Media futurist Andrey Miroshnichenko talks about the ways internet changes our daily lives.
Polina Ryzhova 28.09.2015, 13:32, Gazeta.ru
Twitter revolutions, religious extremism, “the new Dark Age” – these are social reactions towards the fast-paced media evolution of recent years, says Andrey Miroshnichenko, author of When newspapers will die and Human as media. The emancipation of authorship. He also told Gazeta.Ru how to make online users work for censors, why multilingual browser may lead to a civilizational catastrophe and whether our brain can forget how to think.
— Facebook recently announced its plans to create a “dislike” button, although for a long time it called it rumours. In your opinion, how is this new button going to impact people? Facebook’s influence is hard to under-estimate. It is visited by almost a billion people a day.
— As far as I know, in the beginning, Mark Zuckerberg didn’t want a dislike button to prevent people from expressing their negative emotions. Now they are talking of making the emotional range broader. There are two aspects to it. The first one is media bias. The instrument arrangement predefines its function. For example, the U.S. Rifle Association points that the weapon is neutral by itself; it’s the people who kill, not guns. Of course, it is not true. Yes, one may kill with a hammer, but the gun’s made specifically to injure flesh from a distance. By the way, the hammer is another allegory of a media bias. It is credited to Mark Twain to have said that as soon as you have got a hammer in your hand, then everything around looks like a nail. In this sense, a choice of Facebook buttons to express emotions directly impacts the moods in the ecosystem. So it is risky.
The second aspect is that not only the ecosystem structure but also people’s culture that fills it in is what matters. In some countries risks from uncontrolled negative emotions can be higher than in others.
— Supposedly, the risk is higher in Russia, isn’t it?
— I am afraid, yes. We are predominantly the nation of the written culture. We still have the piety to what is written, but don’t have much experience in public debates. That means that norms of checks and balances used in the public dialogue are not developed, too. And once people are given a technical opportunity to express negative emotions freely, online conversations are going to get more negative.
— I have a question regarding one billion Facebookers. What is the danger of so many users concentrating on certain platforms only? There were once anticipations of net diversification and that once there will be an online place for each group of people. However, now it is evident that, instead, billions congregate at the same platforms: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.
— I recall 2011 forecasts that the open Web is dying and people are moving to closed platforms like Facebook or other apps – that was the time when tablets were at peak of fashion. But it didn’t happen. I don’t consider it dangerous that the Web narrows down to a conventional Facebook. Yes, the concentration of users at certain platforms is obvious, but the open Web stays strong. Facebook itself needs an external open web for the sharing of content and links.
There is such a concept, Dunbar’s number, that suggests a cognitive limit of 150-200 people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. I am curious if there is a Dunbar’s number for whole groups of people. Say, Facebook has recently reached a size of 1.5 billion. This is exactly what China’s population is, the world’s other largest community. Perhaps, larger communities are just impossible.
— Why do you think there is a limit for the social network community?
— It’s likely that otherwise net architecture is going to fall into pieces. It will stop being a unified ecosystem. Today Facebook is contextualized by the Western culture. Even Facebook communities in other languages look westernized, as it is the case with the Russian one, for example. I think language or language-culture similarity sets a limit for supranational communities.
It will be a real shock for civilization when the multilingual browser will have been developed. This browser is expected to be able to translate without any efforts from the user’s side. Can you imagine, you open a Chinese website and understand everything. Or you message your friend in Surinam and s/he instantly understands everything.
Such a multilingual browser will be the final disaster for the current civilizational order. Language is the last fortress of national cultures as they confront globalization. Language protects them from external influences. For example, more than 70% of Russians have never been abroad, their command of foreign languages is bad, they haven’t communicated closely to other cultures’ carriers. National language preserves national identity.
If you imagine there were no barriers, and any foreign cultural influence easily entered the lives of people that are not used to it. Not to mention, that this brings external evaluation of their native culture and ability to compare it directly, without the defensive intermediary of politicians or native media. If there is no barrier between native and foreign, the ‘foreign’ will immediately come to conflict with the ‘native’.
— Sounds like a Babylon Tower story.
