Technology isn't simply addictive - it's addictive because it's a servant to business incentives. There are huge departments in these companies that are devoted to this and staffed by incredibly talented people who have skills that could be put to socially beneficial projects but who are now trying to find out how to make you click and how to maximize your time on a certain site, or encourage teenagers to "friend" more products and constantly engage with them.
I mean look at all these acquisitions and mergers - WhatsApp and Oculus and et cetera. There's no way that you can envision these tech companies as the underdog anymore. They're always presented as though they were these little guys who you should be championing - Facebook will overthrow the cable television complex, blah blah - but it's more likely they will merge with them.
I think that overall, ultimately the impact of advertisers calling the shots is a more cloying, complacent culture. For example, it was just announced that Unilever is branding environmental content at The Guardian. How radical or pointed can that content be?
To go from the vision that we would all be free to express ourselves creatively because our material needs were being met, to this reality where nobody has money, people are unemployed, and the machines are harnessed by the lucky guys who Facebook or Google and we're supposed to be happy just to contribute content to their site.
The point is, this is what happens when advertising and data collection is the dominant business mode. We are encouraged to be compulsive. It's not that we're terrible addicts who need to go to an AA meeting and get off our gadgets.
There's also the issue of tech titans throwing their weight around in Washington and lobbying. There was just a Reuters poll that reported that more than half of Americans are concerned that tech companies are "encroaching too much on their lives." That's pretty major, considering these companies were universally loved not that long ago.
One of the big myths about people growing up is that they are "digital natives;" that just because they've been raised with the Internet - that you're very adept at using the app on your phone - it doesn't mean you have any idea about how the Internet actually works.
We like to say the Internet is the ultimate library. But libraries are libraries because people come together and fund them through taxes. Libraries actually exist, all over the country, so why is it such a reach to imagine and to someday build a public institution that has a digital aspect to it? Of course the problem is that libraries and other public services are being defunded and are under attack, so there's a bigger progressive struggle this plays into.
There's this divergence out there between the very small and the very large with the middle disappearing. There is something paradoxical going on where there is this access and we can seek out things on the fringes, but that doesn't describe the overall reality, because the big are bigger than ever.
I work for free all the time, as a writer but also as an activist. The decisions we have to make as individuals are really fraught but also can be really wonderful and we're all navigating this reality to the best of our abilities. But, again, I wanted to take a step back and look at the broader context.
There was all this enthusiasm about amateurism and the idea that people could now just make videos in their bedroom, or blog news stories and share it online, and isn't this great? Now we can do it just for the love of it and not try to be professionals, corrupted by careerism.
We've been criticizing these superficial aspects, like whether we are all more distracted. We really need to articulate a defense, a critique, that merges awareness of the technology with a more traditional, progressive, left-wing critique of the market.
As an individual navigating this reality, you have to make choices to survive. Sometimes you happily work for free if it's something you love and believe in. I'm not categorically saying that working for free is bad. I'm just looking at the broader implications of it, and also challenge this idea - and again, this is an argument made by certain people in the tech world - that amateurs are automatically more pure and will triumph over stodgy professionals.
I try to look at the evolution of these utopian claims. In the late '60s there was an assumption that the wealth generated by industry would be taxed and then put into social programs and it would provide a baseline of stability that would allow people to have the time for self-expression; and that social contract has eroded over the last four decades and now it's every person for themselves.
It's not just that we all as individuals should reevaluate our relationship with our devices - maybe you should, on a personal level - but in terms of balancing the micro and the macro and the personal and the structural, it's actually a bigger issue than you and your phone addiction.
It's always the balance between the individual's subjective experience and the social structural condition. As individuals we have access to more than we've ever had before. Giving up our data seems a small price to pay, especially if, as you say, we don't feel we have anything to hide.
All this stuff - about the materiality of the network, what it's made of, and how it works - should be part of a basic media literacy, because we depend on this technology for more and more aspects of our day-to-day lives.
