This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology copyright ©2011 (American Society for Information Science and Technology).
The belief that media technologies enforce a worldview on their users is a common theme for popular authors about media, suggesting that technological devices on their own create an effect for ill or good. In technology studies, the idea that devices have an inevitable and uniform effect on all societies is known as the fallacy of technological determinism. Yet in the popular press, it is hard to find authors who argue from a position other than technological determinism. It is gratifying, then, to see that these three books have reached out to their audience with a more complex depiction of the interaction between technology and society. Although determinism makes for good headlines, it is not a particularly useful position if one is attempting to educate future media professionals.
As described by B. Bimber, technology can affect the expectations of society and thus make certain alternatives seem more or less favorable, a result he calls “normative.” He disagrees, though, that technology has a calculus of its own, saying that “nomological” accounts of technology’s impact on society cannot be supported. Several well-known books about media are overtly deterministic in this nomological way, such as M. McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, but some media critics avoid this fallacy. R. Williams’s book on television, for instance, explains how the cultural drive for a device is there even before the technical means have been established to make it happen.
Far from being the same in all societies, Williams shows television developed differently in the United States and Nazi Germany; the ideals of the society, and not some internal mechanism in a technology itself, predict how technology will diffuse. As explained by historian of technology A. Pacey, a device embodies the culture in which it originates, and when someone tries to use it in a different context, a conflict arises between the original culture and the new environment. Instead of seeing devices enforcing their culture on society, Pacey likens the process to a dialogue, where the device and the culture negotiate their differences. The process is not the same in two different contexts, and always involves the choices and goals of the human actors. These three books offer readers the opportunity to uncover the social and cultural context of networks, and with this information, hopefully empower readers to take a role in shaping their development.
Tim Wu provides the legal and entrepreneurial contexts of media in the twentieth century as his backdrop for understanding network neutrality. Wu proposes to complicate the inevitability of “the Cycle” of innovation – how inventions at first disrupt entrenched industries but then become the basis for new empires that hinder later inventions. Instead of saying that this is an inexorable or even necessary process, Wu points out repeatedly that it is a matter of choice. If Wu had written a more deterministic book, he would have described how the independent spirit of the Internet has shaken up the old media corporations and, for the first time, allowed individuals the right to become active consumers and even producers of their own media. In this way, the neutrality of the network would be asserted to be part of its structure, but of course a network is a manifestation of culture and so it can be changed. The optimism about the supposed newness of new media ignores the story of each mass medium’s early days, and Wu is clever enough to tell the story in a way that helps us to make sense of the Internet. One cannot pretend to understand the origins of the Internet or pretend to speak for its potential as a communication medium without having studied Wu’s book.
In the context of media conglomerates, Wu aptly describes that an oligopic industry did not rise organically, but was carefully crafted. Including the entertainment industry in the same book as telephones and the Internet is a masterful choice. Wu shows that it was not inevitable that multimedia companies would dominate the marketplace. Taking the thunder out of the argument that the Internet is causing these information regimes to crumble, Wu says it is not inevitable that they should exist in the first place. The extent to which they are crumbling should not cause one to think that the Internet is “naturally” able to take on the challenge; instead, it should be a reminder that a set of decisions and policies allow the Internet to challenge the oligopoly. This makes understanding the history of media and the legal structure of conglomerates more vital, because just as the environment was created, so too could it be changed. Wu’s savvy analysis provides his readers with an understanding of the dynamic interplay between policy and communication so that they can help media develop in a way that reflects their interests and ideals.
Wu’s analysis also helps readers to understand that a better technology does not always have a fair chance in a ballpark where it does not write the rules. For instance, Wu’s description of how David Sarnoff and RCA used their influence to forestall development of FM radio, mechanical television, and electrical television exemplifies how disruptions are sometimes unable to wreak havoc on an industry. Even more, Wu hypothesizes about the cost of the suppression: the market lost out, Wu asserts, because FM radio and television did not go through the amateur phase experienced by AM radio in the early 1900s. Thus, the potential of these media was suppressed, preventing the replacement of AT&T’s long lines with FM relays, sending facsimiles with FM radio, and using television for person-to-person communication (or person-to-auditorium as described in H. Gernsback’s 1911 fantasy Ralph 124C 41+). Instead, television and FM radio were forced to follow in the footsteps of the radio networks, a development Wu stridently asserts as being a loss to both the democratic plurality of voices as well as a self-governing market. “[W]hat happened was a matter of choice,” he writes. “The American government ended up failing to affirm a considered vision of what broadcasting should be, only following and accommodating the evolution of business models” (85). This is not technology determining a culture; it is a segment of society shaping technology to suit its interests.
