Once you’re an adult in the working world with a few skills and some experience under your belt, memories of the time that you weren’t become quite abstract.
Thinking back to my teenage years in the mid-2000s – the ones when you clocked that adulthood was coming after all, and further education and career path choices were looming large - the most enticing routes to me were I.T and journalism.
Since I picked a path, technology has done a number on many sectors. Many of the effects are self-evident and well mapped out by economists – jobs automated, house prices warped, retail centres struggling. Today though, I offer my nomination for technology’s Most Insidious Impact Award, and that one goes to the number it did on the media.
It feels like we don’t all agree on very much these days, but encouragingly, when we’re face-to-face and engaged in good faith, we increasingly seem to agree about why. The devices in our pockets, the search and social platforms operating on them and the media organizations operating on those – many of us now understand that the whole stack has become a big part of the problem.
As a thirty-something tech professional today, I’ve been watching for years with a mix of alarm and validation as my industry of first choice appears to have mercilessly poisoned the second, leaving its toxin-riddled body on life support. The rot is deep, and it’s serious.
Even people my age can recall that journalists were once lynchpins of the social order, furnishing broadsheet newspapers and nightly programmes with their insights on events both domestic and global. They felt that they needed to tell us about certain topics, and we felt a sense of civic duty when we listened. We didn’t all agree on which issues mattered and what should be done about them then, either, but generally speaking we grasped the opposite side of the argument, defended one another’s right to speak, and upheld objectivity and reason all to a far greater degree than we even pretend to anymore.
In those simpler times, much was made of how the ever-shrinking, increasingly networked computers around us would one day bring the “subtotal of human knowledge” to our fingertips.
Then, one January morning in 2007, at a keynote conference address in San Francisco, the late Steve Jobs famously and proudly held up the iPhone, firing the starting gun on such an era. Among a multitude of features demonstrated in the reveal, was its capacity to bring us the news:
“I want to show you Safari running on a mobile device… I’m going to load in The New York Times… and rather than just give you a WAP version of the New York Times, we’re showing you the whole New York Times website… and there it is.”
Within a decade of this presentation, on the mornings after public votes across the West, once-informed citizens were waking up in democracies that they no longer recognized nor understood. The resulting shock, denial and anger rings on today in a feedback loop with no off switch, and members on each side of the political divide appear convinced that nefarious, foreign forces are operating upon the other. Far from the promised land of knowledge and enlightenment, what smartphones have delivered to us instead feels like the end of consensus reality altogether.
Once the internet really got going, it didn’t take long to drive coach and horses through the economic foundation of the traditional media. No longer able to rely on passing trade in the infinite sprawl of the world wide web, the outlets that we once trusted to inform us are now ethically or literally bankrupt shadows of their former selves. The ones still running are usually doing so on the fading momentum of their once-good names alone. It’s not only the journalists who can tell you what’s been going on – tech types who understand what it takes to get traffic to a website can get you most of the way, too.
Trending topics provide cues for what journalists should write about, advertisers rule on what they shouldn’t. Given a winning topic, search-engine optimisation tools shape how they’re reported on from complexity of vocabulary to sentence length, and when that process is done, clickbait headlines are formulated and scrawled on top, ready to compete for scraps of attention in infinite-scroll feeds. Dogmatic partisanship and outrage is flagrantly embedded in the writing process and employed at the editorial level to exploit the cognitive biases of the target audience and keep them coming back for more. The bias in these once-objective outlets is so rampant, so pervasive, that websites such as AllSides now exist to help readers who wish to chart and understand it.
Off the news sites themselves, social media point-scoring algorithms have rewarded journalists in their personal pursuit of influence for saying not the right thing but the popular thing, and filter bubbles leave the rest of us unexposed to and incapable of understanding ideas we disagree with - arming us instead with straw-man talking points against twisted representations at best. The amnesic news cycles that emerged to please aggregation services with fresh “content” have harmed our ability to comprehend the world around us - our understandings are fractured and our attention spans shot through.
I haven’t felt hopeful for journalism for a while.
When I discovered Substack along with the accolades for newsletters as a format, I felt I might have discovered a mini-renaissance in journalism, and my interest was piqued. Where there’s a glimmer of hope on this issue - intelligent discussion, new ideas or just old ideas done right, I’m all eyes and ears. For years now, long-format podcasts have replaced my consumption of TV and radio. Maybe the humble newsletter subscription can provide the answer to the rot of the click-farming news websites. I already receive a few without having even thought of them in such a way.
If there is indeed a renaissance in original writing occurring beneath the polluted surface water of the web, delivered direct and with consent to people’s virtual mailboxes, then all must not be lost. An appetite for real journalism must remain.
With most of my interests, I can find time only for passive consumption. But on this independent writing front, I’d like to contribute a little. My bills are paid, but my reasons are still self-serving: talking has long helped me to formulate ideas, but I suspect that writing can help me to conclude them.
When spare time permits, I’ll write some things, starting with a few bottled-up ideas to do with society and technology. If anyone is interested, if I can be a tiny piece of a journalistic renaissance happening in our inboxes – well, that would be a bonus.
July 15th update (okay, two days later update)
In the piece above, I asserted that we didn’t need a journalist to tell us what had been going on at our once-trusted media outlets. The very next day, prominent New York Times journalist Bari Weiss laid it out for us anyway. In her damning public resignation letter, she cited a culture of intolerance toward differing ideas at the paper. One statement in particular, though, jumped right out of the page at me. She said this:
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.”
So there it is. The very newspaper used in Steve Jobs’ first iPhone demo is reduced to a shallow content factory for the audiences and algorithms of social media - as alleged from the inside.
Given that I have almost no audience myself yet, I’ve thought about writing a follow-up piece and making more of this conversation. You know - using trending topics as my cues to … ah.
No, I’m leaving it there. There’s a lot else to talk about.