Here’s a hot issue. We discussed the problem of monopoly power a few weeks ago. But lots of people are starting to agree that giant technology companies are a special, and more worrisome, case. In less than twenty years a handful of gigantic, globe-spanning companies (like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) have come to dominate key industries that are vital to our economy — and democracy. These include internet search engines, retail sales and on-line advertising, social media, news distribution, book publishing, and many major forms of entertainment.
The benefits to consumers these firms provide are of immense value to our economy, of course. We use them practically every most waking moment. Moreover, a lot of what they supply is free to consumers (at least at the point of sale) and the companies provide the necessary backbone of the internet, services like convenient search capability, transaction processing, and interoperable applications.
But, as with other monopolies, there are big concerns that Big Tech abuses it market power and its political influence in ways that harm us all. They restrict competition, retard innovation, finagle with prices and supplier wages, etc. This is before even considering Big Tech’s enormous lobbying clout that they (allegedly) use to lock in their market power via friendly laws and regulations.
Below, is some optional background reading on this topic. The articles favor the view that Big Tech is a Big Problem, but there are other ways of looking at the situation and how carefully public policy should tread in trying to regulate such a fast-moving industry.
Anyway, I will give the usual brief opening on Monday. I guess I will sum the basic idea behind the enough-is-enough argument. I know some of you have tech experience and the group I’m sure could benefit from hearing what you think in particular.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The basics –
- “The Challenge of Big Tech.” Recommended.
- How to fix Facebook before it’s too late. Recommended but 15pp.
- (What makes tech platforms so powerful? A bit technical)
- Europe is trying hard to tame Big Tech.
- Digital news is dying except when it’s feeding Facebook and Google.
- Wrong: Facebook does NOT have a “monopoly on news.”
- Media concentration favors the politically conservative POV.
Broader issues –
- The new curse of bigness:, Monopoly problem goes far beyond technology sectors.
- Privacy versus security: Can we have protection from both foreign attacks and big govt surveillance?
NEXT WEEK: What binds Americans together (…anymore)?
In CivCon we deal with a lot of fast-moving topics and issues. But, I can’t think of any more in flux than the future of the news media. Nor as vital. A healthy press is one of the linchpins of our democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and countless others since have said. Yet, even before the rise of Donald Trump and the unprecedented challenges he presents to the institutions and underlying conventions of journalism, the mainstream media (MSM) was in crisis.
As is common knowledge, the century-old basic business model of journalism (especially print but also other formats) has collapsed. The Internet drained away news companies’ advertising revenue and new competitors emerged to razzle-dazzle away the public’s attention and dim its desire (and willingness to pay) for hard news. The big MSM companies reacted by massively consolidating and moving into cyberspace as best they could. But, it hasn’t been enough to halt the downward slide of the industry. Pre-Trump and depending on who you asked, the big issues that threatened the news media’s future included:
- The basic 20 year-old failed business model problem.
- Concentration of Media ownership (now AT&T wants to merge with Time Warner).
- Print journalism’s dim future, especially newspapers.
- Fragmentation of the news audience.
- Rise of social media and personalized news feeds, which have turned passive news consumers into active distributors and producers of news.
- Shift to and concentration of power away from traditional content providers (like TV networks & newspapers) to new “platform oligopolies” (like Facebook, Google, and Twitter).
- Next generation issues, like those associated with the “Internet of Things,” wearable devices, and other future transformative technological change.
Now, of course, we can add at least two more problems arising from our last (so to speak) election: President Trump and fake news. In the campaign, Trump played the MSM like a fiddle, garnering virtually 24-hour a day coverage. Nobody had ever hacked the Media like this. And, he routinely threatened reporters and media companies. Trump is all but sure to use govt power to bend the news media to his will. There is even talk that “Trump TV” will be created despite his victory, so we may soon have a news network that’s literally loyal only to the President! More broadly, Trump’s presidency poses unprecedented challenges to long-established MSM conventions of neutral reporting of a shared objective reality.
Second, we have the emerging problem of fake news. Fake news is outright false propaganda disseminated by groups hiding their true identities and allegiances. Its purpose is to undermine public confidence in any and all other news. From Breitbart and Info Wars to Russian government news trolls, this poison has always been around, but its impact might be very large in a socially networked world.
Gee, where to start? Fortunately for our discussion, I think many of these problems are related. The MSM is consolidating because even the biggest players need to control content, distribution, and users’ personal information to survive. They’re easy to manipulate because they are financially unstable. Fake news works so well because social media let anybody be their own producer and distributor of news. Etc.
Here are some readings on some of these big, crosscutting problems in journalism these days and some musings on what the future holds. On Monday I will take the first five minutes or so to connect a few of these dots so that maybe we can focus right off on the fundamental problems. We have several journalists in the group, so I will then ask them for their thoughts to start the general discussion. I’ll see you on Monday.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The crisis today –
- “The State of the News Media 2016.” An annual Pew Center report. Recommended: Summary + fact sheet on your favorite subtopic.
- Newspapers are dying but the news will survive them.
- Social media: Some key points re their use.
The rise of fake news –
- Russia hacked our election! (h/t John M.)
- Trump voters buy into a lot of fake news.
- The challenge to the news media and to Facebook in particular. Recommended.
Journalism in the Age of Trump –
- Yes, the news media elected Trump. Recommended. Optional and extra fury/anguish here.
- As thanks, he’ll try hard to intimidate and silence our free press.
- Maybe this would help.
The Future of news –
- Facebook, Google, Twitter and other big platform companies will determine the future of news. Recommended.
- A radically different future is coming. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Is worldwide democracy inevitable?
It all began with Fox News, 20 years ago this month.
