Collisions in the Digital Paradigm VII – Answering the Internet

When the TV News show Campbell Live came to an end there was a tremendous amount of angst that condemned the network and saw this as another nail in the coffin of TV News. I wrote a piece about the demise of the show and the reaction, but didn’t push “Publish” and I still haven’t . I wasn’t satisfied with the piece. It didn’t properly capture what I wanted to say. So I left it. Until now. Some recent reading has caused me to revisit the piece and place it within a larger context.

A few weeks ago I came across a book by Ken Auletta entitled “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It. “ First written in 2009 and updated in 2010, despite the dystopian title, it is an interesting history of the Google within the context of other Silicon Valley Startups – and it doesn’t really live up to its title. Buit it does have some very interesting things to say about news media – especially print media – in a time of paradigmatic and disruptive change.

The second book was by Jon Ronson and is entitled “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” which looks at shaming, what drives it, how the Internet enhances it and what you can do about it – not using legal tools but “reputation management” facilities. The book is an interesting one because some of the situations it describes arise within the context of a “hivemind” that develops with social media applications. That means that often there is not just one bully, but a whole horde of them. And this poses some interesting issues for a legal tool like the Civil Enforcement regime of the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015.

The third book is by Andrew Keen and is entitled “The Internet is Not the Answer”. If I were to critique this piece of work fully I would need as much space as the book itself and would find myself fisking every paragraph, and I am not going to do that. Rather I want to look at some of the themes present in Keen’s book and address them and then turn to the TV News theme about which I wrote before.

Lets look at the title. Is he critical of the Internet?  No he is not. He is critical of the way in which entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the quality of permissionless innovation that allows them to bolt applications on to the backbone that is the Internet. Because the Internet is merely the transport layer. It is content neutral. Keen’s critique is directed to those who have exploited permissionless innovation to develop applications, put them on the Internet and make large amounts of money in doing so.

One of his major criticisms is that there is an illusion that underlies the apparent “free” nature of these applications. Google, Facebook, Instagram, Uber all monetise our presence and by gathering data associated with our use of their services. Keen criticises this as “without our permission”. The way in which advertising also funds the apparent “free” nature of these applications is a striking theme in Auletta’s book and one to which he devotes a considerable amount of print.

But is this an “Internet” problem? Does the seat of the problem lie within the transport layer? Of course it doesn’t. But to characterise the Internet as the problem makes for a catchy title, and who is going to let a technical fact get in the way of a good line.

One of the stories that Ronson recounts in his book about shaming is the treatment handed out to Jonah Lehrer, a successful writer of “self-help” books and a drawcard on the speaking circuit. In one of his books Lehrer attributed a quote to Bob Dylan that to a journalist who was a Dylan fan didn’t ring true. And it wasn’t. The uncovering led to further investigations and discoveries that certain facts didn’t stack up. A similar thing happened to Mike Daisey who, shall we say, embellished or transplanted some facts to enhance his one-man show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Keen is not immune to a bit of misstatement of fact himself. There can be no doubt that Apple outsourced the manufacturing of its products to a Foxconn factory in Shenzen and that the use of unsafe products and unsafe work practices were appalling. Keen himself interviewed Daisey . In his book he cites that interview but overlooks the fact that Daisey manipulated the facts and he was exposed for doing so by Ira Glass on This American Life on 16 March 2012. Keen does not qualify his reference to Daisey. There is no doubt that other investigations revealed that the Shenzen plant was dreadful. I think Keen could have cited a more reliable source than an exposed fact manipulator who excused himself by suggesting that “we have different worldviews on some of these things”.

Another factual problem occurs when Keen, who was once in the Internet music business himself with a startup called Audiocafe, discusses the demise of the recorded music business which was part of his life when he lived in Soho in the 1980’s. He refers particularly to Kim Dotcom whom he describes as New Zealand based. I’m not sure I can excuse him the hyperbole of describing Dotcom as a criminal when he has not yet been convicted of criminal copyright infringement, but he does make the statement that Dotcom’s Megaupload platform generated the legal revenue to enable him to buy is 15 million pound Downton Abbey-style mansion in New Zealand. Clearly Keen is no connoisseur of architecture because there is little resemblance between the Chrisco mansion in Coatesville and Highclere Castle in Hampshire. But the suggestion that Dotcom purchased the house is completely wrong. He rents it.

