Since the invention of writing, human innovation has transformed how we formulate new ideas, organize our societies, and communicate with one another. But in an age of rapid-fire social media and nonstop algorithm-generated outrage, technology is no longer helping to expand or enrich the public sphere.
BERKELEY – Since 1900, human technology and organization have been evolving at a blistering pace. The degree of change that occurs in just one year would have taken 50 years or more before 1500. War and politics used to be the meat of human history, with advances in technology and organization unfolding very slowly – if at all – in the background. Now, the inverse is true.
The impact of technological innovation on the marketplace of ideas has brought about some of the most consequential changes. The shift from the age of handwritten and hand-copied manuscripts to that of the Gutenberg press ushered in the Copernican Revolution (along with almost two centuries of genocidal religious war). Pamphlets and coffee houses broadened the public sphere and positioned public opinion as a powerful constraint on political rulers’ behavior.
As John Adams, the second president of the United States, later pointed out, the “[American] Revolution was effected before the war commenced … in the minds and hearts of the people.” The decisive intellectual battle, we now know, was won by the English-born printer Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense. Still, even during the revolutionary period, the pace of change was far slower than it is today. In the space of just two human lifetimes, we have gone from mass-market newspapers and press lords to radio and network television, and then on to the Internet and today’s social media-driven public sphere. And most of us will live long enough to witness whatever comes next.
There is now a near-consensus – at least among those who are not completely steeped in social-media propaganda – that the current public sphere does not serve us well. “Social media is broken,” the American author Annalee Newitz wrote in a recent commentary for the New York Times. “It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process. Many of us just want to get away from it, but we can’t imagine a world without it.”
Western societies have experienced a similar sentiment before. In the 1930s, my great-uncles listened to their elders complain about how radio had allowed demagogues like Adolf Hitler, Charles Coughlin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt (that “communist”) to short-circuit the normal processes of public discourse. No longer were public debates kept sober and rational by traditional gatekeepers. In the new age of broadcast, unapproved memes could spread far and wide without interference. Politicians and ideologues who may not have had the public interest in mind could get right into people’s ears and hijack their brains.
Nowadays, the problem is not a single demagogue, but a public sphere beset by swarms of “influencers,” propagandists, and bots, all semi-coordinated by the dynamics of the medium itself. Once again, ideas of dubious quality and provenance are shaping people’s thoughts without having been subjected to adequate evaluation and analysis.
We should have seen this coming. A generation ago, when the “net” was limited to universities and research institutes, there was an annual “September” phenomenon. Each year, new arrivals to the institution would be given an email account and/or user profile, whereupon they would rapidly find their online communities. They would begin to talk, and someone, inevitably, would get annoyed. For the next month, whatever informational or discursive use the net might have had would be sidelined by continuous vitriolic exchanges.
Then things would calm down. People would remember to put on their asbestos underwear before logging on; they learned not to take the newbies so seriously. Trolls would find themselves banned from the forums they loved to disrupt. And, in any case, most who experimented with the troll lifestyle realized that it has little to recommend it. For the next 11 months, the net would serve its purpose, significantly extending each user’s cultural, conversational, and intellectual range, and adding to the collective stock of human intelligence.
But as the Internet began to spread to each household and then to each smartphone, fears about the danger of an “eternal September” have been confirmed. There is more money to be made by stoking outrage than by providing sound information and encouraging the social-learning process that once taught net newbies to calm down. And yet, today’s Internet does offer valuable information, so much so that few of us could imagine doing without it. To access that information, we have tacitly agreed to allow the architects at Facebook, Twitter, Google (especially YouTube), and elsewhere to shape the public sphere with their outrage- and clickbait-generating algorithms.
Meanwhile, others have found that there is a great deal of money and power to be gained by shaping public opinion online. If you want to get your views out there, it is easier to piggyback on the outrage machine than to develop a comprehensive rational argument – especially when those views are self-serving and deleterious to the public good.
For her part, Newitz ends her recent commentary on a hopeful note. “Public life has been irrevocably changed by social media; now it’s time for something else,” she writes. “We need to stop handing off responsibility for maintaining public space to corporations and algorithms – and give it back to human beings. We may need to slow down, but we’ve created democracies out of chaos before. We can do it again.”
Such hope may be necessary for journalists these days. Unfortunately, a rational evaluation of our situation suggests that it is unjustified. The eternal September of our discontent has arrived.
