Technology and Society
August 1, 2019
I didn’t watch the latest debates among the Democratic party candidates for president. We don’t have CNN in our bare-bones cable package, and by all accounts it’s a good thing, too. I do, however, subscribe to The New York Times and was dismayed to see the digital equivalent of above the fold devoted to pundits mulling over who “won.”
This is no way to choose a president – running a reality TV contest to see who can respond to a provocation in a way that delivers the pithiest elevator speech about complex issues. Of course, this is hardly a novel insight – we’ve been doing this for far too long and as far as I can tell everyone is heartily sick of it.
But it’s making me think about the “marketplace of ideas” at a time of the over-production of messages jamming our phones 24/7 and the rise of a new kind of sophisticated marketing that puts old-school propagandists to shame. I’m all for airing ideas and the freedom to make up our own minds. But is this actually a marketplace, like the farmer’s market, where get to see the produce and talk to the people who grew it, when so much of what we encounter is filtered through platforms that are in the business of data-gathering and micro-targeting ads? Or when presidential candidates are given a sixty-second commercial slot to deliver a meme-worthy response to a stupidly provocative prompt because the ratings will be great?
This marketplace seems to be mostly wall-to-wall ads fighting for consumer attention, on platforms that use the techniques developed by casinos to keep us clicking away.
I’m concerned that we have allowed the answers to really complex and important questions – how we will respond to the climate crisis, how we will hold fair and democratic elections without them being corrupted by moneyed interests or foreign influence, how to protect public health when people believe vaccines are a threat to their personal freedom – into a glitzy Survivor-style reality show. Or (thinking of the constant barrage of messages through social media) an Amazon-style idea store where you are presented with unknown vendors without any quality assurance, invisible algorithms personalizing what you see, and that holy grail – an unlimited amount of consumer choice.
This marketplace is largely unregulated, and any attempt to impose regulations is as doomed as trying to regulate guns. What if we decided anyone who wanted could sell pharmaceuticals without them being tested for safety or efficacy, treat patients without licenses, and sell food without any safety inspections because the market will decide? The only way this makes sense is if you believe ideas can do no harm and persuasion wasn’t being engineered for profit.
There is a hubris in tech companies that is breathtaking at times. One Wired contributor recently said on Twitter that there must be no real value in any of the academic research on technology and society because he hadn’t heard of it, and besides “what academics miss is that *not* knowing the prior literature, in certain fields, is actually a feature not a bug.” It irritates him mightily that, when people like him say “we should figure out X,” scholars pop up to say “we already did, why don’t you take a look at this research.” It’s attitudes like this – a year zero belief that all previous knowledge is suspect and must be made anew – that lead to a stream of “whoops, that wasn’t supposed to happen, we’ll do better” after something went predictably wrong and people died.
If you’re wondering why this has anything to do with libraries, I’m pondering how to help students navigate this brave new world of information we live with today and how to help them understand the value of academic inquiry. Simply telling them to stick to scholarly sources is not a solution – it does nothing to help them understand why scholarly methods have value in the world.