The third factual problem with which I have some difficulty – but I am prepared to give Keen the benefit of the doubt – lies in his assertion about the demise of the HMV record retail outlet on Oxford St which he suggests closed down in 2014. I assume he means the one located at 363 Oxford St which in fact closed in 2013 but reopened later that year. But if that store did close in 2014 he is incorrect to suggest that an HMV music store is not on Oxford St because there is one at 150 Oxford St nearby to the Oxford Circus tube station. I know. I was there in September last year and made some purchases.

I guess that the problem that I have with three examples of factual spin, misuse or misinterpretation is – how many other errors are there. One is left with an uncomfortable feeling about the veracity of the book.

But it is not just a question of fact checking. If the title doesn’t give the away author’s perspective the first few pages do, and the further one reads, the clearer it becomes that this is not a true objective analysis but something of an hysterical polemic that harks back to a mythical Golden Age. Keen is very quick to use perjorative language to indicate his disapproval. For example, it is clear that he actively dislikes Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber whom he describes as a “hard-core libertarian” who “paced relentlessly around the Failcon stage as if he’d just strode out of an Ayn Rand novel.” The whole book is critical of what he calls disruptive libertarianism and he even takes John Perry Barlow and the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace as symptomatic of the problem. He says:

“According to Stanford University historian Fred Turner, the Internet borderless idealism, and its ahistorical disdain for hierarchy and authority, especially the tradition role of government, were inherited from the countercultural ideas of Internet pioneers like WELL founder Stewart Brand and the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” author, John Perry Barlow.”

He decries what he calls the “winner take all” approach to the development of Internet startups, is highly critical of the way in which those who, having developed and managed startups to a successful outcome, use the money that they have made through their creativity, entrepreneurship and most of all risk. He overlooks those realities of business. They made it. They took the risk – a risk I might not have been prepared to take in similar circumstances. Surely they can spend it as they wish. For myself, I am unfamiliar with a sense of envy of a person who is better off that I am, nor do I resent them for it, nor seek to acquire that wealth or part of it by some form of “Robin Hood” wealth redistribution process.

Keen uses the demise of Rochester, New York and its once prime employer Kodak as a metaphor for the demise of traditional manufacturing and employment models and lays much of the blame at the feet of on-line startups like Instagram. According to Keen, Kevin Systrom, who had a deep interest in photography, thought about whether there could be an application that enabled users to manipulate photos by the application of filters to give the pictures a warm fuzzy glow or a sepia tinge.

“He spent the rest of the day lying on a hammock, a bottle of Modelo beer sweating by his side, as he typed away on his laptop researching and designing the first Instagram filter.

And so Instagram and its photos – what Systrom, shamelessly appropriating Kodack’s phrase, calls “Instagram moments – were born”

And so Systrom became what Keen prejoratively describes as “a star of the winner takes all economy.”

There are two major themes that underlie Keen’s book. One is that once upon a time – which is how all good fairy stories start – there was a “good time” when everyone was doing well, people were socially responsible, and where people made and sold tangible products like records and clothes and other things. In this golden age there were no great disparities between rich and poor, there was a certain egalitarianism and a relatively even distribution of wealth. He cites the music industry and photography as examples. Indeed when he speaks of Kodak his nostalgic yearning hearkens back to Kodachrome and the song by Paul Simon, but even before the digital era Kodachrome was falling away in the face of colour prints.

The decline of Kodak is probably far too complex to go into here, and I do not think that it was as simple as Keen would like to imagine. In a nutshell, Kodak did not forsee the way in which the digital camera would supplant film. And this is very strange because Kodak in fact invented the first digital camera. But it did not change its business model and by the time it realised what was happening, it was too late.

