Of late, the backlash against social media has escalated. Scientists claim social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are addictive, encourage narcissistic traits and cause depression. Psychiatrists and educationists are warning of an imminent ‘mental health crisis’. Cyber-bullying is on the rise. The ‘fake news’ hysteria has politicians in an uproar. However, the real damage is being done in the background of these alarmist headlines, where a handful of researchers and writers have mounted a fundamental critique of this new paradigm in an attack that cuts right to the very heart of things.

For instance, in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, researcher Evgeny Morozov addresses ‘cyber-utopianism’ — the widespread fallacy that the Internet is an intrinsically liberating force for humankind and holds the key to society’s most compelling problems. Writer Nicholas Carr adopts a more individualistic approach in Utopia is Creepy and Other Provocations where he shines a light on the dark side of Silicon Valley’s promises. In Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age and Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology, commentator William Powers and MIT professor Sherry Turkle dive deep into the perils of ‘connectedness’ — that shallow mode of engagement fostered by the Internet which ruins concentration, undermines real-life relationships and impairs the potential for art, education, romance and fulfilment. In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport makes the argument that social media has created a perpetually distracted and fragmented world, and the professional who can do focused, creative work in this milieu is a rare and highly desirable asset.

And now, in World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, journalist Franklin Foer describes how the Silicon Valley ethos is fundamentally killing journalism.

Franklin Foer asks: what happens to society when journalism is reduced to little more than tabloid fare?

We must be very careful here — none of these writers argue that technology is inherently bad. The problem is our blind optimism: we are very quick to idolise new technology. Technology may fix pre-existing problems and open broad new vistas, but we often fail to recognise that it also creates unique and wholly unexpected complications.

Foer gives the example of the 1960s, when Americans rejoiced at the advent of processed foods, the use of preservatives and TV dinners which completely eliminated the drudgery of home cooking. Now, decades later, we acknowledge that these choices have wrecked the health of generations, completely reconfigured agriculture and farming and triggered an environmental crisis of massive proportions. The best bet with new technology is to find that workable balance between optimism and caution.

Foer uses vivid biographical sketches to articulate for us the bona fide ‘philosophy’ of Silicon Valley. The story starts with Stewart Brand, a writer from the ’70s who described for the first time a utopian vision of human progress and individual liberation. Central to this plan were computers, a positive force which would remake the world into a better place. Hippie values were fused with technology.

The fruit of this vision was the Whole Earth Catalogue that Brand circulated for a few years. Though just a product catalogue, its real influence was because of its holistic, self-sufficient, do-it-yourself vibe, which sought to empower users with tools and new ideas. This heavy tome was to have a profound impact on a whole generation of technologists, most notably a young Steve Jobs, who was hooked. Jobs was to later call it “Google in paperback form.”

A remarkably similar vision exercised a very similar influence on Larry Page, founder of Google. Page’s father, Carl Victor Page, Sr., a PhD in computer science and fervent evangelist for artificial intelligence, spoke of technology in terms that approximated the messianic. The hubbub has toned down somewhat over the decades, but Google has gone all in, to the point where it is the world’s largest artificial intelligence company today.

The experiment was a failure. Foer was ousted and most of The New Republic’s writers resigned in protest. Hughes soon put the magazine back on sale.

Regarding the demise of journalism, Foer reports from firsthand experience. He has an impressive pedigree: he was a writer for Slate and then joined The New Republic where he later served as chief editor. The New Republic was founded over a century ago with the mission to “bring sufficient enlightenment to the problems of the nation.” Over the years it garnered a reputation as one of the most influential liberal magazines in the United States. With the advent of the Internet, however, which upended the business model for most industries, the magazine encountered a steep decline in readership and was soon fighting for its very existence.

A saviour emerged from an unlikely place: Silicon Valley. Entrepreneur and technologist Chris Hughes was the typical tech titan — he had roomed with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University and co-founded Facebook. He was quick to buy the ailing magazine and set out to reinvent it for the new millennium. Foer was installed as chief editor. Things worked for a while. The culture was galvanised by Hughes’s enthusiasm and dynamic tech-oriented approach to solving problems. But the relationship was quick to sour. Hughes brought in technical staff to nudge the magazine towards the ‘infotainment’ model — chasing traffic with the use of clickbait headlines, gimmicks and an overall shallow brand of journalism.

The experiment was an abject failure. Foer was ousted and most of the magazine’s writers resigned in protest. Hughes soon put the magazine back on sale. The New York Times described the whole episode as the tech mogul’s “vanity project.”

This pattern is all too common. Early this February, Newsweek imploded. First, the co-owner and chairman stepped down over government investigation into the magazine’s finances. Then, the top editors were fired en masse. In his resignation letter, senior writer Matthew Cooper wrote: “It’s the installation of editors ... who recklessly sought clicks at the expense of accuracy, retweets over fairness, that leaves me most despondent not only for Newsweek but for other publications that don’t heed the lessons of this publication’s fall.”

Let’s hope someone is listening.

This is the fundamental challenge facing the media today, even in our part of the world. How does a newspaper maintain integrity and quality in this grand age of anti-intellectualism, when the subscription model is teetering on its last legs, when newspapers are shedding pages and truncating column lengths, and the readership is ever more inclined towards sensationalist fare which is only a click away? And then there is the bigger question that we dare not ask: what happens to society itself when journalism, the fundamental bulwark of democracy, is reduced to little more than tabloid fare?

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 25th, 2018



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