Over the last ten years, I’ve been involved in an ongoing debate with the prominent blogger and social media personality Jeff Jarvis about the impact of the internet on democracy. Jarvis is the author of the bestselling book What Would Google Do as well as the New York City based director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY. And he’s one of the internet’s most articulate cheerleaders, who has – over the last decade - consistently argued that the digital revolution has enriched democracy.
So, to kick off our conversation at his Manhattan office just off Times Square, I asked Jeff if he was now ready to acknowledge that the internet had done more harm than good to democracy.
As I said in my intro, Jeff and I have spent the last ten years debating the merits of the internet. And while we don’t always agree, the tone of our conversation has always remained civil. Perhaps that’s what he means when he defines democracy as a “conversation”. Jeff is right, I think, to describe this democratic conversation as both “loud and messy”. But democracy would certainly be in a better state if our conversation on social media could somehow combine this loudness and messiness with a degree of civility.
And that, of course, is why good journalism is so essential to a viable democracy. Jeff’s definition of journalism as a conversation – which he is pioneering at CUNY - is the kind of innovative approach which, I think, we need. What he seems to be doing is rethinking journalism so that it educates communities into civic discourse. “We are relearning how to have a conversation,” he says about the journalism students he is training at CUNY. And these students will, I hope, come out of CUNY able to provide the “fact stacks” to educate communities into having civic discussion.
So what to make of Jeff’s point that it’s too early to judge the impact of the internet – what he calls a “connection machine” - on democracy? It’s an interesting position. Yes, he right to compare the historical significance of the digital revolution to Guttenberg’s 15th century invention of the printing press. And he’s right to underline that the disruptive impact of this technological revolution lasted several centuries. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a judgement now in the early stages of the digital revolution. In the long term we are all dead, Keynes quipped. So it’s important to have the conversation about the impact of the internet on democracy now. While we are still alive.
Jeff’s analysis of populism as a rebellion of “old white men who are threatened by technological change” is intriguing. And given that he defines the Internet as the medium that enables the new voices of movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too, it is – by definition – progressive. The problem with this argument, however, is that reactionary old white men like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are actually very skilled at using the internet to build their movements and distribute their messages.
What I really don’t buy is Jeff’s focus on gender or racial identity as the essence of democratic renewal. At the end of our conversation, he proudly waved his Kamala Harris cap as a kind of an adieu to the rule of old white men. But I fear that this kind of identity politics will actually corrode democratic conversation. After all, if we are essentially defined by our genders and race, then what kind of conversation will we all have? Not a very civil one, I fear.
Next week, we learn how to lose a country. The brilliant Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran will lay out the 7 steps that lead from democracy to dictatorship. I hope you’ll join me then.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode with Jeff Jarvis, you can find out more about him here:
Find his Books here:
What Would Google Do? - Reverse-Engineering the Fastest Growing Company in the History of the World
Public Parts - How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live
Please be sure to check out DLD’s up and coming events,
Produced by Jason Sanderson - Podcast Tech
[00:00:00] We're both too old. I hate to tell you. To find out how this turns out in Gutenberg years it's only fourteen seventy five.
[00:00:06] The first newspaper wasn't invented while 16 05 we have no idea what the Internet is yet or its impact on society is but that isn't that to be polite a bit of a copout because it means we can't talk about anything it's like you know the old Chinese cliché that in the long term stuff happens but we never know what the long term is.
[00:00:23] No we can design the Internet. We can worry about the Internet. We can find possibilities in it but we have to recognize that we're still seeing the future in the analog of the past. We still see the refrigerator as the icebox the cars horseless carriage. We think the Internet is a medium it's not. Whereas most people in media see media as a circle and within it are text and broadcast and now the Internet. It's the opposite to me. Media is a subset of the Internet. Along with. Communications and social and finance parts of finance and parts of retail and parts of crime and everything are being sucked into this black hole of the Internet. I also think we're covering the story incorrectly in that we see this as a technology story and it's not. The Internet is a story of human behavior.
[00:01:05] But let me rephrase the question when you and I started the friendly argument 10 years ago in 2007 democracy around the world was in a pretty good shape. There was no Trump no word taken no boss scenario no Duarte no ban in Hungary. Everything seems to have changed over the last 10 years. I'm not saying we can blame everything on the Internet but is there a connection between this rise of a kind of illiberal populism and the digital revolution or are they separate things.
