Throughout the entire history of what we call media, we have consumed its contents on producers’ schedules. When we wanted to know what was in newspapers and magazines, we waited until the latest issues showed up on newsstands, at our doors, and in our mailboxes. When we wanted to hear what was on the radio or to watch what was on TV, we waited until it played on our stations’ schedules. “What’s on TV tonight?” is perhaps the all-time most-uttered question about a medium. Wanting the answers is what made TV Guide required reading in most American households.
But no more. Because we have entered the Age of Optionality. We read, listen to, and watch the media we choose, whenever we please. Podcasts, streams, and “over the top” (OTT) on-edmand subscription services are replacing old-fashioned broadcasting. Online publishing is now more synchronous with readers’ preferences than with producers’ schedules.
The graph above illustrates what happened and when, though I’m sure the flat line at the right end is some kind of error on Google’s part. Still, the message is clear: what’s on and what’s in have become anachronisms.
The centers of our cultures have been held for centuries by our media. Those centers held in large part because they came on a rhythm, a beat, to which we all danced and on which we all depended. But now those centers are threatened or gone, as media have proliferated and morphed into forms that feed our attention through the flat rectangles we carry in our pockets and purses, or mount like large art pieces on walls or tabletops at home. All of these rectangles maximize optionality to degrees barely imaginable in prior ages and their media environments: vocal, scribal, printed, broadcast.
We are now digital beings. With new media overlords.
The Digital Markets Act in Europe calls these overlords “gatekeepers.” The gates they keep are at entrances to vast private walled gardens enclosing whole cultures and economies. Bruce Schneier calls these gardens feudal systems in which we are all serfs.
To each of these duchies, territories, fiefs, and countries, we are like cattle from which personal data is extracted and processed as commodities. Purposes differ: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and our phone and cable companies each use our personal data in different ways. Some of those ways do benefit us. But our agency over how personal data is extracted and used is neither large nor independent of these gatekeepers. Nor do we have much if any control over what countless customers of gatekeepers do with personal data they are given or sold.
The cornucopia of options we have over the media goods we consume in these gardens somatizes us while also masking the extreme degree to which these private gatekeepers have enclosed the Internet’s public commons, and how algorithmic optimization of engagement at all costs has made us into enemy tribes. Ignorance of this change and its costs is the darkness in which democracy dies.
Shoshana Zuboff calls this development The Coup We Are Not Talking About. The subhead of that essay makes the choice clear: We can have democracy, or we can have a surveillance society, but we cannot have both. Her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, gave us a name for what we’re up against. A bestseller, it is now published in twenty-six languages. But our collective oblivity is also massive.
We plan to relieve some of that oblivity by having Shoshana lead the final salon in our Beyond the Web series at Indiana University’s Ostrom Workshop. To prepare for that, Joyce and I spoke with Shoshana for more than an hour and a half last night, and are excited about her optimism toward restoring the public commons and invigorating democracy in our still-new digital age. This should be an extremely leveraged way to spend an hour or more on April 11, starting at 2PM Eastern time. And it’s free.
Use this link to add the salon to your calendar and join in when it starts.
Or, if you’re in Bloomington, come to the Workshop and attend in person. We’re at 513 North Park Avenue.