Foreshadowing an internet health crisis
On Thursday, I will be in attendance as the White House gathers technologists at a social media summit to discuss the growing concern of major tech companies and their role in online bias. While I agree that prejudice against conservative outlets is occurring, I do not believe the crisis is a concerted or purposeful effort. Rather, the bias is a sign of the growing rot among online habits and attention, rooted in the worship of value-defunct information gathering. As Senator Josh Hawley put it in his speech at the Hoover Institution:
“there is something deeply troubling, maybe even deeply wrong, with the entire social media economy…”
The inescapable fact is we spend an excessive amount of time online. As of January 2019, the average American spends 6 hours and 31 minutes using the internet every day. This does not include screen time on phone calls, texting, candy-crushing, using GPS — you get the point. For anyone doing the math, that is a third of our waking day and only 17 minutes less than an average American’s 6 hours and 48 minutes of sleep.
Online as entertainment
Explaining this phenomenon takes just a quick scroll through any feed on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or the content of your Google ads. You will notice they all share one thing in common. Marketers and advertisers will do whatever it takes to to garner your undivided attention: cats, naked women, funny videos, shocking titles, snide remarks, you name it. Ride any mass transit and watch the hundreds of mindless drones scrolling through pictures, tweets, and candy shapes. Massive amounts of energy are being converted into consumption.
If this is not a crisis, then what is it?
As sons and daughters of the “digital age,” we are stuck convincing ourselves that our time spent online is good and useful. This is predictable — Silicon Valley has spent millions of dollars to convince us that the accumulation of information is human beings’ highest end. Also predictably, we reject any Luddite (anti-technology) criticism outright. We love our tools and toys.
We want to believe that this daily time-suck is worth something great — that our participation in media is always informative, educational, or activist — that by constantly consuming information and reacting to it, we are providing a net good to society. That signing that one last petition signature will totally PASS THIS BILL!
But the real result is an entertained, not bettered, society. Neil Postman famously attributed this prescient line to the feigned seriousness of television:
“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas; they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” ―from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Postman knew well in 1984 what we refuse to acknowledge today: that news shows then — and now by extension social platforms — are “a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.”
Reminiscent of the 19th century robber barons, a few giant American companies have a near monopoly on the online platforms that harness our desire to be entertained and shocked. These companies — having stolen the entertainment mantel from books, television and radio — are the dog who caught the car.
But unlike media of the past, whose gatekeepers were also unaccountable, new media presents an entirely new challenge: a lack of accountability that scales in the hundreds of millions of people and across thousands of different viewpoints. Recall that gatekeepers are only useful when a gate is erected.
Bias is an accident, not an aim
I know very little about the inner workings of Facebook and their content regulations. But if I had to guess, I would say their policies and standards of practice are probably pretty rigorous and well-written (aided, in addition, by machine learning automation). A company with a bottom line as large as Facebook does not have the luxury of furiously angering half of its platform on purpose — and, honestly, it is not in their interest to do so.
Why? As I have written before, Facebook cannot be biased because that bias is inconsistent with the philosophical foundations of automation that underpin Silicon Valley and the snake oil salesmen who inhabit it. They do not think in political terms but by the terms outlined by their prophet, Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Taylor, who first brought the stopwatch to the manufacturing floor, invented the process of scientific management. By breaking down the parts of a process into smaller pieces, he was the first place the priority of cheap, efficient goods over the betterment of the human person. Taylor invented automation and this philosophy is the proverbial ten commandments for technologists today. Individuals who work in Silicon Valley share a common transhumanist pipe dream to make man better through prosthesis, augmented reality, and ultimately AI. They are smart folks with generally good intentions who think technology can build a better tomorrow.
However, this philosophy is as old as it is despairing — it is what Josef Pieper describes as the “proletarianization of all.” Creator has been replaced by work and work has become god. If work is god, then the future is built, not by charity or works, but by those who create the best, most efficient tools and accumulate the most data.
All of this to say, Silicon Valley employees are most definitely NOT secret Democratic political operatives bent on destroying the Republican Party. I would be surprised if any mid-level or lower employees at Facebook or Google could have answered a single question about politics prior to the election of Donald Trump.
If you look at the Lincoln Network’s viewpoint inclusion study, you will find that technology employees across in the United States surprisingly identify evenly as Moderate (33%), Republican (32%), and Liberal (32%). In a contrasting study by the same group, Silicon Valley, the corporate power core, looks a bit different: 29% identify as Liberal, 16% as Moderate, 24% as Libertarian, and 23% as Conservative.
It is clear that those who hold power at the top in Silicon Valley trend left and Libertarian, but they are normal people with normal biases and filters — just like the rest of us. The difference is they are in charge of all our discourse now (whoops!).
There is one factor I find even more intriguing: 48% of Silicon Valley employees and 42% of national technology employees identify as atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing. That is 25% higher than the national average!
It would be mad to claim that these folks lack individual moral foundations, but it is clear that the companies themselves (and seemingly those at the top of the pyramid) lack a sound philosophical vision for what the good is. The self-identification merely reinforces the type of action we have seen from these companies.
The engineers and coders who bankrupted newspapers, taxis, and hotels and are now “disrupting” the media industry are left holding the bag. Similar to the sophists over at NPR who thought it wise to revisit their abortion semantics with zero practical training in any theology or philosophy, these large firms are now defining our world of communications from an empty platform. Modernity has crept in and Silicon Valley’s reply is stark: “we’re fine with whomever pays us more.”