— Absolutely. I think such a browser will appear in 5-7 years. This revolution is sneaking us up: automated translation services already let us understand the meaning of writings in a foreign language in a fairly good way. They are embedded into Facebook, for instance, but you still need to press a button. Of course, professional translators always debate the quality of such translations, but I am certain that programmers are aware of these issues and constantly improve the programs. This process is inevitable and unstoppable – the ecosystem will sooner or later reach the conditions it’s supposed to have.
According to McLuhan, the printing press created nation-states. Following this logic, the multilingual browser will vice versa destroy the nation-state, the principle, which the contemporary world order is based on.
By the way, in theory, the multilingual browser is the pure and ultimate realization of the very concept of the Internet. Until such a browser exists, we are only dealing with the Internet’s embryo.
— We’ve long expected the internet to bring us globalization and unification of the world, and now many states including Russia are planning to nationalize their online spaces. How reasonable are these attempts? And is it possible to break a unified network into hundreds of independent national networks?
— It is possible to move in this direction but the final aim is not reachable. The Internet’s main value relates to the ability to involve, not to repulse. To close the Net means to deny its very concept, to say goodbye to everything it is used for. Say, the intranet, which is the fully controlled and closed network, can be used only inside such organizations like banks and only for work purposes. No one uses it by they own will, for fun.
Nevertheless, attempts to limit the Net can be quite successful. They can be divided into two groups. The first one is traditional prohibitive measures, sometimes repressive; firewalls, etc. These firewalls are actually easy to pass around, they work only for mass audiences. Roughly speaking, a two-centimetre threshold blocks 80% of content. The rest 20% can pass, but it is not important as it won’t affect the whole system much. For example, the Great China Firewall blocks unwanted information for the masses. They say, it is very easy to pass it around, but only a few activists go beyond the Wall, and it doesn’t affect the political situation in general.
The second way to control the Internet is an “indigenous Net way”. And this is very interesting. The Net is programmed with defined settings that let it self-regulate under predefined setups. For example, in China, they created a browser option to report about “forbidden” content. This option is in a form of animated characters, a kind of police boy and girl. They are called melodically – Jingjing and Chacha. If you click on these cyber police officers, you can report to the relevant bodies in a joyful manner. This is a remarkable invention, a kind of crowdsourcing censorship when the Net nature itself is used against the Net. Crowdsourcing whistleblowing potential, if designed correctly, outdoes any other opinion control techniques ever known to humans. Besides, just by its mere presence on the screen, these “funny” police officers’ figures discipline users.
In a similar way certain digital technologies, such as cross-analysis of big data, personal information, and user connections, have huge potential. The same group includes bot-factories and, using a term of Ashmanov, “online home guard”. Managed throw-in of the massive of content on a certain topic on a certain thematic wave can distort search results and the Viral Editor’s behaviour. It is a more skilful way of controlling the Internet and without any doubt it is going to be developed to fight terrorism and all the bad things as well as for (and mainly for) political control.
In general, at a certain stage of excessive online regulation, the Internet may just lose its attractiveness for users. Are those who control going to be able to set up the desired control level without killing online attractiveness for users – this is a question of intelligence and technologies.
— What does this desire stand on?
— We need to talk about history to explain it. Every media wave in the Western European countries was accompanied by an adaptation period. For instance, the first newspapers, in fact, meant for elites, appeared in the beginning of the 17th century. In the middle of the 19th century, the steam printing press was developed as well as cheap paper. Cheaper printing paved the way for the mass press, or penny press. This was the birth of modern journalism as we know it. It means that it took newspapers two centuries to transform from an elite good to a mass good. During these two centuries, the political system had been being developed. It gave a mass reader universal suffrage.
In the first third of the twentieth-century radio came up to the stage. This mass medium even doesn’t require one to be literate. It played important role in establishing the Nazi, the Communist and the commercial empires. Its role is enormous in establishing modern advertising and propaganda. Then came television and the Internet. Every new media wave created a certain social order. And even though periods between new waves got shorter, the society still was able to gradually digest new media formats. The fact that the shift was gradual is very important.
Now many countries join media evolution in its final stage, the stage of the Internet, not having got used to newspapers and the political culture that those newspapers had formed. Many Asian and African regions see radio and TV coming at the same time as the Internet, while they may have skipped the print press period at all.