Sacha Baron Cohen denounced tech giants Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google. Cenk Uygur, John Iadarola, and Mark Thompson, hosts of The Young Turks, break it down. MORE TYT: https://tyt.com/trial
no no I understand that but guys what
I’m afraid of is if you take that
argument to its logical extreme all
you’re gonna do is go back to the
establishment media so you’re gonna put
in so many guardrails that we’re gonna
go back to the era of acceptable thought
The Silicon Six:
- Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook
- Larry Page: Alphabet
- Sergey Brin: Alphabel
- Sundar Pichai: Google
- Susan Wojcicki: YouTube
- Jack Dorsey: Twitter
Facebook Zuckerberg tried to portray
this whole issue as choices around free
expression that is ludicrous this is not
about limiting anyone’s free speech this
is about giving people including some of
the most reprehensible people on earth
the biggest platform in history to reach
a third of the planet freedom of speech
is not freedom of reach Mark Zuckerberg
seemed to equate regulation of companies
like his to the actions of the most
repressive societies incredible this
from one of the six people who decide
what information so much of the world
Zuka burger t’set facebook sundar pichai
at google at its parent company alphabet
Larry Page and Sergey Brin Bryn’s
ex-sister-in-law Susan Wojcicki at
YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter the
silicon six all billionaires all
Americans who care more about boosting
their share price than about protecting
democracy this this is ideological
imperialism six unelected individuals in
Silicon Valley imposing their vision on
the rest of the world unaccountable to
any government and acting like their
Abarth of the reach of law it’s like
violence is a part of human nature, too, but the technology of the atom bomb multiplies the danger for us all. So too with these newsfeed algorithms, which favor engagement above everything else, no matter how base and degraded the content is.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this interview with Jaron Lanier, and I’ll just share an excerpt because I think it provides some insight: “The problem, however, is that behind the scenes there are these manipulation, behavior modification, and addiction algorithms that are running. And these addiction algorithms are blind. They’re just dumb algorithms. What they want to do is take whatever input people put into the system and find a way to turn it into the most engagement possible. And the most engagement comes from the startle emotions, like fear and anger and jealousy, because they tend to rise the fastest and then subside the slowest in people, and the algorithms are measuring people very rapidly, so they tend to pick up and amplify startle emotions over slower emotions like the building of trust or affection.” https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/delete-your-account-a-co…!
During the 2016 campaign, Zeynep Tufekci was watching videos of Donald Trump rallies on YouTube. But then, she writes, she “noticed something peculiar. YouTube started to recommend and ‘autoplay’ videos for me that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.”
And it wasn’t just Trump videos. Watching Hillary Clinton rallies got her “arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11.” Nor was it just politics. “Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons.”
Tufekci is a New York Times columnist and a professor at the University of North Carolina. She’s also one of the clearest thinkers around on how digital platforms work, how their algorithms understand and shape our preferences, and what the consequences are for society. So as we learn that Facebook is detecting new efforts at electoral manipulation and as we watch online politics become ever more bitter and divisive, I wanted to talk with Tufekci about how digital platforms have become engines of radicalization, and what we can do about it.
In an oral culture, memory is prized.
In a social media culture, attention-getting is prized. The Kardashians do this. Trump is an ex-reality television star, because that is what he excelled at. She thinks this won’t work well because it will be misunderstood. You don’t have control over where it goes.
What is this media training us to do? It is rewarding attention-grabbing with political power and money. Politicians try to get attention without letting it take over.
The space is so crowded, so competitive.
What really wins when thousands of things are competing? (28:50 min)
Things that outrage or excite core identities. Really funny, mean, or shocking.
We are taught to believe that competition is always better. The more we train people to win this war, it is easy to see how so much falls along identity lines, funny, mean, shocking.
Every company knows the power of the default.
The most effective forms of censorship involve messing with trust and attention.
Is censorship the right word? People are asking this of Facebook and Google.
What to do with Alex Jones and what to call him?
3 degrees of Alex Jones: you can start anywhere on Facebook? and Alex Jones will be recommended.
With InfoWars they are targeting people for violent incitement. Claiming that the Sandy Hooks parents kids are actors and they pretended a shooting occurred so that the government can take your guns away.
They are not governments; they are gatekeepers.
Ted Cruz has allied himself with someone who said his father helped kill JFK.
We need forms of due process