I’m reading a novel set in the early 1900s, and was struck by a passage about how a certain newspaper story the protagonist comes across on the front page would have been properly relegated to some inner section, hidden away from all but the most diligent readers, if not for a particularly fascinating detail.
The notion of editorial judgment placing stories spatially or sequentially based on perceptions of importance struck me as quaint. We live in the days, after all, where the most famous joke from “Spinal Tap,” the mockumentary about a flailing heavy metal band, has come to pass. Everything is turned up to 11.
Over the past 20 years, information became so abundant, it wasn’t clear there would be any place to put it all. The risk was that signals would be drowned out by the flood of information, even if turned to 11.
Algorithms solved that problem. By slicing, sorting, and delivering information to targeted audiences, algorithms could turn everything up to 11, and everyone would be happy because they’d always be hearing their favorite songs.
With algorithms optimizing the delivery of abundant information — from legitimate news and opinion to misleading information and conspiracy theories — there is no longer an inside page upon which to bury a trivial story, no longer a wastebasket to discard a false story, and no longer a place on the desk to spike a story for later review. There is no incentive. Everything comes out all the time, and the algorithms find a place for it somewhere in the advertising-funded ecosystem of social media and online discourse.
News cycles have never been shorter because novelty and churn are more important than ever. They are part of what cranks up the volume. In political news, crimes and abuses that would have led to the downfall of any politician in normal times flash by in 24-48 hours, replaced with further information confetti from newsfeeds.
Because everything matters, there is no sense-making third dimension to information which allows us to establish scale, depth, or prominence. The only possible way to discern importance in the 2-D world of the newsfeed is via repetition, but even then, the algorithms step in. Repetition might lead to boredom. The algorithms work to refresh the game. Repetition is removed as a differentiator, as well.
And for the algorithms, it is a game. They aren’t people. They are systems designed to keep our attention. Algorithm-managed newsfeeds keep us addicted to what Kara Swisher calls “the attention slot machine.” We hunger for a jackpot, and watch as various bar-cherry-lemon stories churn by until we get a small payout.
Carrying this analogy farther, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google have become the equivalent of information casinos. By making us part of the game, they have made us the gamblers, they the house. They see things we can’t. They know the odds, and manipulate them. They manage the behavior of the occupants to get the most money from them while providing the right number of rewards to keep them playing. And they are getting fabulously wealthy in the process.
Newspapers, journals, books, and the editorial judgment they represent work to put the reader behind the smoked glass along the catwalks over the casino, watching the gamblers below through cameras, and pointing out the important players (the “whales”), and teaching them to ignore the tourists and amateurs. Rather than being played, readers of outlets where they are served are part of the team. The pros work on their behalf.
If we’re going to live inside information casinos, shouldn’t we make sure the games are played so they benefit us? Shouldn’t we call out the cheaters, card counters, and syndicates trying to rip us off?