Platforms. Progress. “The user experience.” The wisdom of crowds. “The network is the computer.” A link “is like a vote”. You “don’t own your brand anymore.” Always On. “Privacy is dead. Get over it.” Don’t be evil. Everybody’s connected.
These types of statements characterize the mostly-hopeful, mostly-progressive flavor of digital culture. While most of us will agree that major online media and technology companies and the technologies they leverage may have a dark side, it’s typically felt that the good outweighs the bad. No doubt it does. There are only a few really well-known critics who beg to differ.
Malcolm Gladwell has been absolutely pilloried of late, merely because he has argued that the impact of Twitter and other social media has been neutral (not negative) on social progress and revolutionary change.
Nick Carr, who most recently wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, is more or less marginalized. But more to the point, though – Carr makes few ad hominem arguments. He criticizes systems, cultures, and technologies — not individuals.
Both critics are witness to the fact that there really is a narrow band of what you can and cannot say in approved digital culture circles. Free speech? Hmmm.
Elsewhere — in our political systems, for example — we criticize individuals, their policies, and their arbitrary power grabs all the time. Arguably we do this at the expense of meaningful policy discussion, and we go overboard in our attacks on individuals.
By contrast, in digital circles, we often expect less personal accountability from powerful individuals than we should. In online business — while there may be gossip here and there — there is rarely much criticism of individuals. Little wonder: individuals are touchy, and we might need to do business with them sometimes.
But abuse of power is no less ominous in these circles than it is in government. We have no constitutions to protect us in this realm, to speak of. So in fact, we’re relatively defenseless.
Based on the ownership structures (and other institutional properties) of our major technological gatekeepers today, some individuals seem to have outsized power as gatekeepers in their own right. They can enforce editorial policies while hiding behind “the algorithm”. They can snoop into private data, while claiming they don’t. They can tell their companies which projects to work on. They – like the old media – can make decisions as to what gets prominence, and what does not. They can help some companies and hurt others. They can help friends. They can fund companies that compete with their partners. They can hire 1,000 new employees who compete with their supposed partners. And so forth.
For many of these decisions, it’s appropriate to call them company decisions or organizational decisions. But can the individuals right at the top — the few people in charge — put their stamp on things? Why are we shy about saying this?
Is it because they wear t-shirts and let people bring their dogs to the office?
Here are five individuals who have uncommon power to shape what information we consume. Indeed, too much power. I’m not saying this is the list of the top five most powerful people in the world, or technology, or anything else. It’s just a list I came up with.
1. Hosni Mubarak. OK, I cheated. I added a “political” leader. He’s on this list for obvious reasons, irrespective of technology. But then he went and shut down the whole Internet in a relatively modern country like Egypt, proving that totalitarian rule is not too far away for any of us, at any time… and vaulting him to the top of my list. Institutional reform is a must.
2. Mark Zuckerberg. Mr. Zuckerberg and company have created a remarkable global phenomenon. There is no disputing Facebook’s importance. But if the company’s cultural cues come from the top, will the many instances of flippant approaches to personal privacy give way to a respectful view of users? It’s doubtful.
3. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia. Although Wales’ importance seems to be waning, there are no other major figures that you can associate with Wikipedia. It’s always going to be hard to forget that he told his new girlfriend he’d polish up her profile on Wikipedia — while they were dating — and then changed it back when they broke up, and she put up some of his used clothing for sale on eBay. A classy bunch, to whom you no doubt would be happy to cede total control of what counts as truth or fiction.
NOT: Michael Arrington, TechCrunch. TechCrunch has served as a kind of gatekeeper for technology startups — and a useful one — for several years. Among other things, the Crunchbase Profile offers a fantastic resource, and the TechCrunch 50 creates a lot of excitement about and among high-tech startups. Here’s why Arrington doesn’t make my list, even though he has a lot of power. First, hard-hitting journalism. Second, transparent editorial stances: it’s Arrington standing behind them. Third, he runs an editorial organization like an editorial organization — no hiding behind “the algorithm.” With power comes responsibility. Someone willing to wield it in a transparent manner gets to stay off this list.
4. Gabe Rivera, Techmeme. Techmeme, by contrast, plays a game similar to Google News or Google in general. “It’s not me, it’s the algorithm.” This blog has managed to eke a few posts onto the Techmeme page here and there, so sadly this is biting the hand that feeds (see above, this is why people rarely point fingers of this nature). But Rivera pretty much controls Techmeme and thus, has a lot of say as to what information you digest, and also a lot of say as to who has a lot of say. Techmeme not only seems to be bent on having us all digest every minute development in phone technology, but they constantly feature a favored clique of commentators. This has been exacerbated by the recent addition of hand-picked “tweeters” who get their tweets featured on the Techmeme home page. The rest of us, clearly, are chopped liver. Is it just me or does Rivera have a lot of opinions and relish his gatekeeping role? He pretends not to. Anyway, put him on the 2011 “ones to watch” list!
5. Konrad von Finckenstein, Chairman, CRTC (Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission). von Finckenstein may just personify what is wrong with Canadian telco monopolies and regulation of same, but I just had to get a dig in at the CRTC. The CRTC is so powerful, it’s been difficult to bring healthy foreign competition into the marketplace to shake up Rogers and Bell, the main oligopolists. And consumer-friendly regulation for permissible pricing plans, such as the facilitation of unlimited data plans and the like, keep getting squelched by the CRTC. The Supreme Court has weighed in recently to overturn the federal cabinet’s attempt to overturn a couple of CRTC decisions. The Court correctly noted that Cabinet does not make law, so the CRTC decisions must be upheld. If the CRTC is to be undone or if legislation needs to be made or amended, a long-term full-scale legislative process must happen. Was the federal Conservative Cabinet just posturing, knowing full well that its consumer-friendly noises would not come to pass? What kind of discretion does the CRTC have, and what process does it use in coming to its often arcane regulatory decisions? It’s all murky to the consumer. Also murky is whether there is truly anyone in government who can come to power on a simple promise like cutting down on crazy roaming fees and overpriced data plans… or whether there is anyone in mainstream politics who maintains sufficient research expertise in the new economy that they can forge creative policies as opposed to creating old economy jobs by the same old politically-motivated pork. What does any of this have to do with the CRTC Chairman? Hard to say. It may be stating the obvious that we consumers take a dim view of “regulators” who work overtime to prop up oligopolists and fend off healty competitive pressures.
NOT: Anyone specific from Google. Google is the company with the most — absolutely enormous — power as an information gatekeeper today. Pointing the finger at one person his hard, though, in part because of the brilliant accident of the leadership triumvirate. Reviewing the record it really does seem like that created some balance in the flavor of specific decisions. Will this change with Larry Page at the helm? It might.
Do you have additions to the list? Disagree with any of the above? I’d love to hear your comments.