This week, I wrote a dystopia of the dystopians, an extrapolation of current wishes among the anti-tech among us about dangers and regulation of technology, data, and the net. I tried to be detailed and in that I feared I may have gone too far. But now The Guardian shows me I wasn’t nearly dystopian enough, for a columnist there has beaten me to hell.
He essentially makes the argument that computers use a lot of energy; consumption of energy is killing the planet; ergo we should destroy the computers to save the planet.
But that is a smokescreen for his true argument against his real devil, data. And that frightens me. For to argue against data overall — its creation, its gathering, its analysis, its use — is to argue against information and knowledge. Tarnoff isn’t just trying to reverse the Digital Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. He’s trying to roll back the fucking Enlightenment.
That he is doing this in the pages of The Guardian, a paper I admire and love (and have worked and written for) saddens me doubly, for this is a news organization that once explored the opportunities — and risks — of technology with open eyes and curiosity in its reporting and with daring in its own strategy. Now its writers cry doom at every turn:
Digitization is a climate disaster: if corporations and governments succeed in making vastly more of our world into data, there will be less of a world left for us to live in.
It’s all digitization’s fault. That is textbook moral panic. To call on Ashley Crossman’s definition: “A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fuelled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.”
The Bogeyman, in Tarnoff’s nightmare, is machine learning, for it creates an endless hunger for data to learn from. He acknowledges that computer scientists are working to run more of their machines off renewable energy rather than fossil fuel — see today’s announcement by Jeff Bezos. But again, computers consuming electricity isn’t Tarnoff’s real target.
But it’s clear that confronting the climate crisis will require something more radical than just making data greener. That’s why we should put another tactic on the table: making less data. We should reject the assumption that our built environment must become one big computer. We should erect barriers against the spread of “smartness” into all of the spaces of our lives.
To decarbonize, we need to decomputerize.
This proposal will no doubt be met with charges of Luddism. Good: Luddism is a label to embrace. The Luddites were heroic figures and acute technological thinkers.
Tarnoff admires the Luddites because they didn’t care about improvement in the future but fought to hold off that future because of their present complaints. They smashed looms. He wants to “destroy machinery hurtful to the common good.” He wants to smash computers. He wants to control and curtail data. He wants to reduce information .
No. Controlling information — call it data or call it knowledge — is never the solution, not in a free and enlightened society (not especially at the call of a journalist). If regulate you must, then regulate information’s use: You are free to know that I am 65 years old but you are not free to discriminate against me on the basis of that knowledge. Don’t outlaw facial recognition for police — as Bernie Sanders now proposes — instead, police how they use it. Don’t turn “machine learning” into a scare word and forbid it — when it can save lives — and be specific, bringing real evidence of the harms you anticipate, before cutting off the benefits. On this particular topic, I recommend Benedict Evans’ wise piece comparing today’s issues with facial recognition to those we had with databases at their introduction.
Here is where Tarnoff ends. Am I the only one who sees the irony in the greatest progressive newspaper of the English-speaking world coming out against progress?
The zero-carbon commonwealth of the future must empower people to decide not just how technologies are built and implemented, but whether they’re built and implemented. Progress is an abstraction that has done a lot of damage over the centuries. Luddism urges us to consider: progress towards what and progress for whom? Sometimes a technology shouldn’t exist. Sometimes the best thing to do with a machine is to break it.
[This is not prediction about tomorrow; it is extrapolation from today -Ed.]
This paper explores the victory of technological dystopians over technologists in regulation, legislation, courts, media, business, and culture across the United States, Europe, and other nations in the latter years of what is now known as the Trump Time.
The key moment for the dystos came a decade ago, with what Wired.com dubbed the Unholy Compromise of 2022, which found Trumpist conservatives and Warrenite liberals joining forces to attack internet companies. Each had their own motives — the Trumpists complaining about alleged discrimination against them when what they said online was classified as hate speech; the liberals inveighing against data and large corporations. It is notable that in the sixteen years of Trump Time, virtually nothing else was accomplished legislatively — not regarding climate, health care, or guns — other than passing anti-tech, anti-net, and anti-data laws.
In the aftermath, the most successful internet companies — Alphabet/Google, Facebook, Amazon — were broken up by regulators (but interestingly Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft, Twitter, and the news behemoth Fox-Gatehouse-Sinclair were not). Collection and use of data by commercial entities and as well as by academic researchers was severely curtailed by new laws. Moderation requirements and consequent liability for copyright violations, hate, falsehood, unauthorized memories, and other forbidden speech were imposed on social-media companies, and then, via court rulings, on media and news organizations as well as individuals online. New speech courts were established in the U.S., the European Union, and the former United Kingdom countries to adjudicate disputes of falsehood and hate as well as information ownership, excessive expression, and political neutrality by net companies. Cabinet-level technology regulators in the U.S., the E.U, Canada, and Australia established mechanisms to audit algorithms, supported by software taxes as well as fines against technology companies, executives, and individual programmers. Certain technologies — most notably facial recognition — were outright outlawed. And in many American states, new curricula were mandated to educate middle- and high-school students about the dangers of technology.
