The Internet Giants and the Future of Society: A Tiny Topic for a Short Research Paper

As I mentioned in my last post, I am at the moment particularly interested in looking at the Internet giants and how they handle themselves with regard to the public good.  With all the disruption – some good, some less so – created by the technological revolution in which our global society finds itself, and inspired by the examples of Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman, I would like to discover whether there is any serious attempt being made by these companies to look beyond their short-term interests, to show leadership and to protect the rights of their customers for the long-term good of society.

What I have learned in recent months is that while there are pockets of long-term thinking, and a basic sympathy within these companies with the idea of protecting the common good in a wired society, it seems that they are overwhelmingly focused on the immediate priorities of maintaining and increasing market share, maximizing shareholder value and protecting their intellectual property.  This is in some ways entirely understandable, as these are some of the blind-spots generated by the market-capitalist economic model, and are in no way limited to tech companies.  But if your company motto is “Don’t be evil”

  • from Google’s IPO prospectus: “Our goal is to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible. In pursuing this goal, we may do things that we believe have a positive impact on the world, even if the near term financial returns are not obvious… Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company…”

and your products shape the way billions of people all over the planet access information every day, you have a responsibility to at least try to live up to it.  For the common good.

We are at the beginning of a new era.  No one really knows what is going to happen, what society will look like in 10 or 20 years.  What is crystal clear is that revolutionary technologies and their applications are up-ending sector after sector – in the process, shaking the very foundations of our culture – and the pace of change is continually accelerating.  So the stakes are high.  We cannot afford to be short-sighted.  We need to tread carefully.  We need to avoid making dumb mistakes.  The Internet giants can and must learn that doing so is in their own short-, medium- and long-term best interest, and that they can and must be part of the solution.

I don’t have any of the answers, nor do I think I will find any in the near future.  Far smarter and more experience thinkers than I have been grappling with these concerns for years.  But I do want to look into what can be done by the companies themselves, and am interested (possibly) in being involved in their efforts to police themselves – at best because they come to believe it’s the right thing to do; at worst because they come to understand that it’s the right thing to do… for their own bottom lines.

All that said, the research paper I intend to write will look at examples of the past and try to see if there are lessons there for us today.  Specifically, I would like to investigate the development of journalistic codes of conduct, ethics and professionalism in the United States over a century ago, which followed an information revolution of sorts (the ability to print cheaply and mail newspapers).  There may be something in that development which is applicable to the situation we face now.  Noting that I do not yet have an argument, here is a basic outline for sections of the paper.

  • Introduction
  • Statement of problem
  • State of newspaper industry in +/- 1900
  • What were the precipitating events that caused the moral compass to twitch
  • Parallels between internet and newspapers industries
  • Parallels between precipitating events
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

I intend to lean heavily on Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Media, but would welcome suggestions for other relevant readings, as well as ideas and debate about the thesis.

WikiLeaks, The Arab Spring and the Whole Ball of String

I found this week’s set of articles and longer readings to be fascinating, if somewhat bewildering.  In previous comparisons, I have generally been able to come out the back end with a reasonably strong sense of what I believe, and who I agree with – more or less.  The task was made easier because the readings often focused on subjects where there seemed to be two main camps.  This time, the readings approach the issues from more nuanced perspectives (i.e. many ways of looking at the same issues), from the macro and micro levels.  So it is harder for me to form a strong opinion, as I agree with arguments made by several authors, while others I just have to take on faith as observations of fact.

One interesting thing that I have gleaned from the reading this time is unrelated to the debates.  I’ve learned something that I really needed to know (and probably should have known): that hyper-qualified people are already doing the job I had been dreaming up for myself.  Drag.

The pieces this week include:

The readings can be roughly divided into three sets.  Khatchadourian and Lanier deal with the WikiLeaks phenomenon (and the philosophy that inspires and protects them).  Kirkpatrick & Sanger, Fathy and Tufekci all focus on various aspects of how the web-tech enabled the Egyptian (and Tunisian) Arab Spring revolutions.  And Morozov, Zuckerman and MacKinnon use the Arab Spring and other examples to discuss the macro level of what the Internet has enabled – good and bad, for citizens, activists, corporations and governments – and what we ought to be doing about it.

