Media and technology: Beyond the Stockholm Syndrome

Taking part in Storyology, a media conference as far as away as Sidney, I found myself standing still before a scene I had seen identical versions of in Vienna, Bonn, Barcelona and who knows where else.

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 with 3D technology. I felt a certain unease at how the notion of immersion has been appropriated by tech players in a way such that they claim it is 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.

A few 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 or artists spend extensive time with certain subjects in an attempt to share their process of witnessing and encountering these subjects. While this type of journalism has its own issues — in common with the broader anthropological/ethnographic tradition — it has 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 have been 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. Workshops on news gaming, talks on robot journalism and virtual reality among others have become the star subjects on these meetings’ agendas.

With technology being the prominent interest of these media conferences, both leading tech companies and start-ups have become active participants — sometimes overshadowing media outlets themselves. 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 is a broader question of the political economy of media today, and the way it has been governed by the technology sector and specifically big private players.

I was intrigued to find interesting interventions in two leading international media conferences this summer, where technology triumphalism and determinism are typically quite predominant. Rather than soothing my disorientation as to how we can we talk about journalism beyond the framework of technology, they did a more basic act of unpacking the contested relationship between media and technology and the power dynamics tying them together. As such, both were critical interventions, interestingly positioned almost as devices of institutional critiques.

The first was by well known Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who came out of six years of imprisonment in Tehran in 2014 for his blogging activities with an influential post published on Medium, defending the open web — the one that existed at the time of his imprisonment and preceding social media networks. He was the keynote speaker at this year’s Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum held in Bonn this past June.

Derakshan spoke about the core of the media crisis today: the loss of control over publishing and distribution, with third party platforms such as Facebook assuming both functions. Facebook has recently introduced Instant Articles, where publishers can post their entire content on Facebook on its own content management system. Assuming the role of publishing is one more step beyond the crucial distribution role that Facebook has been playing, and even in that role it has increasingly been getting a monetary return from page administrators for what had been a free service.

The overriding issue of the control these platforms have over media content distribution is the limits it has put on our ability to explore knowledge through the death of hyperlinks and the filters of algorithms.

Derakshan described the hyperlink as “an amazing achievement in human intellectual history,” one that is being destabilized as most social platforms disallow them in order to retain users in their spaces. With users and their data becoming the main source of monetization for the business model of these platforms, 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 describes 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 tries 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 are 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 news feed, a text-centered news feed, a socially-oriented news feed where we get what our friends are doing or see their kitchens, cats and parties, a minority-oriented news feed, a majority-oriented news feed. 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 there is a lot more skepticism from Evgeny Morozov, who writes provocatively about politics and technology and is author of The Net Delusion (2012). Morozov was the keynote speaker at the Global Editors Network, another highly tech-oriented media conference, held this June in Vienna.

Morozov, who made his name critiquing the technological determinism with which digitally mediated political mobilizations were perceived, is currently focused on tech firms and a process that 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 rather 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. Morozov cites the example of 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 predicts that tech corporations will survive a collapse in advertisement, as they will be able to charge for services they offer that are based on advanced data-powered artificial intelligence and their clients will range from users to sectors and states.

Morozov thus confidently uses 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 lack of critical outlook from the media in analyzing tech firms and the use of data as a political and economic resource. He says that there is some kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” within the media industry vis a vis tech companies with which they have partnered and integrated themselves. He added that the music and the media industry were at the forefront of the confrontation with technology some years ago 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 the middlemen — the producers, like the publishers in media — to rethink their positions.

But unlike Derakshan, 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 industrial and state alliances. This call met with an accusation from one of the conference attendees that he was being Stalinist. Morozov also called for public interventions to reframe data as a key resource to society at large, and 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 on the agendas of these conventions a missing ingredient, returning to media its agency as a critical player. One is left to wonder if such bold interventions will have a comeback in next year’s editions of these conferences, but one is also left content that such interventions have managed to permeate these structures.

This post is published in collaboration with Mada Masr.

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