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Technological Determinism Is False

I read that today in Yochai Benkler's book "The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom." He defines "technological determinism" as the expectation that technology will produce a new social structure. I have thought this for a long time in my career as a technology journalist, although I had not articulated it quite so eloquently. Just because you can build a new product, Web site, social network, or gadget, does not mean that you should. A nascent technology, in and of itself, will not change the world.

So what are the tools that do evolve our communication? I have been reading a lot about the democratization of information through "new media," which I assert is quickly becoming a throw-away term. Some academics believe that the Internet does not at all level the playing field like we expect it could/should. Matthew Hindman argues that the Internet actually preserves the patterns of concentrated control that have existed in the media for decades in his book, "The Myth of  Digital Democracy." All of this literature is starting to dull my enthusiasm for the power of social media, or at least make me want to play a little hard to get with technological determinism.

Hindman acknowledges that there is a lot of talk on the Internet by the Average Joe. But Average Joe is not being linked to, commented on, or otherwise memed. So is Joe yelling into a tunnel? If Joe blogs in a forest, does he make an impact?

Of course I am approaching this from the standpoint of a news reporter. The word "news" implies that information is new or novel. That is very seldom the case in news reporting. I am under no illusion that the news I bring to my viewers is 100% something that they have not heard of before. Broadcast simply can't compete with the Internet in that way. So in this time of communication evolution, we must ask ourselves which technologies will be deterministic and which will be filed away in the history books as no more than an artifice.

Barry Glassner argues that the media's love affair with any given phemenon is cyclical. He writes about this in "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things," a book which I helped research in its second edition. I am afraid that this applies to the Internet's love affair with new-ness. We get excited about anything novel but our burning love cools all too quickly as we look for the "next Facebook." It is as if we are in a constant state of digital anomie.

I wish I could wrap up this blog post with some declarative theoretical assertion but unfortunately these thoughts are still in progress. But it has been WAY too long since I blogged here and I figured unfinished thoughts would be better than no thoughts at all. So consider this media theory ad lib. Feel free to fill in the blanks with your opinions in the comment section.

The Value of Voice

I just finished Jeff Jarvis' book, What Would Google Do? I have so many thoughts about it but one in particular keeps rolling around in my head like a loose marble.

Jarvis says that Google has created a society that values "creation, openness, connections, uniqueness, collaboration, and invention." Can't argue with that. My question involves how that relates to me as a news disseminator: What does this new Googley community want from me? What weight can and should a journalist's voice carry?

Admittedly, I've made mistakes in over-exercising my voice on the Internet. What I want to debate is whether or not they were really mistakes at all.

I am paid to be a reporter. In theory, I am supposed to be inherently unbiased in order to present a message to you, the viewer, and let you draw your own conclusions. But is that even possible? I am reminded of the argument by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her recent hearings: "Life experiences have to influence you. We're not robots."

I've suffered backlash for blog posts, Twitter posts, and statements about my political beliefes on my broadcasts. I have criticized John McCain for not embracing the Internet and technology enough during his campaign. I have expressed confusion about Sarah Palin's resignation speech. I have expressed disappointment in California Proposition 8. As a journalist, do I give up the right to voice those thoughts? If so, for what greater good?

Jarvis calls for "personal political openness." He writes: "I'd like to see citizens use the web as personal political pages in which each of us may, if we choose, reveal our positions, opinions, and allegiances: the Facebook of democracy."

But what of journalists? Can and should we hop on the personal political openness manifesto? And is "unbiased" a fallacy? I may not always admire the stance of Fox News but at least the network is unabashed in its agenda and it succeeds because of that, not in spite of it. Sure they lose some, but the ratings show that they win more.

Molly Wood and I had a conversation about this very subject recently. We are both of the opinion that it is becoming increasingly impossible for journalists to be unbiased. In the digital age when you can choose any flavor of news you want, why would you choose vanilla? Why not choose the conversation that engages you? If you expect to interact with your media, why would you choose to interact with an opinion-less talking head? I wouldn't.

I do worry that a more partisan media will increase conviction bias, a phenomenon in which people ignore ideas and discussions that go against their own pre-established beliefs. It is certainly NOT desirable that we all isolate our own line of thinking but the Internet makes this nearly impossible. We are exposed to more thoughts, arguments, and sides of the coin and perhaps, ideally, this helps us to be more open in our thoughts.

Within the world of technology journalism, I certainly don't play it straight. I am vocal enough about the companies that get under my skin (Verizon FiOS, I'm looking at you!). But the question I crowdsource to you, dear reader, is this: Should it stop there or should we expect openness from ALL of our news disseminators in ALL areas?

In an effort to get the ball rolling, I will go right ahead and opine: I prefer openness. I don't want to keep my mouth shut for the sake of ratings. I know it is a risk, especially because I work for and represent a network. But isn't this what you want from your network? I don't mind a real discussion and I never mind being told that I am wrong. (It happened twice last week. See Thursday's episode of Loaded.) I want to have real discussions without pretending that I don't have ideas about the topics at hand. To heck with unbiased! It is a pretense and an affectation. Why not give open journalisms a beta run!? I think it is in fact what Google would do.

Personal Democracy Forum Brain Dump: Day 2


Personal Democracy Forum Brain Dump

My thoughts on Day 1 at the Personal Democracy Forum 2009. Feel free to respond to the fragmentation of my fragmented thoughts about fragmentation.