Technological determinism and convenience bias

by Rob Horning

15 April 2009


Yesterday I was trying to make a point about information search costs, and I don’t think I ever succeeded in making it clear. I’m hoping the ideas in this Boston Review article by Evgeny Morozov will help. Morozov argues that cyber-optimists who think of the internet as a medium inherently spreads freedom because it creates a public sphere that’s harder to control and because it lowers the costs of disseminating information are being somewhat myopic. “Cyber-utopians’ biggest conceptual mistake is treating cyberspace as some kind of anarchist zone, which the authorities dare not enter except to shut things down. Media reports encourage this view of authoritarian governments as technophobic Internet censors.” But as he points out, authoritarian regimes (and the media interests that collude with them, perhaps) don’t maintain power and oppress people merely through censorship, through the stifling of the information flow. Rather than also maintain control by (1) flooding the public sphere with disinformation or trivia, drowning out or diluting subversive communication and (2) by encouraging egocentric apathy in the population so that they don’t develop an interest in political protest or collective action.
The internet, for all the possibilities for semi-spontaneous group formation and communication it offers—making it, as Morozov writes, “cheaper, faster, leaner”—is ultimately neutral as a medium; it can facilitate those authoritarian big-brother communication strategies outlined above just as easily as it can be used to circulate samizdat and allow resistance efforts to coalesce in the interstices. The main problem for resistance efforts is that samizdat becomes harder and harder to differentiate from among the cornucopia of information proliferating exponentially online as each hour passes. “While the new digital public spheres may be getting more democratic (at least quantitatively), they are also heavily polluted by government operators, making them indistinguishable from the old, tightly controlled analogue public spheres,” Morozov writes. Repressive governments may have reason to encourage us to produce reams of inane personal information online, as this contributes a great deal to the data smog that then shrouds state malfeasance. Blogging is not necessarily disinfecting sunlight; it is just as often provides a smokescreen or a sideshow.

Morozov cites this telling fact, that “East Germans who could not tune in to West German broadcasting had higher rates of opposition to their government than those who did.” This implies that access to Western style lifestyle accoutrements—the apolitical modes of identity cultivation—quells dissent. The point: “digital natives are as likely to be digital captives as digital renegades”—captive to a happy and prosperous marriage of the culture industry with an authoritarian regime. Habituating ourselves to consuming trivia about celebrities and one another assures that developing a political consciousness will remain an unnecessary bother for most of us. That social networks produce reams of self-confessed information highly useful to a state-security apparatus is gravy.

The idea of information pollution is also a matter of information costs. The internet makes it seem as though it is easy to collect information on most subjects—just type it into a search engine, and there you have it. But this seemingly straightfoward process is anything but, because there is no guarantee that what a simple search yields is unbiased or undistorted. It may in fact be deliberately misleading—the product of information management efforts or shrewd marketing. Search results, in short, are subject to the same possibilities of manipulation as any other information source, only the ease with which the information comes to us conditions us to trust it. A sort of convenience bias, combined with the apparent surfeit of data that a search yields, makes what we discover seem self-directed and therefore credible—inflected with our interests rather than someone else’s, since we picked any particular needle out of the haystack. We grow accustomed to information on demand, guaranteed and certified by our own instant gratification and apparent freedom of choice among readily available options. But this easily harvested information is the most easy for authoritarian forces, or alternatively, oligarchical forces, to manipulate. Thus an ideal synthesis can be achieved by the powers that be: Internet users end up consuming the information that the Man wants them to consume while believing the Man has been circumvented. We think the information has been set free by the apparent limitlessness of the medium by which it is conveyed, and is therefore more likely to be “true” for our intents and purposes. But instead the ease with which information is available is just as likely to make us lazy and complacent about its veracity and about the complicated amalgam of ends it in fact serves.

As information costs plummet, our investment (in terms of mental energy) in challenging that information also drops. Information, as a commodity, becomes too cheap. It no longer pays to worry about our standards while making more of it or in sorting through it. In fact, we have an incentive to consume as much information as possible and sort out at some later date what the utility of it should have been. Convenience goes hand in hand with consumption acceleration.

In short: Thanks to the internet it has become simple for us to produce and disseminate information—creating information pollution. It has become simple for us to gather information—creating convenience bias. These offset the gains for freedom that the internet affords.

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