Regarding WikiLeaks, the New Yorker piece made me think twice about my gut reaction of distaste to the organization’s raison d’etre.  I did not come away from the piece with any more sympathy for Assange than before I read it.  It is not a flattering piece.  But I did leave it feeling mildly unsettled, because some of the (Wiki)leaks mentioned in the article really did – at least in my moral universe – need to see the light of day.  I think of the Apache gun camera video (which I had seen some time ago, but never knew that it came via WikiLeaks).  I think of the reports of corruption in Kenya.

But I am inclined to agree with Lanier, insofar as I can understand him.  In short, who elected Julian Assange, or Anonymous, or any of the hacker community to do this work of exposure and resistance?  Why are the more open and democratic governments subject to punishment by these groups, while the most secret get away with what they do?  Why are the hackers and leakers themselves not subject to the same kind of transparency?  And importantly, what about the collateral damage that these groups cause?  And all that’s only if you accept their various theses that more information equals more truth, and that no secrets are good secrets.  Like Lanier, I don’t.

So I don’t know what the answer is.  I agree that some WikiLeaks actions needed to happen.  I don’t think I agree that WikiLeaks needed to be the one to make them happen.  And I certainly do not support the indiscriminate abuse of the information wants to be free argument in this context, nor many of the actions of the hacker community which seems to be using these arguments as their raison d’etre.

The Arab Spring articles I don’t really need to analyze.  They show different perspectives of the impact of web-tech.  I wasn’t there, and I don’t think any of the observations are particularly controversial.  The New York Times piece discusses the use of technology in the context of the whole Egyptian revolution – in the local eco-system, as Zuckerman might say.  The Fathy piece focuses on the history of activism in the ten years prior, and shows how the use of tech improved over time (but was never the lead). And the Tufekci blog glorifies the use of (mainly) Twitter to rapidly create a powerful ad hoc network to save a journalist from the hands of the Egyptian police.  While I can see that Twitter helped, it may also be that it seemed much more powerful because the author was far away from the action.

My two favorite pieces were the Zuckerman lecture and the Morozov afterword, likely because I am still slightly repulsed by the Clay Shirky and cyber-utopian pieces I have been reading of late.  Zuckerman talks about keeping things in perspective – neither agreeing with Shirky nor Gladwell, and realizing that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  His concept of the eco-system within which web-tech operates I found highly logical.  Similarly – if more cynically – Morozov wants us to “perceive Internet technologies as they are situated in the socio-technological world” and “evaluate, augment, or fight them” with a clear mind.

I also found it quite interesting that Zuckerman and MacKinnon are clearly attempting to advise (and are being taken seriously by) the internet giants.  Zuckerman’s description of how he is trying to convince those companies to act in the long term public good, but also their own shareholders’ interest, perfectly describes the space that I had wanted to carve out for myself in some way.  But it seems that I have been beaten to the punch.  By years.

The Digital Revolution and Politics: Behind the Hype

Yet another slew of articles and reports, this time focused mainly on what works – and by implication, what doesn’t – in today’s internet- and technology-enabled political activism.  Luckily, the readings I have chosen to work from this time (including Persuasion Points: Helping Harry Reid One Click at a Time, Neighbor to Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block by Block, The New Organizers: What’s Really Behind Obama’s Ground Game, Online Tactics & Success: An Examination of the Obama for America New Media Campaign, Top 10 Tips in Email Writing from Organizations Changing the World, and Looking for What Works: Best Online Organizing Reads of 2010) more or less all follow-on naturally from some of the readings covered in my last post on digitally-boosted activism, and dove-tail nicely with my own limited experience in this area.

In essence, the majority of these pieces examines how (relatively) new digital tools have been, or can be, put to most effective use for causes.  The examples given all have taken place since 2007-2008, when the use of the internet by the Obama campaign was widely hailed as an area where it stole a large lead on its opposition.

Some (in my view) rather extreme claims have been made about the power and impact of online tools including social media to revolutionize activism (and everything else).  Whether or not one agrees entirely with Malcolm Gladwell’s view that online activism doesn’t have much impact at all, his Small Change article certainly sparked a valuable conversation.  Even enthusiasts are compelled to admit (or, rather, in the case of Silberman, to repeat the suggestions of others) that more must be done to measure impact, and that technology alone won’t get the job done – at least not most of the time.

