Personal Democracy and Our Brutally Stupid Meatspace
So Nick Judd, The One & True President of Technology Whom I’ve Never Heard of Before (PBUH), posted a response to my article about the Personal Democracy Forum last week called “Fake David Koch, #PDF12 and the New Gullibility“. I wasn’t going to respond to his response, but I heard you like critiques of your critiques, so here you go:
The main bit of my post — the “cogent” bit — which Judd felt compelled to address:
The presumption is that any and all compelling message can and will spread across the internet. The naive aspect of that presumption is that what’s “compelling” is based in reality. It’s “compelling” that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It’s “compelling” that unions are the ruination of the American economy. It’s “compelling” that Tom Barrett wants to confiscate your guns and use them to murder toddlers. Social media is a tool like any other. And until it can teach us all not to be such incredible idiots, if that’s even possible, the traditional manipulation industry — your junk food marketers, your AFPs, your Heritage Foundations, your RGAs and their evil, little Matthew Gagnons, etc. — just has one more tool to manipulate people.
As opposed to print, radio, and TeeVee, the internet isn’t a solely passive medium. People are actively engaged. The dream is that enough people can engage and win against a heavily funded manipulator on the internet. But people are huge fucking idiots. So we’ll just have to see about that.
This is, apparently, what he’s calling “The New Gullibility.” No. Gullibility ain’t changed. Humans were stupid in caves, we’re stupid in pews, and we’re still stupid on the internet. Adhering a “new” label to such an obvious and constant phenomenon is either meta-gullible, disingenuous, or just a hackneyed title. I don’t really know. But apparently, I don’t know much, according to Nick Judd, President of Technology:
When it comes to new forms of data-driven persuasion, the reigning response is emotional. People do, after all, tend to fear what they don’t understand.
You’re right, Mr. Technology President: I don’t understand why you’re talking about “data-driven persuasion.” And it does scare me to think some poor reader out there may believe you’re making sense. I never mentioned data-driven persuasion. My point was that a “compelling” message — in print, radio, TeeVee, or in these here newfangled internet tubes (I’m scared!) — isn’t necessarily an objectively factual message backed by empirical evidence or data. It’s more about emotional manipulation.
But I’ll give The President of Technology the benefit of the doubt and see if he starts making sense:
But the best way to understand how something works is to take it apart and build it again, and the Internet gives plenty of opportunities for that. Here is where the punk rock caucus of the PDF tribe, represented in 2012 by Mozilla executive director Mark Surman, comes in. Surman — in another era, as a punk rocker in his youth — remixed whatever media he could find to put together flyers for his band. But découpage as a study in media criticism wasn’t the point of his talk; his point was that the web has components that can be cut up and pasted together the way you might paste together a flyer. I’d add that Internet applications can be tweaked the way you might modify a car.
In a world where kids in their early teens peek under the hood of websites to learn about — and maybe even use — more complicated aspects of the Internet, phenomena like the growing use of behavioral tracking online might be met with able criticism rather than fear and misunderstanding. Kids who have made use of an Amazon Web Services instance or actually written a tracking cookie would be better equipped to navigate the traps of an Internet where campaigns use information volunteered on one part of the web — or even offline — to decide how to try to persuade them on another.
Surman likened teaching kids about the web’s inner workings to the kind of training they might get in the outdoors as a Boy Scout. He thinks it’s a good idea because it would create warm fuzzy feelings for the free and open Internet that fits so nicely with the remix culture he likens to his punk-rock roots. But his metaphor might be apt in another way. It might be right to say that teaching kids about the Internet’s inner workings necessarily involves teaching about the digital equivalent of poison ivy and raccoons getting into the cooler. On the Internet, that means being less generous with personal information, more skeptical of purported “facts,” and even more cautious about believing professed identity.
OK, got it? Take the internet apart and put it back together again! Why didn’t I think of that? Because it has nothing to do with my original argument. If anything, Judd paints a potentially more frightening (Halp! Halp! I don’t understand things! And get off my lawn!) picture of online media manipulation by bringing up behavior tracking and tailor-made online marketing. While kids with internet educations, tracking cookies, etc., could be potentially more skeptical about marketing campaigns directed at them, as Judd says, there’s no actual reason to believe that this doesn’t give professional manipulators a wonderful new tool on the whole. But I digress. Responding to this requires such because, whether I simply didn’t flesh out my points or Judd doesn’t know how to read, he didn’t actually respond to my article. He responded to what he got out of it. And that’s not that same as what I put in. Maybe that’s my fault.
I’m not saying that the internet represents a new threat to democracy, or facts, or gullibility. In fact, it represents quite the opposite — potentially. But knowing how a technology works does not safeguard people from misinformation disseminated with that technology. It’s fair to say that by 1964, the American public had fairly wrapped its collective head around Gutenberg’s movable typesetting wizardry, but that didn’t save us from believing that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an unprovoked attack on our destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. It’s also fair to say that we kind of get how TV works, but we still believed Saddam Hussein had WMD. And surely there’s some Republicans out there who know how to code a website, but that doesn’t stop them from believing that Scott Walker created jobs in Wisconsin. So with all due respect, Mr. President of Technology, I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. But let’s read more:
This is exactly what Murphy says he wishes people would do. This is about using the Internet to make people less stupid.
Put another way, it’s about about raising a generation less likely to believe some guy on the phone who says he’s a billionaire industrialist when he’s really a crank from upstate New York.
The bright shiny future that might still happen is one where Murphy’s next prank call doesn’t go quite as well — and I don’t think he’d mind.
I don’t know where the President of Technology gets this stuff. Nowhere did I say I wish that would happen. Would it be great if people had basic critical thinking skills? Sure. But I’m not going to wish for people to be less stupid, or harder to manipulate, because that’s not going to happen. I’m of the mind that being stupid is a biologically innate human characteristic.
But, though it has very little to do with what I wrote, I’m very happy about Judd’s piece because it opened my eyes a little. Trying to convince people with facts, or data-driven persuasion, is not a good tactic. I’ve been aware of this for a while, but I’ve also been somewhat resistant to this sort of Chris Mooney/George Lakoff-esque approach to communication — scientific and otherwise. Which is weird because I do it, and some of my favorite people do it — although in absurdist, obvious way. I had some stupid “ethical” line, though, that I thought NGOs and “good” politicians shouldn’t cross.
I can’t give Judd all the credit for opening my eyes. Greenpeace, the Yes Labs, and Occupy Seattle helped with their brilliant #shellfail action. As you likely know, the viral video of an exclusive Shell Arctic drilling party at the top of Seattle’s Space Needle, wherein a woman (this woman actually) gets doused by an unstoppable soda stream shooting out of a mock-up oil pump, was a hoax. A very successful hoax. The second wave of the hoax is this wonderful mock Shell website, which features a hilarious kids’ page (complete with an “Angry Bergs” flash game), and a “Let’s Go! Social” user-generated ad campaign. While many have picked up on the second wave, most Twitter responses are still calling the “Let’s Go! Social” campaign a massive Shell marketing fail. And hoax or not, anything that makes people aware of the fact that Shell is on track to drill in the Arctic this summer, with wildly dated equipment I might add, is a good thing.
The internet offers myriad choices where once there were few. It’s a mirrored maze of bias confirmation, ideologically bent “news” sources, and a constant stream of bullshit that was never before possible. But sometimes, as Picasso said, “The Internet is bullshit that reveals the truth.”