Although Wu helps us to see that societies create networks and not the other way around, there are times that his argument does seem to rely on technological determinism. For instance, in his claim that more creativity was enabled by the centralized radio networks that rose after the 1934 agreement between AT&T and RCA, Wu suggests that economy of scale was the only way in which more money could have been invested in creative products. It seems accurate to say that this structure encouraged this kind of investment – Bimber would call this a “normative” determinism – but to say that it inevitably resulted in more creativity is questionable. Certainly more money does not always yield more creativity, what counts as creativity is not clear-cut, and not all creative material was produced by the networks. For every cultural innovation, one can find examples of derivative products like radio serials in the 1930s and 1940s, many of which were repurposed material from other media. Was the 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds more or less creative than the original? Wu does not provide examples to help prove his claims about cultural products, and because his book is not a study of them, it is a shame that his offhand comments support nomological determinism.
One also sees some determinism in Wu’s discussion of the AOL–Time Warner merger. In his discussion of networks, Wu builds of the work of his teacher, L. Lessig (2001), who asserts that an open network inspires innovation. Wu (2011) states on his personal website that Lessig’s class The Law of Cyberspace “changed my life,” and he seems to have inherited his deterministic attitude toward networks. Wu explains how the combined AOL and Time Warner depended on a “walled garden” structure for the new entity, but the players involved did not understand how a neutral Internet would cause problems for this structure. Certainly the ability to access the Internet through low-cost carriers made selling the service more difficult, but the neutral Internet was not the only thing that “caused” this merger to fail. The failure to manage access to Time Warner material and to market this service appropriately to customers at a price that reflected its value are issues as well. Recently, the titanic effort of old media to monetize content – even when that content is also available illegally for free or at a lower cost – has followed along the lines that old media know well. The New York Times’s reassertion of subscription pricing online, NBC, Disney, and Fox’s establishment of Hulu, and YouTube’s use of banner ads and commercial spots are like so many rumblings of Typhon beneath Mount Etna.
While reading The Master Switch, one is always thinking of the Internet. A more typical story about the history of media – for instance, The Creation of the Media (P. Starr 2004) – details the efforts of industry and government to rationalize the market, and it seems as if the scarcity of the radio spectrum and the organizing principles of business inevitably created an oligopoly: Starr writes, “the government could no longer treat use of the spectrum as a right and would need to develop criteria for denying licenses to some applicants in favor of others” (332). Wu, however, is careful to point out the early days of the technology when many more players were in the field. He goes as far as to say that there is nothing in the technology of radio that favors a small number of powerful broadcasters, and simply based on the technology, one could have just as easily seen a plurality of independent, low-power broadcasters – or a combination of low-power and high-power stations – as what we got, the oligarchic network model. Amateur radio was overturned by existing media by legal and regulatory means. The implication here, of course, is that today’s pluralistic and relatively independent Internet could suffer the same fate if the principle of network neutrality is eliminated and large providers are able to throttle Internet responsiveness for their competitors. The transfer of technology, as Pacey asserts, is never a smooth process. As the Internet expands beyond its origins in big science and now engages the society at large, one can see how it is forced into a dialogue with entrepreneurial, commercial culture. The conclusion of this conversation is not predetermined. One walks away from Wu with an awareness of exactly how what first emerges as a pluralistic medium can be transformed into a playground for a few major players – and the knowledge that there is nothing intrinsic in media that creates or destroys a particular business environment.
As Tim Wu has shown that there is nothing inevitable about the way networks develop, so too does reading Steven Levy’s In the Plex show that society shapes Google as much as Google determines society. There is no shortage of technologically deterministic versions of what Google “does” to its users. The short version is provided by N. Carr’s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, in which he likens the changes using the Internet makes to his brain to David Bowman’s dismantling of HAL’s cognitive circuits in the movie 2001. After citing Carr, S. Vaidhyanathan (2011) writes that Google is dangerous because it is making everyone dependent on it and it is invading everyone’s privacy. J. Jarvis (2009) makes the claim in his book that the spare, efficient design of Google’s home page is carrying over into a new era of simplicity and balance. Although less deterministic versions of these issues are more worth thinking about – why, for instance, are we giving up on deep, sustained reading in favor of a lookup culture – at least these books bring up some big issues about Google and society.