Others among the authors focused on uncontroversial claims how to make optimal use of basic digital tools (email, in the case of Frauzel) to connect with the public and move likely individuals up the ‘engagement ladder.’

But some pieces resonated deeply with me.  They were about the seamless integration of revolutionary online tools into “old-fashioned” campaign plans.  These included the discussion of the dream campaign (because of budget, authority, trust and testing) set up by the digital campaigners working for Harry Reid in 2010, as well as the discussion by Colter of the 2008 Obama campaign’s use of technology to enable extremely local canvassing of neighbors, by neighbors.

But I particularly enjoyed the examination by Exley of the 2008 Obama campaign’s approach to organizing: “The Obama campaign is the first in the Internet era to realize the dream of a disciplined, volunteer-driven, bottom-up-AND-top-down, distributed and massively scaleable organizing campaign.”  While I know that the use of online tools was crucial to executive a flawless ground game in 2008, this article barely even mentions technology.  Why?  Because it is still an enabler in this field, and cannot yet replace the human touch.

As a part-time grassroots organizer, my experience with online tools has been similar.  Free (i.e. unpaid and easy) access to platforms that I could use to build offline, action-oriented communities was critical.  I used quite a few of them to raise visibility and interest, to coordinate efforts, to engage the press and other third parties, and to organize logistics, especially events.  I most certainly could not have done the job without them with anywhere near the speed or level of reach that I was able to achieve.  But I had to use these tools often in highly personal ways, devoting many hours to individual-oriented and action-oriented writing, responding via email or phone or in person early and often, and generally building offline relationships.  All of my successes were enabled by online.  But where the rubber met the road was always offline.

I believe that that the internet has indeed revolutionized the planet.  I agree that we cannot yet see all of the changes that have been triggered.  I understand that activism and organizing have already been significantly altered, and will change more in the future.  And yet, I think that these changes must yet coexist with – or maybe enhance – the tried and true methods developed for activism in the real world.  As David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 Campaign Manager, was quoted by DiJulio and Wood as saying: “There’s nothing more valuable than a human being talking to a human being.  Nothing.”

The Demise of Journalism? The Rise of Internet-powered Activism?

After reading articles by a number of authors (including  Winer, Gray, Shirky, Daou, Starkman, Lanier, Gladwell, Grahamfelsen, Silberman, Stone and Isaac) on the impact of the internet and social networking technologies on traditional journalism and grassroots activism, I have mixed feelings.

On the subject of the steady erosion of traditional journalism, I find the – in some cases, rather smug (e.g. Winer) – near consensus that it is a “dead man walking” extremely worrying, even depressing.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my opinion is must be influenced by the fact that my immediate family had until relatively recently three full-time journalists in it, one a managing editor for the world’s largest-circulation newsweekly.  So I grew up in a home which was, and still is, idealistic about the role of the free press in society, and one which had benefited from the golden era of big journalism.

But while my experience at home certainly helped to form my perspective, it is not the only reason for my dismay at what is being touted by many as the inevitable destruction of the fourth estate.  I agree with Craig Crawford that a free and unconstrained press is crucial for the survival of any democracy.   If, as some predict, the press will erode to teams that cannot support more than 30 journalists (or worse, curators), or which are so dependent on (ever-scarcer and thus more emboldened) advertisers that its objectivity on issues of concern to sponsors is compromised, how will governments and corporations be held accountable in future?

This is no joke.  In every country in the world that is sliding toward dictatorship or oppression – whether of the left or the right – the first freedom to go is always that of the press.  There’s a reason for that.

In the US, since then Vice President George H.W. Bush ambushed CBS’ Dan Rather on national TV (accusing the journalist of bias in order to duck questions about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal), politicians of all parties have deliberately and systematically undermined the credibility of the media with the public for their own short-term gain.  In addition to this hydra-headed attack by national leaders, big journalism is facing the perfect storm of scandals of its own making, an unwillingness to defend itself, inept planning in the early days of the internet, and now the challenges posed by such ‘newcomers’ as Craigslist, online advertising and blogging.