[00:01:31] I don't think we know enough yet. I do think this is the case. That what the Internet enables is for new voices to be heard and those in power who had the monopoly on being heard are threatened by that and that can come from the Internet. It can go for globalization. It can come from a lot of forces that exist. The Internet enables me to and Black Lives Matter and living while black and enables movements to start and not always successful sometimes those movements can destroy and not build yet. See the Arab Spring. We're still learning what this is and how it operates. But I do think that what we're seeing in the populous movement right now is a bunch of old white men who are threatened.
[00:02:09] So the populists are old white men.
[00:02:12] They look like me and they're angry. They have no good reason to be angry but their anger their fear of the unknown. There's not robotics. It's the others who were coming in. We're going to steal in their view their jobs their money their children their wives whatever their status their power. And we're in a world now of tearing down those boundaries. I think globalization has much to do with anything and I think that there's no going back on globalization.
[00:02:35] Some people argue many of the people actually been on this show that Brexit and Trump imposed scenario are manifestations of a healthy democracy. I mean whether or not you like old white men like you and I. They still have a right to vote them.
[00:02:49] Of course they have a right to vote but do they have a right to abuse and manipulate others is the question. What we see going on I think is an effort to hold on to power and in the case the United States right now to have a scorched earth policy about the institutions of democracy. The presidency is nigh unto destroyed. The courts are going to be destroyed. The Senate is about destroyed. Other institutions are being burned down. Because the old power realizes they can't hold on to it any longer. And so it's a last gasp to me. So the good news bad news here is is this that last gasp of the old white power or is this beginning of the end.
[00:03:28] Dunno to reintroduce our old friend the Internet. What's its role in this.
[00:03:32] The Internet is a connection machine. It enables people to connect with information and with each other and information to connect with information. And it enables people to have a voice who didn't have a voice before. In my world in journalism and media we're still grappling with the fact. That in newsrooms fewer than 5 percent of staff are Latino for example. That's shameful. The voices of the entire country are not heard in big old white media so the Internet enables voices who couldn't find each other before couldn't speak before to now speak and maybe be heard.
[00:04:06] Jeff you and I are talking at the CUNY School of Journalism just off Times Square in New York City. Your professor here what you run the journalism program.
[00:04:13] I run a center in entrepreneurial journals.
[00:04:15] Talk to me about the connection in your view at least between what seems to be a crisis of democracy and fake news and the spread of propaganda.
[00:04:25] There is a problem I'm not sure we're diagnosing the problem correctly. I found the most illuminating documents that I've read on this are the NATO handbook on Russian disinformation warfare and the RAND report on the Russian disinformation firehose. And I'm not suggesting that the Russians are in charge of everything quite yet. But the methods. That they use are being shared across and we see this happening from trolls to spammers to propagandists. I just joined a is a long title the trans-Atlantic high level working group on content moderation and freedom of expression read European regulation and in there I've learned a lot in the discussions and most recently we had a meeting in California where it was argued and I now see the point of this that we shouldn't be trying to go after content declaring some content bad and illegal jeopardizes freedom of expression certainly in the United States the first amendment. We mean fake news or just hateful both that instead the argument is we should go after behaviors. And the behavior of trying to manipulate the American election bad. How it's done with means that may not be fake they just may be overblown. They just may be nasty. So to try to set the standard as truth is gonna be extremely difficult. But if the standard is. Unwarranted manipulation of public opinion from foreign entities in an election. That's a lot easier to try to manipulate.
[00:05:46] We try to regulate you spend a lot of time in Europe. You're fluent in German. What do you make of. The European attempt to regulate big tech as a way of fixing many of the problems we're discussing.
[00:05:59] I think most of that regulation has been a mess of unintended consequences. So if you look at. The right to be forgotten as a journalist it scares me to death that anyone would think of rewriting history or racing history especially in Europe. If you look at the nets day gay hate speech law in Germany. It is forcing the platforms particularly Facebook to have to erase anything that Facebook may judge could be illegal within 24 hours or their ass is grass. What this means is that freedom of expression is deeply affected. There's a French fake news law that's ridiculous. There is also new discussion in the UK of this. There is a recent release of the UK online harms report which I find to be truly frightening because it says the platforms should take down not just illegal content but also legal but harmful content. Not recognizing the paradox that if the government is telling you that you must take down this legal content that makes it de facto illegal. In the working group on part of there's Chatham House rules I can't say who does what but a brilliant member of the group proposes an E court and Internet court. So the matter is of illegality would be taken to that court so that there's due process. There is a public negotiation of legal norms and there is transparency then the French just released a report a few days ago that was done by a member of the working group and part of that I think is actually sensible from France that says that what you regulate is not the content of the social networks but instead their accountability and transparency. And that I think what the social networks need to do what all tech companies need to do. Is. Give a covenant to the public. We warned that we will do these things we will do our best to try to do these things we will best do our best to try to be transparent about political ads or get rid of bots or whatever it is and then government in the model of the American Federal Trade Commission can judge each platform on the basis of whether or not it met its warranties to the public. That's the kind of regulation that I could get behind and then I think the platforms can get behind. But the current view Chris Hughes That's breakup Facebook. Is an effort to just have punishment for punishment sake and by the way speaking of Chris Hughes I do tire terribly of the Damascene conversions of the cashed out tech executives from the past.
[00:08:14] So we're in your office and you've gotten some headlines from the Chicago Daily News so long Chicago the last edition of The Chicago Daily News Extra of the Oakland Tribune people shut down by soldiers in streets of San Francisco people burned alive. Shouldn't the platforms be as accountable under law.
[00:08:30] As the newspapers in the United States. These newspapers are not accountable under the law. We have a First Amendment. And so they are protected under the law. Big difference. I recommend that highly to the world. The Internet the United States also has a First Amendment of the net. Section 230. Which. Takes away the intermediary liability and gave a safe harbor to the platforms to enable a public conversation. Were it not for Section 230 we probably wouldn't have a Wikipedia we wouldn't have a Facebook or Twitter and you may consider the world better for it but I don't. To enable the public conversation is critical. And what that means to my mind is that we are looking at the Internet the wrong way again as early in Gutenberg years. And I don't think the Internet is about content at all. It's about conversation and a democracy is a conversation and a democracy's conversation is going to be messy and loud and troubling.
[00:09:16] And that's okay. You're not troubled by the conversation on the Internet. The overt hatred of minorities of women show they have of course that in some ways reflects the world itself. But it seems to be more or more exaggerated isn't it.
[00:09:31] I think it's done for purpose because it gets people's goats and that's the effort at the recent meeting of this working group. Someone said use the word. I think that's right. Is resiliency that if you look at people in let's say Eastern Europe they are resilient to fake news. They're resilient to this kind of hate because they've had it for so long. They know how to ignore it. We've got to learn how to ignore it here and the problem is we do the opposite. Media. Including journalism. Every time they debunk the so-called fake news they end up spreading it. They do the will of the manipulator. Back home what was it 2008 2009 you wrote a book called What Would Google Do. Which was fairly unambiguous embrace of Google as a company and as an idea.
[00:10:11] Over the last ten years you've changed your position on Google haven't you.
[00:10:15] Not a great deal actually. I still think that Google is a fascinating and impressive company. Google Facebook Twitter all the platforms have made missteps no question about it. But I still think that Google's mission to organize the world's knowledge make it accessible is a lottery and I think they do a good job of that. When I wrote the book I think I was right about most of it but I did not predict for example mobile wars and how Google would become a mobile company and what that's done. I was at Google I O last week in California they talked about taking machine learning models that were 100 gigabytes. And reducing them to a half a gigabyte so they fit in an inexpensive phone which enables in their heartwarming video showing how wonderful they are a illiterate woman in India to point the phone at a sign and have it translated and read aloud to her. These are the possibilities the technologists see and I still celebrate them. Now what might be wrong with all of this is probably the same business model that we have in media. The current advertising model based on volume leads inevitably to cats and Cardassian to click bait and I think leads inevitably to Donald Trump who is the click bait candidate. I think we still need advertising but we've got to change those business models and figure out new models based on quality.
[00:11:23] Do you buy Shoshana Zubkov thesis about surveillance capitalism. She was a previous guest on this show.
[00:11:29] Having not read the entire book. I think surveillance is an emotional word if we're surveilled by the platforms we were surveilled when I worked there by Time Inc. Time Inc had more data on you as an individual reader through axiom and other data companies like that than even the platforms have to some extent. You really believe that. I saw it I saw it. I can keep out of class if I go on to axiom and I can say I'm going to create a database of women of a young age who lived near here who have a college education or drive a nice car and I'll get their name and address. And I can do something about that. This sense of. Having data about people and targeting to them has been around long before the Internet time.
[00:12:06] Time could never get into somebody's house through their smart phone through that smart speaker through their smart when what's gone wrong with that. The platforms are able theoretically are beginning to do that on them.
[00:12:16] But what does mean to get into the house when television came out that was seen as a violation. Oh my God.
[00:12:21] TV speaking you read it however as fine but it was never a smart device.
[00:12:24] Smart telephones so good television was dumb for a long time. I welcome a smarter TV still as dystopian as ever Andar and I'm asking the questions.
[00:12:33] I'm not telling you what I think. You argue that the populist backlash against democracy is as a white male thing.
[00:12:40] But around the world it's not just white men it's about Sanaa in Brazil it's 20 in Philippines I don't get need to get beyond race and perhaps even gender is there something more socioeconomic about me.
[00:12:52] Of course there's other factors but point me to the current. Women of color who are authoritarian fascists. Again the reason is because people who were in power for pretty much forever now see their power challenged and they're fighting back doing whatever they have to do to hold on including destroying the institutions we hold dear.
[00:13:11] So they're trying to essentially dismantle democracy.
[00:13:15] Yeah you know I remember when I was a student. La la long ago one of the first things to shock me read about Nazi Germany was. Beyond the obvious but in the early days of the National Socialist Movement that democracy was a bad word democracy was disliked it was words we're used to here to put everyone salutes the flag of democracy. No no. As you said democracy is a bad thing when we get rid of it and the fascists in the White House are acting like they want to get rid of it too.
[00:13:40] We here at CUNY in the middle of New York City you're training a new generation of journalists. What are you trying to make them do that will empower democracy in this country.
[00:13:51] I tell them every fall I get the privilege of brainwashing the incoming class every fall and I tell them it is their job to redefine and redesign and rethink journalism. Learn what we teach them but then question everything. Question where it came from. Question the money. I started a new degree here at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism named after Craig Newmark the founder of Craigslist and our benefactor in social journalism which believes that you start not with content with the community and the students there find self-defined communities. Observe and listen to those communities empathize with those communities reflect those communities and then begin to understand what journalism to bring. I think journalism has to redefine itself across a few axes. One is that it's almost an anthropological view of communities. Another is to build bridges among communities and build bridges of understanding. I redefined journalism because I have tenure and I can do obnoxious things like that. My new definition of journalism is to convene communities into civil informed and productive conversation. James Carey the late Columbia Journalism Professor Layton great talked to his whole career about society democracy and journalism as a conversation. And what the Internet enables is conversation. And we're figuring out how to do it where were we learning how to have a conversation as society. We forgot. Because media and mass media took away that power from us. For six hundred years. But now.
[00:15:09] We have it back and we'll screw it up. All 600 What do you mean. What got taken away 600 to Gutenberg. I thought he was the good guy. I love Gutenberg. I do. He took something away. But yes there is a wonderful theory by two academics in Denmark named Tom Pettit and Lars Oli Sahlberg called the Gutenberg Parenthesis.
[00:15:27] In which they argue that before Gutenberg knowledge was passed around click to kill I mean mouth to mouth was changed along the way. There was little sense of ownership and authorship. It was about preserving the knowledge of the ancients. Then come as Gutenberg. And now knowledge is contained in a thing called a book that has a beginning and an end and alpha and omega. Marshall McLuhan would say that the line the sentences as example became our organizing principle. We thought in a linear fashion we had a business model now property metaphor with copyright. We tried to honor the current experts from Dr. So-and-So as the author of this book. Now they say we come to the other end of the Gutenberg Parenthesis and now on the internet once again knowledge is passed around click to click. Mouth to mouth changed along the way. Little sense of ownership or authorship. Business model is disappeared for now. And they argue that we are returning to a natural state of things pre Gutenberg the Gutenberg was a 600 year exception in society and what would be the the model for that Wikipedia.
[00:16:21] What are the examples you cite for your students to show how it could work. There is a new little company in California and it's very little called Spaceship media.
[00:16:28] And they're just one example is employer I think of trying to do it this way. Their first experiment after the American presidential election they brought together 25 women who voted for Clinton and Sarah Cisco 25 voted for Trump in Alabama. Journalist interviews them all. First day they're in a private Facebook group. Things were fine. Next day goes to hell. But then my friend the heavens opened and the angels sang because members of the community came to the journalist and said we're getting in trouble over here. Can you look up some stuff for us which says to me that they cared about it in reform conversation. They wanted facts they trusted the journalist to get her for them. And what happens is spaceship then doesn't deliver articles and stories and columns it delivers what they call facts facts to help inform their conversations. So this is a case where just one small example of the conversation the public conversation that needs leading and we in journalism follow.
[00:17:17] Ian Bremmer was on the show a couple of weeks ago in terms of coming up with solutions to fix democracy said Auden. People who who don't have your kind of power should just go out and talk to people with different opinions. Is that what you mean by conversation.
[00:17:32] That's certainly a beginning and it's fun but I think that it has to have a purpose. In communities we negotiate our laws our standards are norms. The allocation of our resources our laws. That's all the nature of democracy and conversation. Otherwise it's authoritarianism and you don't get to decide. So why bother talking.
[00:17:50] Your students have to go out and get jobs so I'm sure they're intrigued by your notion of journalism as conversation. But who's going to pay them to produce this.
[00:17:58] Well we started the social journalism program four years ago and we have I don't know what the current numbers are. But after six months I think about 80 percent are employed and it's not just social media tools. By any means it's doing things in new ways. So at places like ProPublica in the U.S. they rethink how to do journalism. How to involve the public in it. And you know our students work there.
[00:18:18] Do you think that the establishment of paywalls on high end papers like The New York Times the Financial Times The Wall Street Journal. Has that been good or bad for democracy.
[00:18:28] It's a mixed bag. I think for the New York Times and The Washington Post The Wall Street Journal. Those are high quality national newspapers. They can get away with it. If you have the local daily disgrace in some city across the country that is not very good and if you can have a paywall I don't think it's going to work in the long run. I think that product is worth it. I think there's a limit to the number of paywalls that we can have. I fear that it redlines journalism. Just for the privileged. So I don't think paywalls are the Messiah. We've been waiting for. I think they can help some businesses. I also believe in membership. I worked with the Guardian on their membership program. Has that worked. Yes it has more than a million people are given money and the guardian for the first time in history in recent history broke even just a few months ago. If you read the Guardian you'll see the end of most of the article. The editor Cath minor will shame you into giving money for this great journalism but it's working. It's not the entirety of the revenue stream. It's one more revenue stream. But the Guardian asked its readers its members whether they wanted the paywall or whether they wanted. We're willing to contribute. And what they found was people were not willing to pay for content they were willing to pay support the Guardian journalism and make it free for the world. So I think that both of these models live side by side.
[00:19:34] What's the state of local journalism now in the United States. Local papers city papers regional papers papers outside the major urban centers sucky you see some efforts to develop things the L.A. Times as a new owner who's willing to pump money into the paper.
[00:19:51] L.A. is hardly a marginal place exactly but I think in lower markets my old employer advance just sold the Times-Picayune in New Orleans a competitor that come in the new owner laid off the entire staff. There are big issues around local journalism. There are some who believe that only if not for profit will work locally. I don't believe that yet. I think it's possible to imagine a community based view of journalism that can work locally.
[00:20:13] Why did that happen. What would the role of decent mediators like Craigslist and essentially the decimation of local newspapers.
[00:20:21] It wasn't as Craigslist. It was the entirety of the Internet because the Internet hates middlemen and leaves money in the pockets of the trans actors not in the pockets of the middlemen. When my father in law died ten years ago to put in a death notice in the paper cost 450 dollars because it was a monopoly it was the only place to read the death notices. We pretty much milked the public in newspapers for everything because we had these monopolies and duels. That's what the Internet killed. Those who think that Google and Facebook stole newspapers money well God didn't give them that revenue. They offered better deals to advertisers and that's what happens in a competitive capitalistic market.
