J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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Google, and the Problem of “Two Democracies”

Posted by chanders on June 26, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about Google over the past few weeks, partly because I’m working on a project this summer on the future of news reporting, and partly just because there has been a lot of stupid crap said and written recently about the role of Google and the “link economy” in the production and dissemination of news. And a lot of this, in turn, ties into issues of public policy– specifically, the changes in laws and regulations that might reach down into the very guts of the web. In the next few paragraphs, I want to  examine the relationship between Google, linking, democracy, and gathering news by positing two principles, a proposition, a caveat, two (big) conundrums, and conclude by pointing the way to some of the best forward thinking on this topic.

Here we go:

Principle One: Google is not “the web” — but its complicated. Back in the days of the Ma Bell monopoly, was At&T the equivalent of the U.S. telephone system? Obviously not. The “system” was really a series of interconnected cables, phone lines, local utility offices, operator switches, headsets, and human beings (like operators and telephone repairmen) in which AT&T was a dominant player. That dominance, however, made things complicated; many of the rules, technologies, systems, and even the methods by which telephones were used stemmed, in large part, from the way that AT&T, over its history, interpreted the telephone system and what it was for. Obviously, there were limit cases — AT&T could not have unilaterally decided that telephones were really best used for hitting robbers over the head, and marketed themselves as a home protection service. But given those limit cases (what scholars of science and technology call “affordances“),  individuals, companies, scientists, and the government had a fair degree of room to shape the system they were operating on top of. At least for a while.

This isn’t a case, however, of “powerful companies determine how technologies get used, and it’s all a conspiracy.” Rather, there is a second principle at work here– what the same science and technology scholars call “black boxing.” The term actually comes out of computer science, and basically means that, at some point, a cluster of complex infrastructures become “black boxed.” They become seen as unproblematic and unified in a way in which they might not have been originally. Problematizing these unitary systems is called “opening the black box.” The example that has always made the most sense to me here is the idea of a car– for most of us, our car is a “black box”; it’s a unitary device that we ride to work and don’t think about much. Except, of course, when it breaks down; then we start to think very hard about the different objects that make up the black box, mostly so we can figure out how to fix them.

If we put these two concepts together– affordances and black boxing– and apply them to Google and them to the internet, here’s what we get. By deeply understanding and leveraging certain affordances of the internet, Google became the dominant company of the early 21st century digital economy. Along the way, partly because of its’ market and cultural dominance, and partly because it understood the world wide web so well, out notions of “the internet” and “Google” got packaged together in one black box. These days, its hard to disentangle the two; its hard to open that black box.

Newspaper executives are trying, though, and that’s what we’ve been watching over the past year or so. And that’s why it seems to frustrating, futile, and odd to so many people.

Principle Two: There are two kinds of “communicative work” necessary for a democracy to function. The first is the work of discussion, sharing, arguing about, and remixing of ideas and current events. This is the “discursive portion” of communicative democracy. The second is the work of gathering, interpreting, translating, and distributing publicly relevant facts. I’ve called this the “gathering portion” of communicative democracy, but we might as well call it reporting. Both these potions are necessary for a democracy to function well.

In the early days of the American republic, as scholars of journalism have shown ad nauseum, the “gathering potion” of democratic life hadn’t really been invented. Journalism was very different in 1800 that it was in 1900, and especially in 1976. Along with this, the greatest threat to communicative democracy was the threat that government might interfere with the discursive part of democracy; that it might forcibly stop citizens from talking, worshiping, and distributing information. (This is why the much ballyhooed First Amendment, beloved by journalists, has a lot to say about the government and the importance of citizens talking, and nothing at all to say about reporting, really.)

Proposition One: For most of the history of democracy, discussion and distribution were hard, gathering was relatively easy. The internet, however, has flipped this equation on its head. Even after reporting had been invented, it was still relatively unproblematic– it was largely carried out, for most of its history, by rich and powerful media institutions who had such a monopoly, attention, and distribution that they could subsidize their production of public goods through their production of market-based goods. No one, in sort, worried that reporting would suddenly go away. This is why, if you read some of the earliest and best books about the internet, the idea that “traditional” news institutions will continue to exist is sort of assumed. Gathering, in other words, isn’t really seen as an issue here. Who, after all, could have imagined two years ago that the American news industry would be in the crisis it is now?? Not me, and I bet not many people. It was fun to trash, sure, but few of us imagined it would go away.

