The Censor’s New Tools
Besides just gadget reviews there are generally two types of writing about technology and their companies.
1) The type that treat technology companies primarily as businesses that are saving the American economy from post-industrial malaise. They tell us that Jeff Bezos has solved problems of scarcity, that Steve Jobs understood humans and how we “interface” better than most philosophers.
2) The type that treat technology companies as revolutionary leaders creating a freer more democratic mankind. They tell us that ancient despotisms – whether religious, governmental, even biological will shortly be overcome by the forces of digitization. Just look at the Twitter hashtags those rioters in Egypt were using! Just think of the singularity.
Thank God for Evgeny Morozov.
In a new article that touches on several parts of his work, Morozov points out that the Internet is introducing more gatekeepers to our conversation, not less. And that repressive governments are just as adept as protestors at using social media and the Internet to advance their agenda.
Here is one example:
Consider blogging. When the first generation of bloggers got online in the late 1990s, the only intermediaries between them and the rest of the world were their hosting companies and their Internet service providers. Anyone starting a blog in 2012 is likely to end up on a commercial platform like Tumblr or WordPress, with all of their blog comments run through a third-party company like Disqus. But the intermediaries don’t just stop there: Disqus itself cooperates with a company called Impermium, which relies on various machine learning tools to check whether comments posted are spam. It’s the proliferation—not elimination—of intermediaries that has made blogging so widespread. The right term here is “hyperintermediation,” not “disintermediation.”
Impermium’s new service goes even further: The company claims to have developed a technology to “identify not only spam and malicious links, but all kinds of harmful content—such as violence, racism, flagrant profanity, and hate speech—and allows site owners to act on it in real-time, before it reaches readers.” It says it has 300,000 websites as clients (which is not all that surprising, if it’s incorporated into widely used third-party tools like Disqus). As far as intermediaries go, this sounds very impressive: a single Californian company making decisions over what counts as hate speech and profanity for some of the world’s most popular sites without anyone ever examining whether its own algorithms might be biased or excessively conservative.
But really, read the whole thing.
As with so many revolutions, the uncritical only notice the centripetal forces at work: the Internet freed me from my high school history textbook, it obliterates distance between people communicating, it gives forums to those whose views can’t get on television, it allows revolutionaries to coordinate.
Morozov reminds us that smashing up those little authorities (some of them truly pernicious and worthy of being smashed) also creates opportunities for larger ones. In our search for a more freewheeling conversation, a company in California has the power to censor speech on thousands of popular forums in such a way that it makes it seem as if speech never happened. Television may not broadcast your rantings, but it never gave the illusion of representing everyone in the first place. It is hard to even call what Imperium and other intermediaries do “censoring” in the traditional sense. Instead of burning books, the new censors just make sure that anything a heretic writes is disappearing ink.