What Our Technoutopia Turned Into

I’m old enough to remember when the internet looked like this. It was 1994, I was a first year college student, and the buzz in the dorms was about the amazing democratizing potential of this crazy new gizmo that politicians were still describing as “the information superhighway.”

The Web, we realized, would radically disintermediate information flows. Rather than a handful of information gatekeepers hoarding prestigious jobs in a few institution, everyone would be at the same time reader, writer and editor: leading to a radical decentralization and an explosion in information, engagement and understanding. As a 19-year old, I was genuinely excited about this looming, radical democratization of information; we all were.

Fast forward 20 years, and survey the state of reporting on, for instance, Africa:

Congo is the scene of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our lifetimes. Two successive wars have killed more than five million people since 1996.

Yet this great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories. As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.

When I arrived, there were only three other foreign reporters in Congo.

Our technoutopia’s gone a bit pear-shaped, hasn’t it?

The wars in Congo – and the enormous journalistic crack they fell through – lay bare the strange, skewed ways attention flows in the internet age. The web has turned out to be a weapon of mass distraction, subtly undermining our ability to engage with the worst outrages of our time.

The problem isn’t that the web hasn’t fulfilled its democratic promise. It’s that it has, and only too well. Give people a choice between endless servings of ice cream and endless servings of broccoli and it turns out they’ll go for the ice cream, every time. The internet’s eroded the institutional pressures that we used to come under in place to pass on the informational sweets once in a while, opting for the kinds of journalistic vegetables that will nourish you but won’t give you a sugar rush.

I think it was Clay Shirky who explained the mechanism most clearly: the great 20th Century Newspaper was basically an elaborate mechanism to get the guy down the street who needed to sell a used washing machine to pay the salary for the Cairo Bureau Chief. The internet destroyed that model of subsidization: the guy down the street who needs to sell a used washing machine has no reason to kick any money down to Cairo anymore.

That’s a pretty old insight by now. Even the shock of grasping that nothing magical is going to come along to replace it is old hat. What we’re left with, in 2014, is the fall-out: that dystopian realization that what’s replaced the well-coiffed gate-keepers isn’t some radical hippie communicational democracy but photos of everybody’s cat.

These are the new rules of the game. You can love them or hate them but you probably can’t change them, so best to do what you can to work with them.

As an advocate facing radical indifference to an outrage whose “non-newsness” I can neither understand nor accept, it’s all rather upsetting. People will not share stories about starving refugees, and because they won’t editors won’t commission those stories, and because they won’t politicians won’t fund an even minimally adequate response.

I don’t know how, exactly, you go about explaining to a refugee mom in Eastern Chad that her child has to be stunted and anemic because there’s a little blue button on a screen with a thumbs-up logo that people in the West can’t bring themselves to affix to her suffering. But that seems to me about the size of it.

8 thoughts on “What Our Technoutopia Turned Into”

  1. Even though you are joking, there may be something to the idea. If a celebrity (e.g., Bono) gets behind the idea, then it becomes news candy. Sad but effective.

  2. Completely agree. Sadly that 1% of coverage is more than some of these very important issues would get otherwise.

  3. It seems that individual bloggers need a long up-ramp to project their voices beyond the general cat-caphony. But as you know well, Chronicles of injustice can, over time, make a genuine impact through the blogosphere.

    We appreciate your efforts.

  4. While the analysis of the demise of journalism rings true (and isn’t totally new), I came to question it recently.

    If I look at the reporting around the Ukraine crisis and the attention it gets in the Internet also, it is probably the first clear case where (through the internet) a large number of people was able to make a more informed decision on global events instead of solely being spoon fed propaganda by thier local media.
    Granted, back in the “good old days of foreign reporting” the overall quality of media reporting would have probably been somewhat better, but still very much controlled by propaganda efforts and people would have not had an alternative source of information to form an informed opinion themselves on these events.

    The other recent experience I had is that (currently living in Uganda) I noticed that the information-age has dramatically increased (instead of reduced as some people think) the gap in life-realities of people between Africa and the “west”.
    If it was already bad in regards to how a person from US/Europe has a really hard time imagining how life as a subsistance Farmer is in Africa, at least the general experience of the urban elites was pretty similar in the 1980ties or so.
    These days however the life of the elites in Africa is still pretty much like it was in the 1980ies (some small enclaves of western educated internet savy youths in places like Nairobi nonwithstanding), while the industrialized countries undergo a massive change in lifestyles and habits due to the internet.

    This in turn makes all the issues people face in Africa even more distant and absurd when looking through the eyes of an information-age citizen and it will probably become even worse when the last generation of non-internet savy people in the “west” is retireing from positions of power as it will be the case in a decade or two.

  5. Dowden has a similar thought on the Rwandan genocide. The problem had been heard about in his newsroom but he was in South Africa and he stopped off on the way back to the UK, almost as an afterthought or better go just in case, to find the horrifying events taking place.

    I do think, an internationally reputed journalist, could do a lot of good in these areas. Backpack, notepad, pencil and laptop and report from the frontline to NYT et al. But it probably won’t pay the mortgage.

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