Why It’s Important That The Internet Created Technopopulism

After finishing ITIF’s new report on technopopulism, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this missing a couple of pages, about, you know, the Internet?

While there is much to like about the report, the missing piece, the missing message, as McLuhan famously quipped, is the medium.

Here is the basic gist of the report. In the old days, tech policy was decided by educated wonks who knew the finer points of policy and could  make reasoned arguments. Better outcomes and more nuanced policy proliferated. In the last few years, the debate has been morphed by good ol’ American populism. The new image of technology policy is one of individuals protesting in favor of network neutrality outside Chairman Wheeler’s house. To Rob Atkinson and his co-authors, the new discourse is long on cliches and short on analysis, much to the detriment of consumers.

Yes. I agree to a certain extent, but there’s more to the story.

It is nearly trite to say that the Internet has dramatically changed and continues to change how an individual relates to others and knowledge. Yet hardly a word is mentioned about this important change in this report.

The gatekeeper function of the media has been democratized with the Internet, creating new, expansive spaces to discuss any number of topics. And if there is one thing to unite people on the Internet interested in policy, it would naturally be Internet policy.

While Rob et al might lament the old days where there was balanced and thoughtful discussion, it was only possible because the high barriers to entry limited the number of people that could have possibly been involved in the conversation. Enforcing norms without formal institutional structures could be achieved when the absolute numbers were smaller due to the these constraints. Moreover, to be part of that group required a job that was dedicated to its study, such as an economist, a lawyer, or an analyst at the think tank. Of course, to get that kind of job required formal education that signaled interest and continued dedication to the topic area, which also helped to enforce a set of norms.

Once the conversation expanded via the Internet, the norms and the institutional requirements dramatically changed, leading to the world that the authors detail. Of course, there is still a core of educated discussants, but that has been supplemented by broader ethical and policy conversations over Twitter, discussion boards, Reddit, comment sections and countless other places. But let’s remember, this doesn’t mean the concerns are being translated onto the political stage. Even network neutrality, with its millions of FCC comments, is still largely unknown. Indeed, even after the President’s speech on the topic last November, 54 percent of those polled, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, said they haven’t heard of the concept.

Indeed, what the report cites as instances of technopopulism is just a small fraction of the entire conversation. What is included are the issues that have, for one reason or another, garnered attention. For the most part, other important issues face far less outsider scrutiny. Take for example, the House Energy & Commerce efforts to update the Communications Act. Arguably, this new Act would be far more important than network neutrality, since it would determine how tech is governed. And yet, even the most commented upon subject, video law, only received 220 responses. Apart from network neutrality, FCC dockets are fairly technical and aren’t often commented upon.

All things considered, I still think we are toiling in relative obscurity. For now.

Meritocracy in Blogging

Stories like this really push back against the filter bubble thesis:

It was 2:45 a.m. on a Thursday last April. Matthew Rognlie was still awake, like a lot of graduate students. He had just finished typing 459 words and a few equations. They totaled six paragraphs, which he posted to the comments section of a popular economics blog.

Thus begins the unlikely story of, arguably, the most-influential critique of the most influential economics book of this century.

Changing Tastes in the Top 40 & Some Economics of Music

A back and forth has popped up about the Top 40. It began with Libby Jacobson comparing a Top 40 list from 1996 and today. As she points out, even though only Alanis Morissette was the only one to have two songs in the Top 40, today the Top 40 shows much less variety:

Taylor Swift has two songs in the Top 5. Meghan Trainor has two songs in the top 10. Maroon 5: Two songs in Top 20. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith, Sia, and Ed Sheeran appear twice in the list. When you include collaborations, Drake, John Newman, Tove Lo and Juicy J also appear multiple times on the list. Not only does pop music all sound the same these days, the mainstream-successful stuff is largely being made by the same people.

Ultimately, Jacobson concludes that “pop music is converging both in terms of style/sound and in terms of the talent & personalities producing it.”

Aaron Ross Powell offers up an interpretation: Consider 100 kinds of music. When music is expensive you won’t try all 100 tastes, he notes. Rather, you will stay within the confines of your favorite band or style. “But if music is cheap, you’ll try out more, if not all, of the 100. And within each, you’ll try more bands.” He continues:

So my hypothesis is that in 1996, the average number of tastes that had a sizable share of the listening public’s attention and the average number of bands each person listened to within those tastes was lower than today. Today, individual people’s tastes likely diverge more, and within those tastes they likely listen to more variety.