The impact of all this has been, in my opinion, a multitude of unintended consequences. The eight companies resulting from the big net breakups are all still profitable and leading their now-restricted sectors with commanding market shares, and many have quietly expanded into new fields as new technologies have developed. Their aggregate market value has increased manyfold and no serious challengers have emerged.
Academic studies of divisiveness, hate, and harassment — though limited in their scope by data laws — have shown no improvement and most have found a steady decline in online decency and respect, especially as trolls and sowers of discord and disinformation took to nesting in the smaller, off-shore platforms that regularly sprout up from Russia, lately China, and other nations unknown. Other studies have found that with the resurrection of media gatekeepers in a more controlled ecosystem of expression, minority voices are heard less often in mainstream media than before the Compromise.
Even though news and media companies and their lobbyists largely won political battles by cashing in their political capital to gain protectionist legislation, these legacy companies have nonetheless continued and accelerated their precipitous declines into bankruptcy and dissolution, with almost a half of legacy news organizations ceasing operation in the last decade even as legislatively blessed media consolidation continues.
I would not go so far as to declare that we have reached the dystopia of the dystopians, though some would. In his final book, The Last Optimist, Jeff Jarvis wrote:
Far too early in the life of the internet and its possibilities, the dystos have exhibited the hubris of the self-declared futurist to believe they could foretell everything that could go wrong — and little that could go right — with internet and data technologies. Thus in their moral panic they prematurely defined and limited these technologies and cut off unforeseen opportunities. We now live in their age of fear: fear of technology, fear of data (that is, information and knowledge), fear of each other, fear of the future.
There are many reasons to be angry with the technology companies of the early internet. They were wealthy, hubristic, optimistic, expansionist, and isolated, thus deaf to the concerns — legitimate and not — of the public, media, and government. They were politically naive, not understanding how and why the institutions the net challenged — journalism, media, finance, politics, government, even nations — would use their collaborative clout and political capital to fight back and restrain the net at every opportunity. They bear but also share responsibility for the state of the net and society today with those very institutions.
Doctrines of dystos
In examining the legislation and precedents that came before and after the Compromise, certain beliefs, themes, and doctrines emerged:
The Doctrine of Dangerous Data: It would be simplistic to attribute a societal shift against “data” solely to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2016, but that certainly appears to have been a key moment triggering the legislative landslide that followed. Regulation of data shifted from its use to its collection as laws were enacted to limit the generation, gathering, storage, and analysis of information associated with the internet. Scores of laws now require that data be used only for the single purpose stated at collection and others impose strict expiration on the life of data, mandating expiration and erasure. Academics and medical researchers — as well as some journalists — have protested such legislation, contending that they all but kill their ability to find correlation and causation in their fields, but they have failed to overturn a single law. Note well that similar data collection offline — by stores through loyalty cards, banks through credit cards, and so on — has seen no increase in regulation; marketers and publishers still make use of mountains of offline data in their businesses.
News companies and their trade associations demonized the use of data by their competitors, the platforms. In our Geoffrey Nunberg reading, “Farewell to the Information Age,” he quotes Philip Agre saying that “the term ‘information’ rarely evokes the deep and troubling questions of epistemology that are usually associated with terms like ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief.’ One can be a skeptic about knowledge but not about information. Information, in short, is a strikingly bland substance.” “Data,” on the other hand, became a dystopian scare word thanks to campaigns led by news and media companies and their trade associations and lobbyists, using their own outlets.
The Debate over Preeminent Data Ownership: In the 2020 American elections and every one following, countless politicians have vowed to protect consumers’ ownership of “their data” — and passed many laws as a result — but courts have still not managed to arrive at a consistent view of what owning one’s data means. Data generation is so often transactional — that is, involving multiple parties — that is has proven difficult to find a Solomonic compromise in deciding who has preeminent rights over a given piece of data and thus the legal right to demand its erasure. In California v. Amazon Stores, Inc. — which arose from a customer’s embarrassment about purchases of lubricating gels — the Supreme Court decided, in an expansion of its long-held Doctrine of Corporate Personhood, that a company has equal rights and cannot be forced to forget its own transactions. In Massachusetts v. Amazon Web Services, Inc., an appellate panel ruled that AWS could be forced to notify individuals included in databases it hosted and in one case could be forced to erase entire databases upon demand by aggrieved individuals. Despite friend-of-the-court filings by librarians, educators, and civil libertarians, claims of a countervailing right to know or remember by parties to transactions — or by the public itself — have failed to dislodge the preeminence of the right to be forgotten.
