Well, That Year Happened: Notes from Utopia

’Tis the season of glad tidings and Year-in-Review articles.  But those moods are decidedly incompatible. The crescendo of 2017 is more like a relentless cacophony of disaster scenes justifying the preponderance of the word apocalypse in so many social media comments.  It was indeed a hard contrast between the vibe of  “Winter Wonderland” and the image of a starving polar bear heralding an extinction caused by climate change that, if you check the EPA’s website, is no longer occurring.

I was also struck by the contrapuntal glimpses of Los Angelenos navigating a hellscape of un-containable wildfires, while in Northern California, members of Silicon Valley’s elite are lately gathering at an old hippie retreat called the Esalen Institute to chant and meditate some inner path back to their own humanity. Why?  Because, according to a recent article in the New York Times, they feel bad that their grand innovations and disruptions have not made the world a better place. And it’s keeping them up nights.

There is something just a tad Revelations-y in the mental montage juxtaposing horses on fire at one end of California and a conclave of guilt-ridden, insomniac techies sitting lotus position and muttering mantras at the other.  As my friend Tessa Lena suggests on her blog, these cyber wonks could just fast-forward to the realization that they were never messiahs in the first place—that their promise was always self-delusional.

Even Mr. Zuckerberg seems to be doing a bit of soul searching this year in light of incontrovertible evidence that his “people connecting” machine can so easily be manipulated to drive people apart and undermine democratic principles.  Sean Parker says he’s become a “conscientious objector” to social media, and former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya says the platform is “ripping apart the social fabric” and that his own kids “aren’t allowed to use that shit.”

The counter-culture idealism of early Silicon Valley can be forgiven, as most idealism can, for its naiveté about the prospects of “better living through data.” (Without at least a little blind faith, ideas rarely produce anything at all.)  Less forgivable, though, is the fact that long after those nascent values had been corporatized (to borrow composer Zöe Keating’s word), the messianic rhetoric continued to assert that the internet is, on balance, a net positive for democratic principles. Until this year.

Unfortunately, we had to elect a Twitter troll to the highest office in the land, and usher in the post-truth era, for the press to weary of its infatuation with Big Tech and begin to write editorials on the theme that perhaps the internet has a few pitfalls as an instrument of democracy.  If you wonder how anyone can accept that a huckster like Donald Trump could presume to question the integrity of a public servant like Robert Mueller, I give you the democratization of information and culture brought to you by a mostly-liberal class of billionaires (no wonder some of them can’t sleep).

As stated many times, one reason I jumped into the copyright fight is that the counter-narrative on copyright is based on a classically naive assumption among liberals that “knowledge” is a panacea.  If we boil down the arguments against copyright, they generally express variations on the theme that “knowledge and culture belongs to everyone—that authors’ rights are outdated and elitist in a digitally democratized world.” This sentiment was based on a mistaken assumption (one of many) that more diffusion of more content can only produce a freer, more democratic, and more enlightened society—especially now that the network has removed the barriers (the so-called gatekeepers) of distribution.

But this populist notion ignored several countervailing realities, not the least of which was that new authors of creative, informative, and cultural works were merely migrating to a new, truly monopolistic, brand of corporate gatekeeper (e.g. YouTube) without seeming to notice.  On the broader belief that the information revolution would yield a wiser, more moderated electorate (not to mention a “global village”), this utopian assumption overlooked the obvious fact that the barriers of distribution were lowered in all directions—that when “information” can be customized (or as a friend put it, when history becomes a choose-your-own-adventure story), society will naturally fracture into communities of competing realities rather than a democracy of competing ideas. Add to this the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of semi-anonymous, electronic interaction, where even decent people are prone to ad hominem, and viola—we get the incoherent and existentially precarious U.S. 2017 Edition.

