I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

There’s a fascinating mea culpa in Jaron Lanier’s new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. On loc 411 he describes how early design decisions, inspired by the libertarian ethos taking hold within the tech community, created the openings for the global monopolies we now see emerging:

Originally, many of us who worked on scaling the internet hoped that the thing that would bring people together—that would gain network efect and lock-in—would be the internet itself. But there was a libertarian wind blowing, so we left out many key functions. The internet in itself didn’t include a mechanism for personal identity, for instance. Each computer has its own code number, but people aren’t represented at all. Similarly, the internet in itself doesn’t give you any place to store even a small amount of persistent information, any way to make or receive payments, or any way to find other people you might have something in common with. Everyone knew that these functions and many others would be needed. We figured it would be wiser to let entrepreneurs fill in the blanks than to leave that task to government. What we didn’t consider was that fundamental digital needs like the ones I just listed would lead to new kinds of massive monopolies because of network efects and lock-in. We foolishly laid the foundations for global monopolies. We did their hardest work for them. More precisely, since you’re the product, not the customer of social media, the proper word is “monopsonies.” Our early libertarian idealism resulted in gargantuan, global data monopsonies.

If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that these functions could have been built into the infrastructure of the internet itself rather than becoming services fulfilled by corporate providers. This passage reminded me of a recent keynote by danah boyd, reflecting on how utopian dreams concerning digital technology have come to seem untenable with time:

A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.

Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:

What hath we wrought?

This intellectual utopianism concerned the products of the original digital utopians themselves, innovators who sought to “disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication”. Recognising the role of dreams in shaping technology isn’t just a matter of how they inspire people to create but also recognising what happens when they go wrong. These aren’t just a froth of naiveté on the surface of a dark materiality lurking beneath. They are rather a force in their own right, changing the world they sought to improve as the ambitions underlying them curdle in the darkening reality they have contributed to.

A few weeks ago, I saw a collaborator of mine give a talk in which he outlined a position on social media which was roundly cast as anti-technological by those in the room i.e. reflecting an unsustainable blanket judgment of social media as a category of technology. I could see where they were coming from and my point in writing this isn’t to criticise them, only to observe the performativity of these judgments. His argument overlapped hugely with one I’ve made myself in public situations, unsurprising as it has emerged from a collaboration between the two of us. No one has ever accused me of being anti-technological when making it. Rather as if the property of being pro-technological and anti-technological is a matter of how an argument is performed, as well as how that performance is received, rather than part of the conceptual logic of the argument itself.

In her wonderful weekly newsletter, Audrey Watters writes about how these categories play out in media coverage of educational technology and how people respond to her work: