The One Channel Problem

I read Alexis C. Madrigal's article on the Atlantic: "Google and Facebook Failed Us" and it got me thinking.

There is a structural problem with the Internet, and I think it is something we still haven’t fully come to understand or grasp. It is the only point of distribution and communication for a large portion of our social, economic, and technological existence. We don’t live in a democratized online space, switching back and forth between different communication streams, we live permanently attached to a single, massive, Network 23.

We do everything through Network 23. We watch our news and our entertainment. We order food, talk to our doctors and even arrange our medical care. We do our banking and we work all on Network 23. Our social interactions, our art, our culture, even our government and our forms of activism, have all been migrated to this giant network, and because we see all of these things as separate entities we think that they are part of different communications structures. At a very core level, though, they are not.

The reality is that Google and Facebook are just two shows on this network. They’re the biggest. They know how to get and keep the ratings. Everything we create and post online gets sucked into their vortex for commodification, monetization, and distribution. All that stuff listed above, are just other shows. We click in, we click out, and somewhere a ratings point goes up and another goes down.
Facebook and Google haven’t failed us. They aren’t working for us. We’re the data that they sell to advertisers. We’re the ratings points that they can submit to their board of directors.

The news only matters to Google and Facebook because it helps them build their ratings. That’s it. They don’t care about the news, nor do they even consider the value or impact of the media they distribute. The media is secondary. They have proven this, repeatedly. They don’t care about the quality of the content, who the advertisers are, or who they are targeting as long as the money is there. If garbage gets eyes, it gets promoted. If it doesn’t, it gets kicked (see the current Youtube monetization trends as an example).

Addressing these companies misses that larger issue, but it isn’t going away. If the FCC continues the way it has been, and I see no reason why it won’t, it is only going to get worse. I suppose it’s easier to focus on these companies. They are right in front of us. We have spent the better part of the last decade singing their praises and believing that idiotic catchphrases like “Do no evil” meant something. Now, we think we can address them and pretend that something beyond the superficial will change. The author of this article can claim without irony, that “Google is too important” and that “the company does care about information quality” and probably even believe it. And I am sure, as both companies have already done, they will give their mea culpas and promise to do better. We’ll probably believe that, too.

None of this will change the underlying reality of the systemic structure that drives these problems. This isn’t the failure of a couple of problematic corporations, or a bad algorithm or two, it is a network-wide system failure. We just haven’t realized that, yet.

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Image Clipped from the BBC Channel 4 Series, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future