Re-Defining the Public Interest in the Media Torrent of the Internet


Media and Our Conflicting Values: Day 3

On our last day of this Socrates Seminar, we jumped squarely into the discussion of the Internet that we all wanted to have since Day 1.

First, we acknowledged the disruptive transformation of the media away from its historical one-to-many controlled distribution model, which was largely restricted to professionally produced print, radio, and linear video broadcasting content. We discussed how the Internet’s broadband infrastructure has supported the development of a global multi-media content stream now defined by many content creators, both professionals and amateurs. Today we are inundated by countless streams of data broadcast in a free flow of information that is truly a torrent of bits.

Research has shown convincingly that the attention span of Americans has shortened substantially over the past several decades and that the rate of change in this direction continues to accelerate.
Are we doomed to being Information Snackers, a nation of dilettantes distinguished only in being a mile wide and an inch deep in our thinking? Does this trend raise troubling questions and pose risks to the integrity of our democratic society?

I think so. Why?

First, because we are drowning in choice. While America’s obsession with Freedom is empowering, too much choice is debilitating. We have too many choices in the Internet Age of mass customization in digital media. While people like to speak of their love of choices, in fact, people hate choices. Notice the incredible power of global brands today after the initial view that the dawn of the Internet rendered traditional brands worthless.

What are some of the nasty implications for democracies overwhelmed by media choices? In my view, the hyper abundance of choice makes individuals increasingly susceptible to manipulation by groups that have an agenda—especially an agenda associated with power and manipulation of masses of people (does anyone doubt that Al Qaeda has developed a sophisticated web presence, for example?)

The web has massively reduced the costs of coordination among large groups and truly revolutionized social collaboration on a large scale—for a positive example, consider the fundraising powerhouse of the Obama campaign and the massive empowerment and inclusion in the democratic political process of otherwise alienated and disenfranchised groups of American society.

There are many good things associated with these paradigmatic changes in the American political process enabled by the Internet borne media revolution.

But we should also consider the corner cases, the potential for abuse, for manipulation, for the propagation of lies through the digital media. We need to remember the potential for Tyranny of the Majority in a digital media search construct that determines what rises to the top by its popularity.

As Newton Minow, Chairman of the FCC said in his historic address to the National Association of Broadcasters in 1961, “some say the public interest is merely what interests the public. I disagree. … broadcasting, to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.” Promoting citizenship! A novel concept, and one that I have written about extensively in this blog in the context of the Democracy in America Revisited Series and Professor Michael Sandel.

In my view, being right and doing the right thing should have nothing to do with what is popular and everything to do with the responsible exercise of leadership (something that is in very short supply in America today). Having technology drive people to the most popular result only accelerates the mediocrity that Alexis de Toqueville foresaw for American democracy.

We should not let our passion to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech trump the obligation that we have as a democratic society to keep our citizens informed of objective facts so that they can responsibly exercise their civic responsibilities. To be clear, I do not see this statement as being unsupportive of the First Amendment in any way.

Unfortunately, our discussion on Day 3 did not address a redefinition of the Public Interest.

Domain expertise, an objective mastery of the facts and the nuances associated with a specific body of knowledge, requires more than a passing acquaintance with that domain (would you go to a doctor for surgery who is not truly an expert in his/her field?). In my view, the knowledge crisis facing our next generation will be rooted in the misconception that surface knowledge is sufficient to impart expertise.
We are certainly still in our infancy in this new realm of digital media, but it is abundantly clear that technology has left our regulatory institutions in the dust. While I am a strong believer in the positive power of the market, I fear for those members of our society who will be left behind, for the voices that will not be heard.

The Government is a steward of the Public Interest, and that Public Interest will, of necessity, be redefined when we face a crisis. There needs to be a cool hand, a slow, deliberative process, that gets us to the right answer. Unfortunately, the history of regulation in America shows us that it is most often reactive and likely to generate severe, negative unintended consequences (Sarbanes Oxley, for example).

While I greatly enjoyed our Socratic discussion, I left the seminar continuing to ask myself, what will force this question, and how great a cost will our society bear along the way?

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