All the utopianism of the early days of the Internet seems to have dissipated. But I don't want us to lose that utopianism altogether, even if it was naïve and ill-informed and sometimes silly. Rather I want us to ask about the obstacles that are preventing the good stuff from coming to fruition. Let's investigate and think about creating something worthwhile instead of assuming that there is an inevitable track of increased centralization, consolidation, and commercialization that we can't do anything about.
I was shocked when I tried to articulate this to someone who had posted the film and asked them to remove it for a few months, and I actually told them that after that they could put it back up and they were just completely unwilling to compromise - you'd think I was Rupert Murdoch or something.
One sad consequence of this is that people don't feel permitted to try understand Internet infrastructure, so I'm really grateful to groups like Free Press and other nonprofits who are trying to make the issue urgent and comprehensible. And Andre Blum's book Tubes is great on this topic.
Those who applaud social production and networked amateurism, the colorful cacophony that is the Internet, and the creative capacities of everyday people to produce entertaining and enlightening things online, are right to marvel. There is amazing inventiveness, boundless talent and ability, and overwhelming generosity on display. Where they go wrong is thinking that the Internet is an egalitarian, let alone revolutionary, platform for our self-expression and development, that being able to shout into the digital torrent is adequate for democracy.
There's something odd about telling people, artists, that they need to work for free to be pure while you're sitting there getting a salary that ultimately is paid by a generation of young people going deeply into debt for their education.
For example, instead of being asked to write an article, suddenly editors wanted me to make super-short videos. The assumptions of those video gigs was that kids don't read as much news and basically need to be read to, which I found really problematic and kind of insulting. I thought, Isn't it just that you don't have any money and that's why you want me to make some crappy "content" for your website?
Also, after Examined Life was finished I found myself thinking about the way creative opportunities and distribution channels were shifting. Should I be showing my films in theaters or just think about getting them out online? There were other issues, too.
Look back on the utopian dreams of the previous century, or even the century before that, where people thought machines would ultimately give us a quality of life where our needs would be taken care of so we could all basically be artists together in the evening, after we had fished, hunted, raised cattle - or whatever it was Marx imagined for us.
A big factor is that the enthusiast camp's values are really rooted in Silicon Valley and in these supposedly new business models. But again, I think this such an interesting moment because things like the NSA revelations are really forcing people to recognize the connections between corporate and government surveillance.
Early on, America took one path and went down the advertising road, and in the UK they founded the BBC and developed a different kind of public broadcasting. There was a point where TV was so beholden to commercial interest that people - civil society - actually rose up and said, "This is ridiculous: we have our soap-selling soap operas, cigarette-sponsored news broadcast; we have our rigged quiz shows - let's put some checks and balances here."
I would like people to be more aware of the fact that ultimately we are paying for things, and it's not just as privacy advocates point out that we're paying with our time and our data. We're also paying with money, because the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on advertising is just factored into the cost of the goods that we buy. It's all coming out of our pocket, just in a really roundabout way.
I'm interested in the way the whole cultural landscape can shift over time. Okay, this will seem like a silly example, but look at the whole discourse around "selling out," a concept people say is irrelevant because there's no more distinction between mainstream and underground, inside and outside (which I don't really believe, but that's another issue).
think there's a culture of Silicon Valley that seems to have the attitude that you can have it both ways, that you can be an insurgent but also, ultimately, it's paid for by advertising, when in fact advertising is totally retrograde. Now that's an industry we should be disrupting, and maybe you disrupt it by funding public media. None of this is technological destiny; there are only social choices.
It wasn't that people wanted things for free and asked for advertising to fund it - it's that these companies wanted to amass an audience whose "eyeballs" they could sell, and they gave people things for free to do that. Free services and content has been foisted upon us because there wasn't the will power to explore other options.
I'd go to conference after conference and it would essentially be the talking points. Either pro or con. It's amazing how polarized the tech conversation is. There's also this neurological fixation, the incessant wondering what the Internet's doing to our brain: "Does it make us stupid, does it make us distracted?" And then the other guys say, "No, it's making us smarter than ever, and better than ever, and more connected." And it's like, where is the economic and social context? Why is that rarely considered?
