July 2019 Essay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Accountability

The temperature felt like 106 degrees Fahrenheit.  The dew point was in the upper 70s, a brutal end to a long hot day.  In the early evening I was sitting on the lawn of the deCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln Massachusetts.   We were there to see Doug Aiken’s New Horizon Balloon Project.  As we waited in the mind numbing heat and humidity for sunset and the balloon light show to begin, there were a series of speakers and musicians and the theme for the event that night was “The Future of Information: Conversation with Gideon Lichfield, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review. Confronted with fake news and information bubbles, how do traditional media companies become platforms for communities to address the challenges society faces in a more equitable and inclusive manner?

Before continuing about the event, here is a link to The Trustees site with specifics about the New Horizons project. Moving from the art to the talk by Gideon Lichfield, the content was not what I had expected.  He did tweet about his talk after and a link can be found here, but it is more of a tweet about the books he recommends rather than his talking points.  Earlier in the week, before the New Horizon event I had read this article about WeChat in the MIT Technology Review, which Gideon is the Editor in Chief.

The main thesis of the article states that “New research from the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab pulls the curtain back on how WeChat’s real-time, automatic censorship of text and images is used to exert control over political discussion on topics ranging from international issues like the trade war with the US to domestic scandals like the disappearance of court documents in a 2018 dispute between two multibillion-dollar Chinese mining companies. All discussion is ultimately subject to the Chinese government’s approval.”  WeChat is a massively pervasive app for communications.  Even here in the west, when doing business with people in China or with third parties who are a channel into China, it is not uncommon to be asked if you are on WeChat.

Here I was sitting on the lawn of the deCordova Sculpture Park starring at the New Horizon balloon wondering what the show will look like when Gideon began his talk.  I was not taking notes and I really had no expectations around the subject matter, but as he spoke, the more curious I was.  In a broad overview, he started with how the Roman Catholic Church controlled printed materials prior to the Reformation and how Luther’s gluing of the 95 Theses to the Church door and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg began the process of the democratization of information.  From this point he provided an overview of the rise of the press and the establishment of the fourth estate as a trusted source.

He then described the 1949 broadcasting Fairness Act that mandated that radio and eventually TV provide opposing views on matters of public interest in order to promote equality. This regulation was relaxed in 1987 and eventually eliminated in 2011.  His supposition was that the removal this regulation and the creation of the Internet has not had a democratization effect of information, but rather fuelled the rise of fake news, false facts, hate speech and generally lead to the polarization of society along political fault lines.  He then went on to suggest reading Timothy Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom, which is an interesting choice considering the comments that the author made in this Salon interview and the fact that Salon would be the type of publications that benefited from the rise of polarized political press post the relaxation of the Fairness Act in 1987.

As he concluded his talk, it was interesting to note that he went as far as to state that there should be some rethinking of aspects of the Bill of Rights such as the right to freedom of speech and that perhaps there should be some sort of oversight by the government to ensure that what people said, wrote, tweeted and so forth was factually accurate.  I am paraphrasing his words, but I believe this is factually correct.  I found it somewhat of an interesting position to promote coming from a person of English citizenship who was speaking on land from which men rushed to defend Concord on April 19, 1775 from forces of the English King George III.  For me, the true irony of his point went back to the WeChat article in the MIT Technology Review.  Should the Western Democracies consider implementing a government filter that approves communications or at least filters unapproved dialog?

I surmise that Gideon was most upset about is that the Internet enables the subterfuge of the Fourth Estate by the individual without any check or balance and apps and tools of the digital age has amplified anyone’s voice regardless of accuracy.  I understand the point, however the followers of Luther were all to happy to say that the monks controlling the content of books had to be subverted and that is what the internet did to traditional broadcast and print media sources.  People want to consume what they want to consume and if it is progressive or conservative, hateful or loving, they should have that right.  I will be the first to admit there is a whole lot of junk on the Internet.  I will state that I believe that people do not read enough.  People are not skeptical enough and people easily fall into the trap of the narrative.  They hear or watch or read a narrative on a subject they agree with and assume that sentences that start with “it is a well known fact” are well-known facts when the fact is not a fact and people are unwilling to research truth.  I view this more as a product of the lack of accountability.  Conspiracies are not new, they are simply easier to access via social media platforms on the Internet.  We have lost the art of the Toastmaster and the ability to have an informed debate and discussion without anger and vitriol.