Thus what looks like more variety in the Top 40 in 1996 is actually representative of less variety among the public as a whole. More of those 100 tastes are popular enough to make the Top 40 because people have converged more on a subset of those 100. And what looks like a lack of variety in the Top 40 today is actually representative of more variety among the public as a whole. People are more divergent in their tastes and they’re listening to more bands within those tastes, which means the taste/band combinations that make the Top 40 are those that only slightly edge out all the others people dig. And those are likely to reside in the bland middle.

What is missing in the discussion is an understanding of the Top 40 as a barometer of taste. What exactly does the Top 40 or Top 100 actually measure? It could be that changes in the industry both on the consumer and supplier sides have made the chart far less accurate for whatever they may capture. According to Wikipedia, the Billboard Charts are constructed from overall airplay, single sales, digital sales, and streams. As everyone is aware, both digital and physical sales have taken a drive, but still play a prominent role in how a single places in the top spots. It is also worthy to note that both the Billboard and Top Spotify tracks share most of the same top 20 songs (I wonder what the correlation is here), which means both are essentially interchangeable. To partially answer this question, the charts mostly capture the sales of new music, so the demand side might not be the issue. Instead, the supply side might be the cause of the clustering.

According to Andy Baio’s analysis of the Billboard Top 100 from 1957 to 2008, by shear numbers, the 1960s was the decade of greatest variety. At its peak in the year 1966, 743 different songs made it to the top 100. By 2008, this number had seen a steady drop to 351 songs. Even in the good years for the music industry, the production of varied popular music was far less than it has been throughout much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Changes in the late 1970s and early 1980s reoriented the music industry. Beginning with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the search for blockbuster albums directed the companies towards that kind of production, which seems to have largely transformed the business.

Baio also offers evidence to suggest that the 1990s were a unique time of one hit wonders. Over the last decade of the 20th century, 9.40% of all songs falling into this category, while the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were all in the high 6% range.

And of course, one cannot deny the pressure placed on the music industry. Between 1996 and today, broadband Internet spread and Napster popped up, marking the beginning of a dramatic change. With the extensive of illegal filesharing, a huge downward pressure was placed on the music industry declining sales and the bottom line. This has only continued with the introduction of Spotify. Writing in 2012, one analyst explained the changes:

The past 11 years have seen a vast decrease in the number of blockbuster albums. In 2000, the biggest selling album of the year was N’Sync-No Strings Attached, selling 9.94 million copies, and 18 albums sold over 3 million copies. Nine years later, the biggest selling album of the year was Taylor Swift’s Fearless, selling 3.2 million copies. In the same year, the third biggest selling album of the year was the Michael Jackson greatest hits compilation, Number Ones, selling 2.36 million copies. In the past four years, no more than five albums per year have sold more than 2 million copies in a year. In 2011, despite the blockbuster success of Adele’s album 21, with 5.82 million copies sold, 21 was only one of three albums to sell more than 2 million copies. By contrast, in 1999, the year Napster began operating, 24 albums sold over 2 million copies in the United States.

Revenues have gone down, as have production budgets. But production is still based on an album schedule and blockbuster albums, so consumers get a bundle of songs by the same artist, but there are fewer overall artists being produced, hence clustering. I am sure there is more here and in doing some research on this subject, a number of new ideas came to mind. I hope to explore them in the future.

Notes & Quotes from Eli Pariser’s “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You”

“To my preteen self, it seemed clear that the Internet was going to democratize the world, connecting us with better information and the power to act on it. The California futurists and techno-optimists in those pages spoke with a clear-eyed certainty; an inevitable, irresistible revolution was just around the corner, one that would flatten society, unseat the elites, and usher in a kind of freewheeling global utopia.” pg 3

The Filter Bubble introduces three dynamics we’ve never dealt with before: first, you are alone in it, as it is you own personal bubble. Second, it is invisible in its actions. Finally, you don’t choose to enter into the bubble. pp 9-10

“As the cost of communication over large distances and to large groups of people has plummeted, we’re increasingly unable to attend to it all,” leading to what blogger and media analyst Steve Rubel calls the attention crash. p 11

The world of personalization is appealing as a “return to a Ptolemaic universe in which the sun and everything else revolves around us.” p 12

“In the filter bubble, there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning” p 15 My reaction: What does Kirzner have to say about this?

