Hypothetical Symposium: “The New Media Landscape: What Should We Be Most Concerned About?”

15 05 2010

Hypothetical Elon University interactive media master’s degree program symposium on media issues titled “The New Media Landscape: What Should We Be Most Concerned About?”

Moderator:

Good afternoon and welcome everyone to Elon University’s media issues symposium. My name is Andrew Rushton and I will be moderating what should be an enlightening panel discussion. It is my great honor to welcome you to today’s event.

The distinguished members of our panel today are all experts within their respective specialties. They include:

  • Robert McChesney, author of The Political Economy of Media, which focuses upon journalism and media outlets and the changing journalism landscape within the modern media environment.
  • Daniel Solove, author of The Future of Reputation, which explores the relationship of free speech and privacy to the hyper-connected world of the Internet.
  • Ken Auletta, author of Googled, which analyzes the stunning rise of Google as a dominant media empire, the affects the company has had and the changes resulting from new business models in the media industry.
  • and

  • Jonathan Zittrain, author of The Future of the Internet, which proposes insights on the potential failure of the Internet and the idea of genericity that could play an influential role in saving the powerful online resource.

Each of the distinguished speakers will have the opportunity to step forward to the podium and provide their opening remarks. Without further a due, let us welcome our first speaker to the podium.

McChesney:

Let me begin by extending a sincere thank you to Elon University for the opportunity to take part in such a relevant and interesting exchange of ideas. This symposium should reap tremendous rewards for anyone hoping to obtain a better understanding of the multiple transformations occurring within modern media and the significance each one holds.

My opening remark is simple: journalism is broken. This is an exceedingly sad point to make when one considers the role that journalism is meant to play across our society. Journalism is a watchdog. Journalism is built upon the premise information should be made available to the public with little influence from business and government in the dissemination of this information. Herein lies one of the major problems with journalism today.

Increasingly, journalism is becoming representative of corporate control. The interests of big business, corporate American, tend to drive what passes today as journalistic actions. The result from this is an erosion of the diversity and depth of story coverage. In turn, this limits the ability for enterprising journalists to seek out and deliver material that requires public awareness and action. In essence, the watchdog role of journalism is disappearing.

One reason, if not the principle one, for this change stems from profits. Capitalism is exerting influence over everything in our society including journalism. Corporate owners want to make profit, large profits, regardless of journalistic compromise. This presents one of the main deteriorations of journalistic practice as everything comes with a price tag. Journalism cannot function effectively in this environment and changes must be made to prevent further erosion of such a critical societal construct.

Critique:

Change in and of itself should not be framed as a negative characteristic. McChesney seems to base his argument that journalism is being destroyed around concepts that are traditional and outdated. The modern media environment is not the same as it was a decade ago, let alone a generation age. As with any business, money and profit must factor heavily into the decision making process for a business enterprise to remain functional. Whenever McChesney discusses profits, there seems to be an underlying criticism of capitalism as being wholly evil. He premises this opinion around the notion that capitalism isolates the collective power of a population to a very select number of individuals with influential amounts of power. For those not part of these select inner circles, such as the average citizen, interest in political decisions affecting the media industry diminishes (370). As a result, apathy among the majority of the population sets in and the select group of power brokers can continue unabated in coalescing even more power. McChesney provides insight to his perspective when he wrote “The global commercial media system is radical in that it will respect no tradition or custom, on balance, if it stands in the way of profits (321).”

Even though McChesney fails to realize the positive influence that new media can have on journalism, he does shed light on instances where journalism has been corrupted. If a completely objective journalist even exists is debatable. However, journalists that try mightily to refrain from twisting information and passing off mere opinions as facts are generally viewed with high regard. In the midst of the Enron and WorldCom scandals of 2001, traditional journalism failed to serve its watchdog role. Instead of journalists reporting on the fact that these companies were intimately involved with political figures and this in turn helped to keep journalistic reporting on the crisis to a minimum, the companies collapsed; helping to weaken the national economy in the process (51-52). In instances such as this one, McChesney’s point is rather valid. The watchdog role of the press is a valuable asset in assuring that democratic principles are maintained.

By focusing so much of his attention on traditional media, McChesney never seems to clearly demonstrate how new media technology will enable success for the average person. The primary component of his convoluted suggestion involves a “nearly unprecedented degree of politicalization in the United States (357).” By getting the government involved, even though it is already intimate by his own examples with corporate America, the Internet can become the respected, transcended version of traditional journalism of the modern era. Without this involvement, McChesney holds the Internet and its potential in a largely negative light.

Solove:

Thank you Mr. Rushton, I really appreciate being here today, it really is quite an honor.

Today, all of us in this room live in an electronic existence. Although some of us may realize the implications of this more than others, the risks and benefits of this existence hold relevance to each of us as individuals. More specifically, what I am talking about today is the fact that practically anything can be accessed on the Internet. There is a limitless potential for information, regardless of truth or accuracy, to be made available for millions of people to consume from a computer screen. Based upon these actions, the Internet is quite possibly going to make us less free.

Unlike media of decades past, the Internet thrives off of instantaneous accessibility. The Internet can be updated with new material within seconds. On the surface, this seems like an incredibly enriching capability, which it can be. However, the opposite is also true. Just as easily, the Internet can convey material that can damage the reputations of others. This is particularly true when considering the fact that the Internet does not forget (Solove, 8). Once information is posted online, it will remain there, in one form or another, forever.

That being said, I would be remiss in my remarks if not highlighting social norms. Norms are unofficial social laws; they “are widely known and widely observed rules of social conduct (84).” What are the norms for online expression? Where does one draw the line between the freedom to express information and the protection of personal privacy? This is uncharted territory that modern societies must come to terms with or else every human on the Internet will contribute to the vanishing of privacy.