Keen expresses not concern but loathing for what he describes as the privileged few who are beginning to isolate and cocoon themselves and their communities in unusual buildings and workspaces and who have used their economic power to exclude others from neighbourhoods or beaches. Given his disparagement of the works of Ayn Rand I am surprised he didn’t draw the comparison with John Galt’s impenetrable and hidden mountain community in Atlas Shrugged.

The second theme lies in the solutions Keen proposes. As I have said the book is a polemic but it is not just directed towards the development of Internet based business models like Google, Uber, Instagram, Facebook and the like. Rather it is directed at free enterprise capitalism, successful entrepreneurship and innovation. By the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book I thought I was reading about America in the time of the Rail Barons, Leland Stanford and J.P. Morgan or the oil tycoons like Getty and Rockefeller and the steel magnates like Andrew Carnegie. Indeed, Keen refers to the lessons of history and these very examples. And the solution he poses?  Let the government do something about it. Government approaches are already happening, he says, in the EU with the development of the Right to be Forgotten and examining some of the consequences behind Uber and AirBnB although to be fair I hardly think that a person’s failure to pay tax on the income from a rented room can be laid at the feet of AirBnB.

The answer, he says, is to use the law and regulation to force the Internet out of its prolonged adolescence. He cites examples like the ECHR decision on the responsibility of website owners to police users’ comments, revenge porn laws in England and California and Piketty’s call for a global tax on plutocrats like Mark Zuckerberg or Larry Page. He then goes on to suggest that there are other methods available that do not involve government – in the form of self-regulatory steps like the decision by credit card companies to work with the Police to stop payment to websites that distribute stolen content as well as steps to cut off the flow of advertising revenue to websites profiting from illegal content. No wonder he doesn’t like Ayn Rand. His proposals are the stuff of a libertarian nightmare.

The funny thing is that Keen believes that external controls on the Internet will not undermine innovation, but suggests that future innovation will require partnering with government in areas such as education and healthcare. But the one of the strengths of the digital paradigm has been the quality of permissionless innovation. You don’t need regulatory approval to bolt an application on to the Internet and see if it attracts an audience. Once regulators step in, red tape inevitably follows.

The final theme that Keen develops, and one that he notes has been lacking since Netscape burst on to the scene as the first of many subsequent “killer apps”, is that of social responsibility – another issue with which he runs head to head with the libertarians. The digital elite has to become accountable for the most traumatic socioeconomic disruption since the industrial revolution. Really? That sounds very much like Dr Floyd Ferris, Dr Robert Stadler and Wesley Mouch from Atlas Shrugged.

I have written elsewhere about the issue of paradigm shifts especially in the area of communications technologies but the theory applies in other fields. Disruption is a fact of life. All new technologies have a disruptive effect. Generally their introduction has been a little more gradual than the pace of change that the digital paradigm allows. Who could have forseen urban sprawl, enabled by the motorcar, in the days when cars were “horseless carriages.” What Keen, and to an extent Nicholas Carr who is also something of an Internet dystopianist, fail to understand is the meaning of a quote that he frequently cites. We shape our buildings and thereafter our buildings shape us. Marshall McLuhan modified it a bit – we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. What Keen wants is for the law to run interference on the way that either tools are shaped or the way in which they are going to shape us. Keen also quotes the famous “the medium is the message” but completely fails to undestand what it means – but I won’t go into that here.

I don’t have a quibble with Keen’s values, although they may be based to a large extent on nostalgia. He is quite entitled to hold them, and good luck to him. What I do quibble with is his unwillingness to understand that paradigmatic change is just that. The change will be revolutionary and although it won’t turn the whole world or society upside down it will change it significantly and the change will be dramatic and at times uncomfortable. Keen may seek comfort in his older past and the communitarian values that were formed within the technological context of those times. But change is inevitable and with those changes are going to come changes in behaviours and ultimately in values that underpin our society.

