Ghost in the Machine
ELON MUSK I use my tweets to express myself. Some people use their hair. I use Twitter.
MICAH LOEWINGER This week's number one trending topic was the announcement of Elon Musk's potential purchase of Twitter. The app. many of us have come to call: the hell site.
ELON MUSK Twitter's war zone. Somebody is going to jump in the war zone. It's like, okay, you're in the arena. Let's go.
MICAH LOEWINGER From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Also on this week's show, how to build healthier digital spaces by taking lessons from urban design.
Speaker 3 In our physical civic space. We were there very little of that space for walking up to strangers and arguing with them about politics. And that's that's probably good. [LAUGHS]
MICAH LOEWINGER Also, Facebook's new name Meta, and its newly envisioned direction are derived from a popular science fiction novel. But Zuckerberg is not the first tech-bro to borrow from the genre or miss the dystopian message.
Speaker 4 They read the books for the gadgets. It's like reading Playboy for the articles.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
MICAH LOEWINGER From WNYC in New York, this is On the media. I'm OTM correspondent Micah Loewinger holding down the fort this week for Brooke Gladstone.
MICAH LOEWINGER A few weeks go, we all got word that the richest man on earth had taken an interest in one of the Internet's biggest forums.
NEWS REPORT Elon Musk is joining the board of directors. Twitter making that announcement today after Elon Musk bought a 9% stake in the San Francisco company. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Some analysts looked into their crystal balls and warned that there would be more to come.
NEWS REPORT This is just the appetizer. Ultimately, we believe that he will have an active stake, you know, probably over the coming weeks and months. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And and this week, those prognostications came true. Elon Musk skipped hors d'oeuvres and bought the restaurant.
NEWS REPORT After weeks of uncertainty, Elon Musk struck a deal to buy Twitter at a price of roughly 44 billion bucks.
NEWS REPORT But the question is: What's he going to do with it? [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER We'll get to that question in a second. But first, why would Musk spend 44 big ones on a company that spent 16 years struggling to turn a profit? A site with fewer users than Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS It is not that every American standing in the supermarket line or dropping their kids off at school and hanging around a bus stop is on Twitter at all times. On the contrary.
MICAH LOEWINGER Anans Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
NEWS REPORT But what Twitter does have is an incredible influence over the journalistic output of the world over political leaders and political communication, particularly in elections. So it is a in some ways, an influencer of influencers.
MICAH LOEWINGER The world's wealthiest man is buying Twitter because Twitter is power. And Twitter is power in part because we in the media obsess over it and amplify what we see there. Which is why I've always found it bizarre when talking heads repeat this mantra.
NEWS REPORT And Twitter is not real life.
NEWS REPORT It's not.
NEWS REPORT I mean, breaking news it's not real life.
NEWS REPORT Twitter is not real life.
NEWS REPORT Twitter is not real life.
NEWS REPORT And Twitter isn't real life. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Granted, the loudest voices on Twitter don't often represent the views of moderate voters in battleground states, which is how the mantra originated.
ERIKA D. SMITH But that idea that Twitter is not real life downplays a lot of the things that have started on Twitter that have become very much real life movements.
MICAH LOEWINGER Erika D. Smith is a columnist at the Los Angeles Times. Her latest piece is titled With Elon Musk in Charge, It's the Beginning of the End for Black Twitter.
NEWS REPORT Black Lives Matter. That's something that in a lot of ways began as a hashtag on Twitter, and another one is #OscarsSoWhite, which started as a hashtag. And it really had an impact on talking about diversity within Hollywood and talking about who does and doesn't get to choose that message. The other one is MeToo talking about sexual harassment and the treatment of women. That's a movement that was started by a black woman and became popular on Twitter. So I think we say Twitter. Is it real life? It negates and pushes aside the way that social media really absolutely does affect real life.
MICAH LOEWINGER The point is how Musk chooses to change this app. Whether it will continue to be a wellspring for culture and social movements will affect all of us. And we won't know until the ink dries on the deal. Musk and Twitter technically have until October 24th to make it official. Though, he's given us some clues.
NEWS REPORT Elon Musk breaks his silence on Twitter after acquiring the social media platform. There you're taking a look at the tweet. It says in part, Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy. And Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The trouble with reading into his comments is that he delights in screwing with people and pushing their buttons. In other words: he's a troll.
ELON MUSK I use my tweets to express myself. Some people use their hair. I use Twitter.
