Meanland—Locked-in People: what kinds of people do digital technologies produce?

This post was originally published on the Meanland blog, on September 25 2012

The nice thing about our official Meanland theme in 2012—’publishing in an age of change’— is how elastic it is; specific enough to be stimulating, broad enough to take us anywhere. When I was first invited to participate in the Meanland project, I knew that I wanted to use it as a platform from which to pontificate wildly and abstractly on the philosophical implications of the digital age. In my first post I had a go at thinking through some ideas of how digital publishing could change society. And now, here in my second, I want to have a look at how digital publishing could change people.

The impetus, again, is my knee-jerk aversion to those contemporary thinkers who like to make backward-looking pronouncements on the effects digital technologies might have on our culture, or personal relationships. Previously it was Jonathan Franzen, and his assertion that digital publishing heralds an age of ‘radical contingency’. Similar opinions are sometimes expressed as a straightforward rejection of the benefits or opportunities of digital communication. This attitude seems especially popular among writers. Aaron Sorkin, for one. Don DeLillo seems to be another. Asked why he doesn’t use email, DeLillo says ‘I think email encourages communication that wouldn’t otherwise take place. It may require a response that I may not be willing to execute.’ I tend to perceive this kind of opinion as the domain of complacent rich old white men.

But there’s often a kernel of truth in what they say. I’ve recently been reading You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, and I think he is particularly successful at articulating it. Lanier is a computer scientist and a kind of digital pioneer—he is known for developing virtual reality technology, and has recently been a kind of in-house scholar at Microsoft. You Are Not a Gadget is his manifesto against the ‘digital Maoism’ of the web 2.0 age, in which the collective is prized over the individual, and our open-source attitude to information and creativity disenfranchises the middle-class.

The most useful concept Lanier presents in the early part of the book is that of ‘lock-in’, describing the moment where existing structures, regardless of their utility, become too entrenched to practically be changed. The term is used in reference to software development—when new software is designed to operate in conjunction with some original program, the original can almost never be altered—but is obviously applicable to just about any aspect of our world.

Lanier charges us with being aware that many ubiquitous and perhaps undesirable aspects of digital culture are in imminent danger of getting locked-in. We have to remember that things were not always the way they are. As he says, ‘the design of the web as it appears today was not inevitable. In the early 1990s, there were perhaps dozens of credible efforts to come up with a design for presenting networked digital information in a way that would attract more popular use.’

(BTW, the what-if stories lying behind many taken-for-granted aspects of our culture is one of my new pet interests, so I’m going to take this opportunity to link ya’ll to one of my favorite articles on this subject: Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker on the phenomenon of ‘simultaneous discovery’. Scientific inventions, the internet included, are rarely singular acts of genius, more often they are simply ‘in the air’, and the process by which one version of some scientific invention or discovery (Thomas Edison’s telephone vs Elisha Gray’s, say) is usually grounded in contingencies.)

Anyway, Lanier tells us that it’s worth ‘trying to notice when philosophies are congealing into locked-in software’, that ‘small changes in the details of a digital design can have profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it’. It is the role of technology everywhere to give humans certain affordances for possibilities, but the number and kind of possibilities that arise from our technology is by no means predictable, and the predominance of some form of technology is not always due to its superiority—more often, as Lanier puts it, it is the product of ‘what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance.’

So, what affordances do web 2.0 technologies allow for? Or, to rephrase the question, what kinds of people do digital technologies produce? Lanier argues that web 2.0 demands that people ‘define themselves downward’—substituting the authority of the masses (the social networked, the crowd-sourced, the popular) for the wisdom and authority of the individual.

It’s commonly understood now that many of our most powerful digital tools (like Google), and most popular digital publishing platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) rely on their data-mining prowess for their revenue. They are the middle-men between us (the product) and advertisers (the client). For all the holiday snapshots, and pithy 140 character expressions of personality, we are not individuals to these companies; we exist only to be identified and tracked as one out of billions of other potential consumers. A 2010 New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg suggested that he hopes to expand Facebook’s use of its users personal details. He sees Facebook as ‘a layer underneath almost every electronic device’, extending its tendrils into our phones, and our televisions, and becoming, in short, the platform beneath the majority of our technical culture—our every step online would become a moment of self-publishing, exposing ourselves for the consumption of advertisers.

Louis Althusser, in his seminal essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, tried to be explicit about the ways in which a society’s institutions—the church, the schools, the police—’interpellate’ the subjects of that society as particular kinds of people. Lanier expresses his concerns about digital culture in a similar framework, except now it is not only state, or corporate, but ‘Ideological Digital Apparatuses’ that must be our object of scrutiny.

It seems to me that Lanier’s approach is a highly productive one to take when hypothesising on the digital age. The message is simple: the tools available to us from digital technologies, especially the tools that afford us the opportunity to ‘publish’ ourselves—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.—may offer us exciting and stimulating opportunities for communication, but they also change us as people. It is our own responsibility to pay attention to what these tools do to us, how they express our individuality, how they value or devalue our work. This, I think, is one way to make sense of DeLillo’s remarks that email encourages ‘a response that I may not be willing to execute.’ The immediacy of email, in DeLillo’s view, interpellates him as an individual marked by ‘availability’; accessible and responsive to contact. Web 2.0 open culture may necessitate open people, which is not always to our benefit.

Meanland—Too Much Free Press?