At least that’s my view. Yes, even before FNN launched in 1996, Rush Limbaugh had been on the air for several years and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had reinvented a much harder-edged Republican Party. Still, I think that Fox made everything we are seeing today possible, from movement conservatism’s takeover of the Republican Party in the 1990s, to the conspiracy theory-driven mutation of the Obama years, straight through to the madness f 2016.
Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps there is not such a straight line to be drawn from that first Fox News broadcast on October 7, 1996, to today’s Trumpian GOP. Many other forces are at work. Either way though, I still think the launch of the mother ship that is Fox News was a watershed event in American history.
Or, maybe Fox News will change its ways. The network is in great turmoil now, as you no doubt have heard. Roger Ailes, Fox’s founder and ideological commissar, is gone after being fired for sexual harassment. Owner Rupert Murdoch named two of his sons as replacements, and they may be more moderate politically than the ex-Nixon aid Ailes. Fox feuded with Donald Trump initially, but lately has backed him to the hilt. So, FNN will be in the crosshairs when The Great Reckoning begins in earnest starting November 9. Maybe chastised and under new management Fox can evolve into something more responsible.
Our first post-election meeting, on November 14, will be “Who is to Blame for Donald Trump?” Obviously, a single TV network watched by only 3 million people in prime time does not bear all of the blame for what we’re seeing. Nonetheless, to me Fox News is so central to the success of movement conservatism that it deserves its own meeting.
I know it is difficult to talk about anything other than Donald Trump personally these days. But, the conditions that allowed someone like him to capture control of the Republican Party were a long time building, and they will remain after the dust settles. I think we need to understand the crucial incubating and magnifying role played by FNN if we want to grasp why and how this happened. Good people who are conservative Americans – not to mention the rest of us – deserve better.
I will give some kind of brief opening remarks on Monday night to frame our discussion, then throw it open for discussion.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
[Update: This is your best explanation of the Fox phenomenon and right-wing media may be heading. It was not written yet at the time of our mtg.]
Fox News’s Impact –
- How Fox News changed America. Optional, long, 18pp pdf by a conservative.
- The basic problem: Conservatives only trust Fox News among TV networks. Important
- Damage to GOP: .
- Fox News has greatly damaged the GOP. Recommended
- Wrong. Fox greatly helps the GOP because it helps them win (except the presidency). Recommended.
- It’s easy to overstate Fox’s impact – and cable news’s influence in general.
- Fox’s alternate universe is dizzying to watch.
Donald Trump and Fox News –
- Trump is the product of right-wing news media, especially Fox News. A must-read.
- Optional, longer: “They Don’t Give a Damn about Governing.” Conservative Media’s effects on the GOP.
The Future of Fox News –
- It’s a bright future. Recommended.
- No. The twilight of Fox News is nigh. Recommended
- Will a “Trump TV” take down Fox News from the Right?
Next Week (10/31): Franken-future: Will/should we genetically enhance our species?
Borg on the fourth of July! Yes, Monday’s topic really is based on the idea that science fiction can be very revealing of American culture and society. I thought it would make a fun summer holiday topic. That and it let me use that pun.
I know this topic puzzled some of you. Here’s my thinking. I read once that if you want to understand a country’s history or politics or economics, you should read non-fiction. But, if you want to understand a nation’s culture then you must read its fiction, and really try to grok (the first of many Sci-Fi metaphors this week) what it is trying to say about society.
Science fiction in particular, IMO, can tell us a lot about where our cultural zeitgeist is at and where it’s heading. Why? Because sci-fi is speculation about what the future might be and should be like: How we’ll use technology, organize society, and see ourselves. It also explores who might benefit and suffer under alternate scenarios. Like all fiction, sci-fi reflects our cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps more than other types of fiction sci-fi helps to frame our big choices and their consequences .
(BTW, to quote Robert Heinlein, “a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” If sci-fi is about what might be, fantasy can be thought of as being about what cannot be.)
Plus, science fiction is wildly popular these days. Sci-fi movies took in nearly one-quarter of U.S. ticket sales in 2015, triple what they did in 1995. TV is awash in sci-fi and mixed sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows, like The Walking Dead and Preacher.
Moreover, the sci-fi/fantasy genres have changed a lot recently. On the bright side, there’s more cultural and international diversity in both authorship, viewership, and plotlines. But, modern sci-fi has also gotten pretty dark and apocalyptic and it seems more explicitly political and ideological than it used to be, at least to me. Movie sci-fi has gotten really dumbed-down too, in my opinion, with its transformers and superheroes and digital special effects overkill.
Some of these changes reflect developments in the entertainment industry and special effects technology, not cultural evolution or devolution. I’ll explain some of those changes in a brief opening presentation on Monday. Then, we can get our sociology and cultural criticism on. Or we can talk about Thor, World War Z, or the latest Superman atrocity.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Why science fiction matters –
- Sci-Fi heavily influences Americans’ view of what the future will look like.
- It spurs us to speculate on what our future might be like and to beware some of them. Both recommended and fun!
- Apocalyptic Sci-Fi: Since 2000, war and ecological disasters were the main plot point most often in sci-fi novels. Zombies came in 7th. Way cool.
Sci-Fi as social/political commentary –
- Many blockbuster Sci-Fi movies have had obvious political or social messages. Did you miss any of them?
- Today’s Sci-Fi is:
- Diversity, the culture wars and Sci-Fi: What happened at the Hugo awards last year and why it matters. Jeez.
- [Last minute link: Why the West likes sci-fi more than other countries.]
How Sci-Fi has changed recently and why –
- It’s all dystopian and dark, which makes us too pessimistic about our future. Recommended.
- Why zombies and superheroes dominate. Recommended.
Next Week: Are Californians environmentally over-regulated?