The news can be defined as information about events, individuals, and forces outside the realm of one’s immediate, knowable reality. The news media, then, are the means, methods, and mediums (media being the alternative plural) by which this information transfers from its origin “out there” to you. I highlight this process of information transfer because the incredible capacities afforded by digital technology have obscured it so well. Information arrives instantly, making it seem as if it never traveled at all. Information arrives unrefined and raw, making it seem objective. And information can be produced by anyone, making it seem democratic, equal, and fair.
But it is important to remember that “technological affordance,” a key concept of Zeynep Tufekci’s, is nothing more than that, just a possibility. Technology itself does not do anything. That being said, Jodi Dean cautions us with technological historian Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology, “Technology is neither good nor bad, neither is it neutral.” Much like proponents of firearms point out that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” tech executives often cite their product’s passivity as a way to deflect responsibility — “Facebook is just a platform,” Google’s “Don’t be evil,” etc. Just because technology does not act itself, it still establishes the boundaries of those who do by “altering the social architecture of visibility, access, and community.”
In the last decade, many of these alterations have occurred at such unprecedented scale, the landscape they have rendered seems littered with contradiction. The internet has provided so much information, what it has really caused, according to Dean, is a scarcity of knowledge. When quantity of knowledge no longer becomes an issue, veracity does. Tufekci provides an illustrative example. She describes the life cycle of a 140journos, a crowdsourced journalism collective that came to life around 2012, when Turkey was persecuting the Kurdish people in the south with military violence, but the state owned media was, of course, not covering any of it. Though the logistics were difficult and the danger high, 140journos' mission started out very simple: use Twitter to get around government censorship.
In the last few years, 140journos has had to pause operations and reconsider what value they can continue to provide. Just in the last five years, the digital news landscape had shifted underneath their feet. They used to have to probe huge webs of contacts to find some one who could photograph, film, or report on the events the government was trying to censor. Now, news goes viral before they even know it is happening. Within a matter of minutes, photos can be shared, altered, faked. Trolls descend seemingly out of nowhere, simply to relish in the chaos. Bots amplify the most outrageous players. Any attempt to add original reporting would only be lost to a torrent of noise.
Traditional journalism tries to solve a problem of scarcity: lack of cameras at an event. Social media curatorial journalism tries to solve a problem of abundance: telling false or fake reports from real one.
— Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas
The notion that all content is the same already shakes a fundamental premise of journalism. If a rigorously researched, impeccably sourced, neutrally written piece is the same as a sensationalist fabrication made by a Macedonian teenager trying to make advertising revenue on a fake website, the hope of average citizens being able to make sense of the world are slim. Take that one step further however, and you have Marshal McLuhan’s “The Medium is The Message.”
Understanding Media is famous for producing the line “The Medium is the Message.” Apparently, when the first edition was printed, the type-setters misprinted the section as “The Medium is the Massage.” McLuhan loved it, feeling it proved his point perfectly. His foundational claim is that there is no distinction between content and the medium by which it is provided. In fact, he writes that “the content of any medium is always another medium.”
He discusses the telegraph, which contains printed material, which itself contains words, which is the vehicle for speech. Words allow for speech to be immortalized; the printing press expands degree to which words are spread; and the telegraph eliminates any barrier of time or space. At each step, he points out, there is a “change in scale, pace, or pattern.” Aside from that, however, nothing is different; the content itself is of no import.
This paradigm reminds me of a concept I learned in computer science: recursion, or the idea that a thing can only be understood when defined in terms of itself. Remember, to McLuhan, any medium’s content is just another medium. This produces a kind of “onion peel” layering effect that goes all the way down. What is at the center (or to return to the computer science metaphor “the base case”)? The title is the clue; we are. Jodi Dean provides the modern corollary to this concept with her idea of reflexivity.
People happily report their activities and stalk their friend. We can make and be our own spectacles — and this is much more entertaining.”
— Jodi Dean, Blog Theory
Reflexivity is what Dean believes we default to in light of the complexity and uncertainty wrought by the exponential growth of the internet. “Lacking answers, ever more uncertain, we become mesmerized by our own looking,” and because we can never find the objects we are looking for, we instead opt “to looking at ourselves as objects.” She concedes that we still “configure the worlds we inhabit” but that they are “ever less what we desire but haven’t reached and ever more what we cannot escape yet still enjoy.” Reflexivity is enabling our own capture and enjoying doing so.
