Far from democratising culture, the rise of the tech giants has just replaced the old gatekeepers with new (crude) onesby Houman Barekat / January 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
When the owners of the New Republic sacked the Editor Franklin Foer in December 2014, the New York-based magazine was plunged into crisis—a number of senior staff resigned and many feared for its future. For all its intellectual prestige, the magazine hadn’t been notching up enough online hits, and Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook who bought it in 2012, wanted to shake things up. He hired a former journalist at the celebrity gossip website Gawker to re-invent the New Republic for the digital era. It was a portentous moment for anyone interested in the future of publishing, apparently pitting the values of traditional journalism against the commercial cynicism of Big Tech.
In his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Foer charges Facebook and its peers with having brought about “the catastrophic collapse of the news business and the degradation of American civic culture.” He casts the world of online media as a creeping dystopia, arguing that its obsession with digital interconnectedness is incompatible with the sanctity of the individual. For Foer, the idea that humanity can be morally re-shaped through the power of group scrutiny—what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has termed “radical transparency”—raises the chilling spectre of a society where the individual is subjugated to the collective.
Is Foer right? Or are these the grumbles of an analogue-era cultural gatekeeper jealously guarding his privilege? It’s true that social media provides an outlet for our baser impulses: insecure teenagers crave Instagram “likes,” while at the darker end of the spectrum, death threats are tossed around with impunity on platforms like Twitter. But complaints about the barbarism of the crowd are as old as democracy: one person’s mob rule is another’s “radical transparency.”
Tech companies are catching up with public anxieties. Late in 2017, Twitter finally applied restrictions on hate speech. In January, Facebook made big play of adjusting its algorithms to increase the prominence of what friends share with each other over all news—fake or not. Such tinkering, however, has done little to dispel a wider unease about the impact of rapid technological change on our culture in general—and the political economy of cultural production in particular.