Google is the epitome of the survivor of the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, and Levy gives us some hints as to how it created the culture that could do so. Levy details how Larry Page and Sergey Brin met in the Stanford University’s computer science graduate program in 1995. Their early project is renamed Google in 1997, a modified spelling of “googol” suggested by a dorm mate to represent the large number of documents it would search. Aside from the fact that Google succeeded, Google’s story is not that different from many startups in the late 1990s. At first, the operation is run out of Page’s dorm room with borrowed and refurbished equipment. The newly incorporated company, funded by angel investors, moves off campus and soon, at the height of the dot-com boom, attracts $25 million in support from two venture capital firms. In 2004, the company goes public with a prospectus that proposes the motto “Don’t Be Evil” and describes an auction to determine its opening share price.
Levy comes across as something of a fanboy, but his enthusiasm for Google’s mission is the reason to read the book. By focusing on the internal impressions and development of Google, Levy helps us to see how a particular company has managed the challenges of technological dialogue. Levy has constructed a plausible immersion into the culture of Google that helps the reader understand why the company receives accolades from businesspeople and computer scientists alike. In some ways, however, he could have done better to show how Google built on the existing culture. Levy writes that no other search engine was using links at the time Page develops PageRank, but as detailed by J. Batelle (2005), still the go-to source on the search industry, both WebCrawler and Lycos considered what links where in determining search results – and certainly, the field of documentation had already considered this type of analysis for non-Web material (see E. Garfield, 1955). But in general, Levy’s extended examination of the Google ethos, from its origin as an upstart company in the height of the dot-com era to a multinational corporation trying to maintain its irreverence in front of government committees, makes connections to existing cultural pressure.
One thing that Levy’s book has over the other books about Google is that, being more recent, In the Plex is able to consider Google’s involvement with China in light of its decision to stop censoring search results on behalf of the Chinese government. Levy’s journalistic method works well, providing readers with the context they need to see behind the claim that Google “caved in” to let China censor search results. There are many examples of when Google let its search algorithms be a transparent window onto the Web, such as in 2004, when the search algorithm would respond to a search for “Jew” with a link to a hate site. Instead of refusing to index the site, Levy states, Google associated an ad of its own in the search results that explained why this site came to the top of the results. As Levy mentions, this was not always the case. In 2000, the effort to create a “family safe” version of Google led to SafeSearch, giving Google experience filtering the Web. In an instance with the Church of Scientology, Google actually delisted a critical site because it used copyrighted material from the organization without permission. So, in 2004 when it became clear that Google would need to tailor its search results in order to get a permit to do business in China, it was not the first time. The world, Levy shows, shapes Google, and not vice versa.
In preparing the China site for go-live in 2006, Google knew the potential for human rights abuses and had made several concessions: whereas normally it would have set up a datacenter in China, in this case the datacenters were kept offshore to help provide some privacy, and it refused to offer some services that might lead the government to request Google turn over data, such as Gmail, Blogger, and Picassa. What is more, Levy describes how Google’s China group would regularly meet to make sure it was filtering the minimum that it could and how it tied its censorship decisions to what other search engines in China blocked. The difficult situation became worse when Google Suggest – a service that compiles common search strings to complete a query a user is typing – was found by Chinese officials to have a large number of sexually explicit suggestions. The government took this occasion to “punish” Google but did not say what that punishment would be. Levy suggests that it was the hack into Google’s systems and theft of something “apparently so critical that Google never revealed its nature” (308). After the New Year, Google announced that it would no longer censor results on Google.cn, a decision that led to the end of Google’s China business in 2010. What emerges from this story is proof that Google did not enforce its culture on China; at best, one can see that there was a dialogue between Google’s ideology and the ideology of China’s rulers. In this case, the differences were insurmountable, showing that technology has very little weight to throw around.
Levy’s booster mentality does have its drawbacks. He details the rift between Apple and Google by telling the story of two board members, Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt, and their conflict over the Android smart phone. What Levy leaves out is obvious to a reader of Wu’s study: Apple itself can be seen as a betrayer, for when it developed and deployed the iPhone, it chose an old media Titan as an exclusive partner, betraying the ideals that brought Apple and Google together in the first place. The fanboy attitude also has a negative impact on the book in that Levy does not cover some failed Google efforts. Now that Google has announced its latest social medium, Google+, one would have liked to have read more than Levy’s brief mention of Google’s effort to take on social networking with Orkut and Google Buzz. Levy only briefly mentions Google Answers, the attempt to create a service to answer questions that was surpassed by Yahoo! Answers. One can read about these in other sources, such as R. Stross’s Planet Google, but reading about them with Levy’s immersive style would have been valuable. Certainly there is a lesson here about technological determinism – these did not go as planned, proving that users take their own ideals and inspirations to the table.