Traditional societies that are accustomed to consuming filtered information, which comes top-down through archaic vertical media channels, suddenly find themselves in a system where authorship is freed and information can be told to anyone by anyone, way outside one’s personal circle, that is publicly. People are not used to that; they want authorized information from trusted sources. Actually, this is where the stereotype comes from about bloggers that are lying and journalism which is a fair, responsible and professional activity, fact-checked and trusted by society. Journalists have never been praised with these epithets before.
All that is nostalgia over authorized, sanctioned information, which is peculiar of traditionalist societies in general, including the one in Russia. Many people would rather prefer to receive information from a limited amount of authorized sources, from a conventional Vremya TV program. Yes, people do suspect Vremya of lying from time to time, but in general, it is clear that this program sets the system of coordinates quite well, even if you deny some news and topics. Today the Vremya TV program monopoly has collapsed. The sole information flow has become dispersed into thousands of thin streams. Every user is now forced to dredge their own fairway, which is a costly and frustrating thing to do.
I think that the processes connected with “Twitter revolutions”, religious extremism, international tensions, “new Dark Age” are a reaction towards the fast-paced media evolution of the last decade. The traditionalist outlook, which is accustomed to the epoch of broadcasting of information “from top to down”, is in conflict with the open Net architecture and emancipated authorship. In this sense, terrorist attacks and religious extremism is the price humankind pays for successful Silicon Valley start-ups.
Adaptation is in place somehow, but this process is going to be painful. Let’s not forget that Gutenberg’s printing press led to religious wars, revolutionary and reactionary terror, Europe’s map remaking, and the populating of three continents by political, economic and religious refugees. We will supposedly face the same large-scale cataclysms.
— It is also intriguing how ubiquitous information and speeding up of information streams coincide with countertrends – people throw away their mobile phones, delete social media accounts, choose strict media diets.
— Imagine, from a 2D surface we jumped into a 12D one. Retroactions are inevitable. Changes in the media are not bound to personal and social changes only. For example, as Nicholas Carr argues, the shift from books to multimedia is accompanied by a physiological readjustment of brains.
Reading deals with language centres in the brain, while online surfing deals with decision-making ones. The brain is subjected to so-called neuroplasticity, which means whichever its zone you use more often, it starts developing. That is why the ability to consume lots of information develops to the detriment of the ability to read long texts. By the way, online surfing is actually very useful for the elderly. When they are online, their brains have to make lots of small decisions: to click or not to click. There is some discussion that this insensible training even may help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. At the same time, while society is shifting from reading to online surfing, a young person’s brain loses the ability to concentrate.
Actually long-time concentration on an abstract thing was never natural to humans. In wild nature it was even dangerous – you could have been eaten. Or get under a horse. Prior to the book era, only priests and hunters could concentrate on one thing for a long time.
Gutenberg’s invention taught humans to focus on abstract thoughts and it physiologically changed the brains of millions of people. In turn, it led to an explosive development of science, the invention of vaccines and space flights, etc.
Today multimedia interaction brings out the new spiral curve. The older generation may have some immunity and reflexivity regarding the shift from print to online. But the biggest problem here is bringing up children. The children didn’t have the pre-internet experience of socialization, they think the Internet is something that has always been. They didn’t have any long reading experience at all.
— Does it mean when they grow up they will stop inventing vaccines?
— There is a rhetoric way of addressing that. For instance, to Nicholas Carr’s famous question of whether the Internet makes us more stupid or more clever, the right answer is “yes”.
To be more precise: Humans as a species will definitely become more advanced. Humans as persons will lose a lot. But evolution always works for the species, not for individuals. An individual always suffers in the course of evolution.
The question is whether there will be any fatal events in the process of transition from ‘the society of text’ to ‘the society of the internet’. Such risks exist. And this is not the final point of media evolution. Beyond it, one can see new horizons – surrounding media, immersive media, augmented reality, device implants, and finally, connecting nerve endings to the Net. So right after this phase, new ones will come to place at an accelerated pace. We will be able to keep up with this tension only if we are not killed by its high voltage.
Many thanks to Dina Tokbaeva for helping with the translation