Engineering social media in a digital commons

Blogging colleague Brad Berens writes in his excellent Weekly Dispatch about the bastardising of the term “social media” by the growing tsunami of effectively anti-social media: doubly egregious as so much of it is not only negative and hurtful in effect but is actually designed to be anti-social. It hitches an ethical ride on the assumed goodwill of the world of social support, family pleasures, cat videos, and pollutes the presumed well of good faith hopes and dreams with cynical stokings of fears, ignitions of greed and, in the toxic words of the egregious Steve Bannon, “floodings of the zone with bullshit”.

In the current and intense worrying over the existential threat posed to humanity by Artificial Intelligence (AI), it would probably be useful if we could sort out who owns the Intellectual Property rights to any threat. Given our behaviours in the context of a world where the driving forces of creativity, innovation, and development are solely inspired by our own, innate intelligence, any objective analysis of what risks are posed by AI must wonder if those risks can best be mitigated by keeping AI out of the hands of the world’s Steve Bannons?

But of course it’s more complicated than that. What is designed in good faith and constrained by well-meaning protocols and regulations can be perverted by unconscious bias, by commercial impulses driven by dark external factors, and simply by basically good people not paying attention. It’s tempting to nod approvingly upon reading Carl Jung’s famously bleak account of humanity, when he said in a BBC interview in 1959 that “we need more understanding of human nature, because the only danger that exists is man himself – he is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man – far too little.”

It’s sobering to think that he wrote that within less than a generation of the unspeakable cruelties of the second world war, the unleashing of the atom bomb, and the writings on truth and lies by George Orwell. There was someone who knew a thing or two not only of human nature, but of humanity’s inventiveness in corrupting language in aid of conning people and, in the technocratic euphemism made famous by Edward Bernays, the putative father of Public Relations, when he talked of “engineering consent”.

An irony connected to Bernays is that, while he appears to have turned down the Nazi Party as a client, and was actually himself Jewish, his methods were co-opted by Joseph Goebbels, who created a Fuhrer cult around Adolf Hitler, much to Bernays’ dismay:

“They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”

The balancing of social and anti-social impulses is possibly not as old as the hills, but it certainly predates Bernays, Jung, and Orwell. An historically rich article earlier this year in the New Statesman draws some fascinating parallels between today’s world of social media and the intellectually vibrant coffee houses of 17th century London. It explores the opportunity for a sustaining, digital commons in which the power rests with the platform users rather than the owners within an evolved social network that is conceived and launched with a mixed economy of public and private subsidy, but is sustained by community subscription revenue.

No confected outrage allowed, no sticks for poking the circumspect: just a citizen-led platform that is co-operative in the widest sense, focusing on news, discussion, and a magnanimous sharing of wonder at the variations and vibrancy of life.

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