Levy’s insider’s look does help readers to think more critically about news reports that suggest new media services should stop invading users’ privacy. The way Levy tells it, Google’s empire is based on explicit affronts to user privacy: ever since Amit Patel examined the logs of Google’s users in 1999, the company has found new and interesting ways to leverage the aggregate experience of its users to enhance their ability to use the web: “Every aspect of user behavior had a value” (46). Levy shows how early on Google watched its users’ successive search terms to refine their results to hone search algorithms. More recently, a user’s effort to retype misspelled queries and the aggregation of many users’ search strings has resulted in search predictions that make the experience of using Google even faster than before. Although privacy remains a concern for web users, Levy’s insider look shows readers how this intrusion in part and parcel of how Google was able to rise ahead of its competitors. The boosterism, however, provides a limited picture. Levy brands those critical of Google’s information policy “privacy wonks.” To his credit, he does explain how the cookies used in AdWords – now combined into a “super-cookie” after Google’s acquisition of the notorious DoubleClick in 2007 – work in the context of Google products. However, he does not give his readers a sense of why this intrusion would matter.
For insight into some of the big issues about privacy and civil rights that surround new media, one may turn to Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion. This book is definitely not an objective story of the Internet, but that is what makes it valuable. Morozov, for his part, suggests we need to look at political and legal realities to understand the liberating potential of new media. A citizen of Belarus, Morozov reminds his readers regularly that what they think they know about life in a totalitarian state is not half the story. According to the authors of Access Controlled (Deibert, et al., 2010), Belarus is one of the most totalitarian of the countries out there. The state takes a heavy line with telecom, and so all external lines go through the state-controlled IXP. As a matter of policy, ADSL connection costs are prohibitively high, US$122 month. A technical person growing up in this environment, naturally, is in a unique position to tell us why things like Google cookies matter.
Morozov calls the optimism in policy circles about the power of the Internet to fight for the cause of freedom the “Google Doctrine” (xiii). For Morozov, this optimism about the Internet derives from the belief that it was access to information that brought about an end to the Cold War. The coincidence of the Internet’s rising popularity and the end of totalitarian regimes in the 1990s has led some to assert a casual connection. Having accepted this, the casual thinker is then led to believe that the Internet, being “Radio Free Europe on steroids” (xii), can do much more for the cause of freedom today. As Morozov analyzes in Chapter 2, communism ended quickly, but that was because the Eastern European states were already weakened and could not mount a resistance. Morozov cites an impressive number of sources that make the false analogy between the end of the Cold War and the Internet’s fight against totalitarian regimes today. To counter them, Morozov suggests that it is not inevitable that the Internet is an autonomous agent of freedom.
Several chapters in the book make sinister claims that dictators are happy when people use the Internet and they are more than capable of developing censorship regimes to control its use. Asserting that totalitarian governments are excited about exploiting these new synergies, Morozov chides web entrepreneurs for not understanding the context of where their services are used: they are “significantly underestimating the consequences of getting things wrong” (162). Part of the problem here is that Facebook and other “intermediaries” are private companies located in the United States. The policies affect the users' free speech, but because these are private corporations and not governments, they are responsible only to their shareholders. Activists trying to hide their identities using Facebook violate Facebook’s terms of service and find their accounts deleted, and documentation of police violence posted to YouTube violates YouTube’s content guidelines and is removed. Even when these erroneous decisions are reversed, they prove that politicians making utopian promises of Internet freedom are not the final word on what happens with private companies. Morozov would like to see the human rights rhetoric being offered “in the spacious meeting rooms of Silicon Valley” (217). He also finds hypocrisy in that the same pundits decrying the arrests in Iran were ignoring the arrest of Elliot Madison who used Twitter to help protesters against the G20 summit in Pittsburg.
In case after case, Morozov demonstrates how Internet services function in accordance with the general culture. A deterministic version of Morozov’s book is not hard to imagine because that way of thinking is part of the regular news analysis of the Internet. The idea that communication technologies inevitably provide greater personal freedom and bring democratic pressure on totalitarian regimes has been the expressed desire of so-called “cyberoptimists.” Morozov takes an iconoclastic tack on the prevailing view that Internet technologies are inherently disruptive because of their decentralized nature, demonstrating from a plethora of examples that it is not always the case that centralized, despotic governments are powerless in the face of new media.