But: it is in crisis. And here’s the proposition– the “google-internet,” as currently constructed, facilitates discursive democracy.  Discussion, sharing, arguing about, and remixing of ideas and current events has never been easier. And this is good– no, its great– for democracy. The problem is that this shift has simultaneously made the original and expensive production of content —  gathering– much more difficult. There are a lot of potential culprits: a glut of content has lowered the value of news to near zero, powerful tracking and advertising metrics have revealed how much news is really worth to readers (not much), the fact that there are plenty of people willing to do basic newswork for free, and so on.  Whatever the reason, the situation seems fairly clear. Conversation lives. Reporting is dying.

[Caveat One: And its a big one. The institutions currently tasked with reporting are terrible models on which to judge the impact of the “google-internet” on the gathering of information. They have been technologically-averse, conservative, fat, happy, greedy, monopolists who never really cared all that much about the public in the first place. Once again, the evidence on this is pretty clear. Maybe reporting on the web really is possible, and we just have to destroy all the old institutions and rebuild new ones.

Maybe. I’m as hostile to traditional, monopolistic news organizations are the next guy, but I’m not entirely willing to agree that reporting news for the web is simply waiting for a brave new generation of entrepreneurs to discover it. There’s something fundamentally difficult about paying for original content on the internet. At least, lets assume, for the sake of the rest of the argument, that the “google-internet” makes distribution and aggregation easy, and production hard. And lets see what happens.]

Conundrum One: If the affordances of the google-internet make distribution and discussion easy, and reporting and original content production hard, than one solution put forward by the newspaper industry [pdf] has been to enact public policies that would allow news organizations to band together in order to unilaterally impose a price for original content. Basically, allowing them to collude in order to set prices for original content that currently cannot find a sustainable value on the market. If the google-internet makes distribution easy but gathering hard, and if we see the internet as a black box that can still be opened and tweaked with, we can understand why this is a possible solution that is not inevitably “doomed” to failure.

Here’s the problem, though: I have a hard time envisioning any scenario in which such an action would not benefit legacy players at the expense of a new generation of reporters and fact-gatherers. I cannot imagine the logistics by which a scenario could be achieved that would not leave some (very important) people out. Who, after all, gets included in what basically amounts to a protective cartel? This says nothing, of course, about the inherent fairness (or maybe unfairness) of lending a helping hand to an industry that is largely responsible for its own dysfunction.

Conundrum Two: The solution above is the “public-policy-in-support-of-stronger-market-negotiating-position” solution. A second solution, more radical in my opinion, is to change the entire economic and legal basis of the internet’s link structure. The weak version of this solution is represented by Ken Doctor and his notion of “fair share.” The stronger version has been endorsed by Judge Richard Posner.

Doctor argues, in essence, that it is “fair” for Google to “share” some of its immense wealth with the original content producers that drive much of its traffic. “We’re not saying Google doesn’t serve money for its magic,” Doctor writes. “We’re just saying it should fairly share the wealth. What’s fair? Well, some percentage of gross revenues.”

Doctor’s solution seems a little extreme — until you read the most recent entry by Judge Richard Posner on his blog. There he writes: “Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers from so impairing the incentive to create costly news-gathering operations that news services like Reuters and the Associated Press would become the only professional, nongovernmental sources of news and opinion.”

In other words, linking would be made illegal, without the explicit permission of the copyright holder.

The problem with both these solutions is that they would rejigger the news-discussion /  news-gathering balance by squelching the first half of the democratic equation (discussion, and conversation) in order to salvage the second. For me, this violates the first principle of the “how to save the news” question: do no harm. You cannot kill the first principle of communicative democracy, the discursive side, in order to saave the second. This would rebuild communicative democracy on a fundamentally flawed foundation– it would kill conversation in order to save transmission, as my old mentor James Carey might say.

So, what to do? I honestly don’t know. I can only point to some new thinking on the topic: Josh Young has written that “We need the news organized not by links alone. What we need is a search experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it.” In other words, he’s arguing that the google-internet is good at many things, but it is bad at aggregating news, and that a new sorting and filtration system should (and maybe will) come into being that can take advantage of internet affordances that are different than the ones Google has leveraged.

In a more pessimistic vein, Nico Flores has argued that what we are really witnessing here is a  “mutation in society. New individuals are being born – the barbarians, or mutants – for whom the very experience of content is fundamentally different from what we’ve known until now … a world in which people no longer read newspapers from cover to cover, no longer see films from beginning to end, but surf in a sea of links, jumping from one disaggregated snippet to the next. ”

I don’t know what the future holds for news, but I do think that the answer to the conundrums above will emerge out of the kind of thinking I just highlighted: thinking informed by a deep understanding of affordances, black boxes, social movements, capitalism, and democracy. I hope so, anyway. Somebody has to figure it out.

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