Taking part in Storyology, a media conference in Sydney, I found myself standing still before a scene I had seen identical versions of in Vienna, Bonn, Barcelona and countless other places: There is a booth by the conference rooms where people in 3D glasses are watching videos.
A few years ago, I was told this was “immersive journalism” through which people get a first-hand experience of news through 3D technology. I felt unease at how the notion of immersion had been appropriated by tech players who claim it’s an experience they can create through nothing other than simple gadgets. I wondered how immersion, a highly personalized process of interaction, can be technologically mediated or otherwise fabricated.
Some years before, I had started to use the word “immersion” with a sense of desire and admiration for some forms of ethnographic journalism and research-based art practices. Journalists and artists often spend extensive time with a subject in an attempt to share their process of witnessing and encountering it. While this type of journalism has its own issues — in common with the broader anthropological/ethnographic tradition — it does have its merits in how it makes us encounter stories.
Little of this is to be found in the conversations at most of today’s international media conferences. Instead, their agendas are loaded with sessions and workshops on what technology has brought to media practice, of course with the signature booth on immersive journalism, sometimes offered by Google to promote their Google Cardboard. News gaming, robot journalism and virtual reality have become star subjects on these meetings’ agendas.
With technology the salient interest of these conferences, both leading tech companies and start-ups have become active participants — sometimes overshadowing media outlets. This may be simply attributed to the economy of these conferences, which are made possible mainly through lucrative sponsorships by companies of the likes of Google. But beyond the conference industry, there’s a broader question about the political economy of media today and its being governed by the technology sector — specifically big private players.
I was intrigued to find interesting interventions at two leading international media conferences this summer, where technology triumphalism and determinism typically dominate. Rather than soothing my disorientation with regards to we can we talk about journalism beyond the framework of technology, they did a more basic act of unpacking the contested relationship between media, technology and the power dynamics tying them together. As such, both were critical interventions, almost devices of institutional critique.
The first was by well-known Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who in 2014 came out of six years of imprisonment in Tehran for his blogging activities with an influential post published by Matter, defending the open web — the one that existed at the time of his imprisonment and that preceded social media networks. He was the keynote speaker at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum held in Bonn this June.
Derakshan spoke about the core of the media crisis today: the loss of control over publishing and distribution as third-party platforms such as Facebook assume both functions. Facebook has recently introduced Instant Articles, where publishers can post their entire content on Facebook’s own content management system. Assuming the role of publishing is one more step in the crucial distribution role Facebook has been playing, in which it has increasingly been receiving monetary returns from page administrators for what had been a free service more interested in aggregating user data than obtaining money directly from them.
The overriding problem with the control these platforms have on media content distribution is the limitations, through the death of hyperlinks and the filters of algorithms, they have put on our ability to explore knowledge.
Derakshan described the hyperlink as “an amazing achievement in human intellectual history” that is being destabilized as most social platforms disallow them in order to keep users in their spaces. With users and their data becoming the main source of monetization for these platforms’ business models, retaining users becomes essential. The result is what Derakshan called “a closed space, an inward looking space, a space that is linear, passive, programmed, homogenous and sequential,” almost in the same way television streams content at us, despite the web 2.0 promises of interactivity.
This closure is exacerbated by algorithmic filtering of content, which Derakshan described as damaging to both quality and diversity — the cornerstone values of journalism. He discussed how Facebook algorithms — or what he called “imitations of human judgement” — give priority to newness and popularity or “the tyrannies of recency and of the majority.” In this context, minority views are seldom picked and the past is forgotten.
Derakshan tried to imagine disruptions that may be possible ways out, such as liking content you disagree with or posting old reads as opposed to only recent ones. What kind of an alternative feed would one get? We have to imagine a completely different scenario from what we’re used to.
He also advocated campaigning for transparency on how algorithms are constructed. “If it is a free-market economy as they claim,” he said, “and if their god is the free market, why not abide by the rule of the free market and give more choices instead of secretive algorithms?”
“Imagine if they gave us options to choose between a video-centered newsfeed, a text-centered newsfeed, a socially-oriented newsfeed where we get what our friends are doing or see their kitchens, cats and parties, a minority-oriented newsfeed, a majority-oriented news feed,” Derakshan said. “Why not have these options as consumers?”
Derakshan imagined an open-source platform developed by third-party developers who can serve struggling media outlets that still want to push forward high-quality and diverse content.
But Evgeny Morozov, who writes provocatively about politics and technology and is author of The Net Delusion (2012), is a lot more skeptical. Morozov was the keynote speaker at the Global Editors Network, another tech-oriented media conference, held this June in Vienna.
Having made his name critiquing the technological determinism with which digitally mediated political mobilizations have been perceived, Morozov is currently focused on tech firms and a process he has named “data extractivism.” His eyes are on tech companies that offer advertisement-subsidized services “not just to make money but with the goal to extract data, which would be converted into advanced artificial intelligence platforms and techniques.” Through this data-powered artificial intelligence, the companies can then pitch themselves as providers of sophisticated and comprehensive services.
Going beyond Derakshan’s argument, Morozov’s issue is with more than the creation of a new record of relevance through artificial intelligence. His problem is with “building and training systems that are capable of making productions and of automating the work process in whatever industry you look at in a way that wasn’t possible before. This has happened thanks to massive flows of data aggregated and not through a magical breakthrough computer science artificial intelligence.”
Accordingly, companies with such power have managed to “position themselves as the key infrastructure” to a variety of sectors, from health to education to the welfare state. As an example, Morozov cited the British National Health Service giving data to Google to help them better predict how to fight cancer. In a world with this level of control, Morozov predicted that tech corporations will survive a collapse in advertising, as they will be able to charge for services based on advanced data-powered artificial intelligence and their clients will range from users to sectors and states.
Morozov thus confidently used the term “feudal” to describe a society where a few corporations are key intermediaries, pointing to the fact that six of the largest firms in cash reserves in the world are tech companies with direct access to administrations in Europe and America.
Morozov noted the media’s lack of criticality in analyzing tech firms and the use of data as a political and economic resource. He said there is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome within the media industry in relation to the tech companies they have partnered and integrated themselves with. Music and media industries were at the forefront of the confrontation with technology some years ago, he added, but they didn’t bring enough thinking to the confrontation. In the case of music, the digital realm meant a reshuffling of production processes and relations, forcing middlemen — producers, like publishers in media — to rethink their positions.
Unlike Derakhshan, Morozov does not think a parallel world can be imagined — in terms of thinking of different algorithms or creating alternative platforms — because of the massive power accrued by corporations. Instead, he spoke about the need for “an organized battle to reclaim data” through strong alliances, implying that they should be industrial and state alliances — a call that prompted an accusation from one conference attendee that he was being Stalinist. Morozov also called for public interventions to reframe data as a key resource to society at large, to be treated “with the same critical attention that things like labor and land were treated in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Derakhshan and Morozov put a missing ingredient on the agendas of these conforences: returning to the media its agency as a critical player. I was left to wonder if such bold interventions will have a comeback in next year’s conferences, but was also left content that they have managed to permeate these structures at all.
This blog entry is published in collaboration with the Access to Knowledge for Development Centre’s blog Knowledge Maze.