Privacy Über Alles: Privacy legislation — namely Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — led the way for all net legislation to follow. Every effort to track any activity by people — whether by cameras or cookies — was defined as “surveillance” and was banned under a raft of net laws worldwide. In every single case, though, these technologies and their use were reserved for government use. Thus “surveillance” lost its commercial meaning and regained its more focused definition as an activity of governments, which continue to track citizens. Separate legislation in some nations granted people the expectation of privacy in public, which led to severe restrictions on photography by not only journalists but also civilians, requiring that the faces of every unknown person in a photo or video who has not given written consent — such as a birthday party in a restaurant — be blurred.
The Doctrine of Could Happen: A pioneering 2024 German law that has been — to use our grandparents’ term — xeroxed by the European Commission and then the United States, Canada, Australia, and India requires that companies must file Technology Impact Reports (TIRs) for any new technology patent, algorithm, or device introduced to the market. To recount, the TIR laws give limited liability protection for any possible impact that has been revealed before the introduction of a technology; if a possible outcome is not anticipated and listed and then occurs, there is no limit to liability. Thus an entirely new industry — complete with conventions, consultants, and newsletters — has exploded to help any and every company using technology to imagine and disclose everything that could go wrong with any software or device. There is no comparable industry of consultants ready to imagine everything that could go right, for the law does not require or even suggest that as a means to balance decisions.
Laws of Forbidden Technologies: As an outcome of the Doctrine of Could Happen, some entire technologies — most notably facial recognition and bodily tracking of individuals’ movements in public places, such as malls — have been outright banned from commercial, consumer, or (except with severe restrictions) academic use in Germany, France, Canada, and some American states. In every case, the right to use such technologies is reserved to government, leading to fears of misuse by those with greater power to misuse them. There are also statutes banning and providing penalties for algorithms that discriminate on various bases, though in a number of cases, courts are struggling to define precisely what statutory discrimination is (against race, certainly, but also against opinion and ideology?). Similarly, statutes requiring algorithmic transparency are confounding courts, which have proven incapable of understanding formulae and code. Not only technologies are subject to these laws but so are the technologists who create them. English duty-of-care online harms laws (which were not preserved in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland after the post-Brexit dissolution of the United Kingdom) place substantial personal liability and career-killing fines on not only internet company executives but also on technologists, including software engineers.
The Law of China: The paradox is lost on no one that China and Russia now play host to most vibrant online capitalism in the world, as companies in either country are not bound by Western laws, only by fealty to their governments. Thus, in the last decade, we have seen an accelerated reverse brain-drain of technologists and students to companies and universities in China, Russia, and other politically authoritarian but technologically inviting countries. Similarly, venture investment has fled England entirely, and the U.S. and E.U. in great measure. A 2018 paper by Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall posited the balkanization of the internet into four nets: the open net of Silicon Valley, the capitalist net of American business, the bourgeois and well-behaved net of the E.U., and the authoritarian net of China. The fear then was that China — as well as Iran, Brazil, Russia, and other nations that demanded national walls around their data — would balkanize the net. Instead, it was the West that balkanized the net with their restrictive laws. Today, China’s authoritarian (and, many would argue, truly dystopian) net — as well as Russia’s disinformation net — appear victorious as they are growing and the West’s net is, by all measures, shrinking.
The Law of Truth and Falsity: Beginning in France and Singapore, “fake news” laws were instituted to outlaw the telling and spreading of lies online. As these truth laws spread to other countries, online speakers and the platforms that carried their speech became liable for criminal and civil fines, under newly enhanced libel laws. Public internet courts in some nations — as well as Facebook’s Oversight Board, in essence a private internet court — were established to rule on disputes over content takedowns. The original idea was to bring decisions about content or speech — for example, violations of laws regarding copyright and hate speech — out into the open where they could be adjudicated with due process and where legal norms could be negotiated in public. It was not long before the remits of these courts were expanded to rule on truth and falsity in online claims. In nation after nation, a new breed of internet judges resisted this yoke but higher courts forced them to take on the task. In case law, the burden of proof has increasingly fallen on the speaker, for demonstrating falsity is, by definition, proving the negative. Thus, for all practical effect, when a complaint is filed, the speaker is presumed guilty until proven innocent — or truthful. Attempts to argue the unconstitutionality of this doctrine even in the United States proved futile once the internet was ruled to be a medium, subject to regulation like the medium of broadcast. Though broadcast itself (radio and television towers and signals using public “airwaves”) are now obsolete and gone, the regulatory regime that oversaw them in Europe — and that excepted them from the First Amendment in America — now carry over to the net.
