I’m not sure what further evidence we need to finally declare the “information revolution” a fiasco. If the mind-boggling reality of electing a president who normalized hate speech with his campaign is not sufficient evidence that the digital age has failed to produce a more enlightened electorate, it’s hard to imagine what it would take for progressives to accept that the web hasn’t done us any favors. Yet the internet industry will keep insisting that what’s needed is more. If we just digitize more, provide more access, and harvest more data, the promised enlightenment is still within our grasp.
In the age of Less, conservative meant an author and scholar like William F. Buckley. In the age of More conservative means a cult troll like Milo Yiannapoulous. In the age of Less, there were three TV networks whose news divisions were both unprofitable and mandated by law, making them honest brokers of responsible journalism that didn’t have to compete with show business. In the age of More, a meme or a tweet will suffice because the “mainstream media” cannot be trusted. In the age of Less, expertise and dedication to purpose counted for something. In the age of More, anyone can be anything, a mashup video can be filmmaking, a cut-and-paste blog can be news, and a know-nothing thug can be President of the United States.
Donald Trump is—among many other things—the result of caring more about democratization than we do about democratic republicanism. As readers who’ve known this blog from the beginning are aware, it was the anti-SOPA campaign that got me started—less so because of the copyright issue than what that campaign said about our political process in the digital age. People were so convinced they were right about the bill that they didn’t bother to consider the larger implications of how social media and Big Data could so dramatically override the more contemplative and nuanced process of representative government. Now, with the victory of a guy like Trump, it should be clear that democratization does not in any way have to result in a benevolent society. There is no wisdom of crowds.
The utopian pretense of “disrupting the gatekeepers” in order to make the world’s information and culture freely and widely available is—in addition to stealing the work of authors—a complete fallacy as a social good. Every American who voted for the least-qualified and most obnoxious candidate in living memory had ample access to information, but to what end? This is what comes from treating all expression as “content,” as more fuel to run the data harvest for the data industry. The promise of technology has led even progressives to place so much emphasis on tearing down “elites,” that they should not be surprised when fools win the day.
The courts said Google is free to digitize a corpus of literature in order to serve a society that doesn’t read. “Digital rights” groups work to keep copyright weak in the service of the “free flow of information,” which inadvertently equalizes the social value of the poet and the fascist. More “information” is no more the answer to democracy than “more speech” was when SCOTUS ruled in Citizens United. Historically, less—what some call “artificial scarcity”—has produced the benevolently influential outcomes I want to believe most people still hope for. After all, the reason thousands mourn the passing of Leonard Cohen today is because there is only one Leonard Cohen.
Democratization is governed by the economy of trending, and trending is garbage—producing circumscribed experiences, as my colleague Mike Katell rightly points out in his blog. He writes, “While we’re busy pontificating (myself included) on social media about our views and sharing our carefully curated information tidbits with our online followers and friends, remember that this narrowly focused information sharing is a central problem for political discourse.” Trending is glib. Donald Trump just trended his way into the White House with all the intellectual virtue of a mean-girl tweet.
Ironically—perhaps even counter-intuitively—the information age has produced a climate in which American politics is no longer a competition of ideas, and factions on both the right and left are equally guilty of feeding that monster. Not only is the bubble naive, it is also grossly inaccurate. But what now?
It’s true that Trump welcomed hate into his campaign and has yet to say anything to quell that fire. And when we read about high school students already harassing minorities, this conjures legitimate fears of American Brown Shirts—a history that itself seems somehow lost despite the free flow of “information.” Through the filter of social media, it’s hard to avoid the anxiety and very hard to distinguish between being vigilantly informed and hysterically manipulated.
As indicated in a previous post, I know that if my neighbor voted for Donald Trump on Tuesday, it’s not because he’s a KKK member or a neo-Nazi. I want to believe there are more of him than there are of them—that perhaps the litany of horrors populating my Facebook feed this week is not an accurate reflection of the sentiments of half of America. But there is no getting past the sense that democratization has helped make our politics more divisive not less—that the promise of connection through technology hasn’t really panned out as the great campfire many predicted. To the contrary, it’s more like a car fire in the middle of a riot.