INTERVIEWER Well, but you use your tweeting to kind of get back at critics. You kind of have little wars with the press.
ELON MUSK Twitter is a war zone. If somebody is going to jump in the war zone, it's like, okay, you're in the arena. Let's go. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER So which is it Elon? A war zone or a town square? The problem is that he doesn't appear to see the difference. But in the world of social media, there's an essential one. NBC's Ben Collins.
BEN COLLINS Free speech is the fundamental principle of this country. But moderation is different than free speech. And moderation is hard. It's extremely hard. In fact, it's an art, not a science. It's an unwinnable game. And he just got the worst job in the world.
MICAH LOEWINGER As we all know, free speech in this case doesn't refer to the First Amendment, which only protects us from government censorship. Twitter is a company, which is why it could enforce its rules concerning misinformation against Donald Trump and Alex Jones, whose accounts, by the way, could be reinstated.
CHARLIE KIRK We're going to go back to the platform now that it's under new management, with new promises for free speech protections. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's far right pundit Charlie Kirk, who elected to leave Twitter after he was suspended last month for misgendering United States assistant secretary for health: Admiral Rachel Levine, a trans woman.
CHARLIE KIRK And I'm just thrilled about this. This is the this greatest show on earth to see the world's richest man fight for speech in the West. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Actually, it's not. We've seen this show before. So many times.
NATALIE WYNN At first I wasn't immediately all that alarmed because, I mean, Twitter has always been owned by one or a series or a kind of panel of somewhat sinister people. So, you know, I was thinking, well, is it worse than Facebook being owned by Mark Zuckerberg?
MICAH LOEWINGER Natalie Wynn is the mind behind Control Points, a left wing YouTube channel. This latest round of free speech discourse reminded me of her 2017 video essay about why basic rules around moderation actually enhance free speech, a point she illustrates with an episode from the sitcom It's Always Sunny. In Philadelphia.
NATALIE WYNN It's about four, sort of morally worthless people who run a bar together. People often describe it as Seinfeld on Crack.
MICAH LOEWINGER Specifically. Season two Episode nine titled" Charlie Goes America All Over Everyone.
NATALIE WYNN The premise of the episode is that I guess Charlie and Dennis have a dispute about whether their bar is going to allow smoking. Charlie's argument is he works there...
CHARLIE You know, if you want to smoke, you should have to take it outside.
DENNIS Oh, it's a bar.
NATALIE WYNN And Dennis's argument is that this is America. He's got freedom. He should be able to blow smoke anyone's face he wants.
DEE There's smoking bans in a lot of states now.
DENNIS Yes. And it's completely un-American.
MACK If you don't like smoke, then don't come into the bar. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN Dennis and Mack decided to turn their bar, Paddy's into...
DENNIS The most American bar in all of America. A place of absolute freedom.
FRANK With no gambling restrictions. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN Anything goes. We're going to have women taking their tops off...
CHARLIE You girls went wild! Way to go. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN And to them they view it as simply as removing of restraints. We'll have no rules, and then everything that we want to do, we'll get to do. That's the kind of logic. I think that's the kind of logic a lot of people have when they advocate for no restrictions, no rules. But of course, what ends up happening is that you're not the only one then who has no rules. And so...
CHARLIE That could be bit of a problem back there though
NATALIE WYNN The gambling ring gets out of control. People are betting their fingers.
FRANK Do we have enough sharp knives?
NATALIE WYNN People are playing Russian roulette.
MICAH LOEWINGER The bizarre milk drinking.
NATALIE WYNN The McPoyles.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah. They're like an incestuous family. And they also want to cash in on the no rules space to manifest their own dream of making out with each other.
McPOYLE Did you guys have a anything goes type situation here? We get a couple of glasses of milk.
MACK What? No. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN Everything was a nightmare, and so they decide that they have to introduce maybe a few rules.
DENNIS I think we gave people too much freedom.
MACK Yeah, you're right, man. I'll call the cops.
DENNIS No, no, no we can't call the cops. That's admitting failure.
MACK Dennis, we gave people too much freedom. That's the problem. All they do is exploit it. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But of course, Frank, who's played by Danny DeVito, he sort of holds them to it.
DENNIS Listen, Frank, if you can keep those guys as far jammed into that corner as possible.
FRANK Segregation! That's segregation. That's not what this is all about. America is a melting pot.