Once internet courts were forced to rule on illegal speech and falsity, it was not a big step to also require them to rule on matters of political neutrality under laws requiring platforms to be symmetrical in content takedowns (no matter how asymmetrical disinformation and hate might be). And once that was done, the courts were expanded further to rule on such matters as data and information ownership, unauthorized sharing, and the developing field of excessive expression (below). In a few nations, especially those that are more authoritarian and lacking in irony, separate truth and hate courts have been established.
The Doctrine of Excessive Expression: In reading the assigned, archived Twitter threads, Medium posts, academic papers, and podcast transcripts from the late naughts, we see the first stirrings of a then- (but no longer) controversial question: Is there too much speech? In 2018, one communications academic wrote a paper questioning the then-accepted idea that the best answer to bad speech is more speech, even arguing that so-called “fake news” and the since-debunked notion of the filter bubble (see the readings by Axel Bruns) put into play the sanctity of the First Amendment. At the same time, a well-respected professor asked whether the First Amendment was — this is his word — obsolete. As we have discussed in class, even to raise that question a generation before the internet and its backlash would have been unthinkable. Also in 2018, one academic wrote a book contending that Facebook’s goal of connecting the world (said founder Mark Zuckerberg at the time: “We believe the more people who have the power to express themselves, the more progress our society makes together”) was fundamentally flawed, even corrupt; what does that say about our expectations of democracy and inclusion, let alone freedom of speech? The following year, a prominent newspaper columnist essentially told fellow journalists to abandon Twitter because it was toxic — while others argued that in doing so, journalists would be turning their back on voices enabled and empowered by Twitter through the relatively recent invention of the hashtag.
None of these doctrines of the post-technology dysto age has been contested more vigorously than this, the Doctrine of Excessive Expression (also known as the Law of Over-Sharing). But the forces of free expression largely lost when the American Section 230 and the European E-Commerce Directive were each repealed, thus making intermediaries in the public conversation — platforms as well as publishers and anyone playing host to others’ creativity, comment, or conversation— liable for everything said on their domains. As a result, countless news sites shut down fora and comments, grateful for the excuse to get out of the business of moderation and interaction with the public. Platforms that depended on interactivity — chief among them Twitter and the various divisions of the former Facebook — at first hired tens of thousands of moderators and empowered algorithms to hide any questionable speech, but this proved ineffective as the chattering public in the West learned lessons from Chinese users and invented coded languages, references, and memes to still say what they wanted, even and especially if hateful. As a result, the social platforms forced users to indemnify them against damages, which led not only to another new industry in speech insurance but also to the requirement that all users verify their identities. Prior to this, many believed that eliminating anonymity would all but eliminate trolling and hateful speech online. As we now know, they were wrong. Hate abounds. The combination of the doctrines of privacy, data ownership, and expression respect anonymity for the subjects of speech but not for the speakers, who are at risk for any uttered and outlawed thought. “Be careful what you say” is the watchword of every media literacy course taught today.
One result of the drive against unfettered freedom of expression has been the return of the power of gatekeeper, long wished for and welcomed by the gatekeepers themselves — newspaper, magazine, and book editors as well as authors of old, who believed their authority would be reestablished and welcomed. But the effect was not what they’d imagined. Resentment against these gatekeepers by those who once again found themselves outside the gates of media only increased as trust in media continued to plummet and, as I said previously, the business prospects of news and other legacy media only darkened yet further.
The impact of the dystos’ victory can be seen in almost every sector of society.
In business, smaller is now better as companies worry about becoming “too big” (never knowing the definition of “too”) and being broken up. As a result, the merger and acquisition market, especially in tech, has diminished severely. With fewer opportunities for exit, there is less appetite for investment in new ventures, at least in America and Europe. In what is being called the data dark ages in business, executives in many fields — especially in marketing — are driving blind, making advertising, product, and strategic decisions without the copious data they once had, which many blame for the falling value of much of the consumer sector of the economy. After a decade and a half of trade and border wars of the Donald/Ivanka Trump Time [Hey, I said it’s a dystopia -Ed.], it would be simplistic to blame history’s longest recession on a lack of data, but it certainly was a contributing factor to the state of the stock market. Business schools have widely abandoned teaching “change management” and are shifting to teaching “stability management.” One sector of business known in the past for rolling with punches and finding opportunity in adversity — pornography — has hit a historic slump thanks to data and privacy laws. One might have expected an era of privacy to be a boon for porn, but identity and adult verification laws have put a chill on demand. Other businesses to suffer are those offering consumers analysis of their and even their pets’ DNA and help with genealogy (in some nations, courts have held that the dead have a right to privacy and others have ruled in favor of pets’ privacy). But as is always the case in business, what is a loss for one industry is an opportunity for another to exploit, witness the explosion not only in Technology Impact Report Optimization but also in a new growth industry for fact-certifiers, speech insurers, and photo blurrers.
