Big Tech, Political Polarization, and the Assault on Democracy

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Zuboff and Why We’re Polarized by Klein

I’ve been catching up on some reading over the holiday break and two books that caught my attention are proving to be quite helpful to understanding the recent events in our nation’s capitol. What we’re witnessing is shocking, but not surprising, to those who have paid attention to the ever-increasing power exerted by Big Tech over every detail of our lives, including our political identities.

Big Tech is shorthand for the companies that control much of our everyday lives through their use of software and hardware designed to capture and hold our attention. And speaking of attention, if I were to add another recent title that addresses this concern it would be The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu.

By gathering the massive amount of data generated every minute of every day by billions of users, these companies have tapped into a resource that they have turned against us to predict and control our future behavior. Siloing, creation of filter bubbles, nudging users towards certain behaviors, shadow-banning (and now more overt actions to disenfranchise users) are just some of the ways that Big Tech is meddling in the political process. If that sounds like a radical conspiracy theory to you, I urge you to read these books and then we can have a conversation.

And while all of us can agree that what transpired this past week in the halls of congress was both dangerous and disgusting, reasonable people continue to disagree about how to respond to controversial political speech on the leading tech platforms. The ban of the President of the United State by numerous platforms, regardless of your opinions about Trump himself, is cause for concern and should not be taken lightly.

Similarly while the attack on right-wing alternative platforms, e.g. Parler, by Amazon, Apple and Google, may feel like a reasonable and perfectly legal response to unhinged speech that calls for political violence, the danger is to further marginalize and force underground a movement that has enormous popular support.

I’m not suggesting that racists, white-nationalists, and anarchists should have a seat at the table, but I am suggesting that unelected leaders of a few massive tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions about who gets to participate in our political discourse. This time they may appear to be on your side, but what about when the tables are turned? We’ve given these tech platforms enormous power over the future of our democracy…and that makes me very concerned.

Computer Bang for the Buck

The phrase “bang for the buck” refers to performance relative to cost. Higher bang for the buck means that you get more performance for less cost. For computer technology, this has been a logarithmic curve of greatly increasing performance with a falling price tag.

The increasing performance has largely been attributed to the gains in processor speed and reduction in size of integrated circuits, aka microchips. You may have heard of Moore’s Law, named for Gordon E. Moore of Intel. Moore predicted in 1965 that processor speed would double every 1-2 years for the foreseeable future. It has been said that if automotive technology followed the same trajectory as microchips, the average car would travel at 300,000 mph, get over 2 million mpg, and cost only $0.04 to make.

I recently decided to organize my many hard drives and was reminded of how the cost of storage has fallen at a remarkable rate over the years. My first external hard drive, purchased in the early-mid 1990s, held 1 GB (yes, gigabyte) of data at a cost of $1,000. Here’s what more than 100 TB of storage looks like today.

More than 1TB of removable storage

If this amount of storage was purchased at early 1990s prices, it would cost $100 million! If you look back further, the numbers are even crazier.

Now, think about your smart phone and the processing power that it contains. Your phone has millions of times more computational power than the computers used in 1969 by the Apollo scientists when they put a man on the moon. If you were to pay for that much computing power at prices from just 30 years ago, you’d have to spend 10s of millions of dollars. I know the cost of a new smart phone is pretty steep when you’re trying to pay rent, tuition, your streaming media subscriptions, and an occasional trip to Chipotles…but it really is a bargain when you look at it through the lens of computer history.

The times, they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan, one of the most iconic singer, songwriters of our era, is cashing in. Today it was announced that Dylan was selling his song library to Universal Music Group for upwards of $200M (some are reporting closer to $300M). With more than 600 songs spanning a career of nearly 60 years, Dylan’s prolific contribution to folk, pop, and rock music is unmatched. You don’t have to take my word for it: Dylan is the only songwriter in history to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

The massive deal is a great example of why copyright of intellectual property exists. Without copyright protection, Dylan’s musical accomplishments would be worth a mere fraction of its market value. And without the financial incentives provided by copyright protection, artists would be less motivated to create original work.

It does seem counter-intuitive that the counter-culture icon would sell out to a corporate media conglomerate. Universal Music Group is owned by French media oligopoly Vivendi. According to NPR, “[the company] will collect money any time another musician covers any of those songs, and it will earn revenue for allowing the songs to be used in commercials and movies as well as when the songs are streamed, sold commercially on such formats as CDs, or broadcast.” But Dylan has always resisted labels…even the label of non-conformist.