And this brings me to our understanding of broadcasting and TV news and a reflection of attitudes which, while not so expressed with such vitriol as those of Andrew Keen, nevertheless indicate a lack of understanding of paradigmatic change.

An interesting article appeared in the Sunday Star Times on 7 June 2015 entitled “The War on Seriousness” and posed the question “Was the death of Campbell Live the last nail in the coffin of prime time current affairs TV? Or are we on the brink of brave new ways of telling the stories that matter?” The article is an interesting if somewhat nostalgic piece, longing for the heyday or what it calls “serious” television news which has given way to “fluff over substance” observing  “for a decade the internet has been chewing away at the foundations, gobbling up the advertising revenues that sustain New Zealand’s commercial media, and now the foundations seem to be crumbling. ” As Auletta points out, advertising on the Internet is cheaper than on primetime and it can be more targetted too.

The article seems to have ignored the fact first of the plethora of new communications systems and secondly that public expectations of content have changed as a result of these media changes. It may well be that serious journalism is suffering as a result of this, but serious journalism developed in an entirely different paradigm – that of print – and as new methods of communication of information came along – broadcast radio and radio-with-pictures (TV) so too did journalism adapt.

The common feature between newspapers, radio and TV is that they are based on a monolithic one-to-many distribution system that is seriously challenged by the nature of the distributed many-to-many model that underlies the Internet. Even although TV has an impact that cannot be matched by other mainstream media like radio or newspapers I wonder if it is going a bit far to say that it is unmatched by the information distribution system enabled by the Internet. The immediacy in the living room, the ability to see the “whites of the eyes” (a phrase used by Justice Harrison in Aeromotive v Page when commenting on the value of face-to-face cross-examination) is easily available in content other than a main stream TV broadcast and although it is suggested by Paula Penfold of TV3 that TV is accessible, especially free-to-air, especially in primetime, especially on a major channel, such a statement relies on the assumption that in the twenty-first century people actually want to engage with appointment based news transmissions when other methods of acquiring news content at a time that is convenient are available. As Lord Neuberger said when announcing the UK Supreme Court “video on demand” service on 5 May 2015  “Now justice can be seen to be done at a time which suits you.”The same could apply to the consumption of news content.

Peter Thompson, a lecturer in media studies at Victoria University, is quoted in the article as saying:

“There’s a social contract between the state and the public, and it needs to be mediated. We need a fourth estate that holds these people to account. If the news media aren’t able to reflect the society that we live in such that we can identify our issues, moral concerns, political policies, economic policies, we’re impoverished.”

That may be so with a State broadcaster. But I wonder if the proposition overlooks the nature of commercial television, particularly if the channel is other than publicly owned. Thompson goes on to suggest that the government consider a levy on commercial broadcasters (a sort of “polluter pays” principle), a levy on telecom services such as cell phone and broadband fees, a good old-fashioned public licence fee, or other more complex overseas revenue models. Back to the future with a vengeance!! When all else fails bring in the law and the regulators. Andrew Keen would definitely approve.

Some of us remember the bad old days of compulsory licence fees if one owned a television. Given the dire nature of much of the content on free-to-air TV one wonders whether such a fee would be value for money. Perhaps an argument could be mounted that the state has an obligation to fund a free and independent news service under s. 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act although such an argument might be a bit of a stretch.

I think the problem seems to be how the Fourth Estate should undertake promulgation of information in the public interest in a new paradigm. To mourn the passage of lack of depth in current affairs and the like is to engage in an unhelpful, rear view mirror exercise in nostalgia. There is no entitlement by mainstream news media to a particular model of news dissemination but complaints by media pundits would suggest that it is so. Rather, news media should look for new opportunities that new communications technologies present. There can be no place for sclerotic communications systems in the face of continuing dynamic, disruptive and transformative change. One should recall (and I don’t want to sound like a determinist but it is hard not to) in this time of revolution and evolution of communications systems, the comment of the Borg –  “resistance is futile”.