Somehow, it figures that an online media and technology conference would be dogged by tech problems when its opening keynote featured social-media critic Tristan Harris. But that’s exactly what happened in today’s NYC Media Lab Summit, which eventually opened with Harris’ truncated conversation about hit Netflix
“So this is ironic on a whole bunch of levels,” said host Steve Rosenbaum, managing director of the NYC Media Lab, after the Harris talk finally started 20 minutes late.
Harris, head of the Center for Humane Technology and a former Google
Originally, the filmmakers had hoped to have a theatrical release last spring, Harris said, and to encourage screening parties where people could discuss the film. When the pandemic interrupted that plan, the film made its way to Netflix, where Harris said he hopes people will screen the film for others of opposing views, and then do what he called “a reality swap.”
“So it’s like (the movie) Freaky Friday, you open up Facebook on both your phones with someone you disagree with.,” Harris said. “And then you swap realities. You step into their world to see why do they think the things they’re thinking? Well, you scroll through their feed, and you see they’re not seeing the same information that I’m seeing. And that’s a visceral way, I think, to have that experience.”
Harris’ center also just updated its website’s “Take Control” page to feature additional ways that people can begin to make a difference in the ways they interact with Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and other services, he said. But the documentary itself, appearing across more than 190 countries and in 30 languages, has found one giant platform to begin building broader understanding.
Harris said he’s received emails from viewers across the planet, and the film has hit No. 1 on Netflix charts in countries as diverse as Lebanon and India.
“If the entire world understands that this is a train that’s going nowhere, that we’re all in the same boat together,” that will help, Harris said. “We used to joke that we’re all on Team Humanity, some people just haven’t realized it yet.”
Despite the tech headaches, Harris’s appearance couldn’t have been better timed. Less than 24 hours earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives released a damning, 449-page report that said four tech giants – Apple
Other disruptive efforts are also looming over the giants, including lawsuits by Epic Megagames over the app stores run by Apple and Alphabet, a U.S. Department of Justice antitrust case against Google, and similar DOJ and state-level investigations underway against the other giants.
Harris said there have been relatively few changes in regulatory approaches to the big tech companies over the past six years, other than privacy legislation, such as in the European Union and California.
“The thing that we really need, the thing that scales to the challenge, is a cultural awakening, a cultural movement, that knows that we are living inside of inhumane technology platforms,” Harris said. “And we need a humane protocol about how we show up in those platforms. And we’d love to co create that with a community.”
Harris’ talk was followed by a panel featuring three prominent observers of social media, disinformation and journalism’s halting transformation to the Digital Age. Each was asked to offer “Big Ideas” to deal with some of the issues around how we gather, distribute and receive news and information:
- Science-fiction author and long-time digital activist Cory Doctorow said the new House report includes some useful suggestions, such as a return to antitrust enforcement approaches from “before (former appellate judge) Robert Bork became Ronald Reagan’s court sorcerer and said we couldn’t enforce antitrust law anymore, unless there was a consumer harm, and unless prices were going up.” That would include preventing mergers between big companies, forced divestitures where there is vertical integration, and structural separation between units where monopoly positions can be abused.
- Nina Jankowicz, an author and fellow specializing in disinformation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said one crucial change would be to treat domestic sources of disinformation – by politicians, extremist groups, and conspiracy theorists on issues such as the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and mail-in voting – as aggressively as we respond to foreign efforts. But it also calls for a broader response beyond law enforcement approaches. Smaller countries such as Estonia and the Czech Republic have built sturdy institutional structures that help protect their democracies from intense meddling by Russia and others, Jankowicz said: “They’re really investing in building societal resilience.” Those countries use initiatives like building digital literacy (especially for adults), leveraging public libraries, and supporting trustworthy public-owned media outlets.
- NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, a long-time observer of the erratic digital transformation of media, called for shift in the way newsrooms cover information. An intentional blizzard of often-conflicting claims and “news” can overwhelm undermanned newsrooms. But one response can be to create an Urgency Index, which highlights the most important ongoing issues and what recent developments are evolving those issues. That approach, which could appear in newsletters and on the website, and tended by a dedicated team within the paper, can help retain a focus on the most meaningful issues facing a society. “The old front page model was a hierarchy of what’s new today, not what’s true today,” Rosen said. Newsrooms need to focus on “creating products that respond to news overload and fatigue. These are public needs, and also buckets of demand that newsrooms aren’t responding to.”