Courtesy of Netflix

Graphic from documentary "The Social Dilemma"

November 1, 2020

KUDVA DRISKELL | Do You Think Freely?

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As I’m sure most Gen-Zers experienced, I grew up being constantly told how lucky I was to live in the age of the internet. My father, typically unprompted, would wax poetic about his first time using a computer lab — a sentiment that I couldn’t quite relate to as a third grader enrolled in a mandatory computing class, wherein I spent 90 percent of my time staring out the window and 10 percent of my time refusing to learn how to type with anything other than my pointer finger. 

Moving away from my gripes with Colorado’s elementary school curriculum, I will say that growing up with the internet is a rather dualistic experience. Just as the internet is a vehicle for individual freedom and exploration, it also seems to exemplify modern alienation as people sink into the world wide web and leave reality behind. The one constant in both scenarios is that, at least at a surface level, most people seem to trust the internet. Whether I’m doing independent research or bingeing a god awful TV show, I still maintain a sense of agency — regardless of what I’m doing, I’m choosing to do it. But, I have to question whether that’s the case.

When J.C.R Licklider imagined a world of computer-based communication in his 1968 paper “The Computer as a Communication Device,” he envisioned a radically different society, with a patchwork of decentralized networks providing the means for the free and open exchange of ideas. Yet, since the conception of the internet, we’ve seen rising challenges to Licklider’s optimistic view of the future. 

The first, most obvious challenge, comes from the ever-growing monopolization of the internet. Soon after Cloudfare, a distribution network, chose to cut off service to the neo-nazi publication The Daily Stormer, CEO Matthew Prince created a blogpost — not to justify the decision, but to ask readers to consider what internet regulation means and respect Due Process. Especially as giant networks — Prince specifically names Cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Alibaba — continue to monopolize content, we could be setting ourselves up for a future where corporations have the final say in what is and isn’t online. To an extent, this is already the case — not because corporations have been given full control over the internet, but because we’ve allowed corporate algorithms to govern our lives. 

Everything on the internet, from smartphone apps to email inboxes to the people who pop up on Tinder, is governed by algorithms. Which is, of course, what you expect from a computer program — an algorithm is simply a tool, and an elegant, efficient tool at that. More often than not, they’re created with good intentions. But the question is one of impact, not intent. 

In a 2014 article for the Columbia Journalism Review, Nick Diakopoulos, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, is quoted as saying: “Algorithms make it much easier not just for you to find the content that you’re interested in, but for the content to find you that the algorithm thinks you’re interested in.” What’s showing up on your homepage is based on an algorithm’s conception of you as a subject — rather than a multidimensional human — and part of a built-in agenda to diminish one’s worldview in search of profitability. At this point, algorithms are still being designed by people, and the same biases that are governing corporations behind closed doors are governing your online experience. 

Of course, questions of media bias aren’t new. Beyond the 2018 Mark Zuckerberg testimony, major new outlets are constantly criticized for media bias — just last week, Glen Greenwald quit his job at The Intercept over claims of censorship, which is particularly depressing given that the outlet was founded on explicit editorial independence. Clearly, you can make the argument that the same hyper-personalized, one-sided view of the world has been present long before the digital age. But, I would make the argument that, with most news outlets, readers know whose biases they’re accepting. This isn’t to say that every casual New York Post reader is picking up a newspaper knowing that they’re buying into the interests of the Murdoch family, but at the very least we seem to have a sense of how various news outlets fall along the United States’ bipartisan divide. 

Online, we treat ourselves as free actors despite corporate interests, which create hyper-personalized content that is in no way randomly disseminated. Unlike picking up a print publication, the ways we choose to conduct ourselves online are rarely accompanied by greater reflection. Instead, we seem to blindly accept what comes our way, assuming that the vastness of the internet will somehow translate to unbiased, all-encompassing content. 

Recently, I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post where one of my friends wrote something along the lines of “If you’re voting for Trump, then unfollow me.” This wasn’t a new phenomenon — they’d been reposting infographics and articles for months asking their followers to take a closer look. The interesting thing was that, in the comments section of every post, no one dissented. Which made sense — almost all of their followers are their friends, from a similarly liberal upbringing and age group. There’s a couple of crazy relatives thrown into the mix, but the vast majority of people that they were managing to reach through their social network were people exactly like them. 

They approached their post in the same way that one would approach screaming something from the middle of the street — there was an expectation that everybody would see their work, that they were speaking to the public as a whole rather than a select group of like-minded people. In my mind, there’s an underlying assumption there, the idea that we’re all united under the same internet. But, the reality is that — though the internet has the potential to unite people from all walks of life — more often than not, our networks expand because of the workings of algorithms, which in pursuit of the ideal online experience are only narrowing our worldviews, alienating us from one another while we remain none the wiser. 

I’ve done the same thing in the past, with the idea that I can somehow seek to subvert a corporate system while simultaneously becoming even more entrenched in said system. It’s one thing to acknowledge that corporations are pulling the strings from behind closed doors, it’s another to admit that I’ve accepted — and played into — the illusion. 

I don’t think that this is what the internet has to be. Just as there’s an argument for an inevitable descent into technological, Matrix-esque dystopia where we’re all victims of the simulation, there’s also an argument for organizing in favor of a collectivised, free internet. I can’t make any definitive claims as to the direction of history — what I will say is that I hope whatever direction we take is one that we choose.