Auletta:

Hello everyone and thank you for having me speak this afternoon. Based upon the prior speakers, I am most definitely in the presence of some powerful minds!

From a traditional perspective, business used to be conducted within a relatively prescribed manner. To assist in bettering chances of success, businesses needed to generate income in order to grow. This may have been all well and good in the past but once Google established itself as a dominant presence in the business world, things changed.

Since the company’s founding, Google has been run largely by engineers, relatively atypical folks holding the reins for a business venture. In large part due to the heavy engineer influence, it has not been unusual for employees to ask why things are done in certain ways, questioning the status quo of business operations (Auletta, xii). As I found throughout my research, it was this very questioning by employees in nearly every area of the company that has greatly helped Google expand to the size it is today.

When Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google, they realized that data was fundamental lifeblood of the company. Almost every decision made at Google since those early days revolves around analyzing data, most often user data obtained through the company’s massive search engine operations. Elaborating upon the power that Google’s search engine operations allow, Page told an academic class that “If you can solve search, that means you can answer any question. Which means you can do basically anything (322).” In many ways, Google continues to demonstrate this capability through nearly constant business expansion and diversification efforts.

Sharing similar concerns to those touched on by Daniel Solove, privacy also plays an integral role in Google’s current and future operations. Because the company is built upon the belief that all growth derives from data, Google has come under fire from Internet users who have expressed concern over the amount of personal information Google collects every time someone searches for material online. That being said, information collection by way of data could present a serious challenge to Google’s success in the future. The company has shown the power that data collection and analysis can provide to address the needs and desires of the public. It remains to be seen however if the desire of Internet users to maintain their online privacy will spur a Google backlash.

Zittrain:

Hello folks, I want to thank you for having me here as part of the panel. Although I may sound like a broken record at this point being the last panelist to speak today, I am also honored to participate in this dynamic symposium.

For those of you in the audience who have read my book, The Future of the Internet, and even those of you who have yet to do so, I discuss several points of serious concern regarding what is in store for the Internet. Originally, the Internet was constructed around the concept of genericity. This concept was and still is a powerful one in which a system has the “capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences (Zittrain, 70).” It seems that by default, the Internet would be a smorgasbord of openness, which it is in a sense, but this maybe changing.

The increase in commerce on the Internet is increasingly positioning the Internet as the center of a power struggle. Corporate entities want a greater say in controlling how Internet users access the Internet, view materials, purchase products and services online. These attempts to control the Internet fly in the face of the idea of genericity because it presents an increasingly real possibility that corporations will slowly strangle the openness of the Internet. In turn, this could bring the Internet, as we know it, to its knees.

As I have proposed in my book, a balance must be realized between these two distinct interests. Without diversity online, which contributes to decision-making guided by human ingenuity and intrigue, the Internet will loss much of its appeal. However, too much genericity can present security problems online where so much vulnerability exists that the Internet will essentially poison the online presence of those who use it. Viruses represent just one type of vulnerability that has already proven troublesome. The Internet must be seen as an incredibly powerful tool that can aid in the expansion of human intellectualism. Allowing it to become so open that security concerns cause it to implode is unacceptable just as allowing excessive, proprietary control by corporations is equally unacceptable.

Critique:

So much attention on the Internet revolves around its present existence, whereas very little seems to focus on what may be coming in the future. Zittrain lays out a very compassionate and intriguing case in his position that the Internet is at a point in its existence where the future is not guaranteed. He does this well by describing the original composition of ideas that led to the Internet’s early days where strict functionality was the focus, not directing or controlling the behavior of online users (Zittrain, 28). As time passed however, the support of a functional Internet began to expose security vulnerabilities that now are of serious concern. Corporations want to exert greater control over the Internet experience in order to expunge some risks associated with an open framework, but at what expense? Can the Internet survive a corporate takeover where the practice of genericity is eliminated? I think his concern is well founded. Zittrain reflects on this point-blankly when he wrote, “The most salient feature of a PC is its openness to new functionality with minimal gatekeeping. This is also its greatest danger (57).”

What is so striking about Zittrain’s work is his insightfulness to realize two major influences, each on opposite ends of the spectrum that will likely decide the future of the Internet. On one end, the idea that if the Internet becomes too prescribed by corporate influences it will present a harmful cap on the Internet’s growth and flexibility. However, on the other end of the spectrum, if too much openness allows the Internet to run amok, tremendous security vulnerabilities will be available for exploitation. This alone could cripple the Internet.

One criticism I have regarding Zittrain’s writing is the lack of perspective in relation to what governments are doing to address these concerns. Although government actions are mentioned several times in the book, there seems to be a lack of serious, in-depth examination of whether government officials are actively working to reach an acceptable middle ground between the two aforementioned ends of the spectrum. He describes the concerns and their premise very well. However, I do believe the impact of his points on genericity, security and control would be even more impressive had they been followed with detailed, insider perspectives regarding what is being done to address these issues within government.

In conclusion, Zittrain does a fine job shining light on what is in store for the Internet. Overall, his points are generally well supported and rather interesting. The Internet seems to be speeding closer to a conundrum about its own continued existence. Going one way will present problems, whereas going completely the other will do just the same. Attempts should be made now to try and reach a workable compromise. However, as with most things in life that have value, there is risk. What maybe considered foreshadowing about the Internet’s future, Zittrain wrote, “an experimentalist spirit is best maintained when failures can be contained as learning experiences rather than catastrophes (157).”

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