“To be the author of your life, professor Yochai Benkler argues, you have to be aware of a diverse array of options and lifestyles. When you enter a filter bubble, you’re letting companies that construct it choose which options you’re aware of. You may think that you’re the captain of your own destiny, but personalization can lead you down a road to a kind of informational determinism in which what you’ve clicked on in the past determines what you see next—a Web history you’re doomed to repeat.” p 16

Robert Putnam defined two kinds of social capital: in-group oriented bonding capital represents those events when you meet an old friend, while bridging capital occurs when lots of people from different backgrounds come together to meet each other, like in a townhall. p 17 Continue reading

Scientific Vindication Of Classical Rhetoric Studies

Pain might actually have a pro-social function:

“Our findings show that pain is a particularly powerful ingredient in producing bonding and cooperation between those who share painful experiences,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Brock Bastian of the University of New South Wales in Australia. “The findings shed light on why camaraderie may develop between soldiers or others who share difficult and painful experiences.”

Students of rhetoric might have already suspected that, however. Pathos, one of the traditional appeals set down by Aristotle, is usually translated as emotional appeal. But ancient Greek was a preliterate language that conserved words by attaching multiple meanings onto them. This helps to explain why arete is such an expansive term. Accordingly, pathos meant both to suffer and to experience. In a small way, this study supports this ancient line of thought.

Saying “If You’re Not Paying, You Are The Product” Is Wrong

This week I heard the phrase that haunts tech policy. You know it. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. 

Concise? Yes. But wrong.

The product is actually an ad, positioned on the site and tailored for you. Countless weeklies across the US run under a free model and have done so for decades. The New York Times has defrayed the expense of printing by ad supplement since its beginning. And the first newspapers, which popped up in the trading ports of Venice and Amsterdam, helped merchants sell excess to offset expensive parchment.

But it makes sense why the pithy phrase has staying power.

Mull it over again.

If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

Naturally, we wonder next, wait, am I being violated? It is a tradeoff dripping with ethical accusations. Steven Pinker gives us one way to understand it in “Better Angels of Our Nature,” when he reviews the work of political psychologist Phillip Tetlock:

Tetlock distinguishes three kinds of tradeoffs. Routine tradeoffs are those that fall within a single relational model, such as choosing to be with one friend rather than another, or to purchase one car rather than another. Taboo tradeoffs pit a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another, such as selling out a friend, a loved one, an organ, or oneself for barter or cash. Tragic tradeoffs pit sacred values against each other, as in deciding which of two needy transplant patients should receive an organ, or the ultimate tragic tradeoff, Sophie’s choice between the lives of her two children.

Are we selling a kidney? No, we are giving a small part of our attention for an ad that won’t be remembered 60 percent of the time. Advertising ethically can be done, as Derek Powazek, who helped to build Technorati, points out:

There are ways to do [ad supported media] while still maintaining respect for the consumers. We’ve been doing it for years.

Saying that you are the product if you aren’t paying for it, disintegrates under just a minimum of scrutiny. It’s time to get rid of that phrase.

Social Networks and the Proliferating Performances of Identity

Tom Chatfield’s essay on technology and language groks Walter Ong and under-appreciated Medium theory. He begins at the genesis of the written word and makes a huge arc to today’s moral themes. First the problem of information scarcity:

The vast bulk of that story is silence. Indeed, darkness and silence are the defining norms of human history. The earliest known writing probably emerged in southern Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago but, for most of recorded history, reading and writing remained among the most elite human activities: the province of monarchs, priests and nobles who reserved for themselves the privilege of lasting words.

Yet the world is now one of information abundance and mediums of exchange:

This sheer quantity is in itself something new. All future histories of modern language will be written from a position of explicit and overwhelming information — a story not of darkness and silence but of data, and of the verbal outpourings of billions of lives. Where once words were written by the literate few on behalf of the many, now every phone and computer user is an author of some kind.

Leading to, among other things, new expressions of identity on the Internet:

All interactions, be they spoken or written, are to some degree performative: a negotiation of roles and references. Onscreen words are a special species of self-presentation — a form of storytelling in which the very idea of ‘us’ is a fiction crafted letter by letter. Such are our linguistic gifts that a few sentences can conjure the story of a life: a status update, an email, a few text messages. Almost without our noticing, we weave worlds from these snapshots, until an illusion of unbroken narrative emerges from a handful of paragraphs.

Chatfield is right. The biggest gulf between digital natives and digital immigrants lies in the negotiation of an authentic social performance. Just some food for thought, what again is wrong with the Auschwitz selfie? You should go read Chatfield’s essay.

A Great Paragraph from Henry Jenkins

From this article:

History teaches us that old media never die. And before you say, “What about the eight-track,” let’s distinguish among media, genres and delivery technologies. Recorded sound is a  medium. Radio drama is a genre. CDs, MP3 files and eight-track cassettes are delivery technologies. Genres and delivery technologies come and go, but media persist as layers within an ever more complicated information and entertainment system. A medium’s content may shift, its audience may change and its social status may rise or fall, but once a medium establishes itself it continues to be part of the media ecosystem. No one medium is going to “win” the battle for our ears and eyeballs.