In culture, the dystos long-since won the day. The streaming series Black Mirror has been credited by dystos and blamed by technos for teaching the public to expect doom with every technology. It is worth noting that in my Black Mirror Criticism class last semester, we were shown optimistic films about technology such as You’ve Got Mail and Tomorrowland to disbelieving hoots from students. We were told that many generations before, dystopian films such as Reefer Madness — meant to frighten youth about the perils of marijuana — inspired similar derision by the younger generation, just as it still would today. It is fascinating to see how optimism and pessimism can, by turns, be taken seriously or mocked in different times.
I also believe we have seen the resurgence of narrative over data in media. In the early days of machine learning and artificial intelligence — before they, along with the data that fed them, also became scare words — it was becoming clear that dependence on story and narrative and the theory of mind were being superseded by the power of data to predict human actions. But when data-based artificial intelligence and machine learning predicted human actions, they provided no explanation, no motive, no assuring arc of a story. This led, some argued, to a crisis of cognition, a fear that humans would be robbed of purpose by data, just as the activities of the universe were robbed of divine purpose by Newtonian science and the divine will of creation was foiled by Darwin and evolution. So it was that a cultural version of the regulatory Unholy Compromise developed between religious conservatives, who feared that data would deny God His will, and cultural liberals, who feared that data would deny them their own will. So in cultural products just as in news stories and political speeches, data and its fruits came to be portrayed as objects of fear and resentment and the uplifting story of latter-day, triumphal humanism rose again. This has delighted the storytellers of journalism, fiction, drama, and comedy, who feed on a market for attention. Again, it has done little to reverse the business impact of abundance on their industries. Even with YouTube gone, there is still more than enough competition in media to drive prices toward zero.
The news industry, as I’ve alluded to above, deserves much credit or blame for the dysto movement and its results, having lobbied against internet companies and their collection of data and for protectionist legislation and regulation. But the story has not turned out as they had hoped, in their favor. Cutting off the collection of data affected news companies also. Without the ability to use data to target advertising, that revenue stream imploded, forcing even the last holdouts in the industry to retreat behind paywalls. But without the ability to use data to personalize their services, news media returned to their mass-media, one-size-fits-all, bland roots, which has not been conducive to grabbing subscription market share in what turns out to be a very small market of people willing to pay for news or content overall. The one bright spot in the industry is the fact that the platforms are are licensing content as their only way to deal with paywalls. Thus these news outlets that fought the platforms are dependent on the platforms for their most reliable source of revenue. Be careful what you wish for.
In education, the rush to require the teaching of media literacy curriculum at every level of schooling led to unforeseen consequences. Well, actually, the consequences were not unforeseen by internet researcher danah boyd, who argued in our readings from the 2000-teens that teachers and parents were succeeding all too well at instructing young people to distrust everything they heard and read. This and the universal distrust of others engendered by media and politicians in the same era were symptoms of what boyd called an epistemological war — that is: ‘If I don’t like you, I won’t like your facts.’ The elderly and retired journalists who spoke to class still believe that facts alone, coming from trusted sources, would put an end to the nation’s internal wars. Back in the early days of the net, it seemed as if we were leaving an age overseen by gatekeepers controlling the scarcities of attention and information and returning to a pre-mass-media era build on the value of conversation and relationships. As Nunberg put it in 1996, just as the web was born: “One of the most pervasive features of these media is how closely they seem to reproduce the conditions of discourse of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the sense of the public was mediated through a series of transitive personal relationships — the friends of one’s friends, and so on — and anchored in the immediate connections of clubs, coffee-houses, salons, and the rest.” Society looked as if it would trade trust in institutions for trust in family, friends, and neighbors via the net. Instead, we came to distrust everyone, as we were taught to. Now we have neither healthy institutions nor the means to connect with people in healthy relationships. The dystos are, indeed, victorious.
