Tech platforms are where public life is increasingly constructed, and their motivations are far from neutral – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard

Posted: October 12, 2019 at 10:47 am


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As background, Im a professor of communication and journalism, which means I study how people make meaning through media. This is broad, but this focus on meaning and media poses an intellectual challenge that is tightly tied to practices like journalism, technology design, and policy making. These are the professions that often create the conditions under which people make meaning through media, so they matter to public life.

By making meaning through media, I mean this: how people who will never meet face-to-face discover, argue about, and manage collective life, and the stakes involved in our interconnections how communication make publics.

Publics are not natural. They dont exist in the wild. We make public life through:

I could go on. The point is this: How well we govern ourselves learn about each other, discover shared concerns, encourage or sanction behavior all of this governance depends on how well our communication systems work.

Today, these systems of communication these systems of self-governance that make publics increasingly live within privately controlled infrastructures. These infrastructures create the conditions under which people make meaning. They make some publics more likely than others. These infrastructures are often called platforms.

Platform makers often say that they dont create information, that theyre neutral. But we know that they make important decisions about how information is gathered, circulated, analyzed, and sold. They make images of the world with our information. Following Jos van Dijck, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal, we can distinguish between two kinds of platforms. The first is sectoral platforms think Airbnb, Spotify, Netflix, Uber. They connect people who have something with people who want something and they are typically focused in domains, like housing, entertainment, transportation, or news.

But there is a second, more powerful kind of platform I want to focus on: infrastructural platforms. These platforms make the often invisible web through which almost all data today are captured, processed, stored, circulated, and sold. They are typically created by the Big Five technology companies: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon. They are most obviously search engines, browsers, email clients, advertising markets, social networking sites, geolocation and navigation systems.

But they also make and apply rules about what content is allowed to exist and circulate online. They direct vast global workforces of contractors and private algorithms that moderate speech. Facebook is creating its own Supreme Court to judge appeals. Google has tried to create its own artificial intelligence ethics board. Platforms sometimes talk about themselves as governments and, indeed, the government of Denmark has an official ambassador of technology.

They are building a complete stack of experience through custom hardware, software, server farms, data warehouses, private internet networks, undersea cables, and even entire city neighborhoods like Googles Sidewalk project in Toronto. Instead of thinking about platform companies as the next generation of newspapers, radio stations, or TV channels, we should see them as entirely new entities that shapeshift constantly. Sometimes they are like cities, newsrooms, post offices, libraries, or utilities but they are always like advertising firms. Do not forget this: They earn the vast majority of their revenue through advertising. They are primarily driven by advertising priorities.

The scope and scale of these platforms is unprecedented, moving far faster than governments and civil society, often outpacing the very idea of governance. We are usually left anticipating and reacting imagining what these companies might do and coping with what they have done. We and they are now trying to figure out whether we should simply apply existing rules or invent entirely new ones.

In trying to understand public life in these platform societies, I think there are at least 5 ways to see platform power. (There are likely many more but these seem like the most currently pressing.)

Note that I havent asked: Whats the impact of technology on society? Thats the wrong question. Platforms are societies of intertwined people and machines. There is no such thing as online life versus real life. We give massive ground if we pretend that these companies are simply having an effect or impact on some separate society.

I think self-regulation is proving insufficient, and even platforms own requests for regulation need to be viewed skeptically. It would certainly be easier for them to apply global speech standards rather than fuss with different geographies and cultures, but their desires for simplicity and large-scale standards cannot be allowed to collapse human differences. We should lead with public principles grounded in democratic legitimacy and accountability, not let platforms define for themselves the terms of their own regulation.

Flawed as they are (and they often are), we have courts, we have parliaments, we have elections, we have civil societies we have traditions of democratic legitimacy. And lets not forget: Platforms need us our content, out labor, our attention, our money. They are ours to control if we can figure out how to do it.

See the article here:
Tech platforms are where public life is increasingly constructed, and their motivations are far from neutral - Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard

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October 12th, 2019 at 10:47 am

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