MACK It might be good to set up some boundaries.
FRANK Boundaries? [CONTINUES UNDER]
MICAH LOEWINGER What about freedom? You guys are cop outs. Come on.
FRANK Sounds like it's coming right out of Stalin's mouth.
MACK Stalin's mouth? That is not what we're saying. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN Yeah, rules. That doesn't sound very American.
MICAH LOEWINGER But of course, as they're bar Paddy's is kind of becomes this no rules cesspool freak show the pretty ladies don't really want to hang out there anymore.
NATALIE WYNN Yeah, the fantasy ambiance that they have in mind, where they're the ones in control, where they're the ones whose desires are being met, where women are just showing up to please them. That turns out not to be the ambiance – the mood that you set when you create an anything goes space. Instead, you attract whatever type of person is attracted to a bar that's billed as anything goes. And I really do think that this kind of parallels discussions of platform moderation. That's really what we're talking about here when we're talking about free speech. We're talking about platform moderation. And I think if you look at the platforms that have billed themselves as free speech platforms, where anything goes well, what you get is interestingly, not anything goes is not everyone being represented well. It's hate speech and pornography. To put it short.
MICAH LOEWINGER Or. In some cases, just an expression of an ideal conservative space that isn't really committed to free speech. Like I think, for instance, of Truth Social. Trump's social media app. They don't allow pornography there. The terms of service don't allow harassment or even making fun of Trump. I mean, that's not free speech. That's just a conservative forum, basically.
NATALIE WYNN Right. Well, almost anyone who creates a platform wants to create a platform where they're going to feel comfortable. I don't consider myself someone who believes pretty passionately in free speech. I believe in the vital importance of being able to speak truth to power. I believe in the value of dangerous ideas. I believe that artists should be able to experiment, to challenge, to offend. I think it's actually pretty sinister that so many platforms because of SESTA/FOSTA have basically just decided to remove all sexual content. I'm against that. I would say that my experience on Twitter, I probably blocked 10 to 20 people a day. I mean, people are very, very abusive to me. People do say a lot of transphobic things to me on there. The current moderation doesn't protect me from that, and nor do I really expect it to. But I also think that without restrictions against bullying and harassment, for example, the platform becomes unusable very fast.
MICAH LOEWINGER I remember I spoke to Frederick Brennan, who was one of the admins of 8Chan, who has since kind of had a pretty massive about face. And he told me in 2019, he said I was kind of aware of the political arguments that image board users make about free speech. You know that it's all just about the marketplace of ideas and the best ideas fall out. As 8Chan's admin, I never saw any good ideas fall out. I just saw each community getting more and more extreme in their rhetoric. 8Chan was as good a free speech experiment as we're probably going to get for a long time.
NATALIE WYNN Yes.
MICAH LOEWINGER And I'm not sure what Elon Musk's version of this experiment could possibly lead to a better outcome.
NATALIE WYNN I do think that looking at 8Chan is a pretty good case study in what happens when you create a "okay, let's just let people say anything." People are posting child pornography to this website on a fairly frequent basis. You know, the only people who end up using this space are kind of socially isolated, angry at the world white boys in their early twenties or late teens who enjoy the feeling of power that comes with being able to say racist things. And I think that's not a space that most people want to use.
MICAH LOEWINGER What is Twitter at its best? I mean, I know everyone kind of likes to make fun of Twitter, but a lot of us use it and a lot of us use it a lot. It's addictive. Sure. Like so many other apps. But it seems to offer something when it's going right.
NATALIE WYNN One reason for all the freaking out about cancel culture, I think on Twitter is kind of the first place that a lot of white people truly had to reckon with black people talking back to them in America. Even if you are someone who you know, some of your best friends are black and you go to a workplace and there's end that's diverse. Like, there are social factors in those situations that prevent people from speaking their mind to you because you have power over them and they don't want to make you mad or because for various reasons they don't want to deal with the fallout of being the black person who's criticizing something a white person says. That's a risky thing to do in the offline world. But with Twitter, there's this kind of equality of almost being able to read other people's thoughts. This is a really horrible example. But like watching these videos of police misconduct or outright brutality, they get posted there so often. I feel like because you're seeing through a phone held by a black teenager, it's like you're seeing through their eyes. You're seeing the way the cop looks at them and the way that they're being treated. It's this very direct kind of experience of being put in someone else's place that I think for a lot of white people was absolutely mind expanding. I also think that the discomfort of having to parse a wide diversity of experiences and opinions is a healthy discomfort. And I am sort of grateful for the effect that it's had on me in terms of making me a bigger minded person.
