Caught between bad and worse…

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We spent a lot of time over the semester talking about fake news and on-line speech, but many of those concerns came together when we focused this last week on social networking. There are a lot of concerns, especially with the big Internet companies like Google and Facebook having so much data that they could reasonably be thought of as knowing more about us than even our closest friends or family members. As Bruce Schneier has said on a number of occasions, he never lies to Google about his interests.

I’m more than a bit conflicted with the notion that Google or Facebook knows much about me. They have the data that could, if looked at, tell them a lot about me. But Google and Facebook are corporations, and corporations aren’t the kinds of things that know anything. There are algorithms that use the data to deliver content to me, but I’m not sure that the algorithms or the machines on which they run know in any interesting sense, either. People are the kinds of entities that know, but I don’t think anyone at Google or Facebook can access all of my information (both companies rely on trust for their business; having anyone there looking at all of this data would destroy that trust). So while they have the data that could let them know a lot about me, I’m not convinced that they in fact know about me.

That being said, there are certainly many unintended consequences that appear to be arising out of the social media environment we have today. Some of the seminar participants talked about the blows to the sense of self that middle-schooler’s they know have taken through social networks. The kinds of hate speech, fake news, and cyber bullying that take place over these networks is at least disturbing, and I have a lot of sympathy to those who say that someone should do something about it.

But then I hit the troubling question of what can be done, and who is responsible for doing it?

I’m not at all a fan of the idea that the government, at any level, should start policing standards on the Internet. Except in the most extreme cases (shouting “fire” in a crowded theater) and pretty absolutist on free speech. This means that I do defend the right of people to say pretty terrible things, be they racist, sexist, or simply stupid. I wish they wouldn’t say these things, but I also don’t want the government to decide what can and can’t be said, since it isn’t clear that it will be done correctly, or that the notion of correctness is steady over time.

But I’m also not sure I can get behind companies like Google, Facebook, or Twitter becoming the arbiters of what speech is acceptable or what is reality. And I’m not sure whether the notion of these groups deciding what can be posted or what can be deleted is any different than their current ability, via algorithms and the data they have amassed, to decide what you see and don’t see in your search results or your feeds.

Targeting of information is something that has been going on for a long time. Advertisers decide where to place ads by the demographic the ad is meant to reach and the supposed demographic of those who are watching some particular content. I’m always amused to watch the Harvard-Yale game on television; the usual football-broadcast pickup truck ads are replaced by ads for Jaguar and Lincoln. Knowing who your viewers are is important.

But the granularity of the knowledge that is available now means that what I see is as different from what you see as my interests are from yours; we are being pushed apart in our view of the world by the slightest differences that can be determined by our on-line histories. Where the media was once a force that brought us together by showing us a shared reality, the Internet is now allowing the new media companies to be dividers into more and more isolated and specialized groups. When we don’t have the shared experience, we have trouble understanding what others are thinking. And when we only communicate with those who think the way we do, there are fewer social checks on the kinds of things that we are willing to say and think.

Perhaps more worrying is that we can no longer be sure that what someone is saying to me is what they are saying to you. If I can target my message, I can also craft different messages to different targets. The idea that others know what has been said to me, and can make sure that the message doesn’t change when it is delivered to someone else, is one of the ways that we insure our common understanding. With the right targeting using the right information, this is no longer guaranteed.

I’m not at all sure where this all leads. My hope is that this is an adjustment phase, where we become aware of what the new kinds of media can do and as a society react to that new media, much as the introduction of television moved us from a regional to a national sharing. But this seems different, in that it targets us more individually rather than exposing more of us to the same thing. We still need to be able to air our views without others telling us what can and can’t be said. The Internet, which has brought us all together, is now being used to segment us like never before.

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1 Comment »

  1. Mike Smith

    November 25, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

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    Thoughtful as always.

    Your statement that “Where the media was once a force that brought us together by showing us a shared reality, the Internet is now allowing the new media companies to be dividers into more and more isolated and specialized groups” is incredibly insightful. This worries me greatly. I understand that targeting is good for consumption of produced goods, but this same approach is bad for building shared experiences that make us caring communities and a strong nation. We have to confront and solve this challenge.

    A more minor point and small piece of disagreement. You said, “People are the kinds of entities that know, but I don’t think anyone at Google or Facebook can access all of my information (both companies rely on trust for their business; having anyone there looking at all of this data would destroy that trust).” I believe that human nature is stronger than corporate rules. Just take a look at the medical profession, which depends upon trust even more than the Googles and Facebooks. For example, see https://www.propublica.org/article/clooney-to-kardashian-celebrities-medical-records-hospital-workers-snoop

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