In the latest episode of the podcast Crazy/Genius, we ask why the dream of the digital revolution has proven so disappointing for some of its early advocates. One of those dreamers was Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist and a data journalist, who entered Harvard University in 1991, just months after Tim Berners-Lee launched the first website. “The early Internet was deeply groovy,” Broussard said, a place where idealistic young men and women thought they could redesign the rules of society.
In the roughly 21 months since he took the oath of office, President Donald Trump has sunk far below the already-low bar he set for himself in his ugly campaign. As I see it, there are five main fronts of this assault on our democracy. First, there is Donald Trump’s assault on the rule of law. Second, the legitimacy of our elections is in doubt. Third, the president is waging war on truth and reason. Lesley Stahl, the 60 Minutes reporter, asked Trump during his campaign why he’s always attacking the press.
Sara Spangelo is the CEO of a young start-up called Swarm Technologies. Swarm had secured a spot on an Indian rocket for its product: a set of four small satellites nicknamed Spacebees. The Spacebees are prototypes for Swarm’s ambitious plan to provide internet access to areas without it.
There is increasing evidence that this skepticism, exacerbated by the president’s relentless attacks, is trickling down to the next generation of voters. A 2017 report on a series of focus groups with 52 people between the ages of 14 and 24, conducted by Data & Society and the Knight Foundation, found that many young Americans believe the news is biased and are skeptical of its accuracy. “There was no assumption that the news would convey the truth or would be worthy of their trust,” the study reported.
Google does feature work by traditional media organizations more than insurgent conservative outlets. Of course, Google’s ability to divine “quality” as distinct from “popularity” is limited. Search-ranking technology relies on the implicit votes of readers, with all the human biases that come bundled with them. Google, for its part, categorically rejected the claim that it tinkered with search results for political reasons. “When users type queries into the Google Search bar, our goal is to make sure they receive the most relevant answers in a matter of seconds.
A barista gets burned at work, buys first-aid cream at Target, and later that day sees a Facebook ad for the same product. In another Target, someone shouts down the aisle to a companion to pick up some Red Bull; on the ride home, Instagram serves a sponsored post for the beverage. A home baker wishes aloud for a KitchenAid mixer, and moments after there’s an ad for one on his phone. Two friends are talking about recent trips to Japan, and soon after one gets hawked cheap flights there.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the internet are not media. They are something new we do not yet fully understand. To call these platforms publishers is to presume that their task is merely to produce content. It is to presume, then, that the internet should be produced, packaged, and polished, and that when someone says something bad anywhere on it then the entire internet is beschmutzed. The larger question, of course, is what the internet is and how it fits into society and society into it. We are just beginning to see what it can be.