Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook poo-bah and internet gazllionaire, famously captured the ethos of Silicone Valley with his motto, “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” Uh-huh. We adults also have a motto: “Speed kills whippersnapper, so slow down before you put someone’s eye out.”
Unfortunately, no one listens to the grownups until it’s too late. It’s all fun, games, and IPOs until you undermine democracy, tug on the loose thread of the social fabric and leave the republic’s keister flapping in the breeze. Yes, we’re all very impressed with the technorati’s ability to disrupt, destroy and devastate. But who gets stuck cleaning up the mess? Clearly not the testosterone-addled anoraks gleefully coding away the status quo.
Us crotchety middle-aged types are starting to get a serious case of the grumps over the immature irresponsibility of big tech. Sure, we appreciate some of this stuff as much as the next person. As anyone who spent most of their adult life in the pre-Twitter/Instagram/Tinder era can attest, lots of things were harder back then. If you wanted to share breakfast snaps you had to take actual photographs of your Cornflakes, get them developed, and rustle up a stack of envelopes and stamps. Unsurprisingly, the effort involved meant most people in your Rolodex (look it up) had to go through life lacking visual evidence of your commitment to processed cereal and high fructose corn syrup. You couldn’t send cat videos, either. You had to send actual cats. There were no emojis, you had to articulate your feelings with words and grammar and everything. If you wanted casual sex, you had to go into a bar and make an effort. Even worse, it almost never resulted in any actual whoopee. Beer was involved, though, so it wasn’t all bad.
Sarcasm aside, there’s no doubt our newly wired globe-o-sphere clearly has massive benefits and I do genuinely appreciate them (seriously, you should see my Amazon bills). My point is that it is increasingly clear there are also costs and downsides to this brave new virtual world we’ve been hurtled into. Equally clear is that the same people who created all this at breakneck speed never really thought through the consequences.
Consider what’s going on in journalism. Essentially, the internet is killing newspapers. At first, the information-yearns-to-be-free evangelists of tech-topia told us no worries, everyone would soon be a journalist, every voice would be heard, and all truths uncovered. Considerably less was said about empowering trolls and conspiracy wackos, or that the fall of the gatekeepers would herald the rise of weaponized media platforms capable of virally infecting fact with doubt and propagating bile as verity. It was all just move fast and break things.
Consider them broken. The business model of newspapers has effectively been blown up. Between 2000 and 2015 two-thirds of advertising revenue at newspapers disappeared, most of it gravitating to the likes of Google, who kick back crumbs to the suckers who provide content for nothing. A number of major metropolitan dailies have either shrunk to online shells of their former selves (The Rocky Mountain News, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer) or just disappeared entirely (The Cincinnati Post, The Tampa Tribune). The net set makes oodles of dough off the content generated by what’s left of news organizations, and if the traditional press fades into oblivion, no worries. After all, the clickbait links to nutjobpress.com and wemakestuffup.net still work.
Substituting local news organizations with the fluff and fluster of the web is a terrible trade off. Axe grinders and agitators are not going to sit through zoning commission meetings to insure developers are playing on the up and up, any more than the yell and sell crowd is going to confirm sources and adopt the search for truth as a professional norm. Yes, I know reporters and newspapers are not always objective. But most of them at least make an effort to play things square* and keep the citizenry effectively informed, even if the citizenry is more interested in watching Vines and swapping pics of their jimbly-wimbles.
Some tech titans are belatedly recognizing this. Jeff Bezos deserves mega kudos for buying The Washington Post and shoveling dough into it so it can be, well, The Washington Post. Not every paper, though, has an angel investor in the wings willing to take it on as a non-profit public service. A lot of them are just going to go the way of fax machines and record stores, the difference being we can still get music and send documents. There’s no obvious substitute on the horizon for institutions that take on the mission of watchful citizen.
In the meantime, the throttles on Silicone Valley’s velocity express remain pegged to the max. And that means things will continue to get broken. Looking at the road kill left in its wake, though, it increasingly makes some of us wonder whether it might wise to get some brakes on this thing.
Thomas Jefferson, who wasn’t exactly averse to breaking things himself, once said that given a choice, he’d rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. If the internet speed freaks won’t ease up, we won’t have to worry about making that choice. If both get broken, there’s nothing left to choose.
*I base this on my decade or so in journalism, spent entirely in small- to mid-size market newspapers. During that time I worked with or around dozens (probably hundreds) of reporters and editors, and the vast majority were genuinely committed to doing the job well. Of course, everyone hated them (us) for doing it.