Advertisement

The Digital Enlightenment Project Facing Challenges

  • Frederik Stjernfelt
  • Anne Mette Lauritzen
Open Access
Chapter

Abstract

As early as the 1990s, there were critical voices with a skeptical and even gloomy view of the beneficial effects of the Internet. Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman was generally skeptical towards technological solutions to political problems. He understood technology through Goethe’s classical metaphor of the Faustian pact with the Devil. He believed the Internet would only add to the information congestion that he already saw as one of the most important issues of modern society, and which makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish important from unimportant information. In hindsight, it is obvious that critics like Postman developed a highly limited and erroneous view on the possibilities of the Internet: “To put it plainly, I think the Internet is something like power steering or cruise control in cars. I mean, not that it’s not useful, but once you invent the basic car, you’ve got it. Now these things are useful, and the automobile companies add them on to the cars and then they convince consumers that they absolutely have to have them. I’m not saying that they’re completely useless—of course, they’re not. But the Internet doesn’t help us address the problems that we need to address.” Postman went as far as to dismiss the entire computer and Internet revolution as a mere diversion from the real problems of society. “The Internet and computer technology are just distractions.” He basically considered it a new form of commercial entertainment technology with very limited utility; cf. his famous diagnosis: “We’re amusing ourselves to death.” It is obvious that this kind of neo-Luddism completely missed its target and did not acknowledge the Internet’s already then burgeoning potential for education, dissemination of information, intellectual empowerment and cooperation.

As early as the 1990s, there were critical voices with a skeptical and even gloomy view of the beneficial effects of the Internet. Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman was generally skeptical towards technological solutions to political problems. He understood technology through Goethe’s classical metaphor of the Faustian pact with the Devil. He believed the Internet would only add to the information congestion that he already saw as one of the most important issues of modern society, and which makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish important from unimportant information. In hindsight, it is obvious that critics like Postman developed a highly limited and erroneous view on the possibilities of the Internet: “To put it plainly, I think the Internet is something like power steering or cruise control in cars. I mean, not that it’s not useful, but once you invent the basic car, you’ve got it. Now these things are useful, and the automobile companies add them on to the cars and then they convince consumers that they absolutely have to have them. I’m not saying that they’re completely useless—of course, they’re not. But the Internet doesn’t help us address the problems that we need to address.”1 Postman went as far as to dismiss the entire computer and Internet revolution as a mere diversion from the real problems of society. “The Internet and computer technology are just distractions.”2 He basically considered it a new form of commercial entertainment technology with very limited utility; cf. his famous diagnosis: “We’re amusing ourselves to death.” It is obvious that this kind of neo-Luddism completely missed its target and did not acknowledge the Internet’s already then burgeoning potential for education, dissemination of information, intellectual empowerment and cooperation.

Even so, Postman had glimpsed some critical issues that would prove very real. One was the commercialization of the Internet. Another was the difficulty of controlling a phenomenon of such extensive international scope, as long as the control was only exercised on a national level: “... it’s too international to be controlled.”3 Postman was asked about the potential advantages conveyed when a user’s computer collects only information and knowledge that in fact suit the user’s individual interests, and he gloomily replied, in what turned out to be a foreshadowing of Google’s personalization strategy fifteen years later: “I can see your point, except in itself it does tend to increase fragmentation.”4 This is another important point, today captured in terms such as echo chambers, confirmation bias, and filter bubbles. It is not a given fact that increased connectivity online in itself entail transparency, agreement, gift economy and cooperation, as tech giant leaders are repeatedly chanting. Increased connectivity may just as well lead to disagreement, tunnel vision, fragmentation, tribalism, shitstorms, online bullying and violence. Where these matters are concerned, Postman clearly foresaw the contours of problems that today appear abundantly clear.

As early as the mid-1990s, Postman was opposed by radical tech optimist Nicholas Negroponte,5 and in fact, an entire history dissertation could be written on the back and forth between pessimists and optimists during the 2000s and 2010s. We shall not elaborate on that but instead draw attention to the fact that even though most tech pessimists radically underestimated the possibilities of the Internet and overestimated its shortcomings, they often had a better understanding of the nature of its concrete problematic issues. This was in stark opposition to the intoxicated apologists who tended to believe that the good side of the Internet would automatically win out and marginalize or eradicate the bad. Our recommendation is, therefore, to be optimistic but to listen carefully to the pessimists.

There is some irony to the fact that many of the fantastic possibilities the Internet holds for public enlightenment, free speech and intellectual empowerment have run into still more problems. First, these problems have to do with a process of commercialization that is changing the Internet. What once was a decentralized, anarchistic and relatively transparent platform for the interaction of many parallel, individual, small actors became a place where most interaction occurs via the opaque commercial platforms of a few gigantic companies. Second, the problems have to do with the fact that the Internet is increasingly becoming a forum for already existing powers and power struggles between commercial, religious, political and state actors. As a result, freedom of expression is under pressure. The first issue implies that freedom of expression may be suspended the moment it is convenient to commercial interests. Tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google have gained a powerful position that increasingly allows them to adapt and restrict access to information and to the rules of public conversation based on various political and commercial considerations.6 In other words, they are monetizing freedom of expression. The second issue implies that the very same incentives to suppress an adversary’s voice in “real life” now repeat themselves online, only with a great number of new technological possibilities at hand. In addition to traditional repressive censorship that attempts to suppress, prohibit or cleanse the public space from unwanted opinions and statements, new forms of censorship have been created aiming to prevent statements and opinions from spreading. These forms also include harassing, threatening and “doxxing” senders or destroying their credibility. The idea of the Internet as the tool that would bring about a new Golden Age of Enlightenment has been turned on its head.