Notes & Quotes from Daniel Boorstin’s “The Republic of Technology”

  • “An athlete of steel and iron with not a superfluous ounce of metal on it” exclaimed William Dean Howells when he recalled the gigantic 700-ton Corliss steam engine that towered over Machinery Hall at the Philadelphia International Exhibition.   A festive crowd cheered as the engine set in motion a wonderful assortment of machines—pumping water, combing wool, spinning cotton, tearing hemp, printing newspapers, lithographing wallpaper, sewing cloth, folding envelopes, sawing logs, shaping wood, making shoes—8,000 machines spread over 13 acres.  Others, especially visitors abroad were troubled by the American spectacle.  Said Thomas Henry Huxley: “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur and territory does make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity and terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?” p 1
  • For the most of human history, the norm had been continuity. Change was news.  Daily lives were governed by tradition. The most valued works were the oldest. The great works of architecture were monument that survived coming antique. Furnishings became increasingly valuable by becoming antique.  Great literature never went out of date. “Literature,” Ezra Pound observed, “is news that stays news.” he new enriched the old and was enriced by the old. Shakespeare enriched Chaucer. Shaw enriched Shakespeare. It was a world of the enduring and the durable. p 4
  • The importance of a scientific work, as the German mathemtician David Hilbert once observed, can be measured by the number of previous publications it makes superfluous to read. p 4
  • Each political revolution has its ancien regime and so inevitably looks backward to what must be redressed and revised. Even if the hopes are utopian, the blueprint for utopia is made from the raw materials of the recent past. p 22
    • Like each political revolution, every technological revolution has its ancien regime, an order that must be overthrown for the new.
  • We cannot forecast what will be the ruiles of any particular new world until after that new world has been discovered. It can be full of all sorts of outlandish monsters; it could be ruled by diabolic logic. Who for example coulpd have predicted that the internal-combustion engine and the automobile would spawn a new world of installment buying, credit cards, franchises, and annual models—that it would revise the meaning of cities and tranform morality by instigating new institutions of n-fault reparations? p 24
  • Gamut Fallacy:
    • “Gamut” an English word rooted in the Greek “gamma” for the lowest note in an old musical scale, means the complete range of anything.  When we think, for example, of our future political life and our governmental forms, we can have in mind substantially the whole range of possibilities… But the history of technology, again, is quite another story. We cannot envisage, or even imagine, the range of alternatives from which future technological history will be made. p 31
  • When looked back upon, the series of events between 1776 and 1789 are interesting not so much for the rationalized political ideology, but for the political technology—the application of English ideas to the circumstances of time and place. p 49
  • The Declaration of Independence was not like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen or the English Bill of Rights, it was a set of grievances. It was a list of practical problems that the Crown had failed to properly consider.
  • The Swiss writer Max Frisch once described technology as “the knack of arranging the world that we don’t have experience it” p 59
  • The Census of 1890 declared that there was no frontier line.  In 1893, Turner published his thesis on the Frontier, connecting American virtue with the openness of the country. Once manifest destiny had ended, the country soon closed itself off to others. In 1917, Congress adopted a comprehensive immigration law which required a literacy test, added new classes of exclusions and established a barred zone in the Southwest Pacific which excluded immigrants not already kept out by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908. p 78-83

Don’t Believe Everything you Hear

It seems intuitive that the rise of the Internet and social networking sites has made us all more lonely. Because we are all constrained with our time and because online connections seem shallow, it logically follows that the more time we spend online in lieu of face-to-face interactions, the more lonely we are. Though, the empirical evidence is not as clear on this as we have been lead to believe.

Fortunate or not, I remember the days when a phone call across the country to family was expensive and short. Now, I regularly have free conversations with friends a couple of continents away.  Advances in cameras and expanding bandwidth speeds have made those experiences more immersive and intimate. Simultaneously, social networking sites now allow us to more easily stay in touch with acquaintances, helping us to build and maintain much larger social networks.

Sociologists and psychologists tend to agree,

His new book, Still Connecteddefinitively refutes the Marche thesis that Americans have grown more detached. Drawing on 40 years of social surveys, Fischer shows that the quality and quantity of Americans’ relationships are about the same today as they were before the Internet.

I am not worried…

For all our talk of self-reliance and rugged individualism, Americans are actually far less likely to live alone and enjoy key forms of personal autonomy than people in other countries, including France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Britain, and Japan. What distinguishes Americans is not that we are more isolated, but that we spend more time and energy worrying about whether we are.