Again according to NPR, citing Universal, “Dylan’s songs have already been recorded by other artists more than 6,000 times, including such famous versions as Jimi Hendrix’s cover of ‘All Along the Watchtower‘ and Guns N’ Roses’ version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.‘”

Bad News at ESPN

ESPN, the sports cable channel and ratings powerhouse, is laying off hundreds of employees and announcing that it will not fill hundreds of additional open positions. The cuts total approximately 10% of their overall employees.

The Covid pandemic has not been kind to TV sports and ESPN is suffering as a result. When the pandemic hit, professional and college sports were sidelined, and when the athletes returned to the fields, the viewers, for some reason, did not return to their TVs. As I noted in an earlier post, TV ratings have tanked for nearly every sport and analysts are not sure why.

The economic model for most major media channels is based on advertising revenue. Ad dollars follow audiences made up of prospective consumers of the products that advertisers need to reach. If ESPN can recapture sizable audiences for their programming, advertising revenue will follow and that will allow them to rehire workers. But until then, they have to find ways to cut their losses. And remember, ESPN has huge costs that are baked-in. According to Morning Brew (and the New York Times), “ESPN is paying more than $7 billion for the rights to air live sports in 2020, the NYT writes. But due to the Covid-19 outbreak, it basically had no games to broadcast for four months of the year.”

It is important to note that Disney, the parent company that owns 70% of ESPN, is in no position to bail them out. With motion picture production on a slow track and theme park and movie theater attendance way down, Disney has its own challenges.

Will it Rate?

Journalism has been sliding down a slippery slope for many years. Recent economic hard times (first the economic collapse at end of the 2000’s and most recently the Covid- induced downturn) and the long-term erosion of advertising revenue have all contributed to a collapse of a business model that is no longer sustainable.

More and more the news departments at broadcast and cable TV networks have struggled to compete with internet start-ups that do more with less and steal away advertising revenue. The result has been more and more explicit attempts to attract and hold the attention of an audience that exhibits ADHD media consumption behavior. According to an editorial recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review, ratings have become “the only metric that matters” at cable networks like CNN.

The pursuit of eyeballs, clicks and likes frequently leads to some pretty bizarre behavior on the part of journalists and editors who are trying to appeal to their base. For example, recently CNN used this Chyron (lower third graphic) to caption a stand-up reporter’s coverage of a protest in Kenosha.

The appeal of violence, mayhem, and tragedy is natural for news organizations who adopt the “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to sensational reporting. However, because CNN knows that its left-leaning viewers largely support peaceful protesting and social justice causes, they want to avoid offending them with a critical depiction of the dynamic scene playing out before their cameras. Hence the jarring juxtaposition of image and text.

Right-leaning media companies are guilty as well. Fox News regularly targets its base with conservative-leaning perspectives on the day’s events knowing that viewers want to hear news and analysis that confirms their biases.

Pandering to partisans on either the left or the right may be good for the bottom line, but it is a recipe for disaster when it comes to a functioning democracy. Journalism needs to do better and hold to a higher standard than the one that is currently calling the shots. As Pekary, a news editor for CNN, admitted, “We’re merely there to sow conflict and make the numbers go up, to sell more ads. They [audience members] deserve better. We all deserve better. ” I’ll rate that sentiment a 10!

Free Fortnite

In what may be the greatest TV commercial of all time, Apple introduced the macintosh computer to Super Bowl viewers in 1984. Flash forward more than 35 years to the present where Epic Games has turned the table. According to their website…

Apple has blocked Fortnite from the App Store, removing everyone’s ability to install and update the game on iOS devices, while instructing Epic to “remove the ‘Epic direct payment’ feature”. Apple is keeping prices high so they can collect 30% of your payments, and is blocking Fortnite in order to prevent Epic from passing on the savings from direct payments to you! Join the fight against @AppStore on social media with #FreeFortnite

Here’s the remake…

The Apple App Store has been a tightly controlled asset for many years, contributing to Apple’s dominance in the mobile gaming market. Maybe this is part of the reason why Apple is approaching a net value of $2 Trillion. With Epic Games worth a tiny fraction of that amount, this could be shaping up to be an epic David v Goliath battle, and if history is any indication, it may be wise to put your money on the underdog.

UPDATE: Spotify and Match Group (dating app powerhouse) are showing support for Epic Games by speaking out against Apple’s 30% “App Store tax.” It’ll be interesting to see who else jumps on this train.