Hard Times Call for Cold Hard Facts

Book Talk – Chapter 5

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The Folly of Technological Solutionism

by Evgeny Morozov

“The Perils of Algorithmic Gatekeeping”

If you’ve invested any amount of energy in reading this far, then you can safely conclude that at the core of this book lies a self-fulfilling prophesy nestled in a paradox like the matryoshka doll we know it as.  On page 166 readers behold the top paragraph:

“The belief in emancipator potential of disintermediation is most pronounced in the vast literature on the future of book publishing, a field that is itself constantly defying the trends it predicts (someone ought to publish a book about the doomsayers who keep publishing books about the end of publishing).”

Full Disclosure:  I purchased a hardback print copy of this book and annotated with an ink pen, all to type my thoughts into digital platforms, the same portals that enabled the book’s purchase and advertising; to elaborate, I am blogging about a book written by a writer that is published in prestigious print, but I am only aware of his writing because it is digitized online and mostly free to read, and his book is all about the idea that “solutionism” + “the Internet” = people unknowingly choosing quantity over quality in major life decisions because technology and progress should be approached with caution.

Today’s media and our ability to communicate in such complex, convoluted and contextual ways is marvelous to say the least.  It would only be proper for us to address the potential threat to such a marvelous enterprise.  Can our media consumption be manipulated in unjust ways?  How easily can organizations force me to purchase a particular type of book?  How will I know these blog posts reach a censored audience?  Is it easier for social forces to brainwash individuals privately using cell phones and tablets, rather than the quaint notions of the 20th century propaganda most Cold War relics cherish—you know the North Korean-Iranian missile show parades and concrete apartment block wall murals of strident citizenry succeeding expectations.

Truly, after watching news about the Korean strife, worrying about the sinister conspiracy being hatched by Amazon or Apple seems barely trivial – they will insure that there are customers to buy their products, which is more than what some governments might protect.  Governments need people and their power is in relation to the populace.  You need a population to hold down land, to claim property and need services that justify defense or utility.  Uncle Sam needs us more than we need him is a cornerstone of capitalist-driven democracy.  Competition breeds the fittest and big business is bitterly recognizing that the most efficient organizations consult data-crunching technologies that can sometimes calculate your own termination.  The machines that save may also replace you.

“Instead of acknowledging that its algorithms might have shortcomings and biases that ought to be corrected, Google behaves as if introducing humans to occasionally review the work of its algorithms would be tantamount to abandoning all faith in artificial intelligence as such.”  (Page 142)

The power of Google to manipulate the flow of discourse in our physical society can be exaggerated.  There are campaigns to address auto-correct biases that lean towards sexist, racist, or discriminatory in some way.  Google as a business has the right to filter content how they see fit, whether the public likes it or not, except for fear that users switch to Bing.  Corporate responsibility is superficial and definitely gaudy.  Publicity stunts today involve “trading up the chain,” to quote Ryan Holiday.  Companies publish public relations memos as exclusively leaked gossip that spreads virally from investigative field journalists blogging on scene to the major news outlets regurgitating the headline in conjunction with a stock quote bump ticker scroll to confirm that the system is working.

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Organic and natural, viral memes are carefully manufactured to appear raw.

“Twitter, like Google, does not disclose the signals it monitors for fear that, once this knowledge is out, the system will be gamed by manipulators.”  (Page 150)

And we all tacitly accept that the government intelligence agencies along with the corporations themselves that guard these sacred algorithms from their competitors are in absolute control of our public discourse—virtually.  Morozov further shows how computerized profiling  produces fragmented audiences that are fed self-serving products by contrasting contemporary media against the media of the past that appears to be more “deliberative” than diagnostic or algorithmic.  As if deliberation is our goal of choice.  What should we eat?  Let’s deliberate in long form argumentative writing about the best menu to choose.  What’s the weather outlook for this weekend?  Let me first attend my public library, consult with a human over a printed farmer’s almanac and mentally theorize the weather outlook, all making sure to be deliberative and analytical with my approach and inquiry.

Sure, sad and depressing news does not sell soap.  Back in the 1960’s, I’m sure people did not want to see civil unrest on TV and on front pages of newspapers as much as people today don’t subscribe to twitter feeds of human rights atrocities committed globally or locally.  Meme expert Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed, likens the plight of modern media consumption to the mechanics of viral content online, few people will forward depressing news to avoid contaminating another’s mind with sad or gloomy thoughts and feelings; it would be like knowingly spreading the flu by sneezing in one’s face.

What about solidarity?  Don’t we need some common ground to host an informed debate?  How can we as a society be united if we subscribe to personalized propaganda pipelines?  Literary hoarders cry over spilt disappearing ink.  What will happen to history, to the hard-hitting investigative journalism that never existed and was usually privately funded or fueled by passionate individuals that would have exposed the injustice regardless of the media outlet in vogue at the time?  If Upton Sinclair could have written the Jungle through Facebook he would have.  If Kony 2012 serves as a reminder of the novelty of social consciousness, then know that this novelty is the only constant and technology enshrines novelty as its muse.  To dwell and meditate on a classic piece of record seems too foreign for the time-strapped lives of today.  Would you want your life to be as efficient as our economy?

I guess an inefficient life is preferable, if you want to live a long and interesting life—how else would you make a life worth telling a story about?  Around page 165, you start to see that many middlemen glorified by younger generations are now extinct because of the relentless marketing to ever younger generations.  The video game industry eliminated the book store that would have been in the mall where you wished to sign autographs, but now you hope to be the guy in the YouTube video that breaks view records streaming through the cloud reigning over handheld screens that simultaneously dismantle the video game industry.  The threat of new intermediaries that are mostly invisible is more a matter of uncovering known knowns and rediscovering unknown unknowns.

Why do you drive?  Do you seek the destination or do you enjoy the journey?  The commod-ification of information.  The market of ideas today can be consumed and/or cherished.  We can have our cake and eat it too.  The pie grows and our slice gets bigger.  But then again,

“to hope that journalism or publishing could be made better with more numbers is to have a very confused view of what either of them is about.”  (Page 173)

“There are several problems with such a view.  First of all, it tends to prize participation in culture much more than culture itself.”  (Page 178)

To conclude, this book is brilliant enough to recognize the competition between world views that make such ideas resonate.  The competition among the ivory tower critics and the unwashed masses swiping away on their greasy screens keeps the wheels spinning.  Algorithms should not be seen as the solution.  “The Internet” should not be seen as the solution.  We need media as messy and malleable as it is to remain unsolved, just like we need our politics to be ever in conflict and disarray.

Why is there so much traffic at this intersection?  We need a spaghetti bowl to solve this?  Still too much traffic?  Maybe automated vehicles will solve the problem.  Now that I no longer drive I don’t have to worry about all that traffic.

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