a severe and lasting depression.
  • Many parents could work from home and care for — and sometimes educate — their children.
  • Students could continue to study and learn with their teachers and classmates. Without it, they would have lost the year entirely.
  • Families and friends could connect, talk with, and see each other to offer support and love for as long as they wished. I am old enough to remember long-distance rates and greedy telcos’ ticking clocks.
  • Scientists and doctors could share research and data as never before due to the open information ecosystem the net provided with preprint servers, peer review via social media, and search. Their adaptability is a model for us all.
  • Commerce continued. We could order anything from our homes, staying safer inside them.
  • Telehealth allowed patients to receive treatment for their physical and mental well-being.
  • Vaccination campaigns could be organized on the net.
  • After the murder of George Floyd, and after the net made it possible to witness the crime, a movement rose across the country and around the world to foster a long-overdue racial Reformation in America.
  • Deprived of the ability to ring doorbells, candidates and supporters could reach out to voters and defeat the most dangerous president in the nation’s history.
  • We could entertain ourselves to pass so many lonely hours, watching movies, bingeing on series, reading books, playing games, collaborating on TikToks.
  • And — thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, TikTok, Reddit, Discourse, Slack, Clubhouse, podcasts, and blessed blogs — we could converse.

Myself, I was able to teach online, to attend conferences around the world, to conduct my research from many libraries, and to learn from more than 600 scientists and doctors in the COVID Twitter list I curated. I was able to reclaim the three-and-a-half hours a day that commuting was eating out of my life, to be with my family, to work, to save money, to get groceries to my 95-year-old father in Florida, and to stay safe. I am grateful for all that.

I also was able to finish a manuscript of a book about the end of Gutenberg’s age, which has provided me with much perspective about our transition into the era that follows. Lord knows, the early days of print were disruptive, preceding the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (I believe we are witnessing a parallel struggle over race today), various wars (notably the Thirty Years’), the Scientific Revolution, and eventually the Enlightenment. I am not a technological determinist. Print did not make this history inevitable, nor did history make print inevitable. But it is clear that without print, Martin Luther’s reforms would not have spread with the speed and force that they did. (He might have ended up like his predecessor, Jan Hus, in ashes. Then again, without the scale printing provided to the business of indulgences, he also might not have had cause for complaint.) Without the net — specifically social media — #BlackLivesMatter would not have been able to mobilize with the speed and force we have witnessed; it would still be throttled by the limited attention rationed to it in mass media. As #BLM has demonstrated, the First Amendment nurtures not just speech but also the rights to assemble and petition for redress; on the net, the First Amendment has reached its fullest expression through the people, not the press.

Is the net perfect? Of course not. To hold it to that expectation is ahistorical and simple-minded. It is imperfect because we, its makers and users, are imperfect. Everything media object to in their bill of particulars against the net is the result of human failures, foibles, exploitation, and corruption, some within the big corporations, some without. Must the net’s current proprietors do a better job of recognizing, anticipating, and counteracting bad behavior and bad actors and protecting it and us from their manipulation? Absolutely. But if we concentrate our attention only on the worst, we will never build what is better; we will only lose playing catch-up to the villains among us.

As I say often, the net is still young. We have yet to understand what it can be and what we can do with it. Its current proprietors are maligned in media, though that is a fairly recent pivot from the utopian to the dystopian. (USC researcher Nirit Weiss-Blatt pinpoints the date and cause of media’s shift). I also spent time during the lockdown, in a semi-sabbatical, working on a book proposal about media’s moral panic regarding the net, examining the legacy industry’s self-interest at work. I think it’s an important story to tell. But I also don’t want to make the mistake media make, obsessing on the negative.

In every panel and conference I watched during these Zoom Times, the starting point of the discussion about the net is what is wrong with it. The ideas that emerge in that context are then necessarily reactive, incremental, and often unimaginative: quick fixes and purported cures for what some say ails the net (though not us).

