Guest Column: The Singularity We Live In …
Posted on Wired.com/Epicenter
Around five hundred years ago, another nerd, Johannes Gutenberg, invented some tech, but lacked the marketing skills to go really big. That took a social media practitioner, Martin Luther, who started with a posting on a church door. That had impact similar to a really good Facebook Wall post.
However, Luther made use of a social networking platform, the Church store-and-forward network, which really got his stuff around, to considerable effect, in the Western hemisphere. That played out over maybe a few hundred years and led to a new balance of power in Europe and a loss of message control, resulting in many strains of Protestantism, and the democratization of Christianity. The latter led to greatly increased literacy.
The social network platform was built by a much earlier social media practitioner, Paul of Tarsus, or St. Paul, to successfully effect mass change. Paul used what I call “email”, or “epistle mail”.
Luther’s work rippled through centuries, the cost of mass media decreased, and new social networking platforms were developed. A new technology was introduced — caffeine — and coffee houses became an alternative social networking platform. Modern financial markets were born in the coffeehouses of Amsterdam and London. Bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic used the new media and networks to further rebalance power in the form of representative democracy.
There was John Locke, who was involved in British “glorious revolution,” as well as Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin. Franklin was like a one-man version of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Their work lead to the contemporary internet; Franklin created its predecessor, the U.S. Post Office.
So, part of the deal is that what internet-based social media is about is not new; the human reality is the same. What’s different is that the cost of mass distribution is close to zero, as if printing presses were free. What’s different is that the ‘net is ubiquitous, and fast. What’s different is that now our problem is finding good information amidst the bad.
The last points to what’s different about this decade. Misinformation and disinformation has always plagued people of good will; finding trustworthy information, trustworthy news, is required for the survival of a democracy. It’s always been needed, hence my attempts at wit saying “trust is the new black.” In a democracy, where everyone (in principle) gets to participate, news outlets need to provide reliable info because, as I’ve said elsewhere, “the press is the immune system of democracy.”
What’s different about this decade? The velocity of mass media, particularly internet-mediated, is compressing centuries worth of change into a few years.
I feel that the sources of that change will involve emergent behavior from novel and unexpected sources, and it’ll involve self-organizing systems. We’re seeing the beginning of such change, and also seeing resistance to that change.
This started to play out with the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and was used more effectively by the eventual victor, President Obama. Republicans observed the success of social media, and in the last few years, have gotten much more serious about its use. There is a generational divide in Washington, however, between people who see the potential of social media and those who find it threatening. (I’ve seen this among politicians and think tanks, and it does seem to be age-related.)
Both attitudes are right, since campaigning via social media means sharing control of messaging with the movement you hope to create. We saw that with a great burst of creativity supporting Obama; recall the HOPE posters and also “Obama girl.”
Also, note that Luther and supporters built their own version of his messaging, and now we have many different Protestant denominations.
We’re also seeing a mix of emergent behavior and the illusion thereof in the Tea Party movement(s). On the one hand, we see genuine grassroots, self organizing behavior, “leaderless” in the sense discussed in The Starfish and the Spider. It’s hard to tell, but this seems to have been accidentally triggered by the artificial creation or capture of Tea Party factions that are now actually front groups operated by lobbyist types.
The wildcards of singularity, I feel, will emerge from sources we don’t take very seriously, yet.
Massive change might also emerge from changes in the nature of news formation and selection. An ideal of journalism is fact-checking, any good faith effort to confirm what was being reported. For that matter, a conscientious reporter would challenge the statements of an interviewee who was, say, fact-challenged. Fact-checking is expensive and time consuming, and people are catching on to its neglect. However, we’re also seeing the emergence of fact-checking efforts, like Politifact.com, factcheck.org, and NewsTrust, in conjunction with the Center for Public Integrity and Huffington Post.
This might result in a bifurcation of the news industry, one small group very serious about getting news right, using a combination of models including sponsorship, membership, philanthropy and high quality advertising. The other grouping, much larger, would consist of news outlets competing for a shrinking pool of advertising dollars.
However, as difficult as fact-checking can be, getting people to care about facts is far more challenging. If someone can make that happen, they can trigger a large tipping point. In this context, there’s an Oscar Wilde quote, “if you want to tell people the truth, make ‘em laugh, otherwise, they’ll kill you.” Also, recall that the medieval purpose of a court jester was to deliver bad news in a palatable form.
That’s to say that entertainment, particularly satire, is the most effective means of delivering meaningful news. In particular, The Daily Show might genuinely be the most trustworthy source of news, and media criticism, in U.S. culture. Alternatively, The Colbert Report reminds us to be skeptical, that most news is not about truth, but “truthiness.”
Another source of unexpected change is pure pop culture, if the voices of the voiceless and powerless can somehow be united. Anyone who does that might be riding a wave of change with enormous influence. I’m a nerd, part of a small group that’s always felt disenfranchised, but there’s a much larger group of the voiceless gaining a collective identity as “little monsters.” They talk about being “Born This Way” — not the Leonard Cohen (but the Lady Gaga) song.
The internet’s creation, its use and results, have been surprises to most of us, but I feel that the big changes are barely emerging, and will arise from unexpected quarters. It’ll involve centuries of change compressed to a few years, and if you’ve gotten this far, you’re part of the singularity we live in.