HThere is a troubling thought for those of us who criticize the tech industry: Are we unduly gullible about the capabilities of technology extolled by corporations and their paid evangelists? Did the clever exploitation of social media really lead to the election of Trump and the Brexit vote in 2016, for example?
At some level, the answer must be “no”. Social media obviously played a role some in these political earthquakes, but anyone who attributes seismic shocks on this scale solely to tech companies has not paid attention to what has been going on in democratic countries since the 1970s. Nor have they read the literature. of political science. Nonetheless, the drumbeat of angst about what network technology and surveillance capitalism is doing to society continues to reverberate.
Here and there, however, there are interesting hints of a questioning of the supposed omnipotence of technology. An excellent example is a very nice essay, You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype, by Lee Vinsel, professor at Virginia Tech, who was annoyed by the tech critics who paradoxically inflated hype. âThe media landscape,â he writes, âis full of dramatic claimsâ¦ [by boosters] on how new technologiesâ¦ will lead to massive societal changes in the near future. But misguided critics, he argues, then âreverseâ the boosters’ messages by embracing the drastic change scenarios but instead focusing on the downsides and risks. “It’s as if,” he writes, “they take press releases from startups and cover them with hellish landscapes.”
Vinsel points to a thought-provoking article in American scientist by veteran science writer John Horgan in which he argues that debates about whether to “improve” our minds and bodies often overstate the feasibility of doing so. The problem arises, he writes, “when experts concerned about the possible social and ethical drawbacks of a technology exaggerate its technical feasibility.” This happens in discussions of potentially breakthrough technologies “that could, in principle (that wonderful, versatile fudge factor), boost our cognitive and physiological abilities.” Warnings about what we should often exaggerate what we can to do.”
On some level you might think these are really just philosophical issues, but an interesting new book by Tim Hwang – Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet – suggests that succumbing to the hype could have more serious consequences than we had expected. Hwang argues that digital advertising, the web’s basic business model, is in danger of collapsing, and its potential demise looks suspiciously like the 2008 housing crisis. Evidence he cites includes unreliable advertising numbers. , the unregulated automation of advertising. bidding wars and the fact that most online advertisements don’t work. The connection to the 2008 banking crisis is that in today’s online economy, the value of consumer attention is vastly overrated, just as subprime mortgages were in the years leading up to 2008. If the Online advertising was to implode, Hwang argues, the web and its “free” services would suddenly be accessible only to those who can afford it.
Implausible? Not necessarily. One of the most interesting developments of the past year has been the revelation that serious entities such as the UK Competition and Markets Authority are launching major investigations into the high speed hidden ad auctions run by the platforms of social media. This suggests that there is something rotten there: Business claims about the effectiveness of targeted advertising are, basically, too good to be true.
If so, then we’re mugs to take them at face value. And it’s time to call their bluff. That’s exactly what Sinead Boucher, CEO of Stuff, New Zealand’s leading online news and media site, did. In March 2019, she decided to stop advertising on Facebook, a move her peers considered crazy. “This action has had no effect on our traffic,” she told a seminar at the Reuters Institute in Oxford. âWe were prepared for a drop in our audience but it had no effect. It made us realize that we should think more about our decisions, instead of embracing the idea that you have to work with all social media platforms.
Yeah. And maybe the social media emperor has less clothes than we imagined.
What i read
Frontiers of conservation science published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, a sobering article even for those who are skeptical of humanity’s ability to avert the coming catastrophe.
Things to come
Martin Rees wrote Some Thoughts on 2050 and Beyond, in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, the long-term view of one of the wisest people I know.
The Boston Review‘s Coronapolitics From the Reichstag to the Capitol is an invigorating look by William Callison and Quinn Slobodian on events in the United States against a backdrop of conspiracy theories in Germany.