This was originally published on the Meanland blog, on April 30 2012

Speculating on the changes that the Digital Age will wreak on our culture seems to be an international pastime these days. Jonathan Franzen, celebrated novelist and American Writer du jour, keeps popping up in the news, loudly proclaiming the various deleterious effects that Twitter/Facebook/eBooks will have on Democracy/The Future/Our Children. (I wrote about some of his remarks earlier for Meanjin)

I find this kind of prognosticating extremely frustrating, grounded, as it usually is, in misunderstanding of the nature of new technologies on the part of white men too old to adapt to them. Franzen just doesn’t seem to get Facebook, or Twitter, and that’s okay. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t get Facebook either, and he wrote a movie about it.

Annoying as I find this gainsaying, I am unable to stop myself from indulging in it as well. I am incapable of convincing myself of why I think Franzen is wrong, without also thinking about the various ways in which he and thinkers like him are maybe a little bit right. Lately I’ve been chewing on a particular idea of how our culture might be affected by the Digital Age. I’ve been thinking about how not just the nature of new publishing technologies, but the sheer number of new platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and all the various blogging websites, could impact on how the political discourse of our society is conducted.

We take it for granted that Western culture is grounded in the free spread of information. It’s not for nothing that the invention of movable type with the Gutenberg Press, and the consequent explosion in literacy levels, is credited with being a foundation stone in Western democracy. Our society is surely premised on the public being conscious and aware of the issues that affect their state, and is thus premised on the ability of the publishing industry, and publishing technology, to distribute that information. Hence the great rhetorical emphasis placed by politicians, pundits, and activists on freedom of the press.

But I wonder now whether the traditional operations of Western democracy are founded on there being an equilibrium in the levels of information being distributed. Or, in other words, is there such a thing as too much free press? Is it possible to have a citizenship overstimulated by information, saturated to excess by a panoply of voices, opinions, and publications of varying levels of respectability and value?

The newspaper industry is probably the most obvious face of this issue today. David Simon, creator of HBO’s The Wire and an ex-reporter for the Baltimore Sun, has suggested that the death of newspapers also means the death of a certain kind of reporting, a loss in the quality of publicly distributed information.. High-end reporting, as he puts it, is a profession requiring extensive time commitment and expertise on the part of well-trained practitioners; a kind of reporting, that is, which will be lost in the age of bloggers, citizen journalists, and news stories broken via Twitter or YouTube. As he says, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will no longer be worried about journalism.”

Huffington Post, the new titan of American news websites, is indeed the lightning rod for everything that is different, or wrong, about contemporary journalism. It is notable for two things. The first is that much of its content is generated not by experienced, well-paid journalists, but by unpaid citizen bloggers or celebrities. So instead of getting Bob Woodward on the issues of the day, you get Alec Baldwin. The second is that its profitability as a business is not tied to the quality of its journalism, but to its mastery of Search Engine Optimisation. By publishing huge amounts of pieces, often with trivial content but containing key words or issues, the Post ensures that it remains high on the list of Google’s search results, and therefore that its page views and corresponding ad revenue remain high as well.

In this respect the Huffington Post is emblematic of the worst fears about how the internet will change media and communication. Quantity of information over quality, and the value of information itself replaced by the value of content; trivial, empty, and useful only for its own self-perpetuation.

(Nevertheless, the Huffington Post does get kind of a bad rap. While newspapers are busy laying people off, the Post has been hiring hundreds of journalists on staff, and, in fact, has just won a Pulitzer Prize.)

The obvious political consequences of the changing distribution of information have already been seen worldwide, in the Arab Spring, Iran’s Green Revolution, and in the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements in the West. All of these protests are attributable, in some sense, to the way that new media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have afforded new possibilities for the transmission of information between disparate groups, and the building of new social networks and connections. All these movements illustrate, in one way or another, that the proliferation of new publishing platforms can bring about a change in the character of political discourse within a society, and, in some cases, a change in the political makeup of the society itself.

It is the combination of these two factors, the change in the standard and character of information being distributed, and the change in the nature of the networks in which it is distributed, that interests me. Together, I wonder if they herald a fundamental shift in the way our society exists in discourse with itself.

Western commentators were often eager to proclaim that the Arab Spring was proof positive that freedom of press breeds an increase in democracy, but we may be overlooking the effect that these new freedoms are also inflicting on our own democracies. Take, for instance, the way that the Tea Party was able to thoroughly dominate the political discourse during the 2006 midterm elections in the US, and so contribute to the way that country’s political dialogue is veering inexorably to the right.

Western democracy, rightly or not, seems to exist on a binary system, with two major parties for left and right, and various subsidiary parties on either side. This is, to a certain extent, reinforced and perpetuated by the distribution of information through media publications, with newspapers and their parent corporations often characterised by their association with a particular side; think of Rupert Murdoch’s supposedly right-wing Newscorp, or The Huffington Post’s own left-wing slant.

On the one hand, more publishing platforms could mean more variety in political opinion, more voice for previously marginalised positions. But when this is combined with a new paradigm of information that prizes content and quantity over insight, I see a possibility for political deadlock: a society confusing itself, and in the process degrading the semblance of consensus upon which democratic action is founded, and letting specialised interests imbalance the discussion.

There may be nothing new about any of this. After all, publishing platforms have always been available to the determined; even if it was merely vanity press, or a locally distributed ‘zine or pamphlet. And its probably a fallacy to declare that the state of contemporary discourse is any more vacuous than it has ever been; hindsight tends to blind the eye. (It would certainly be a mistake to assume that newspaper reporting two-hundred years ago was in any way superior in expertise and intent than it is today.) But the internet could be the tool that metastasizes the situation, and exposes the fault-lines that have lain beneath our culture all along.