Information as Commodity and the Possibilities it Brings for Future
The idea of free information is extremely dangerous when it comes to the news industry. If there’s so much free information out there, how do you get people’s attention? This becomes the real commodity. At present there is an incentive in order to get your attention — and then sell it to advertisers and politicians and so forth — to create more and more sensational stories, irrespective of truth or relevance. Some of the fake news comes from manipulation by Russian hackers but much of it is simply because of the wrong incentive structure. There is no penalty for creating a sensational story that is not true. We’re willing to pay for high quality food and clothes and cars, so why not high quality information? — Yuval Noah Harari
Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli public intellectual, famous for his book Sapiens: A brief history of Humankind. His new book “is an exploration of the difficulties that confront us at the present”, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (we are only 18 years into the 21st century so it may be a little premature). I have read neither. But he made this statement in an interview published today by The Guardian newspaper (linked from his name above). I take great issue with it and made a lengthy comment on it on the site. I reproduce it here. This is a subject I spent a decade studying as a graduate student. I have since moved on and am now working with culture, networks and community as a means of building equality and access in society. But the principles are the same — making people pay for information does not mean you get a broadly informed populace.
The idea that attention is a commodity suits our present as it works well in the “digital economy”. But what happens if there is a complete breakdown in market economics, and the necessity of centrally managed economies is finally accepted globally? The breaking point for this will be ecology I think. Unless we reign in consumption and production, the ceaseless plunder of natural resources and the waste that comes with it, then we as a species are doomed. The digital could be an important part of this, but not as a commercial system where products are made obsolete in a year and the aim of the game is to sell more, get more eyeballs on screens and to make people dependent on enclosed business models like Google, Spotify, Facebook and Netflix.
Information can be free, but to paraphrase Lawrence Lessig, not as in free beer, but free as in freedom. Just because you are paying for it, does not mean you have lost freedom. Sharing APIs, opening source code, allowing people to build their own…this was what it started out as. Now fake news is a parasitic outbreak that results from a system where information is not free, as in freedom. If for example, the Wikileaks model was adopted by the Trump administration and all information that was not purely security related was shared (I know it sounds incredible), then how could fake news consume the attention of so many. Trump has not even published his tax returns as he promised to do. The concealment and secrecy, followed by denial and lies is what breeds fake news, and not just the current guarantee of access we have to information as a commodity. At the moment, as Renee DiResta recently points out in regard to the spread of opinion via social media; “the responsibility for solving this problem falls to the private platforms that control our public squares”(https://www.wired.com/story/misinformation-disinformation-propaganda-war/).
This is the problem, private actors with vested interests are asked to police themselves. The appearance of Mark Zuckerberg before the Senate Judiciary Committee (FNN) was a joke (not as funny as the above video however). The vast resources and economy of Google laughs at even a $5 billion euro fine from the EU. With a profit of $110 billion for 2017 (and rising for 2018) it just does not matter. The only system that can improve information quality, as a human right and not as a commodity, is government. But in the US they are having trouble just delivering clean water to the children of Flint, so I am not hopeful. Europe is more progressive, but it too is following a commodity model, framed by a system of taxation and fines for any company that infringes on competition and privacy laws. This is not enough.
Digital information in the form of news is not stationary or static, it is not the property of those that produce it either. Digital information is in flux, it is copied and downloaded just as a result of its material structures — binary code, cached URLs, packets that are transferred over the net. Added to this that anyone can write anything, that social media creates clusters where users follow each other according to descending orders of hierarchy, and that remix and copying are the most effective ways to spread information. The long established distinction between fact and fiction, that something is true in that it reflects material reality or events, is no longer enough. Language itself is in free fall — consider that millions of websites are created by bots and AI programs. How can these be called factual?
Educating the public, having transparency across the board and building public resources as a means for checking and accessing multiple sources on any one piece of information would help too. But consider there is only one functioning URL archive online (archive.org) that is preserving web content and it becomes easier to understand how the clumsy commercial development of the digital information system for planet earth has gotten us to this sorry point. The focus within infrastructure development has been on surveillance, the prosecution of anyone who builds a model outside the commercial one (Napster, Wikileaks, Pirate Bay and so on) and the commercialisation of the Internet at the cost of community and access, which are all killing this amazing tool.