I am not denying reality.  I see the point made by Shirky that the revenue-generation model has been ripped out from under the publishing (in the widest sense) industry by the internet-enabled groundswell.  But where is his prescription to replace the vital roles that the free press currently plays as democracy’s (and society’s) watchdog, and ensuring that we continue to receive news from further afield than the suburbs of our hometowns?  In my view, and generally speaking, blogs don’t yet have the punching weight – in audience reach, quality standards, or credibility.  Those that do, such as the Huffington Post, get bought up.  And the funding mechanism for the investigative journalism practiced by Sharesleuth is in my view suspect.  If profit is the underlying motive, then the Mark Cubans of this world can be bought off any given story, can’t they?

I was somewhat reassured by Starkman, who thinks that there ways forward exist for big journalism outlets – boosted by social networks and interaction – and by the example of the BBC, which seemed to me to have surfed the internet tsunami, rather than being crushed by it.  But when I wrote to Euan Semple, one of the architects of the Beeb’s internet, social and internal wiki strategies to ask him how the BBC had survived the advent of the internet, his return tweet was telling.  “Has it?”  He’ll get back to me on that one, I guess.

On the issue of the enablement of grassroots activism via Internet technologies, I am more optimistic.  While I see Malcolm Gladwell’s point that purely online activism is of limited value when you are looking to bring about real change, I agree with Daou, Grahamfelsen and Silberman’s example of 350, that activists who are most effectively using the web are not doing so entirely online.  They are using web technologies to enable and boost their offline activism.  Having myself built a virtual community with 5000 members, and having also built a grassroots political organization using these online tools – and having participated in organization activities prior to the advent of the internet, I can personally attest the facts that:

  • without online tools such as email, eGroups, Yahoo! Groups, Evite, Constant Contact, Wufoo and Facebook, I could never have achieved the success I did with them; but
  • of course the real world activity that they enable is the most important part of the equation.

What I get from the discussion about the erosion of journalism is this: I hope there is hope.  What I get from the discussion of web-enabled activism is this: I guess that to some degree whether or not that wish comes true is up to each and every one of us.

The Filter Bubble

Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the need to pay attention to the potential pernicious effects of “filter bubbles” hit me at a gut level.  Even after reading arguments that offered alternate viewpoints about these initially self-imposed, but now increasingly externally-imposed online information cocoons, and after looking in detail at the concrete example of Wikipedia (which is in my view a major bulwark against bubbling), I still have to admit that I share Pariser’s concerns.

Before getting into it, I should probably note my own natural biases.  While I have always been a technophile, an early adopter, and more recently, a grassroots-level tech evangelist, I have never been a programmer or a technical worker.  What’s more, I graduated college before the Internet hit the mainstream (and the mainstream is still reeling from the blow).   Lastly, I come from a family firmly rooted in the older traditions of information transmission – my father a veteran conflict correspondent for the world’s largest weekly, my mother a press officer for the UN, my sister a print journalist-turned-academic.  So I guess it would be fair to say that my viewpoint is somewhat skewed.

That said, I believe that the concerns raised by Pariser are valid.  For the uninitiated, Pariser’s argument is that search engines, Facebook and other websites are now using algorithms now which customize the information that shows on our screens on the basis of what the algorithms believe we will want to see (based on what data the algorithms have collected about our past web-behavior).  Further, he feels that this customization is potentially dangerous for society, because it reinforces filter bubbles, i.e. 360-degree cocoons of the kind of information we want to see instead of the information we should see (a human tendency highlighted in Professor Todd Rogers’ behavioral science course at Harvard), and thus increases societal polarization and reduces our effectiveness as civic actors.

There is some evidence which lessens the impact of Pariser’s argument.  In The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia, Andrew Lih prompts the realization that the web isn’t only about filter bubbles.  Rather than creating online cocoons for like-minded individuals, Wikipedia’s model is built on the fundamental concept of enabling (if not forcing) many people of sometimes radically different viewpoints to face each other’s opinions and collaborate.  On Wikipedia, one of the most important sites on the Internet, and which touches the lives of millions, partisans daily achieve consensus to produce accurate, neutral point of view entries – as Lih says, “Wikipedia encourages confrontation and challenge as a necessary part of converging on the truth.”

Additionally, in his article Are we stuck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out, Jonathan Stray asks some pertinent questions relating to Pariser’s assertions.  Among other things, Stray notes that our information streams may not have been all that great in the time before technology enabled automated mass-personalization – a fair point, as long as one accepts that trade-offs have been made, and one of those is in fact the polarization of the populace and degradation of its members as civic actors.  He notes that better filtering algorithms must come – but I ask: until that day, how do we mitigate the effects of the ones we have now?  Stray argues that if you map out online activity, you’ll see that the polarization has already happened.  And he asks a valid question: when thinking about this issue, why draw the line at the American context and the ‘culture war’?  Pariser’s TED talk doesn’t address this question at all.