[00:20:54] Let's go to Gutenberg and try to think about the future in a kind of dramatic way. What do you hope will happen after you and I have gone away when we can't continue arguing about these things. You keep on saying well a long time has gotten back. Maybe you're right. But speculate. Speculate about 50 years or 100 years time. And the nature of the digital revolution on democracy. If it still exists I don't know.
[00:21:22] It's the only honest answer I can give I think the most hubristic and ridiculous job title on earth is futurist.
[00:21:27] But you've been in the business of talking about the future or at least using the past to imagine the future and understand the past better.
[00:21:33] By contrast we have which is what I think we can do. As my friend David Weinberger who I think you know as well who's at Berkman Center at Harvard who wrote some wonderful books he just hasn't a clue tray and manifesto co-author including a manifesto which was the seminal work of Internet culture in 1989. His new book out just out right now is called Everyday chaos. In it he argues it's not just the Internet. In it he argues that machine learning and A.I. and even a b testing which the platforms love proves are oftentimes with right data to be better at predicting behavior than we humans can. That pulls a rug out from underneath us journalists who think we can explain the world. And what it says is the algorithm says this behavior is going to happen. It will reliably predict that. But it can't explain it. And the notion that the world can be more inexplicable than we think could at first be frightening. I think we're headed toward a cognitive crisis in Oh my God. I don't really understand the role as well as I thought I did. But then I think that the benefits of the technology will be harnessed and will be seen as useful. If we kill each other less on the highway because of self-driving cars. If we can predict we'll find disease more easily if we can make more money in markets. If we can manufacture things more efficiently then there'll be benefit that comes down the line. Is all that automatically good. No I'm not a technological determinist I don't think it goes either way we do have to manage it. We had to have to figure it out but we will. We've figured out the printing press we've figured out steam we've figured out the Telegraph we figured out broadcast.
[00:22:59] We'll figure this out. Besides that my question I was asking about democracy. I. Still have fundamental faith.
[00:23:07] In the intelligence and goodwill of most of my fellow men and women. And I think that there is a cycle there. What I don't know is what happens to our institutions including the notion of the nation. Gutenberg helped establish the notion of the nation when a nation could find its words in print and could define itself around the language that was now standardized. It gave them an identity and borders. As part of that process. And what if now the idea of the nation is challenged what of wars can be held with data without and with no armies and no gunpowder. What if currencies can be set with block chain. What if boundaries become difficult under impossible to defend. I can imagine a lot of disruption. I was at the journalism festival in Perugia recently and debated with a German regulator and I tried to joke. Turns out I shouldn't have. I tried to joke that after Gutenberg sure we went through a 30 years war. We may have a 30 years war. Well evidently it's still too soon to joke about the Thirty Years War in Europe. We may go through considerable strife. We may go through considerable disruption. Considerable efforts to defend turf and institutions and tear down institutions. But again in the end I think our self-interest will figure it out and we may have to reinvent democracy. But democracy is still the best system we have and I think it will reemerge.
[00:24:22] I really think ultimately you're a cheerful pessimist.
[00:24:25] I'm a grumbling optimist.
[00:24:27] What are you.
[00:24:30] I'm laughing. I am a cheerful pessimist. You're a miserable optimist then maybe English people tend to be miserable and cheerful optimists Americans tend to be miserable optimists. Is that a fad cultural generalization. Sure we're both white men. And declining is is that fair.
[00:24:48] Yeah we are. We are and it's time to decline. I have here my Kamala Harris hat for the president a she or she is my current. Yes I think that she is really good and I think a time to stand behind candidates. We had a great field of women people of color LGBTQ candidates and then along came this army of white men who thought they had to mansplaining the election and I'm fed up with it.
[00:25:10] But you mean map heat and all these abit.
[00:25:12] Well today Mayor de Blasio Joe Biden. Bernie. Speaking of all white men one after another. The egos of the white men coming in I think even in the Democratic Party afraid of being displaced by a woman or woman of color is striking.