Monday, February 10, 2020

Howard Rheingold on democracy and online media

Howard Rheingold, Democracy is losing the online arms race, February 4, 2020. Opening paragraphs:
Democracy is threatened by an arms race that the forces of deception are winning. While microtargeted computational propaganda, organized troll brigades, coordinated networks of bots, malware, scams, epidemic misinformation, miscreant communities such as 4chan and 8chan, and professionally crafted rivers of disinformation continue to evolve, infest, and pollute the public sphere, the potential educational antidotes – widespread training in critical thinking, media literacies, and crap detection – are moving at a leisurely pace, if at all.

When I started writing about the potential for computer-mediated communication, decades before online communication became widely known as “social media,” my inquiries about where the largely benign online culture of the 1980s might go terribly wrong led me to the concept of the “public sphere,” most notably explicated by the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas. “What is the most important critical uncertainty about mass adoption of computer mediated communication?” was the question I asked myself, and I decided that the most serious outcome of this emerging medium would have to do with whether citizens gain or lose liberty with the rising adoption of digital media and networks. It didn’t take a lot of seeking to find Habermas’ work when I started pursuing this question.

Although Habermas’ prose is dense, the notion is simple: Democracies are not just about voting for leaders and policy-makers; democratic societies can only take root in populations that are educated enough and free enough to communicate about issues of concern and to form public opinion that influences policy.
Five skillsets for online life:
When I set out to write Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, I decided that five essential skillsets/bodies of lore/skills were necessary to thrive online – and by way of individual thriving, to enhance the value of the commons: literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness:

· Attention because it is the foundation of thought and communication, and even a decade ago it was clear that computer and smartphone screens were capturing more and more of our attention.

· Crap detection because we live in an age where it is possible to ask any question, any time, anywhere, and get a million answers in a couple seconds – but where it is now up to the consumer of information to determine whether the information is authentic or phony.

· Participation because the birth and the health of the Web did not come about because and should not depend upon the decisions of five digital monopolies, but was built by millions of people who put their cultural creations and their inventions online, nurtured their own communities, invented search engines in their dorm rooms and the Web itself in a physics lab.

· Collaboration because of the immense power of social production, virtual communities, collective intelligence, smart mobs afforded by access to tools and knowledge of how to use them.

· Network awareness because we live in an age of social, political, and technological networks that affect our lives, whether we understand them or not.

In an ideal world, the social and political malignancies of today’s online culture could be radically reduced, although not eliminated, if a significant enough portion of the online population was fluent or at least basically conversant in these literacies – in particular, while it seems impossible to stem the rising tide of crap at its sources, its impact could be significantly reduced if most of the online population was educated in crap detection.
On attention:
I confronted issues of attention in the classroom during my decade of teaching at UC Berkeley and Stanford – as does any instructor who faces a classroom of students who are looking at their laptops and phones in class. Because I was teaching social media issues and social media literacies, it seemed to me to be escaping the issue by simply banning screentime in class – so we made our attention one of our regular activities. I asked my co-teaching teams (I asked teams of three learners to take responsibility for driving conversation during one-third of our class time) to make up “attention probes” that tested our beliefs and behavior. When I researched attentional discipline for Net Smart, I found an abundance of evidence from millennia-old contemplative traditions to contemporary neuroscience for the plasticity of attention. Simply paying attention to one’s attention – the methodology at the root of mindfulness meditation – can be an important first step to control. It doesn’t seem that attention engineers, despite their wild success, have the overwhelming advantage in the arms race with attention education that surveillance capitalists and computational propagandists deploy with their big data, bots, and troll armies.
The lopsided arms race is what leads me to conclude that education in crap detection, attention control, media literacy, and critical thinking are important, but are not sufficient. Regulation of the companies who wield these new and potentially destructive powers will also be necessary.
There's more at the link.

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