[If I may be permitted an unorthodox personal note in a paper: Professor, I am grateful that you had the courage to share optimistic and well as pessimistic readings with us and gave us the respect and trust to decide for ourselves. I am sorry this proved to be controversial and I am devastated that you lost your quest for tenure. In any case, thank you for a challenging class. I wish you luck in your new career in the TIRO industry.]
[Disclosure: I raised money for my school from Facebook to aggregate signals of quality in news. I also have attended events convened by Google. I am independent of and receive no compensation personally from any technology company.]
Too many momentous decisions about the future of the internet and its regulation — as well as coverage in media — are being made on the basis of assumptions, fears, theories, myths, mere metaphors, isolated incidents, and hidden self-interest, not evidence. The discussion about the internet and the future should begin with questions and research and end with demonstrable facts, not with presumption or with what I fear most in media: moral panic. I will beg journalists to take on academics’ discipline of evidence over anecdote.
But first, let me praise an example of the kind of analysis we need. Axel Bruns, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, just presented an excellent paper at the International Association for Media and Communication Research conference in Madrid, sticking a pin in the idea of the filter bubble. He argues
that echo chambers and filter bubbles principally constitute an unfounded moral panic that presents a convenient technological scapegoat (search and social platforms and their affordances and algorithms) for a much more critical problem: growing social and political polarisation. But this is a problem that has fundamentally social and societal causes, and therefore cannot be solved by technological means alone. [My emphasis]
Based on his reading of available research, Bruns notes that these two metaphors — echo chamber and filter bubble — are not consistently defined, “making them moving targets in both public discourse and scholarly inquiry,” which also makes it impossible to “assess more systematically exactly how disconnected the denizens of such suspected echo chambers and filter bubbles really are.” In his upcoming book, Are Filter Bubbles Real?, Bruns will examine definitions of both metaphors and methodologies for measurement of their alleged impact.
In his paper, Bruns provides perspective and context, pointing out that well before the net, “different groups in society have always already informed themselves from different sources that suited their specific informational interests, needs, or literacies.” He asks: “Given that society and democracy have persisted nonetheless, should we even worry about them?” In short, the burden is on those who propagate these notions to answer the question: “What is new here, and how different is it from before?”
Further, Bruns points out that we live in a “complex and interwoven media ecology” and so it is foolhardy to argue that one factor in it — just Facebook, for example — is the direct cause of behavioral change. Too many rants about the impact of the internet in media ignore the impact of media. Wonder why.
As an academic, Bruns reads existing literature in search of evidence of filter bubbles and echo chambers in prior research. He doesn’t find much at all. Instead, he cites (with links here and full citations in Bruns’ paper):
Earlier studies of the bifurcated blog world 15 years ago uncovered “only mild echo chambers.”
The Pew Research Center found that Facebook users do not select friends based on political leaning and thus are exposed to other worldviews in social media.
Twostudies looked at already divisive topics — abortion, vaccination, Obamacare, gun control — and found, of course, they were also divisive online, though non-political but debatable topics — Game of Thrones and food porn — did not lead to polarization online. Is divisiveness online the cause or the effect?
In sum, a half-dozen academics argue, “at present there is little empirical evidence that warrants any worries about filter bubbles.”
Yetinmedia, noendofstoriesstillwarnoffilterbubbles. Though not all. Somejournalists are reporting on studies that question the filter bubble. Good. A new study comes out and sometimes, it will get coverage. But that leads to another journalistic weakness in reporting academic studies: stories that takes the latest word as the last word. Look at all the perennial, flip-flopping reports that wine will kill or save us. Journalists should do what academics do in their literature reviews: put the latest word in context. They should also do what, for example, Oxford’s Rasmus Kleis Nielsen does on Twitter, responding to assumptions with findings in research.
Now that we have tools like Google Scholar — and many scholarly (if, unfortunately, costly) databases — I urge reporters and editors to do their own academic literature reviews when a story is pitched or assigned, to make sure its premise is upheld by research thus far, to provide context and nuance, and to grapple with what will surely appear: contradictory information.
But I urge them to begin — as Bruns ends his paper — with questions before answers.
The central question now is what [people] do with such information when they encounter it: do they dismiss it immediately as running counter to their own views? Do they engage in a critical reading, turning it into material to support their own worldview, perhaps as evidence for their own conspiracy theories? Do they respond by offering counter-arguments, by vocally and even violently disagreeing, by making ad hominem attacks, or by knowingly disseminating all-out lies as ‘alternative facts’? More important yet, why do they do so? What is it that has so entrenched and cemented their beliefs that they are no longer open to contestation? This is the debate we need to have: not a proxy argument about the impact of platforms and algorithms, but a meaningful discussion about the complex and compound causes of political and societal polarisation. The ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubble’ metaphors have kept us from pursuing that debate, and must now be put to rest.
