Yet more books

The circleby Dave Eggers

I enjoyed The circle. It flows well, and has an interesting feel to it. And while I don’t think it’s likely to prove a timeless classic in the same way that 1984 has, for example, I think it’s a really interesting attempt to think through what a universal flow of information, and the accompanying lack of privacy, looks like.

I think one thing that Eggers does well is to try to be sympathetic to the people who are diving in to the system – the ones who are in favour of recording and broadcasting everything.

I don’t agree with everything Eggers argues – there are powerful uses for social media, particularly in enabling people to have lateral conversations that were previously impossible. But it’s worth thinking through some of the issues he’s thinking about.

Also, for what it’s worth – I’ve picked out particular quotes because I think they’re interesting, but that isn’t an endorsement.

At times it can feel a little belaboured (particularly the transparent deep sea shark that eats everything, and the debates that Mercer and the protagonist have), but it’s still definitely worth a read.

‘… I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication …’

‘… Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai …’

Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off-campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world. The Circle was helping to improve it, she knew, and so many of these things were being addressed – homelessness could be helped or fixed, she knew, once the gamification of shelter allotment and public housing in general was complete; they were working on this in the Nara Period [a building on the company campus] – but in the meantime, it was increasingly troubling to be amid the madness outside the gates of the Circle. Walking through San Francisco, or Oakland, or San Jose, or any city, really, seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies – on any city block, a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community …

‘… I mean, it was like setting up a guillotine in the public square. You don’t expect a thousand people to line up to put their heads in it …’

‘… Now, you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and access to it? They want everyone to have a Circle account, and they’re well on their way to making it illegal not to. What happens then? What happens when they control all searches, and have full access to all data about every person? When they know every move everyone makes? If all monetary transactions, all health and DNA information, every piece of one’s life, good or bad, when every word uttered flows through one channel?’ …

‘… Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know-they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.’

Manufacturing consentby Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

I’ve been reading a bit about the media recently. I wanted to read a little about the political economy of the media, but this is one of the few that I found. I’d love to read a few others.

I didn’t read the whole book – I focussed on the theoretical chapter at the start of the book; the rest seemed to be largely examples working through the implications of the theory.

Essentially, Herman and Chomsky argue that a set of economic imperatives operating at a few levels ensure that a media ecosystem will tend to obscure particular points of view or issues. This isn’t to say that it will be completely effectively, but that there will be a systematic bias in how information filters through different levels in a media ecosystem.

It’s an interesting argument. I’m looking forward to reading more on media theory when I get the chance.

The propaganda model, and the institutional arrangement that it reflects, suggests that the same forces that preclude competition among the parties on issues on which the major investors agree, will also dominate media choices and rule out “mass deliberation and expression” on those issues …

We have long argued that the “naturalness” of these processes, with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework  of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalized press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship …

The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news “filters,” fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism …

… an advertising-based system will tend to drive out of existence or into marginality the media companies and types that depend on revenue from sales alone. With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers’ choices influence media prosperity and survival. The ad-based media receive an advertising subsidy that gives them a price-marketing quality edge, which allows them to encroach on and further weaken their ad-free (or ad-disadvantaged) rivals …

… The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media “democratic” thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income! The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that they buy and pay for the programs –they are the “patrons” who provide the media subsidy. As such, the media compete for their patronage …

The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held … “only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy” …

In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that that provide this subsidy become “routine” news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers …

… a propaganda model suggests that the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state …


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