July 13, 2024

For most of us, the word “medium” means “a channel or system of communication, information or entertainment“. For a biologist, however, the term means something quite different: “the nutrient solution in which cells or organs are grown”. But there are times when the two conceptions merge, and we now live in such a time.

Why? All developed societies have a media ecosystem, the information environment in which they exist. Until relatively recently, that ecosystem was dominated by printing technology. Then, in the mid-20th century, came broadcast (little-to-much) technology, first as radio and later as television, which was the dominant communication medium of the century from the 1950s to the 1990s. And then came the Internet and the technologies it spawned, the dominant one being the World Wide Web.

Each of these leading technologies shaped the societies that enveloped them. Print shaped the world for four and a half centuries, followed by broadcast, which ruled for 50 years or so. None of this would have surprised a biologist, who would see human culture as something that grows in an enclosing nutrient. Change the nutrient and you change the culture that grows in it.

We are now early in the period of internet dominance of our media ecosystem and have no real idea of ​​how this will play out in the long run. But some clues are beginning to emerge. One relates to the idea of ​​public opinion. Until Gallup found out the poll in 1935 there was really no way to measure what the public as a whole thought about anything. For the next 70 years, improved voting methods and the rise of broadcast television meant that it was possible to get a general idea of ​​what public opinion might be on political or social issues.

The advent of the Internet, and especially the Web in the 1990s, began the process of radical fragmentation that has brought us to where we are today: instead of public opinion in the Gallup sense, we have countless publiceach with different opinions and incompatible ideas of what is true, false and undecidable.

To make matters worse, we’ve also invented a technology that allows every Tom, Dick, and Mad Harry to publish whatever they want on opaque global platforms, incentivized to propagate the wildest nonsense. And to this we have now added powerful tools (called AI) that automate the production of misinformation on an epic scale. If you were a malevolent superpower looking to overhaul the democratic world, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than that.

Fortunately, there have been scattered around the world (and mostly in academia) organizations whose mission is to conduct informed analysis of the nature and implications of the misinformation that pollutes the online world. Until recently, the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) in California was one such outfit. Among other things (it was the first to give Russian support for Donald Trump online in 2016), it raised China’s espionage concerns about the Clubhouse app in 2021, along with the Wall Street Journal in a 2023 report on Instagram and online child sexual abuse material, and developed a curriculum to teach college students how to deal with trust and safety issues social media platforms.

But guess what? After five years of pioneering research, the SIO was reported to be be unwound. Its founder and director, Alex Stamos, left and Renée DiResta, its research director, had her contract not renewed, while other staff members were told to look for work elsewhere. Stanford, the SIO’s institutional home, denies that it is dismantling the unit and loudly proclaims its commitment to independent research. On the other hand, according to DiResta, the university ran up “huge legal bills” Defending SIO researchers against harassment by Republican politicians and conservative conspiracy theorists, they may have decided that enough is enough.

At the root of all this are two neuroses. One is the Republicans’ obsessive belief that academic studies, like those of DiResta and her colleagues, about how “bad actors—spammers, scammers, hostile foreign governments, networks of terrible people who target children, and yes hyperpartisans who actively try to manipulate the public” use digital platforms to achieve their goals is somehow anti-conservative.

The other neurosis is, if anything, more alarming: it is a crazy extended idea of ​​”censorship” this includes labeling social media posts as potentially misleading, fact-checking, reducing false theories by reducing their spread in people’s social media feeds while they can remain on a website and even flagging content for platforms’ review.

If you think such a list is nuts, then join the queue. As I read it, what came to mind was Kenneth Tynan’s memorable definition of a neurosis as “a secret you don’t know you keep”. The secret in this case is simple: the great American experiment with democracy is ending.

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What I have read

Vanish point
AI as Self-annihilation is a thoughtful (and thought-provoking) essay by Matthew Crawford in the Hedgehog Review.

Take notes
A beautiful essay by Julian Simpson is Bits of the Mind’s String about what you can learn about yourself by keeping a notebook.

Presidential investigation
Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American Substack has an insightful piece recalling Watergate and the last time (before Trump) the US had a president who was totally unfit for office.

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