Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Don't know how to read but I got a lot of toys

Congratulations (I guess?) to the winners of Gambit's inaugural Twitterprom last night.  I hope you people are proud of yourselves. Despite the momentary unpleasantness of the awards ceremony, it was nice to get something like a critical mass of New Orleans Twitter users together in one room for the evening.  There's a lot of stupidity on Twitter, of course. But it's also one of the more vital spaces on the internet for bringing together a wide range of personalities and perspectives. At its best, it's a true and democratic asset to any community, especially a community like New Orleans where one finds ample supply of extroverted wits and loudmouths who don't mind mixing it up with one another.   At its worst, though, it's Fletcher Mackel calling the state police because his feelings were hurt.  But that's another story. 

Anyway, I'm thinking about this this afternoon because it crystallized some points for me in a couple of recently published articles everyone should read. 

Last week I linked to Evgeny Morozov's review of  The New Digital Age which is a techno-futurist treatise of sorts written by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen.  You may have seen them making the rounds on the talk shows. Here is Morozov following that up with an article about the rollout of Google's personalized maps feature. The new Google maps aims to present a different map to each individual user de-emphasizing those places which Google's advertising analytics predict he or she would be less interested in ever finding.

Similar models are in evidence in other internet based services, particularly in entertainment, where consumers are offered only the music/TV/books, etc. that some algorithm had determined correlate to their previous choices.  The assumption is that individuals tend not to become interested in new and different things. Or, at least, that they'd be a lot easier to market to if they didn't.
There's something profoundly conservative about Google's logic. As long as advertising is the mainstay of its business, the company is not really interested in systematically introducing radical novelty into our lives. To succeed with advertisers, it needs to convince them that its view of us customers is accurate and that it can generate predictions about where we are likely to go (or, for that matter, what we are likely to click). The best way to do that is to actually turn us into highly predictable creatures by artificially limiting our choices. Another way is to nudge us to go to places frequented by other people like us—like our Google Plus friends. In short, Google prefers a world where we consistently go to three restaurants to a world where our choices are impossible to predict.
If I had to stress one very important difference "The Internet" has made in our lives over the past decade it would be this. It presented individuals with a way to introduce a tremendous amount of "radical novelty" into each other's lives. People who otherwise would have had no occasion to interact with one another were suddenly able to share information, commentary, advice, etc.  in a way that subverted conventional narratives in journalism, advertising, and politics. We tend to take this a little bit for granted now but the opportunity to circumvent traditional media and create their own discourse made a big difference in the way people perceived their roles in the civic space. It allowed more people to become active participants in rather than passive consumers of day to day news.

I know it's easy, and even fun, to moan about the widespread ignorance that seems to infect any given message board or comment section.  But one has never had to look very far to find that sort of thing.  What the internet taught me during the 00s, which I did not know before then, was just how many smart, creative, funny, capable people are out there amongst our neighbors as well. This was a crucial development in New Orleans after Katrina as citizen-driven activism played such a major role in rebuilding communities, and perhaps more importantly, dispelling official bullshit about that process. 

But, if Morozov's observations are correct, and I believe they are, we're now in danger of ceding much of our chaotic civic space for sharing "radical novelty" back to quieter more authoritarian commercial interests.

We're also in danger of losing that space to the police as they become ever more sophisticated at using internet-based media as surveillance tools.  Here's another look at Schmidt and Cohen's book from Julian Assange. Assange believes that Google is eager to help build the new surveillance state.. although they don't exactly call it that.
The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism. This is the principal thesis in my book, “Cypherpunks.” But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in “repressive autocracies” in “targeting their citizens,” they also say governments in “open” democracies will see it as “a gift” enabling them to “better respond to citizen and customer concerns.” In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the “good” societies closer to the “bad” ones.

The section on “repressive autocracies” describes, disapprovingly, various repressive surveillance measures: legislation to insert back doors into software to enable spying on citizens, monitoring of social networks and the collection of intelligence on entire populations. All of these are already in widespread use in the United States. In fact, some of those measures — like the push to require every social-network profile to be linked to a real name — were spearheaded by Google itself.

THE writing is on the wall, but the authors cannot see it. They borrow from William Dobson the idea that the media, in an autocracy, “allows for an opposition press as long as regime opponents understand where the unspoken limits are.” But these trends are beginning to emerge in the United States.
And, of course, "the unspoken limits" are being tightened. They're being tightened not only by social convention among wealthy intellectual luminaries where it has become a popular delight to shame online commentary, but also by governmental declaration.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to state television to denounce the protesters and deny the legitimacy of their complaints. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” Erdogan told the cameras. “The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Erdogan also made clear that he doubted the spontaneous nature of the protests, claiming that opposition leaders’ “foreign links” were at play in their organization, informing the country that he had ordered intelligence agencies to investigate these ties and that the development project would move forward.

Of course, we don't need to go all the way to Turkey to find examples of authoritarian push back. Ray Nagin, for one example, was pretty hot to bully the entirety of the press pro or amateur by the end of his term.
Well because, your newscast, the local newspapers, are feeding these awful, ugly talk shows that are feeding these blogs. If you go look at some of these blogs out there and some of the stories that come from the paper and you read the comments, it’s some of the most vile, angry, people that I’ve ever seen in this community.

And then there's our favorite local example of mayoral candidate John Georges declaring that there are "dangerous people" on the internet. I'm still curious whether Georges' recent entry into the world of journalism might have put his perspective at greater variance from that of the Turkish Prime Minister. I didn't notice Mr. Erdogan listed on The Advocate's new advisory panel. That must be a good sign, right?

1 comment:

Derf said...

Yes, this is insidious. See DuckDuckGo.com 's illustrated guide to escape your search engine's "Filter Bubble:"