Technology and Power

A big problem I see in the interactivity of news media and the selective consumption of news by people, is that we tend to follow sources with which we already agree, which eventually leads to being trapped in ideological bubbles and eco chambers. Because there is way more information out there than we could possibly deal with, people tend to refer to what they are familiar with, which is sources that reflect their own political views and the ideologies which which they are comfortable. We want our personal views and opinions to be confirmed and verified, because everything else makes us feel insecure and is a potential threat to the realities we construct.

The big danger is, as Nichols puts it, that “all these networks and celebrities exist, but that viewers pick and choose among them and then believe they’re informed” [1]. Referring to the study on public knowledge by the University of Illinois quoted by Nichols, one could say that misinformation is more harmful than no information at all, as “the most misinformed citizens ‘tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans.’” (Anne Pluta quoted by Nichols [1]). Today, one can choose between so many sources of “news” that hold all sorts of different viewpoints, that one can simply construct whatever beliefs and opinion one wants to hold as the truth.

From my personal experience, I can confirm that the news overload is too much to handle and it makes it hard to decide in which sources to invest my precious time. I personally use the App of the official German news channel Das Erste and I listen to podcasts by Joe Rogan, Sam Harris and Dave Rubin to form my opinions. They have speakers on that I do not agree with and in my opinion, that is the best way to make sure I think critically about what I hear. Occasionally, I also listen to John Oliver – for the fun and the cynicism.

 

With all the information and opinions out there, I regularly find myself overwhelmed and having problems structuring my inputs. I like Twitter for the brief updates, but I am always afraid to miss out on the context and it actually often takes longer to do some thorough research on a tweet, than to read some credible online source in the first place. However, whatever information I read, I always at least double-check it. I can imagine that this is too time consuming for many people, who then choose to simply rely on whichever source they get the information from first.

Especially in times of fake-news, this can be dangerous and one is easily misinformed.

I am very interested in the PC movement in the US and the struggles between conservatives and liberals and I think the combination of out-of-context provocative and intentionally false information is what leads to people with contrary views talking less and less to each other. Holding different views and opinions is what makes a conversation interesting in the first place, and it is vital for a healthy and free society. But due to being spoon-fed with what people want to hear and being able to choose to consume what supports their own view, the culture of arguing and discussing seems to be declining, which lead to people feeling threatened even in the presence of someone with a different opinion.

 

Martin Gurri’s account of the events surrounding the Arab Spring is a great insight in the power relationships that the internet facilitates. I think the nature of power in the digital age is a mostly democratic and collective one, but it can also quickly become monopolized and autocratic. Thinking of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunesia, the internet seems to give power to the masses and to empower the powerless and weaken the powerful. By its democratic nature, being accessible, open, and free, the internet and social media are a platform for change and the voice of the masses. However, once a regime has total control over the internet – like in North Korea, the people under this regime are even more impoverished than the rest of the world, because they are isolated. As Gurri concludes, “information interacts with power in ways that are open, unpredictable, mysterious” [2]. Another important power relation is the monopoly of the big economic players like google and facebook over the way information is organized, analyzed, distributed and distorted. The seemingly democratic and neutral internet becomes a trap in which users are unconsciously manipulated and turned into puppets.

 

Another great writer on this topic is Juval Noah Harari, who, in his books Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century theorizes about the power of algorithms and the organizations that control them. Harari describes ways in which information and data are on their way to become the most important instruments of power. He urges that we have to quickly get to know ourselves as good as possible, because once the point is reached when algorithms know us better than we know ourselves, technology and those who control it will gain power over us. He argues that while rebellions were driven by people that regimes depend on, the labourforce, in the future, labour will be replaced by machines and algorithms in a way that the new “useless class” will not have any leverage anymore to instigate protests and revolts.

This is in line with Susskind’s progression of the question of power from to what extend our collective life should be determined by the state to the question to what extend our lives should be directed and controlled by powerful digital systems [3]. While Harari argues that the power will be in the hand of super-national organizations and systems, Susskind sees a future strong authorities and states, empowered by the control over technology.

Susskind also talks about “a gulf between the arts and the sciences” [3], which means that the pioneers of technological development rarely think about the philosophical, societal and political implications of their inventions. The author calls for a intellectual framework to consider the political consequences of digital innovation, and this call is a very urgent one. A big problem that I see there is that many political decision makers and legislators do not have enough knowledge or do not even care about understanding digital technologies, so they have no grasp of how powerful their can be. This means that tech companies, especially in the US, underly little constraints and rules and while it might not be intended, threaten to disrupt the stability of political and economic systems. Susskind describes digital technologies as hyper-political due to their influence on the two fundamental ingredients of political life, communication and information. Thinking of recent political developments and the tweeting American president, this hyper-political aspect of digital technology is very evident. The hypothesis that how we organize information is closely related to how we organize politics reflects the tremendous influence that information technologies have on our political structures in the 21st century. In my opinion, it is more and more important to be aware of the power of information and the technologies that carry it. We use social media and technologies thinking their usage is free, while we are paying with our data and information about ourselves – a price that might be too high.


[1] Nichols, T.M. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge And Why It Matters. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[2] Gurri, M. 2014. The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

[3] Susskind, J. 2018. Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

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