Wadds came up with 13 theses about media with more than a nod and a wink to The Cluetrain Manifesto. The main thrust of it is that the media model is broken, technology has a lot of the blame at its door.
Picking through it are some worthy aspirations, but it was diagnosing symptoms rather than causes. I believe that the main problems are wetware, not software. People and civil society rather than networks and servers.
Technology has its own momentum
As with many things, the reality and where we are going is much more complex. Kevin Kelly posited that technological progress is a natural force of its own. He called this force the ‘technium’. It is not moral, it doesn’t understand good or bad. It can be slowed down for a time, but never stopped.
Even during the European dark ages, the golden age in Muslim countries saw Arab scholars:
- Collate classical knowledge
- Translate it into their own language
- Build upon the body of knowledge
This knowledge came back into Europe. It helped provide a foundation for the renaissance.
We’re not going to be able to stop bots or algorithms. As they improve; their impact will be harder to discern. There will be a tension in online platforms; shareholder value versus good citizenship.
Digital is a winner takes all world
As with many previous technology markets such as the PC and smartphone operating systems online is an oligopoly of two. Digital media provides a disproportionate amount of benefit to very few platforms.
Facebook and Google count for 85-90% of online advertising growth.
In China, online media is dominated by Tencent and Baidu. We could ‘Balkanise’ the media landscape. But that would mean a poorer experience for users outside the US and China. The technology sector does not have:
- Commercial scale in funding
- Sufficient talent
- Comparable addressable markets
Timms & Heimans hypothesis of ‘new power vs. old power’ rubs up against technology as an uncomfortable vector.
This all means that the tensions in society, civic society and societal discourse is accelerated and amplified.
From the perspective of technology platforms this isn’t their problem. They are only tackling it with reluctance, they don’t have a silver bullet solution.
In their eyes:
- ‘Online’ isn’t a problem, it is the breakdown in social norms, which are then amplified and gamed online
- In the real world we’re insulated from views unless we chose to explore alternatives. Algorithms have amplified this process further to create a filter bubble. Algorithms are only mimicing our natural desires. This is mirrored in the lack real-world discourse and polarisation of views
- Algorithms are accused of having a reductive effect on an individuals breadth of media consumption. News feed algorithms jobs are to make platforms money. Before their widespread use netizens widely flocked to chatrooms and forums with a similar narrow focus. News readers using RSS which would allow individuals to read widely have proved to be only a niche interest
Reading widely is important to be being well informed, but its a conscious choice that people have to make. But in order to read widely one has to be:
- Sufficiently educated to be confident in their reading ability
- Confident enough to ignore any scorn that might come from ‘books, learning and being an expert’
- Sufficiently curious to have the motivation to read
- Having sufficient time to be able to read
These bullets are affected by quality of education, social norms and income. If you are just getting by with a series of side hustle jobs you might too time poor to read widely.
These are not universal traits in society. In the UK the idea of the self-educated literate working-man who goes to classes at the Mechanics Institute is long dead. That wasn’t done by Facebook or Google.
The notion of an easily swayed populus wasn’t an invention of Cambridge Analytica, Google or Facebook. The Roman poet Juvenal famous for the concept of ‘bread and circuses’ would see something similar in populist politics. From Brexit, to Germany’s AfD the focus on diversion, distraction and immediate satisfaction ‘palliative’. A significant amount of common people are selfish in nature and often pay little attention to wider concerns.
A quote from near the end of Jean-Paul Satre’s play No Exit sums it up quite well
“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!”
Whilst in a democracy, all opinions should have the opportunity to be voiced; should they have a right to be heard? Should politicians really reflect the will of the people? I think there is a strong argument to be made against it. I am not advocating authoritarian rule, but that we need leaders who reflect on the greater good. Edmund Burke – one of the founding fathers of British conservatism is a widely cited example of a politician who didn’t reflect the will of the people. Burke recognised that democracy can create a tyranny over unpopular minorities. He didn’t consider politicians to be delegates; conduits for votes without moral responsibility.
He is widely cited as being a better man for it:
- Burke viewed the British conduct in India under the East India Company immoral
- He advocated representation for American colonists
- Acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the Crown in America and an appropriate apology
Facts versus Emotion
Facts and emotion have always duelled and facts have frequently come off the worse for it. Western politicians from Adolf Hitler to Barrack Obama have little in common except being successful exponents of rhetoric and emotion in their speeches. Technical skills and knowledge don’t make the cut. A classic example of this is the dissonance between the advice of John Redwood as a strategist with Charles Stanley versus his political stance on Brexit. Mr Redwood knows what works as a politician.
Those that wield emotion now, have a greater understanding of how it works. It is why populist organisations win. It is why experts fail to persuade voters to act in their own interest. That won’t change with technology but with stonger, harsher electoral commission powers.
Fact versus Fiction
Yellow journalism and fiction has been with us for as long as civilisation existed. It’s modern roots are in the American media industry of the late 19th century, as publishers battled for circulation. They work because audiences love ‘good stories’. A good story is one that:
- Reinforces our own beliefs
American journalist Frank Mott listed the following characteristics of :
- Scare headlines
- Lavish use of images
- Faked expertise: misleading headlines pseudo-science and false learnings
All of Mott’s points sound like a thoroughly modern media playbook. Yellow journalism pioneers Hearst & Pulitzer were only stopped by public vilification and shame. The Pullitzer Price, like the Nobel Prize was a penitent act at the end of a successful commercial career in media. Hearst & Pullitzer were owner-proprietors, it is a lot harder (though not impossible) to shame a public company today. The bigger issue is that a century of mass-media practice has lowered the bar in standards for ‘new media’ companies. A brutal legislative machine that would replace compliance through guilt with compliance through fear is a possible solution. However the legislative executive by its nature tends to favour the wealthy.