Google’s ban harms democracy, but is that democracy worth our dependency on information?

In a world filled with immense noise and distraction, what could be more harmful to political discourse than limiting what can be said and how? Twitter has banned political ads outright and now Google is cutting off all data targeting in its political advertising — a misguided move that will merely make all political advertising more expensive, less efficient, and, generally, stupider. It may seem counterintuitive, but I am not sure the targeting ban hurts us more than it helps clarify a very important problem of technology.

It is hard to disagree with those who share a familiar distrust for Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Yet despite common enemies, users and advertisers collide over the ways in which they feel the companies should self-regulate. Nobody I know enjoys the media atmosphere we inhabit; political advertisers know well that these petty carveouts will not dramatically alter the course of human history. So what are Twitter and Google doing?

They are playing defense. Silicon Valley’s business philosophy is under assault and it has a lot to lose. The first flank, which should be obvious, is the overwhelming monopoly these companies have over online advertising and our attention — which they sell. The second, less obvious flank is the utter technological obliteration of other primary media — television, newspapers, magazines, etc. — that used to control the flow of information as fourth estate governing bodies. Facebook seems to want to replace the New York Times, but is still unwilling to act in its place.

With data becoming universal, online ads becoming ubiquitous, daily active user growth dropping, and message penetration plateauing, the last thing these companies need is dissatisfaction from their most loyal customers who are now perturbed by the information paradigm they have been thrown into.

Something larger is at play. We speak regularly of an institution as a mechanism that educates and teaches tradition, but we often overlook its more important function as an information filter. Twitter and Google are, in a certain sense, institutions choosing to destroy or make irrelevant certain types of information.

This very act of preventing new information is an essential good, something society has done for generations before and after the Gutenberg press. Institution’s governing role over information is what Neil Postman equated with how the body’s immune system creates good cells and destroys bad ones:

“Cellular growth is, of course, a normal process without which organic life cannot survive. But without a well-functioning immune system, an organism cannot manage cellular growth… All societies have institutions and techniques that function as does a biological immune system. Their purpose is to maintain a balance between the old and the new, between novelty and tradition, between meaning and conceptual disorder, and they do so by destroying unwanted information.” Technopoly (1992)

The idea of information as good or bad, wanted or unwanted, throws Silicon Valley (and capitalism) on its head. To pull from Google’s mission statement specifically, “[our] corporate mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” The world’s information contains both the Bible and Mein Kampf. It is both the truth and the lie. But what is truth or lie, but a barrier to sales? Moral equivalency has no place in sorting the world’s information; less so in the marketplace.

This ambiguity is key to Google’s bottom line and its central service to democracy. Platforms, comprised of millions of users, serve as peer-to-peer validators, each thousand or so with their own unique channels. The ability to minutely target and break into millions of groups and interests ensures a system that empowers the masses and hamstrings aristocrats. Values, good or bad, have no place in the system — least of which the top. This was, after all, the liberating principle of the internet. However, having eliminated traditional gatekeepers who used to filter information, Postman explains, overload begins to strain our conception of the world:

“Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.” Technopoly (1992)

Writing at the end of the Cold War in 1992, Postman would have been incapable of understanding the scale at which Silicon Valley could foster information glut. Google co-founder Larry Page was still a freshman at the University of Michigan and Mark Zuckerberg was celebrating his eighth birthday.

Whether you value the word “institution” or find it an anachronistic phrase to be disrupted, you cannot underestimate the power of human validation and information filtering. The responsibility once prized by American aristocracy is now democratically distributed among all 300 million of us. A new managerial-bureaucratic class merely shakes their heads and tries to keep peace as we fight with each other in their new media sandbox. Zuckerberg bears no responsibility for the murders streamed on his platform; nor does Page feel any remorse for Google Search making us dumber.

Left to our own devices, I believe we quickly lose touch with reality — our country, our family, our Creator, all the things which give us significance. It could be argued that our humanity is rooted in our immediacy with others. If true, these platforms represent a fundamental rejection of how the good life should be lived: not as a machine of rapid material consumption but as an archivist who only retains the very best. This parallel here by David Foster Wallace resonates:

“I think one of the reasons that I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people. It’s a way to have people in the room talking and being entertaining, but it doesn’t require anything of me… as the Internet grows…we’re gonna have to build up some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? but if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die.”

Wallace committed suicide the same year Barack Obama’s team demonstrated that information was officially the lifeblood of political life. Now, we live in a time when it is the central feature of our acquisitive culture. The sheer amount of information, good or bad, coming in every day is enough to overwhelm even the shrewdest operator. Is it reasonable that, deprived of filters and institutions, we might try to limit our exposure?

Whether you agree with Twitter and Google’s decisions or not, I am confident this is only the first volley of many. The inherent value of data is derived from a relationship between company and user. Users give their information freely as long as they do not foresee any obvious consequences in doing so. 

In the short-term, these large corporations are smart enough to preempt discord and realign their missions around egalitarian marketplace values. In the long term, though, a reckoning is upon us: 

“There is another ideological conflict to be fought — between “liberal democracy” as conceived in the eighteenth century, with all its transcendent moral underpinnings, and Technopoly, a twentieth-century thought-world that functions not only without a transcendent narrative to provide moral underpinnings but also without strong social institutions to control the flood of information produced by technology.” Technopoly (1992)

Without strong moral guidance from some institution — whether it be Google, the U.S. government, or a rogue entity — individuals will continue to sell their attention to the highest bidder for the most immediate pleasure. Under constant threat is our ability to be informed, wise individuals, and to somehow compose our significance from the array of noise around us.

In the days of radio, you may have lacked a diversity of choice, but you knew the handful of lives you could possibly live — given your family, finances, and geography. Now, encountering a constant smattering of newer and newer information, we must tolerate a higher and higher threshold of discernment before locating our singular narrow path.

All of this to say, I believe my children will find this superstructure exhausting. Should a counter-culture arise in the face of such a superficial, flaccid set of institutions, those who have bet all their chips on the attention economy would most assuredly lose everything.