These easy metaphors carry ill-defined presumptions that do not inform debate. Neither do terms that media love to appropriate and escalate. “Surveillance capitalism” is an extreme name for advertising cookies and the use of the word devalues the seriousness of actual surveillance by governments including my own. See also this very good commentary from Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben of the Oxford Internet Institute, arguing that internet use is by no means “addiction.”
The state of media coverage of technology and society sucks. It sucked before by being utopian. It sucks now by being dystopian. I tire of the Damascene conversions of both formertechnologists (having safely cashed out) and of tech reporters who signal their virtue by distancing themselves from what they helped build or build up. I am disappointed that I never see media folk acknowledge their own conflict of interest about competing with the technology companies they cover and about their employers’ attempts to cash in political capital for the sake of protectionism against the platforms. I worry about the impact of this technology coverage on the future and freedoms of the net. (What interventions are being legislated based on emotional and vague concepts like filter bubble, echo chamber, surveillance, and addiction?) I worry, too, as Bruns does, that we are missing the real problem and real story: the roots of anger and polarization in society today. (It ain’t Twitter and you know it; start by examining racism.) I am angry to see journalists condescend to the public they serve, treating people as gullible fools who can be corrupted by a mere meme. I am even angrier to see journalists abandon social media and with it all the new voices who were never heard in mass media but now can speak. And I’m sad to see such simplistic, lazy, and poor quality coverage from my field.
Yes, of course, the technology companies have garnered power and wealth that merits close scrutiny. Yes, those companies fuck up and so I, too, am looking for useful regulatory regimes. But our coverage of society’s problems today should not begin and end on El Camino Real. We are too often covering the effect over the cause.
I wish both media and policymakers would follow the example of academics like Bruns (I use him just as an example; there are so many more). Begin with questions. Study the research that exists. Use data. Call for more research. Before making technology companies responsible for every modern ill — the definition of moral panic — make them instead responsible for sharing data to feed that research. And let that research concentrate not on technology and its impact on people — which too often gives people too little credit and agency. Instead let research and reporting look more carefully at how people are using the technology to have an impact on each other. Start by respecting those people and learning from them before condemning and dismissing them. Through fits and starts and missteps and mistakes — sometimes with, sometimes in spite of the companies involved — we the users are building a new society on the net. Watch, listen, and learn before criticizing, dismissing, and condemning. If it sounds like I want journalism to learn from anthropology, I do. More on that soon.
Around the world, news industry trade associations are corruptly cashing in their political capital — which they have because their members are newspapers, and politicians are scared of them — in desperate acts of protectionism to attack platform companies. The result is a raft of legislation that will damage the internet and in the end hurt everyone, including journalists and especially citizens.
As I was sitting in the airport leaving Newsgeist Europe, a convening for journalists and publishers [disclosure: Google pays for the venue, food, and considerable drink; participants pay their own travel], my Twitter feed lit up like the Macy’s fireworks as The New York Times reported — or rather, all but photocopied — a press release from the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America) contending that Google makes $4.7 billion a year from news, at the expense of news publishers.
The Times story itself is appalling as it swallowed the News Media Alliance’s PR whole, quoting people from the association and not including comment from Google until hours later. Many on Twitter were aghast at the poor journalism. I contacted Google PR, who said The Times did not reach out to the person who normally speaks on these matters or anyone in the company’s Washington office. Google sent me their statement:
These back of the envelope calculations are inaccurate as a number of experts are pointing out. The overwhelming number of news queries do not show ads. The study ignores the value Google provides. Every month Google News and Google Search drives over10 billion clicks to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue. We’ve worked very hard to be a collaborative and supportive technology and advertising partner to news publishers worldwide.
The “study” upon which The Times (and others) relied is, to say the least, specious. No, it’s humiliating. I want to dispatch with its fallacies quickly — to get to my larger point, about the danger legacy news publishers are posing to the future of news and the internet — and that won’t be hard. The study collapses in its second paragraph:
Google has emerged as a major gateway for consumers to access news. In 2011, Google Search combined with Google News accounted for the majority (approximately 75%) of referral traffic to top news sites. Since January 2017, traffic from Google Search to news publisher sites has risen by more than 25% to approximately 1.6 billion visits per week in January 2018. Corresponding with consumers’ shift towards Google for news consumption, news is becoming increasingly important to Google, as demonstrated by an increase in Google searches about news.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is great news for news. For as anyone under the age of 99 understands, Google sends readers to sites based on links from search and other products. That Google is emphasizing news and currency more is good for publishers, as that sends them readers. (That 10-billion-click number Google cited above is eight years old and so I have little doubt it is much higher now thanks to all its efforts around news.)
