You Are Not Your Browser History

Published on January 30th, 2012 in: Editorial, Issues, Media, Oh No You Didn't, Science and Technology, The Internets |

visual rep of internet
Visual representation of
the Internet from
the Opte Project

Over the last few weeks, the blogosphere was in an uproar over SOPA and PIPA, two pieces of proposed legislation set to appear before the House and the Senate in January. While the alleged intention of the legislation was to thwart online piracy of movies and other media, opponents expressed concern that the actual effects of the bills would be far more insidious and damaging to the Internet, claiming that it would drastically change not only the structure of the Internet, but the way people use it. Although both SOPA and PIPA are US legislative proposals, there was an overwhelming fear that they would cripple Internet usage on a global scale.

What was almost as distressing as SOPA and PIPA was the supposed lack of mainstream media coverage. A Media Matters article showed a graph indicating that:

“While U.S. television news outlets have largely ignored the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act during their evening news and opinion programming, they have covered repeatedly and at-length Tim Tebow, Casey Anthony, Kim Kardashian’s divorce, the British Royal Family, and Alec Baldwin being kicked off an airplane.”

Free Press suggests it’s the “quarter billion dollars” that companies like “CBS Corp., Comcast, Disney, and News Corp.” have poured into lobbying efforts as well as the $55M they’ve contributed towards political campaigns that are the motivating factors for this lack of coverage.

In situations like this, it is imperative that we the public “follow the money,” and an examination of Danny Goldberg’s CBS News editorial “Hysterical over SOPA for all the wrong reasons” should be scrutinized with this in mind.

Goldberg’s bio at the end of the article indicates that he’s an author and the president of Gold Village Entertainment, but Goldberg was also the Chairman and CEO of Mercury Records and later, Warner Bros. Records, so his complaints about lost revenue should be filtered through those facts. All eight comments (as of this writing) on the article call Goldberg out for being greedy and short sighted, with one stating bluntly:

“Sounds to me like someone who’s president of a company and the former CEO of another one, as well as a published author, just ranted about how much more money he could have been making had SOPA passed, and forgot to touch on the incredible negative affects this bill would have had on areas OTHER than the music industry. Sorry, no respect for you here.”

Buried in the rant are a few interesting points. Goldberg warns that “the defeat of SOPA and PIPA was also a victory for the enormously powerful tech industry, which almost always beats the far smaller creative businesses in legislative disputes” and adds, parenthetically, that “Google alone generated more than $37 billion in 2011, more than double the revenue of all record companies, major and indie combined.”

Goldberg’s vision of a battle between “creativity” and “technology” sounds about right for the former Chairman and CEO of two old-guard record labels, who’ve been battling the Internet over its transformation of the music industry for well over two decades now. One or two comments could be passed over, but Goldberg’s not done. “What is good for Google and Facebook is not always going to be what’s best for the 99 percent,” he adds ominously, finishing his treatise with a dour analysis on “the trend of the last decade, in which those who write code get richly rewarded, while those who write the music, poetry, drama and journalism that are being encoded have to get day jobs.” (Never mind that Goldberg himself hasn’t been a member of the 99 percent since at least the 1960s.)

the filter bubble

Interestingly, this idea that technology in the wrong hands can have dire consequences is the main thesis of Eli Pariser’s 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You. Quoting Kranzberg’s first law of technology, Pariser aims to remind us that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” (Melvin Kranzberg was a professor and one of the founders of the Society for the History of Technology.)

Drawing examples and analogies from many disciplines—including advertising, behavioral science, biology, economics, genetics, marketing, philosophy, print media, psychology, sociology, and computer programming—The Filter Bubble makes the compelling and disturbing argument that Facebook and Google (among others) have been using algorithms to create personalized media experiences that are not only ubiquitous and powerful, but also invisible. The pendulum of Internet democracy has swung in the other direction and is no longer putting power into the hands of the public, but instead, redistributing the power into the hands of “a few corporate actors.” (Surprisingly, issues surrounding net neutrality are not mentioned in the book.)

Such concerns also informed the January 18 SOPA strike and as a result, both SOPA and PIPA were both shelved this month. However, many are concerned that out of sight will mean out of mind and that both will be retooled and reintroduced when the victory chanting has died down, and will slip under the watchdogs’ radar. Others have tied such legislative efforts into the Patriot Act, suggesting that our Constitutional freedoms are at stake.

The Filter Bubble posits the idea that with personalized media, we are no longer free to be our best selves and as a result, we are no longer able to see beyond ourselves. Pariser argues that this is a threat to the function of democracy itself, saying, “personalization has given us . . . a public sphere sorted and manipulated by algorithms, fragmented by design, and hostile to dialogue.”

The Filter Bubble is essential reading for anyone who spends more than five minutes a day on the Internet and uses Google or Facebook. It suggests that in order to harness the Internet for good and not evil, we all must take a more active role in how we use it and think seriously about how it may be using us.

Less Lee Moore, Managing Editor

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