As Gideon was speaking about source material on the Internet, I thought of this paper.  I am not attempting to start a vaccination debate, but I can assure the reader that every member of my family is up to date on vaccinations.  I am going to lift a pic out of the paper, which I think, is super interesting and in full disclosure I have not verified the data set. What this picture shows as described by the authors is: “The top 10 most linked to domains by strongly antivaxx and provaxx profiles. Bar length shows percentage of the total number of links shared by profiles in the given category and hence do not sum to 100. For each domain, the red bars going right represent antivaxxers and blue bars going left provaxxers. Antivaxxers rely heavily on links to Youtube, and the page ’natural news’, which promulgates pseudoscience and sells products related to health and nutrition. Provaxxers link to a wide array of news and science sites, which is why a lower overall percentage of their links are contained in the top 10.”

The paper is an interesting read and I think that machine-learning analytics are really the solution to identifying less reliable content especially in an era when most Internet search engines are optimized around ad revenue.  Anyone still telling the story that search engines provide results by analyzing page rankings missed the creation of the SEO industry and explosion of Internet advertising spending over the past fifteen years.  It is also worth noting that the anti-vaccine crowd tends to consume information in video form and on social media sites.  I am not saying that the BBC is the standard barer of deep research credibility, but it is an actual news organization and generally respected member of the fourth estate.

I view a lot of the issues that Gideon was discussing have more to do with a lack of sense of place. This is something I wrote about in a post last month.  From that post the “…reference to Marcel Proust and the protagonist’s feeling of a lack or lost meaning to the world in his novel In Search of Lost Time.  The underpinning of nationalism is the need to fill the gap of lost meaning.  The gap that a person feels when they cannot find a sense of place in the world order around them and thus they challenge the conventional order with acts of rebellion.”  Historically, Americans tend to need a mission.  They need to be pointed in a direction and tasked with objectives that are difficult to achieve.  This does not mean we have always made the best choices, or prioritized the right endeavors; it means that since we put a man on the moon and won the Cold War, the nation has been somewhat without a mission.  Yes, there was 9/11, but that was more in the category of an issue-based coalition for geo-politics rather than a global power rival. For 30 years we have been drifting and the Internet and the playpen it represents, that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.

I have been watching the PBS show American Experience on the moon-landing program.  It is so well done, but one part caught my attention that was JFK’s Rice University speech.  Most people have only heard a snippet of this speech referring to the part about choosing to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard. If you ever fly into Boston and walk through the tunnel connecting the two parts of Terminal A, you hear this snippet too.  It was the other words that JFK spoke on that day which I am referring to and they were magnificent words that are in many ways embodiment of the American Spirit.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward. 

So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward – and so will space. 

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage. 

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space. 

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it – we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.”

When I think about the ills of the Internet Age, I do not think about regressing or filtering or restricting or censoring the power of the platform.  I think about moving forward.  People are too easily outraged.  They are too easily angered and the Internet has given them tools to easily express their anger and outage.  Somehow we have found it comforting to tweet about airplane delays and poor service as if some sort of Pilgrim form of virtual public shaming will lead to a better world.  I believe in the need for encryption for personal and financial transactions, but I also believe there has to be more accountability rather than more anonymity in the digital age.  If you are going to say seemingly stupid things, you need to be called out. People need to have skin in the game because being motivated by loss, the loss of credibility, the loss of money and the loss of respect all matter.  When someone says we need to restrict speech, we need to censor hateful words, we need to monitor content I think that is an unwinnable proposition.  We need to hold people accountable for their words and actions, not simple make them disappear.  Pedophiles, drug dealers, hackers, terrorists and racists are not seeking accountability, they are seeking anonymity so when we give them tools and capabilities to operate alone, in the their dark creepy holes, we are empowering their message. Thoughtful, well-mannered dialog that is accountable is a meaningful path to resolving the inefficiencies of the platform.

As always, my thoughts on these matters

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