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A Digital Hangover

  • Frederik Stjernfelt
  • Anne Mette Lauritzen
Open Access
Chapter

Abstract

In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted: “The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind, and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology.” Today, this problem is even more urgent with the rapid development of digital media. We are witnessing a radical shift of paradigms. For a long time, we have been blind to the consequences of digital intoxication. We have turned a blind eye to the fact that we are being reprogrammed by the new digital life. Slowly, sneakily and unnoticed, tech giants have been able to change our behavior, our emotions, our thoughts, our world views and our relationships with other people. The curse of our times is this blindness and dizziness. It is time to wake up.

In 1964, media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted: “The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind, and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology.”1 Today, this problem is even more urgent with the rapid development of digital media. We are witnessing a radical shift of paradigms. For a long time, we have been blind to the consequences of digital intoxication. We have turned a blind eye to the fact that we are being reprogrammed by the new digital life. Slowly, sneakily and unnoticed, tech giants have been able to change our behavior, our emotions, our thoughts, our world views and our relationships with other people. The curse of our times is this blindness and dizziness. It is time to wake up.

In this book, we have attempted to expose the huge challenge of the attention economy which dominates the Information Age of today. The most valuable asset of the tech giants is also our own most valuable asset: our attention. These giants are hard at work taking advantage of that asset. They have developed a digital panopticon, where everyone is constantly being monitored and always distracted. By gathering and processing enormous amounts of data, they draw up incredibly accurate portraits of our inner drives and of our minds. They use the data to control not only mass behavior but also the behavior of individuals, and the aim is to promote their own financial interests. The tech giants preach that their real purpose is to assist their users and improve the world. But Silicon Valley is no philanthropic endeavor, but simply raw business. There seems to be still less doubt about that. Recently, more awareness has been raised about the Janus-head of tech giants. On the one hand, the massive surveillance and data harvesting make up the basic material of free, efficient and convenient platforms. But on the other hand, we have the darker side of things; it causes a fatal loss of freedom, privacy and autonomy.

The business models, global character, and clandestine procedures of the tech giants challenge and restrict freedom of expression. In this book, we have argued that this key freedom is under pressure. Tech giants capitalize freedom of expression, because commercial interests get to determine access to information and the rules of public conversation. In other words, the users are losing their fundamental right to freely seek out information and express their opinions freely without interference from a public authority—a status tech giants have misappropriated, given their emerging de facto monopoly. On the platforms, such interference happens both automatically through opaque algorithm systems and manually through vaguely worded terms of service. The giants act as legislator, police, judge and executioner. Today, with social media being accused of spreading disinformation, influencing elections and allowing—if not in fact promoting—violence, the giants have reacted by intensifying internal regulation of their content. Still growing amounts of material are subject to content regulation—material that is likely to be problematic and unpleasant in the eyes of some, but which is at the same time part of the ongoing political debate. The criteria behind content removal are extremely broad, wasting lots of time and labor on over-sensitive complaints about “hate speech”, nipples and other completely harmless things, rather than directing forces at criminal content associated with immediate danger. In those cases, the internal regulation borders on censorship and counteracts freedom of speech directly. Over the same years, the giants have managed to undermine the economic value of knowledge and art. They have even used freedom of expression and freedom of information as cloaks for their lucrative business endeavors. The first digital losers are found among traditional media outlets, musicians, writers, filmmakers and other content creators, who either end up deeply dependent on the tech giants or robbed of their intellectual property, or both. Lastly the business model and automated algorithm system of the tech giants have been able to trigger serious disturbances of the public sphere. The digital echo chamber has shown that it leans towards tribalism, in the West represented by a new digital culture war and in third world countries by violent upheavals and even lynchings.

The idea that more artificial intelligence on Facebook as a miracle cure for maladies caused by Facebook itself is absurd. This is akin to saying that the solution to Facebook is even more Facebook. Politicians are currently privatizing the problem by requiring the tech giants themselves to control statements on their platforms, and moreover without a clear definition of exactly how to do it. We suggest an alternative aimed at winning back our digital autonomy. In our view, tech giants ought to be subjected to critical anti-monopoly scrutiny. Some possible models for monopoly regulation are appearing on the horizon. This is no doubt a strong weapon to be used with caution. Therefore, strong voices from the public sphere and civil society must also participate in the protection of free expression on the Internet and change the cynical business models of tech giants. It is important that organizations, news media, universities and tech companies work together to increase public resilience in the face of the new digital challenges. This cooperation must be based on a shared commitment to protect free expression and the right to express, receive and disseminate differing information or views.

Here are some proposals as to what could be done in order to guide the tech giants —with or without their consent— towards the common standards of freedom of expression of modern democracies:

  • Commitment to monitoring a significantly more narrow and precisely defined set of violations, policed more efficiently;

  • Approximating the terms of service towards enlightened standards, e.g. American legislation and legal practice on freedom of expression, that is, the First Amendment and the legal interpretations thereof, cf. the principle that the limits of freedom of expression are drawn at “incitement to imminent lawless action”— also aligned with the developments of the principles of freedom of expression within international human rights law;

  • Better trained and better paid content moderators;

  • Making publicly available and transparent all aspects and phases of the content removal process;

  • Transparency of decisions made against users;

  • Clear and realistic avenues to appeal;

  • Alternatives to removal, such as clear indication of controversial content or explicit filtering as an option available to more sensitive users;

  • Preserving controversial content could be preserved behind a barrier one has to click through, so no one runs into it spontaneously;

  • Flagging should not automatically result in demands for removal, but may instead contain a menu of options such as “mark as controversial”, “mark as not suited for children”, and the like;2

  • Sharing earnings with external content providers who help generate advertising activity.

Large struggles of interests are involved in the transformation of the public sphere and freedom of expression in the era of tech giants. But freedom of expression should not be determined by conflicting interests alone—but rather by elementary political principles of how democratic societies are organized. The economy of attention online has shown to be subversive to freedom, enlightenment and democracy. The democratic institutions cannot leave the massive problems to the tech giants themselves. Such a cure is likely to make things worse than the disease.

The time has come to use freedom of expression to say no to monopoly powers and to censorship resurfaced. Consider this a call for users, citizens and decision makers to take back empowerment and defend the principles of Enlightenment. Technology does not decide the future. We do.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    McLuhan (1964) p. 3–7.

  2. 2.

    Somewhat naively, Gillespie suggests that the circumstances would improve if tech giants were to hire only “women, queer people, or people of color” (p. 202) in the coming decade. In what way gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity would be the solution to all the unrelated problems of censorship remains lost in the dark—along with the question of why the Silicon Valley libertarians should not then add social democrats and conservatives to the mix, not to mention anarchists, Nazis and communists.

Bibliography

Books

  1. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media – The extensions of man. London/New York.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Open Access This chapter is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license and indicate if changes were made.

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Authors and Affiliations

  • Frederik Stjernfelt
    • 1
  • Anne Mette Lauritzen
    • 2
  1. 1.Humanomics Center, Communication/AAUAalborg University CopenhagenKøbenhavn SVDenmark
  2. 2.Center for Information and Bubble StudiesUniversity of CopenhagenKøbenhavn SDenmark

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