Problems of scale
Silicon Valley’s lack of philosophical foundation begs an important question: what kind of person is well suited to monitor billions of vile posts in real-time? To censor murder and rape when it is live-streamed? or to delete child pornography as it populates? Online communities are the largest cesspool ever built and, therefore, finding the diseased stool amidst all the other excrement is an impossible, undesirable job.
A more important question: what kind of philosophy should this content moderator have? We can all agree that murder is bad. But beyond right or left, red or blue — what intrinsic values should this type of person hold dear?
When Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004, he could have never imagined he would have to answer questions like these. He sought out to make a profit. To put it bluntly, I bet he has no interest in answering them now (beyond classic PR) because he understands his Taylorist-Faustian bargain better than everyone else.
The simple fact is this: if you try to create any massively scaled online system that allows users to freely share “content,” you will very quickly learn that your hundreds of poorly-paid content curators are ill-equipped to manage the growing discontent creating murder and rape posts. And even less equipped to evaluate the millions of varying questions concerning virtue or vice — that is, unless they hold a dominant philosophical view. Hint: they do not.
The price of our egos
It is my sense that we have ushered in a paradigm of technological sharing several steps beyond gluttony. In other words, what net good have we gained in exchange for our grotesque media consumption?
Even I have been surprised how quickly the “sharing age” steamrolled through Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and into Jean Baudrillard’s Ecstasy of Communication. Debord’s neo-Marxist view of technology used to be adequate to describe our social relationships: when technology replaces substance, it stirs alienation and competition between previously familiar actors. In simpler terms, when you view my Instagram, you do not see me, or even pictures of me, but pictures of my portrayed self. Debord saw a “decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.” Portrayals drive technological competition, and thus, create the society of the spectacle where tools compete to support isolation and nothing is real:
“Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to televisions, also serve as weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation…” — from The Society of the Spectacle
Baudrillard, on the other hand, presents a more precise view of our new modern communication: a trance-like state of psychosis. Information exists for the sake of itself and we require its consumption for reasons we have long forgotten. It does not matter whether the information is good, useful, or otherwise. All that matters is that it exist (or not exist) freely, akin to Dadaism:
“The need to speak, even if one has nothing to say, becomes more pressing when one has nothing to say, just as the will to live becomes more urgent when life has lost its meaning.” ―from The Ecstasy of Communication
In answering my previous question, “is this mass consumption all worth it?” most will answer in the affirmative, while demanding safeguards akin to their personal philosophy. LGBT communities will demand gay rights defense while Catholics and Evangelicals will demand immunity for gay conversion therapy conversation (meanwhile, trans-culture will launch assaults on both). These kind of scaleable protections are ultimately an untenable goal, even for companies as large as Google, Facebook or Twitter.
So how do we have our cake and eat it too?
There is nothing worthwhile that results from this “cake” line of inquiry. Solutions that exclude a disavowal of excess or an abstaining from media consumption are destined to fail. Policy solutions that aim at creating regulatory frameworks to balance political parties or speech are all also primed for failure.
Politics changes only when culture instructs it to change. Culture, for its part, can be influenced in three ways:
- through direct action by communities, institutions, or government;
- in reaction to the dark night of the soul; or
- reflectively in retrospect to great error.
The only thing we can do, and must do, is build incentives for virtuous actors and tear down tools that incentivize malicious actors — no matter the cost to private companies or the “freedom of speech,” (I put the abused phrase in quotes). I even debate internally with myself the extent to which the U.S. Constitution is fit to deal with our image-addicted culture. As Marshall McLuhan noted, we have firmly and finally moved “from word-centered to image-centered” culture. There is little chance of going back.
The coming health crisis demands leaders who are willing to stand up and demand accountability from the companies who manage tools — tools, as Carr argues, define and shape our perceptions of reality:
“Every intellectual technology…embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work. The map and the clock shared a similar ethic. Both placed a new stress on measurement and abstraction, on perceiving and defining forms and processes beyond those apparent to the senses.
The intellectual ethic of a technology is rarely recognized by its inventors. They are usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific or engineering dilemma that they don’t see the broader implications of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic. They, too, are concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool. Our ancestors didn’t develop or use maps in order to enhance their capacity for conceptual thinking or to bring the world’s hidden structures to light. Nor did they manufacture mechanical clocks to spur the adoption of a more scientific mode of thinking. Those were by-products of the technologies.”
It is not enough, or even possible, to police the growing array of obscenities (and, in this regard, speech is better left untouched).
Either we need a great awakening where individuals fundamentally resolve to change their relationships with consumption OR the tools used to distribute content must be deconstructed at a macro level.
Leaders need to be willing to make bold statements about what tools are good or bad for us, beyond partisan machinations. And politicians who shy away from this opportunity or settle for a status-quo liberalism will only further incite electoral fury; a deep anger that inevitably descends into physical violence, some of which we have witnessed already.
“Big Tech,” as they are fondly called, do not have a dog in any political fight. They really wish this bad press would just go away. They can never have a political standing because their affections lie in the material — which is valueless. In the High Church of Google, technology and information is worshipped by the atheists and nones who code daily to replace the good. But whenever the good disappears, we are met with a period of great distress.
In a strange irony, the only thing the Robber Barons of the past took from us was our hard-earned cash. In reality, we should be traumatized that Big Tech is stealing both our money and our time. Unless, of course, you think your time is only worth mere money — in which case, you are part of the problem.
(Featured photo credit: https://www.instagram.com/mehmetgeren/)