What interests me more is imagining a better internet and a better society with it. What if we instead allowed ourselves to start the discussion with what the net could be and what we could make with it? What if we raised our expectations to those heights? We have the perfect opportunity — and this is the perfect time — because we have before us, right in front of our Zoom-weary eyes, the amazing, even miraculous litany of what society managed to accomplish even during the dark and desperate days of a global pandemic, thanks to the net.

As a journalism professor, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to start three new degree programs with my colleagues at the Newmark J-School, in entrepreneurial and engagement journalism and leadership. Thus I get to watch students when they have the space to reimagine and reinvent journalism. It is wonderful. But I have begun to see that I have been thinking too small. Journalism is just one sector of media and media are but one part of the net; every institution and industry requires similar examination and invention. I wish to work with other disciplines — anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, African-American studies, Latino studies, gender studies, ethics, design, neuroscience, digital humanities, literature, history, law, economics, and the technologies — to provide students, scholars, and the people known as users the stage upon which to imagine and build a better net and a next society with it.

What if the starting point of our discussion was not what Zuckerberg did to disappoint someone this week but instead the example of what so many did with the net in a time of need: Teachers, students, technologists, companies, government agencies, philanthropists, doctors, scientists, parents, citizens accomplished so much. What if we set our sights not on giving a few malign fools too much attention for their idiocies but instead focused our attention on how brilliant people of good will could use new means to speak, assemble, and act and to build movements for racial equity, economic equality, climate protection, education, art, cultural understanding, civic participation, health….

I want to set students loose, knowing what we now know about what can go wrong, to design new functions, features, platforms, regulations, standards, companies, measurements, experiments, networks. More than that, I want to see them create what their imaginations allow with the technology, outside of it.

So I thank the net for what it made possible. I thank the people who had the vision to see what it could do and made it work for us in a time of crisis. I am eager to see what we can do next.

(Order the note card from BlissCollections.)

Statement to the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust

I was called about possibly testifying to a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust regarding technology companies. That’s not happening but I decided to submit a statement to the committee. Here, minus my bio, is what I have to say:

Statement to the Subcommittee:

I write to the committee to express my concern about often well-intentioned but ill-conceived internet regulation, which could have deleterious effects on freedom of expression; which tends to protect incumbent media and technology companies at the expense of innovation and competition; and whose unintended consequence is frequently to grant internet platforms yet greater power. It is worthwhile to examine the effects of internet regulation elsewhere as it is debated here.

Consider, for example, Australia’s media code. The net result, according to the news site Crikey, is that the country’s existing media duopoly of News Corp. and the Nine Network will receive 90 percent of the money being paid by Google and Facebook, both of which are now in the position to decide which news organizations should receive support. Small news startups that might compete with the powerful incumbents receive no protection or support in the law. The Australian code amounts to a link tax — for those companies that link to news are required to pay for news — and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, testified to Australian legislators that such a precedent would “make the web unworkable around the world.” It would break the internet. I regret that in the end, Google and Facebook succumbed to what I see as corporate and political blackmail.

In Europe, various changes to copyright law — Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, the EU’s Articles 15 and 17 of the its Directive on Copyright — amount to regulatory capture, for the large internet companies can afford compliance but I have spoken with smaller competitors for whom the expense and effort are crippling. Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law requires Facebook to decide — in a private company rather than an open courtroom — what speech is manifestly illegal. Europe’s Right to be Forgotten court decision puts Google in the position of deciding what speech should be remembered or forgotten. The UK is considering regulation that would require platforms to take down “legal but harmful speech.”

Online speech is imperiled in many quarters. In Italy, Facebook was forced to reinstate a site for a neo-fascist group. Poland has announced a new law that would require platforms to carry all legal speech, a nightmare that would protect the worst of the net. I would remind us that compelled speech is not free speech. In addition, Singapore instituted a fake-news law, which puts internet companies in the unwanted position of being arbiters of truth. Similarly, India is enacting regulation that would require platforms to take down speech that is false or threatens national unity.