As a whole, the book is quotable and the polemic is provocative, but I would have liked to hear what Morozov would think about other claims based on the theory of the public sphere. J. Habermas (1991), for instance, does not claim that it was access to unfettered information and the freedom from surveillance that brought about a sense of individual rights in the west. The training ground for individual rights that Habermas cites was, in fact, access to works of art to talk about and published reviews of art criticism that serve as models. Morozov sardonically points out that the most popular searches in Russian search engines are not “‘what is democracy?’ or ‘how to protect human rights’ but for ‘what is love?’ and ‘how to lose weight’” (58). He dismisses Chinese citizens who provide subtitles to “Lost,” saying there is “little indication” that they pose a threat to the government (69). A Habermasian critique might instead say that these individuals are learning about sources of authority outside the officially sanctioned, local police forces; they are finding out that there are thinking (and loving) people outside of their own local domains. The authors of Blogistan, for instance, argue that Iranian citizens blogging about western popular culture are taking a definite political stance because their government explicitly outlaws the fashions and sexualities portrayed. G. Yang (2009) suggests that seemingly apolitical online communities are important for creating a utopian space and decries that they are often ignored because political action is “understood in a misleadingly narrow sense” (158). Morozov might prefer to see people engaging overtly political issues, but it is not always possible (or safe) to do so. Trying to find out what people in other countries think about love and trying to understand why an epic television series about a plane crash is so entertaining to Americans could be a first step on the way to fomenting a class that believes the people, and not the powerful, are the ultimate authority.
Nevertheless, Morozov puts his biography to good use. Stating that the worst thing about being under the control of a totalitarian government is boredom, he chastises YouTube and Facebook for making life less boring. The main motivation in toppling a totalitarian regime is the tedium of life in a regimented society, Morozov writes. Echoing a different Frankfurt School critique, Morozov says that giving people things to do while they are home to distract them when they are not at work is going to help maintain the status quo: as M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno state, in popular culture, “[s]omething is provided for all so that none may escape” (123). It seems unfair to blame Web 2.0 for complacency, but then again, when Egypt shut down access to the Internet on 26 January 2011, the dissident Facebook group We Are All Khaled Said was encouraged, writing: “what can people do now other than go out and join protests.” Far from suggesting that the Internet is irrelevant, however, Morozov makes the claim that a laissez-faire attitude toward the Internet is inappropriate. The supposed success of new media in toppling totalitarian regimes has led some to suppose that it should not be regulated. Calling this position misguided, he suggests that the problem with cyberoptimism is that is does not provide a meaningful ground for regulation. With a careful eye to what technologies can do – and have done – in the cause of freedom, Morozov would like policy makers to support the aspects of the Internet that enhance democracy and counter those that can be used to suppress it. In this way, Morozov challenges a deterministic outlook by saying that it is not inevitable that the Internet inculcates freedom.
Having accepted this premise, a reader might find it easier to accept Morozov’s corollary: he asserts that Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other Olympians should consider human rights in their business plans. Morozov makes a compelling case that this should be part of their cost of doing business. The fact that these companies were born in a free society that honors freedom of expression and separates communication industries from the government – let alone separates church from state – means that a different culture is embedded in their products. This culture is not, as Pacey would say, transferred simply to a different society; a dialogue must take place, and when the dialogue is with a totalitarian state, new media can be transformed in a way that enhances a dictator’s ability to exercise authority. An American has recourse to law if or when his or her privacy is intruded upon, and police in the United States are accountable to friends and families of the people they arrest. Such is not the case in each of the countries where these companies do business, and Morozov makes an effective plea to recognize the ways in which both dissidents and dictators are using their services.
It is admirable that the authors of these books have reached out to a popular audience, and two of the books come from major publishers. In addition to being an informative read for the general public, Wu and Levy have written books that can be the inspiration for scholarship because they have documented the primary sources and relevant secondary sources in a way that allows readers to return to them. Morozov’s text, however, is marred by its method of documentation. The references are separated by chapter and then arranged alphabetically, yet the text does not provide sufficient in-line documentation to find the source of some of the information he provides. This is a shame, because he has uncovered some interesting material and his story compels the reader to learn more.
Writers about new media fall easily into the trap of technological determinism, suggesting that new media have developed on their own accord and individuals can only monitor the changes that are happening all around them. Arguments that are built around technological determinism purvey a sense that individuals have little impact on how technology is deployed. As D. MacKenzie and J. Wajcman (1999) point out, technological determinism “promotes a passive attitude toward technological change. It focuses our minds on how to adapt to technological change, not just how to shape it” (5, emphasis in original). Wu, Levy, and Morozov help readers to realize that the development of media technology on society is not inevitable, but is in fact a series of choices, opportunities, and compromises.
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