This distortion is closely linked to the fact that the Internet is increasingly dominated by huge companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Google was founded in 1998 by two PhD students at Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The company name was inspired by the word “googol”, which means the number 10 to the 100th power. The company’s many activities are centered around the search engine Google Search, which eventually outcompeted the Internet’s many early search engines with its feature PageRank, which ranks search results according to how often the website is linked and the importance of the links. The company’s stated goal was “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Google went public in 2004, and they have gradually developed or acquired a wide range of free services that facilitate collaboration (Google Docs), file storage (Google Drive), social networking (Google +), video sharing (YouTube), access to books (Google Books, Ngrams), email (Gmail), topographic maps (Google Maps), mobile telephony (Android), browsing (Google Chrome) and others. The company’s growing research department explores a plethora of things from flying cars to advanced AI and to conquering death. In 2015, all the company’s activities were gathered in the parent company Alphabet (which is, however, still often referred to as Google). In 2000, the company started showing ads based on the search history of users, which swiftly became its main source of income. From 2005, Google started generating tremendous revenue, and in recent years, the company has ranked as the world’s second largest after Apple. The company is among the most ingenious tax avoiders and channels its money out of the US via Ireland, the Netherlands and Bermuda.

Facebook was founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of fellow students at Harvard, initially just as a digital version of the University’s yearbook, showing photos and information about new students, called TheFacebook. The idea was to give students a free tool to keep in touch with their friends and different interest groups as defined on the platform.

The first serious investment came the same year from Silicon Valley legend Peter Thiel. The concept spread, first to other universities, then to regular users in the United States and later to a growing number of other countries. In 2006 came the addition of news feed, which showed news, first from the user’s circle of friends, later from different media and advertisers. In 2008, after settling a lawsuit filed by other Harvard students who claimed Zuckerberg had stolen their idea, Facebook was free to expand and develop the product. They now became able to add news, a messenger service, acquisition of photo sharing service Instagram, chat service WhatsApp and much more. The first many years, the focus was on scaling, increasing the number of users, which was indeed skyrocketing. This number is today estimated around 2 billion worldwide. It was not until recruiting Sheryl Sandberg from Google in 2008 that the company began aiming to run ads as its source of revenue. This method took form in 2010 using the extensive collection of data on users obtained from their behavior on Facebook and from other sources—a business model which rapidly turned the company into one of the largest in the world. Facebook went public in 2012. In the years following the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook was accused of being one of the main sources of “fake news”. And after the revelation in 2018 that the propaganda company Cambridge Analytica had had access to the data of more than 50 million users, Facebook has initiated a highly publicized restructuring of the platform. This naturally also aims to preempt regulations threatened by a number of political forces.

Twitter was founded in 2006 by programmer Jack Dorsey and a handful of his friends. It offers quick and free dialogue through short statements —tweets—with a maximum length of 140 characters (increased, in 2017, to 280 characters). The service quickly came to serve as a conduit for the exchange of breaking news and opinion, and increasingly for brief public statements made by politicians, celebrities and others. Twitter’s success led Facebook to integrate similar features on its platform, but Twitter withstood the competition, and though they are not nearly as big as Google or Facebook, they remain a strong social network, carrying great influence in the world of politics. We thus see heads of state around the world launching political initiatives through a tweet. Twitter, too, generates revenue through advertising.

With their effective free service, these tech giants and their relatives such as Pinterest, Tumblr, Yahoo, Snapchat and many others have attracted huge numbers of users who make it possible to generate growing revenues through advertising. The changing commercial and political focus of these companies is, however, radically changing the public sphere and has gradually challenged the digital Enlightenment project of the Internet.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Clark, N. “Home Alone With Technology: An Interview With Neil Postman” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies (1996): pp. 151–159.

  2. 2.

    Clark, N. “Home Alone With Technology: An Interview With Neil Postman” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies (1996): p. 154.

  3. 3.

    Ibid., p. 156.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., p. 155.

  5. 5.

    Negroponte (1996).

  6. 6.

    Throughout the book, we address the western tech giants, especially Google and Facebook, but also Twitter, Amazon, etc. Government-run Chinese alternatives such as the social media WeChat and Weibo, search engine Baidu and internet retailer Alibaba (which interestingly enough means “thief” in Arab) have even more free speech issues than their western counterparts, but they—still?—have little muscle outside of China.

Bibliography

Books

  1. Negroponte, N. (1996). Being digital. Random House.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.

The images or other third party material in this chapter are included in the chapter's Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the chapter's Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder.

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

Personalised recommendations