She also discusses at length the concept of “symbolic efficiency” and its decline. She describes a symbol as something that indicates to something else, which for Dean, is everything. Writing, language, all forms of communication accept that they are symbols with some degree of distance from what they actually represent. When this “gap” is intelligible, the whole paradigm can still operate. But when that gap between symbol and symbolized gets ignored or abused, the efficiency of the symbol declines, and truth begins to lose its purchase. “Another name for the impossibility of expertise, for falsification without limit, is the decline of symbolic efficiency,” Dean defines the term.
For me, Dean’s concepts are the best descriptor yet for understanding the political paradox wrought by the digital network we live in today. It is a world so big, we have to shrink it back to almost nothing for our own comprehension.
We are simply unable to deal with questions that cannot be answered by means of technology.
— Jodi Dean, Blog Theory
One concept McLuhan would famously discuss was that of the global village, an electronic world in which all lived in immediate proximity. Though James Madison hoped newspapers would shrink the physical distance of America for the better, McLuhan envisioned the global village as cramped, suffocating, and dangerously unstable. Angela Nagle seems to describe almost that exact ecosystem in her book Kill All Normies.
Nagle primarily studied two online sub-communities, each with two opposite characteristics. The first is 4chan, whose users coalesce largely on the political right and who all remain anonymous. The second is Tumblr, whose userbases is extremely liberal and identity is not only revealed but also given center stage. Anonymity is key to the analysis because it is one of the most distinct affordances the internet has brought to the political landscape. The effects are unsettling, allowing individuals to rally around their most loathsome thoughts without consequence. But even then, “pure evil” is not readily accessible. On 4chan for instance, provocations of suicide would be readily accompanied by one’s own suicidal confessions. Irony and morbid self-awareness permit even the most grotesque a pass of acceptability. On 4chan, everything is a joke, even if they are not very funny. She sees the unifying element as transgression. Going against whatever predominates for the mere sake of it.
Tumblr, however, is found to be a far more humorless place, especially if the joke is at the expense of another member. On Tumblr, where identity-based discussions leap into territory rarely witnessed in person, the structure rewards different behavior. Instead of out-trolling the other, the key is to out-virtue the other, or in Nagle’s own words, maximize “performative vulnerability, self-righteous wokeness and bullying.” She reserves no love for Tumblr nor 4chan. Perhaps like McLuhan, Nagle studied the political spaces begot by technology only in attempt to shield herself of the consequences.
Because both the act of suicide and the displays of insensitivity toward suicide victims are perceived as forms of transgression, both found a home within this strangely internally coherent online world.
— Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies
That being said, one still retains the ability, however inconvenient, to opt out of online forums or social media. The 480 described a world where that is not possible. The novel’s main character is John Thatch, construction worker turned national hero who launches the most unlikely of presidential bids. He is aided by Madison Curver, an off-beat political fixer somewhat in the mold of a 1960’s Roger Stone. Curver’s proposition is to enlist the help of “Simulation Enterprises,” a company whose claim mimicked that which the real life Simulmatics Corporation offered nominee John F. Kennedy in 1960 and 1964. They would simulate the entire election and tell the candidate what needed to be said to win.
The novel did not accurately convey how the machine worked (or did not work), but it was a harbinger of the blurring of lines between “talking points” and “convictions.” The books shows the rise of so-called “issue voting” and begs the inevitable question: does public opinion polling finally allow issue voters to be heard, or simply concoct “the issues” such that all other voters are relegated to the sideline? The use of technology in the realm of public opinion is the topic I most want to continue exploring from this section.
If politics is the study of power (a necessary but not sufficient definition, in my opinion) then technological innovation will always be a worthy and urgent political concern. The word “technology” can denote so many different tools, structures, and phenomenon. By the end of these books, however, I had come to believe there was a relatively consistent way to begin my inquiry into the topic. Ask what the technology affords, and to whom. The ask how it is different from the structures that existed previously. Technology changes our capability, and without an understanding of our own capabilities, they instead exert their capacity over us.
Burdick, Eugene. The 480. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1964.
Dean, Jodi. Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York : McGraw-Hill 1964.
Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the Alt-right and Trump. Winchester: Zero Books, 2017.
Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.