Technology and Society
June 22, 2017
It’s early and I’m not quite awake when the news shows a man being shot to death – a clip I’ve heard already many times, but this morning I’m not alert enough to turn away and fumble for the mute button. It seems cruel and invasive to show someone’s violent death over and over as if it’s part of an action movie. What follows is a clip I haven’t seen before, whipsawing my emotions: a small child in a squad car trying to comfort her mother who’s cuffed, weeping and raging and praying for the man’s life. The child is trying to calm her mom out of love and the fear her mother might be “shooted” too.
Then the news anchor comes on to tell me what a brave little girl she is before it’s time for North Korea or health care or a commerical break.
This intimate moment has been turned into a public drama thanks to surveillance cameras mounted in official vehicles, raw feeds to bracket the POV we saw a year ago as the woman narrated the immediate aftermath of the shooting live on Facebook with the calm voice of a documentarian, possessed of a composure that she couldn’t sustain once her phone was taken from her. These instant films are a 21st century form of testimonio made by witnesses who tell stories that echo others, a cumulative loop of anguish repeating a story that’s news to too many of us, a daily gut fear for others.
Facebook never set out to be a platform for this genre. Social media is not designed to serve social justice; it’s engineered around marketing principles. Recruit an audience, engage them, keep them engaged. Learn everything you can about them so you can refine your marketing strategies. Encourage users to market themselves and accumulate an audience to get even more information and engagement. Since these platforms are where the eyeballs are, news media are letting themselves be enclosed where the ad dollars have migrated. Besides, news isn’t what we don’t see, it’s what’s already on the platform. What’s trending? What’s viral? Who has a story? What video can we can use?
All this is on my mind as I read about the latest ersatz drama over social media posts, fodder for anger and mass political pressure. Circulate, amplify, channel the anger toward some desired goal – all while “free speech” is being used as a banner for high-stakes provocations designed to confront and create more viral cycles of outrage because that’s the whole point. Sure, some folks in the audience might become better informed after hearing a viewpoint that’s new to them, but the real audience is out there online, already convinced, and legion. You don’t march in Skokie to explain the Nazi cause to its residents, you do it to provoke disgust and inspire those who are already sympathetic.
All of this is good for business, of course. We click, we watch, we comment, we share – and when that gets a reaction, we do it all over again. Some call this the attention economy or surveillance capitalism, but it’s also monetized emotion, encouraged, observed, magnified, and captured in metrics. It’s not new, of course. Advertising has always worked this way, and news media has depended on capturing attention (remember the Maine?) but it’s ubiquitous now, and the marketing medium encourages us to become authors of emotional responses and engagement. The new Twitter app updates likes and retweets in real time, a manic counter that charts our self-marketing like some hospital machine displaying vital signs.
Freedom has been a cherished value of internet culture from its early days – not just free speech but freedom from social constraints or government regulation. John Perry Barlow codified that concept in his 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, written in response to an attempt to regulate speech online. He argued governments have no jurisdiction over cyberspace, where its citizens demanded freedom just as the American revolutionaries did. “We are creating a world,” he wrote, “where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Somehow that freedom would result in a Utopian self-governing society. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”
Well, that was a bust. It’s not just that laws do apply, even in cyberspace, and people squabble online just like they always have done, but the declaration assumes that cybercitizens will naturally develop a social contract that rejects colonization and property rights. How ironic that internet platforms are now the world’s hottest properties, owned by giant corporations able to reap enormous profits because they are natural monopolies that operate with far fewer employees than the industry giants of the past. We cybercitizens provide free labor and content in exchange for freedom of association paid for with our identities doled out in micropayments of data, bit by gigabyte.
To a large extent, these corporations colonize the everyday experience of our lives and we accept it as the cost of online citizenship. We are market segments being poked to speak and share as the platform collects it all. When we need to bear witness, the tools at hand are the colonizer’s. It’s a variation on Robert Frost’s famous line:
They have to take you in.’
This corporate cyberspace is where they take all of us in, so when you are compelled to speak, you have to go there. It’s speech, but it’s not exactly free.