But what now? Although the bloom is substantially faded from Silicon Valley’s rose, and the major platforms are having a harder time selling their “just a neutral platform” message, this does not mean anybody is at all clear as to what kind of policies might mitigate the problems that we’re now willing to admit exist.  In an article for The American Interest, Eileen Donahoe offers some thoughtful guidelines for at least defining terms and making clear distinctions about causes and effects.  For example, she writes …

“…even assuming the polarization effect of Facebook is substantial, the echo-chamber problem is distinctly different from the intentional manipulation of social media by foreign actors seeking to affect election outcomes. Delineating between inherent features and malign uses will help us define platform responsibilities and yield better solutions.”

I agree, though I’d amend that slightly because the evidence thus far presented about the “Russian hack” is less indicative that the goal was the election of Donald Trump so much as it was to sow discord among the American electorate.  The intent, it seems, was to disrupt democracy itself by weaponizing free speech and turning us against one another.  And it has been a premise of this blog that social media was already fostering this toxic atmosphere long before we learned anything about meddling foreign entities.

What I suspect the Russian campaign truly reveals is that there is probably no set of policies, either by Congress or the platform owners, that can effectively protect us from our own worst instincts.  While it is certainly refreshing to at least hear Big Tech companies acknowledge some responsibility for a change, the ultimate responsibility for preserving our rather delicate brand of democracy still falls on us; and that probably means coming to terms with the ways in which these platforms are harmful to both reason and social interactions.

Yes, Facebook could take steps to recognize a foreign entity buying propaganda and weed this out up to a point—Senator Kennedy (R-LA) stated in the hearings that he was skeptical as to how much the company could truly control—but Facebook cannot stop Americans across the political spectrum from believing and disseminating absolute garbage—let alone acting on misinformation.

But the real challenge isn’t information quality itself.  Six years ago, what scared me most about about the bogus anti-SOPA campaign was the corresponding ebullience for “direct democracy,” the groundswell of populist sentiment that imagined the internet as the antidote to all the ills of government overreach and corporate oligarchy.  The illusion that direct, positive, and popular action via these platforms would overwhelm the worst excesses of government/corporate control became the meat of many self-congratulatory editorials and blogs. As asked at the start of this year, now that democracy is disrupted, how’s it looking so far?

Adding insult to this injury is the fact that the theater of direct democracy continues to rally people to the cause of the internet oligarchs themselves. This paradox is inherent to addressing any area cyber-policy, and we see it repeated to a great extent in the incoherent battle over Net Neutrality.  The problem is semantic.  In a complex world reduced to bullet points, it’s almost impossible to identify, for instance, the specific vested interest of Google, whenever the general message is “Save the internet!”  This has been the standard headline responding to every policy proposal from SOPA to SESTA to the TPP and Neutrality; and every time the bell is rung, people respond, “Yes! Please save the internet!” which is a naively generic vote to save the status quo of the internet.  Thus, even people who are harmed by the current state of internet policy take action against their own interests.

Of course the internet is not synonymous with the business interests of Google or Facebook or Amazon or any other corporation.  And the fact remains that the status quo of the internet writ large is, in many ways, not something worth saving.  To the contrary, the prevailing body of internet policy, most of which was written before anyone could imagine the environment we have today, has fostered a wide range of unforeseen negative effects, the most dramatic of which are the now-manifest threats to democracy itself.

I neither know, nor indeed care, what the meditating minds at the Esalen Institute discover about their “Inner-Nets,” as one Googler-cum-guru puts it. If the leadership of these companies really want to make the world a better place, they might begin by taking their noses out of their navels, acknowledge the ways in which their technologies have made the world worse, and become responsible partners in mitigating measurable harm like human trafficking, IP infringement, harassment, ad hoc terrorism, and disinformation campaigns. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for the Big Tech pivot.  In the meantime, maybe in the coming year, we might at least stop carrying Google’s water every time some meme demands that we “save the internet.”  Because, on balance, it’s a little hard to see quite how the internet is returning the favor by saving us from ourselves.

© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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