It is important also to look at the historical context.  American societal polarization, fueled by the ability for individuals to choose their own media input since the 1980s, is older than the public Internet.  The telecom deregulation and the related cable television revolution began the fragmentation in mass US audiences.  The polarization of radio broadcasters and mainstream print journalism outlets (as they were bought up by conglomerates) followed suit.  So the problem in the US is bigger and older than the Web.

I believe that the Internet and related information technologies offer us both paths.  On the one side, as Stray and the example of Wikipedia point out, people can always choose to leave their filter bubbles – technology gives us direct routes to leave our wants behind and face the rest of the world.  But Pariser is right that we should be concerned, because as Stray’s mapping shows, the overwhelmingly vast majority of Internet users do not do that.  And they never will.  Far more importantly, in the cases of these new customization algorithms, people aren’t making the choices anymore.  The algorithms are.

Wikipedia article overhaul: A bridge too far?

I am looking into the idea of helping to overhaul the Wikipedia page on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a possible deliverable in a class I am currently enrolled in at the Kennedy School.  While it seems to me to be an idea with a net positive outcome for the public and the Alliance, I have several concerns about this prospective plan of action.  These are:

  • it looks like a huge job, and my time available is extremely limited;
  • the page is semi-protected, and this will make editing difficult as there is a waiting period requiring 10 Wikipedia edits before I can get access to the page;
  • NATO itself has until now had an unofficial policy of ignoring related Wikipedia pages (in part because it believes them inaccurate and difficult to staff, and in part because it felt that correcting even the most obvious errors on the NATO page would be badly viewed in the Wikiverse) and as a result, I am not certain that I will be able to organize any fact-checking support from subject-matter experts there.

Nevertheless, because the Alliance has faced persistent challenges stemming from the relative scarcity of accurate information about itself on online platforms widely used by the public, the indifference of mass audiences to the platforms where NATO does make accurate information available, and long-term concerns about public opinion trends (particularly among younger audiences), it would certainly be a helpful exercise for the Wikipedia page to be fact-checked and updated.

On to a (subjective) evaluation of the current Wikipedia article on NATO.

Comprehensiveness

By comparison to many Wikipedia articles I have read, this one covers a lot of ground.  On the other hand, there is a huge amount of ground to cover, because, like the UN, NATO is a highly complex organization involved in many operations, missions, activities and initiatives (both now and in the past).  It is one whose strategic focus, doctrines and size have changed many times.  So my view is that for the use of the general public, it is comprehensive enough, while for experts and academics, it is almost certainly not as useful as a primary source.  In any case, I would not seek to expand or lengthen the article, but rather to improve quality where possible.  One exception might be to add a section on reform, as NATO is going through a wave of restructuring and reorganization.  I might also add some relevant detail in a couple of areas.

Readability

The language used is clear and concise.  I have no concerns about the readability of the article.  Nevertheless, I would provide a serious copy-edit to ensure correct terminology, as I have noted a couple of incorrect usages.

Illustrations

The article is well-illustrated, with a number of representative photographs, maps and charts from good sources.  I was particularly pleased to note that the photos were representative of the contributions of multiple nations and partner countries, as many US-based, non-NATO owned websites often focus visually on US forces when illustrating NATO.  That said, I could likely source even better photos and maps.

Formatting

It seems that the editorial group has generally followed the Wikipedia standard format. I would not seek to make changes here, although I could make some suggestions about content order.

Sourcing

With 113 citations, a bibliography and a set of external links, it appears to be a well-sourced article.  There is also a good mix of external citations and NATO original source citations.  That said, there are a number of dead links, as well as “citation needed” flags that I think I could improve.

Neutrality

It seems to be an objective enough article to me.  There does not appear to be any spin in it.  It’s good enough for me.

Alternate plans

If I cannot find a convenient way to do a good job on the NATO page, my backups are the Wikipedia articles for Tarifa, Spain and NATO Summits.

My Wikipedia Account

My account username is kprager.

–kp.