Whether it's a professional, academic keeping people out by using certain mystifying language, or technologists presenting their work as incredibly complicated, no one can understand it (especially not "moms," who are always invoked as the ultimate know-nothings, which is incredibly insulting to a whole lot of people).
Ultimately, the current argument is "not having net neutrality will hurt innovation," and you can make that argument, but I would rather make the public good argument, which is not just about innovation or nurturing new companies that will add to the nation's GDP, it's actually about creating a democratic public sphere.
The market won't let us treat all data equally because there's a potential to make huge gobs of money not doing that. In the United States of America, people will pay to be first unless we do something to stop them. We don't have defenses built in because we haven't been investing in criticism that would help us mount a defense. I
I feel like we're stuck in the former mode of reacting because that's what gains traction in Washington. But I really believe we need a robust public good argument. Net neutrality is not just about creating the next Instagram or Farmville or whatever.
Are we on the tail-end of a generation that is enamored with the novelty of these devices and will younger people coming of age be more blasé about them in a healthy way? You look back at the history of any medium and the people who were there when it was developing, whether it was the telegraph or cable television or radio, thought, This is amazing, it's going change everything, or, The human community will finally be able to recognize each other and speak and be one - I mean, some people thought the telegraph or television would usher in... Read more »
My point, though, is that if lines have indeed shifted, it's not so much that the younger generation just doesn't care, it's that we have ceded more and more of our public life over to the private sector. If you grow up with advertising at school, you have come of age in a sold-out world.
One thing that's important to point out is that this kind of populism has a long and mixed history. It's part of this tradition of problematic anti-elitism where the elites are always the liberal class - the intellectuals, the professors, the artists - and not the economic elites. Why are we so mad and aggrieved at newspaper editors but not at corporate executives? I think we need to look more at the latter, at economic elites.
Giving people what they want reduces us to consumers instead of treating us like citizens, consumers who are on the prowl for the predictable and comfortable. What we want winds up being suspiciously like what we've already got, more of the same-the cultural equivalent of a warm bath.
As a citizen I might be well-behaved and have nothing salacious or radical about me, I might be a total bore, but I might suffer somehow if other people are being spied on and blocked from doing important work that might have a collective benefit down the road. The personal doesn't necessarily translate to the social.
Technology and television didn't dictate one path or the other - it was civil society and public policy intervening in creating alternative funding models. So I think that's one of the questions for our time: do we want to intervene in this model or completely acquiesce and leave it to the unfettered, not-actually-that-free market? Neither path is inevitable.
One thing that struck me about going to those tech conferences was all the enthusiasm for free culture, and remixing, and social media, but people's greatest ambition was to be sponsored by Chipotle or something equivalent to that. It was this weird mix of collaborative, utopian claims and this total acquiescence to commercial imperatives.
Again, it does seem like frustration is mounting in interesting ways, but I'm not sure there will be some dramatic tipping point. Then again, looking back on the history of television, you never know. People had to fight and articulate the politics and the rationale for different funding mechanisms. That was a long and drawn-out battle fought in different countries; it's not like BBC and the CBC in Canada just magically appeared out of the ether. People had to organize for it. I'm always willing to be surprised.
I think somebody who is more self-reflective should ask why they personally aren't going on that path. If amateurism is so great, why didn't you stay one? You have to look at the larger economy, a backdrop of unemployment; it's shitty out there.
It's the same thing in a way with privacy. You can say "I'm not doing anything wrong, therefore this doesn't concern me," but what does it mean about our society if we're all being watched and recorded? The personal experience - negotiating this as individuals - doesn't describe the social reality and the broader social costs.
We haven't developed a progressive vocabulary. We say something is "public," but we just mean it's viewable online. Or we say it's "open," but we just mean it's accessible. I would like for us to think about terms critically and maybe change our vocabulary a bit. What if pubic actually meant publicly-funded, or social meant socialized.