In the United States, Google’s recent announcement that it will forego ad targeting on the web based on third-party data was applauded by privacy advocates who have demonized web cookies as so-called “surveillance capitalism.” But this again amounts to regulatory capture as Google itself has plentiful first-party data about consumer behavior as well as the resources and technical means to innovate in advertising. Incumbent publishers, on the other hand, are stuck without their own first-party data or innovation. I know this because in my university center, I spent years trying to convince publishers to change their product and business strategies to prepare for this day. They generally insisted on relying on their dying print businesses and on third-party ad networks online, and now they are retreating behind paywalls. As a result, just when we need it most, reliable news is becoming a product for the privileged few who can afford it. According to Oxford’s Reuters Institute, only 20 percent of Americans pay for online news and it is a winner-take-all market with most people paying for only one subscription for news — almost two thirds of subscriptions go to just three publishers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Note well that most local newspaper companies in the United States are now controlled by hedge funds, which are not inclined to invest in innovation and which, by their nature, tend to sell assets and draw cash out of these enterprises. If there ever were an attempt to enact an Australia-like law here — if it could overcome clear First Amendment objections — any money resulting from it would end up in the balance sheets of hedge-fund owners and would benefit neither journalism nor innovation at legacy, local news companies.

Thus to grant newspaper owners an exemption from antitrust, as has been discussed, would be profoundly anti-competitive, for it would — as in Australia — entrench the interests of the largest companies on both sides of the table, media and technology.

Similarly, I argue that breaking up major technology companies is an emotional response to the discussion of technology and power. It would not meet the test of rectifying consumer harm, for users benefit tremendously from free, open, and inexpensive services. Also, there is considerable competition; note Microsoft’s role in this debate.

Instead, in both industries — technology and media — the best cure for concerns about size is to encourage and support entrepreneurship and new competition. In my university, I started a first-of-its-kind program in entrepreneurial journalism to teach journalists to do just that. I hope next to turn my attention to internet studies, to foster the design and creation of a next generation of the net: one built not just to speak but to listen, one designed to build bridges rather than battlements, one that protects the benefits of today’s historically unprecedented opportunity to hear voices too long not heard in mass media. There is much work to be done and much opportunity to create competitors to the present proprietors of the net and media. This is where we should focus our attention in policy.

The net is yet young. We don’t fully know what it is and may not for generations, even centuries. Note that the first newspaper was not published until a century and a half after Gutenberg introduced movable type. In my research for a book on the end of the Gutenberg age, I have learned much about the reaction to the introduction of printing. After initial and brief utopian glee at its prospects, authorities worried greatly about print’s power to spread the fake news of the day, to cause unrest (the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War), and to disrupt institutions. I have also learned that governments’ attempts to control printing and thus speech largely failed. In a prescient 1998 paper for the RAND Corporation, “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead,” James Dewar argued persuasively for “a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy. Societies who regulated the printing press suffered and continue to suffer today in comparison with those who didn’t.”

In what I have said here, it might sound as if I oppose all internet regulation. I do not. I worked for more than a year with a Transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Content Moderation Online and Freedom of Expression, convened by former FCC Commissioner Susan Ness under the auspices of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Amsterdam. The group included many experts and luminaries, such as former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former Ambassador Eileen Donahoe, former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, and former members of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake and Erika Mann. Our report recommended a flexible framework for internet regulation based on transparency as the basis of accountability as well as the establishment of e-courts to rule on matters of legality where that should occur, in public and in court.

To put this in my terms, I have long argued that both technology and media companies should make covenants of mutual obligation with their users and the public — not just rules for users but promises from the companies for what we may expect of them in building useful, respectful, and productive services and environments. In the model of the Federal Trade Commission, I would favor requiring them to provide data about their implementation and impact so as to hold them accountable to their promises. I also hope for a multistakeholder forum — of technologists, lawmakers, regulators, civil society, academics, and users — to grapple with new and unforeseeable problems, such as pandemics, and to exploit new opportunities.

Internet regulation should not be about punishing power or success but instead about creating the means to work together for a better internet, a better society, a better future.