The problem has long been that publishers aren’t competent at exploiting the full value of these clicks by creating meaningful and valuable ongoing relationships with the people sent their way. So what does Google do? It tries to help publishers by, for example, starting a subscription service that drives more readers to easily subscribe — and join and contribute — to news sites directly from Google pages. The NMA study cites that subscription service as an example of Google emphasizing news and by implication exploiting publishers. It is the opposite. Google started the subscription service because publishers begged for it — I was in the room when they did — and Google listened. The same goes for most every product change the study lists in which Google emphasizes news more. That helps publishers. The study then uses ridiculously limited data (including, crucially, an offhand and often disputed remark 10 years ago by a then-exec at Google about the conceptual value of news) to make leaps over logic to argue that news is important on its services and thus Google owes news publishers a cut of its revenue (which Google gains by offering publishers’ former customers, advertisers, a better deal; it’s called competition). By this logic, Instagram should be buying cat food for every kitty in the land and Reddit owes a fortune to conspiracy theorists.
The real problem here is news publishers’ dogged refusal to understand how the internet has changed their world, throwing the paradigm they understood into the grinder. In the US and Europe, they still contend that Google is taking their “content,” as if quoting and linking to their sites is like a camera stealing their soul. They cannot grok that value on the internet is concentrated not in a product or property called content — articles, headlines, snippets, thumbnails, words — but instead in relationships. Journalism is no longer a factory valued by how many widgets and words it produces but instead by how much it accomplishes for people in their lives. I have tried here and here and in many a meeting in newsrooms and journalism conferences to offer this advice to news publishers — with tangible ideas about how to build a new journalistic business around relationships — but most prove incapable of shifting mindset and strategy beyond valuing content for content’s sake. Editors who do understand are often stymied by their short-sighted publishers and KPIs and soon quit.
Most legacy publishers have come up with no sustainable business strategy for a changing world. So they try to stop the world from changing by unleashing their trade associations [read: lobbyists] on capitals from Brussels to Berlin to London to Melbourne to Washington (see: the NMA’s effort to get an antitrust exemption to go after the platforms for antitrust; its study was prepared to hand to Congress in time for its hearings this week). These trade associations attack the platforms without ever acknowledging the fault of their own members in our current polarization in society. (Yes, I’m talking about, for example, Fox News and other Murdoch properties, dues-paying members of many a trade association. By our silence in journalism and its trade associations in not criticizing their worst, we endorse it.)
The efforts of lobbyists for my industry are causing irreparable harm to the internet. No, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not the internet, but what is done to them is done to the net. And what’s been done includes horrendous new copyright legislation in the EU that tries to force Google et al to have to negotiate to pay for quoting snippets of content to which they link. Google won’t; it would be a fool to. So I worry that platforms will link to news less and less resulting in self-inflicted harm for the news industry and journalists, but more important hurting the public conversation at exactly the wrong moment. Thanks, publishers. At Newsgeist Europe, I sat in a room filled with journalists terribly worried about the impact of the EU’s copyright directive on their work and their business but I have to say they have no one but their own publishers and lobbyists to blame.
I am tempted to say that I am ashamed of my own industry. But I won’t for two reasons: First, I want to believe that the industry’s lobbyists do not speak for journalists themselves — but I damned well better start hearing the protests of journalists to what their companies are doing. (That includes journalists on the NMA board.) Second, I am coming to see that I’m not part of the media industry but instead that we are all part of something larger, which we now see as the internet. (I’ll be writing more about this idea later.) That means we have a responsibility to criticize and help improve both technology and news companies. What I see instead is too many journalists stirring up moral panic about the internet and its current (by no means permanent) platforms, serving — inadvertently or not — the protectionist strategies of their own bosses, without examining media’s culpability in many of the sins they attribute to technology. (I wish I could discuss this with The New York Times’ ombudsman or any ombudsman in our field, but we know what happened to them.)
My point: We’re in this together. That is why I go to events put on by both the technology and news industries, why I try to help both, why I criticize both, why I try to help build bridges between them. It’s why I am devoting time and effort to my least favorite subject: internet regulation. It is why I am so exasperated at leaders in my own industry for their failure to recognize, adapt to, and exploit the change they try to deny. It’s why I’m disappointed in my own industry for not criticizing itself. Getting politicians who are almost all painfully ignorant about technology to try to define, limit, and regulate that technology and what we can do with it is the last thing we should do. It is irresponsible and dangerous of my industry to try.