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Technology is Not Neutral
A Lesson From the Twitter Files
By the time I post this, I’m sure the Twitter Files saga will be a distant memory, at least in terms of internet-time. If you don’t remember, or never heard in the first place, new Twitter owner Elon Musk released a bunch of internal files concerning the previous ownership’s handling of various controversies, including the pre-election blackout of a news story on Hunter Biden, the manipulation of various conservative/contrarian figures’ visibility and reach, cooperation with federal agencies, and Trump’s own ban from the platform, with perhaps more to come.
Maybe you thought some of the revelations were bombshells or maybe you thought they were nothingburgers. Maybe you thought it constituted election interference that cost Republicans the presidency or maybe you thought it was important and necessary for the safety of the country. Maybe you didn’t think about it all. I don’t care. The politics are shiny distraction for the people already too caught up in the neverending controversies for fun and profit, but rare moment of transparency is valuable as a glimpse of the machinery running behind some of the most pervasive forces in our lives. I care very much about the way our technology works. And you should, too.
How many times have you looked at your phone today? Opened it up, just to check the news or the weather or your email? How often have you logged into Facebook or Twitter Instagram to see what your friends or family or favorite celebrity are up to? Is it more or less than 100? You probably don’t think much about it, but the devices you use, whether a phone or tablet or laptop or PC, are the primary means of interacting with the world. You use them for your work, your entertainment, your social life, your sources of information, and most other things. In order to do you work, you have to use a computer with a certain set of programs. In order to talk to a distant friend, you have to use your phone to call or text or DM or whatever. In order to get your news, you have to read an article either online or (if you’re past a certain age) in print. You don’t have a choice.
You can’t just decide not to use email or Zoom or Excel if your job requires it. You can’t give up texting or calling if your friends all use it. You don’t have to follow social media (frankly, you shouldn’t), but if you want to keep up with your friends or politicians or celebrities, social media in one form or another is the only means of doing so. I can write this post on a notepad (I’m not), but if I want to anyone else to read it, I have to type it into a computer and copy it into the format my newsletter requires. You can live off the grid as a hermit in the forest, or you can use the tools available to you.
Thus, the function of the devices and programs and apps determine in large part the way you must interact with the world. The capabilities and limitations of the devices become the capabilities and limitations of your interaction. Notice how when you text someone it is not the same as when you talk to them on the phone. It’s probably shorter, punchier, more abbreviated and to the point, because typing on your phone doesn’t encourage the same stream of consciousness that generally comes out in conversation. A tweet’s 280-character limit forces you to say things differently than in an article. I could perhaps tweet the message of this post (at this point already over 4000 characters long), but it would have to look and sound very different. If you’re a heavy instagram user, do you ever find yourself thinking how to capture a moment or a message in a square frame? If you work in an office, do you ever start composing your emails before you finish the task or saving that comment because you know it won’t go over well on Zoom?
This is not a modern phenomenon. It’s universal. The experience of sitting around a television was a much different one than watching a video on YouTube. A morning newspaper required you to read the news a certain way. A miner’s tool, whether a massive excavator or a simple pickaxe, determines exactly how the miner has to mine. The first people to use words could have a very different kind of conversation than those still limited to pointing and grunting. Armies with guns wage a very different sort of warfare than those with only swords.
The problem is not that our tools affect us, which is inevitable, but that they may affect us in ways which we do not comprehend or take into account. Without understanding a tool’s effects, we may end up creating tools that affect us in ways which aren’t beneficial. Instead creating of tools that bring us together as a society, we might accidentally create tools that isolate and divide and polarize us. Oops.
The Twitter Files are a good reminder of the disastrous results that can occur when we blindly turn much of the structures of society over to processes we don’t understand, can’t see, and have little interest in managing. Twitter, like much of the early internet and social media, was built on a naive libertarianism. The goal was to democratize the information space, making all the world’s resources available to the greatest number of people and allowing everyone to have an equal voice in the global conversation. Of course some people would be more popular than others, but no one wanted to manipulate who could see what information or police the kind of things you could post on a message board or blog or social media site. In a world that was previously dominated by huge publishers and newspapers and TV networks, it’s easy to see the appeal of letting even the smallest, most remote individuals speak on (at least theoretically) equal footing. May the best, smartest, most popular content win.
The internet, unlike the strict confines of a newspaper, has unlimited space, so why not show all information equally? Because you can’t. There’s too much of it. The storage space might not be limited, but people’s attention is limited, their time is limited, their ability to parse information is limited. If Twitter (or Facebook or Google or whatever) showed you literally everything in the order it was posted, you’d never see anything that was more than a second old. Anything someone posted five minutes ago would be buried on page 1000 of your feed, lost forever in the endless flood of information. Something or someone has to filter out the worthless and irrelevant and uninteresting and harmful and illegal information or no one would even bother to use it.
It was never true, however much those first founders wanted it to be, that the internet could be an untouched information paradise of freedom and democracy. Untouched paradises don’t exist. Either you prune and tend a garden, or you leave it to the weeds. When you pretend you aren’t curating your information and don’t need to, you won’t get transparently free information and discourse, you’ll get arbitrarily biased information and discourse that you don’t even know is arbitrary or biased. You’ll get Twitter. In the absence of careful attention, naive libertarianism inevitably degrades into a cynical authoritarianism as the people in power realize they have to make the tough decisions but no one is watching and no systems are in place to prevent them from acting in their own interests.
Regardless of which side you are on in the political Twitter debate, remember that technology is not neutral. Something, whether a person or an algorithm, is determining, in whole or in part, the information you see and the people you read and the ways you can respond. That’s important. Remember, these are the devices and programs that define the way we work, spend our free time, get our news, and share with our friends. Your kids will absorb these assumptions, never knowing another way to live. That’s an inevitable part of life. When we are aware of it, we can try to make the best use of our tools for the good of everyone and avoid what is harmful. If not, we’ll be at the whim of whoever is writing the code and designing the processes and moderating the content. People who, as the Twitter Files have helpfully reminded us, are not often unbiased or wise or benevolent masters.
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