Morosov on digital democracy

While I’ve been following the notion of digital democracy, or digital capitalism, for years, I was struck by the article that Evgeny Morosov published today in the Guardian.  In it, he accurately names the problem of today’s society as the control that the digital medium has acquired.  His articles for years have warned that democracy is imperiled by the rise of Facebook and Google.  It seems now all too obvious that warnings by Lanier, Morosov, and others are too late, and we’ve regressed to a sad form of bastard feudalism.

Morosov today blamed the leading voices of criticism for denying two realities:

  1.  The loss of public space and the rise of unregulated private space in the dissemination of information.
  2. The refusal of regulators to combat the profound corruption that has infected every institution from top to bottom.

Instead, the savvy elite fret over the rise of populism as if it were something that could have been stopped.  Stopped by what?  Further, Morosov depicts democracy as a kind of Titanic navigating between Google and Facebook like  icebergs preordained to rip the hull of our ship and sink everyone on board.

Seems a little too late for that…

Thinkers like Anthony Orum, Henri Lefebvre, Rex Thomas and architects like Daniel Liebeskind beomoaned the loss of public space since the eighties.  Their concerns were brushed aside.

Elsewhere I have noted the loss of the physical form of public space, and how we have consistently seen it vanish like dust in the throaty winds of capitalism.  Disney replaces Main Street, a public space, with Main Street, a private space.  This concern has been consistently lampooned, belittled, and considered quaint.  Doesn’t matter.

Public space does matter.  Perhaps my error was in naming the physical geography of public space, that of the sidewalk and street.  Perhaps something more insidious was going on all along, the evisceration of public space as the safe place where we took in the news of the world and played nice with each other.  That is, the space where we read the news.

Jaron Lanier, formerly of Google, lectured audiences and warned of this years ago – but his warning was chiefly about commoditizing our privacy.  That ship has also sailed and we now see our intimate thoughts recast almost instantly in the form of “push” ads.  So far, our desires are only being marketed; but the next step, Lanier warned, will see these desires become weapons against us to remove our freedoms one by one.

So these guys, and surely others, have correctly identified how it got this way.  They don’t really address the mechanics of it though, preferring to remain in theory.

The mechanics must sadly be left to Rex Thomas, an obscure writer who has studied the problem.  Linking Thomas’ work with Lanier and Morosov reveals the truth.

In the old days of newspaper, one newspaper might publish something written by a reporter.  People would read this newspaper.  Other newspapers would check it out and, if it was found to be true, the story would be repeated.  If it were not true, the stories would die or stay with the newspaper trying to “spin” things to a certain viewpoint.  There was time to check facts and even if they published unverifiable stories, their slant automatically caused healthy suspicion.

The time it took for people to digest the news, and compare it to their own realities, was what kept a level playing field.  People also lived largely outside their homes, and their interaction was the way people checked in with each other.  Today, people spend vast amounts of their time and attention on tiny screens and cannot verify what they are seeing except by other feeds on their tiny screens.

In the olden days, some newspapers – the so-called “yellow journalism” – concerned themselves with spin and positioning but were easy to identify.  Their stories were isolated to their own kind and did not spread.  There is nothing different between yellow journalism and National Enquirer-style newspapers and the “fake news” problem that has taken down the press.

The only difference is the digital age allows these stories to spread too quickly to stop.  There is no time to fact-check.  Trending topics spread within minutes.  By the time the facts are checked, it’s too late – we’ve been had.

Morosov alludes to this problem at the end of his article by suggesting regulation.  Germany wants to hold Google and Facebook accountable for what kind of stuff they conduct through their systems.

This is not the answer either.  He even admits that most regulation today backfires, and that our world is so complex that the law of unintended consequences crashes the system. Every new regulation either makes the thing they are regulating worse, or makes another unregulated problem worse.

Rex Thomas has a different solution that involves none of the Estates General nor the regulators.  Instead, it involves the individual.  Thomas, in his private essays, says “the only way we can stop this is to take personal responsibility for what we tweet, post, and blog about.  We must first own it and own the consequences.”

Thomas’ solution sounds too easy, involves no lawyers, and doesn’t cost anything.  How could it work?  In fact, it is the opposite:  the hardest thing possible.  If you are tweeting something and stand to gain personally from its spread, then you should stop doing that.  If you are repeating someone else’s tweet, and you can’t tell whether it is true or lies, you should stop repeating it.  Much, much harder than it sounds.

Thomas likens it to the “know your food origins” movement that started several years ago, when people began questioning the industrial food machine that Michael Pollen wrote so eloquently about.  He advocates a “know your news origins” movement so you are as aware of where your news comes from as you are the tomatoes you bought at the store.

Whether or not we like it, the digital age has spawned a monster.  Morosov calls this the age of “digital capitalism.”  It sounds like a market that is about to profoundly fail.

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