MICAH LOEWINGER I want you to help me connect Twitter to the analogy that we used at the top. Who are the sort of fantasy users like the pretty ladies who are going to go wild in the bar?
NATALIE WYNN Well, I think for a lot of conservatives, the fantasy is that it becomes a kind of conservative, dominant app where anti-vaccine and COVID denialism is rampant. Where masks don't prevent diseases, where you can bully trans people with no limits on what language you use. I know it sounds like I'm fixated on trans people being bullied, and maybe some people will think that's because I'm too sensitive. I promise you, it's not because of that. It's because they're fixated on it. In the last week, Musk tweeted this meme, referencing this clip on Joe Rogan, where one guest argues basically that Twitter has a left wing ideological bias that manifests in a rule against misgendering trans people. The point is, oh, we should be able to misgender trans people. It's an important thing for them. Why is it an important thing for them? I honestly can't imagine.
MICAH LOEWINGER I have a guess. The writer Ryan Broderick, who has a substack called Garbage Day, has this thesis, which is that a right wing social media app cannot truly thrive and that it will never be a viable business. Truth, Gab, Parler, Gettr. All these things have not gone mainstream. And the thing is, you can create a space for conservatives, but it's not any fun for conservatives unless there are liberals there for them to attack. Trumpism, being an inherently reactionary movement requires some other to go after, and that is the central political expression of it.
NATALIE WYNN I think that's probably right. If we're talking about the analogy to the Fantasy Freedom Bar, they want a space where they can dunk on the libs without restraint. But if there's no libs to dunk on – but where's the fun in that?
MICAH LOEWINGER Natalie, thank you very much.
NATALIE WYNN Yeah, thank you for talking to me.
MICAH LOEWINGER Natalie Wynn is the creator of the Contra Points YouTube channel. Her 2017 video essay is titled Does the Left Hate Free Speech Part 2.
DENNIS I don't understand this.
MACK McPoyles. McPoyles everywhere, dude. Girls don't want to go wild in this environment. Not even for T-shirts. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Coming up. Building safe spaces on the Internet. This is On the Media.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger sitting in this week for Brooke Gladstone. We just heard Natalie Wynn compare Twitter to Paddy's. The pub from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Now let's try Facebook. Imagine it's a crowded bar. Almost everyone you know is there, but you can't seem to shake your conspiracy minded Aunt. The sound of arguments is overpowering. It's everywhere. But patrons are only kicked out after they've incited deadly brawls. If Facebook were a physical place, would you want to go there? When you can go to a different bar down the street or meet a friend in the park instead? Our social media landscape presents us with far fewer options. Eli Pariser is a co-director of Civic Signals, an initiative that uses insights from urban planning to think about how to build digital spaces that don't exploit us or spy on us for profit. Before Brooke spoke to Pariser last January, she wasn't so convinced by some of his ideas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I did wonder if the platforms he sought to build were not only a bit pie in the sky, but maybe not that interesting.
ELI PARISER Well, I mean, it depends on if you think libraries are interesting and parks are interesting. I get these days they seem pretty banal, but when people were first inventing these public institutions, it was in these moments of acute public need. When cities were starting, they didn't have parks and there were real health consequences that were coming from that. When libraries became a part of many communities, it was when large groups of people were first becoming literate but couldn't afford books. And so now here we are with the Internet, finding that, no, you can't rely on a few big venture backed corporations to provide all of the services and serve all of the needs of public infrastructure. And, you know, in some ways that's so obvious. Companies aren't built to serve public needs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This wasn't altogether obvious, though, was it, Eli? You were also one of the co-founders of Upworthy, which was intended to provide users with uplifting content, hooking them with irresistible headlines. That didn't work out as you hoped. In fact, it sort of gave birth to the BuzzFeed model of you won't believe what this movie star looked like when he was seven or this new discovery will blow your mind. What went wrong and how does that inform your current endeavor?
ELI PARISER One of the lessons that I learned from Upworthy was the limits of what you can do in a for profit, venture backed startup. I've been in those meetings where you look at the important socially valuable project and go, you know, can we take this on this quarter? I don't know if it's going to work on the balance sheet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because Upworthy was a venture capital startup.
ELI PARISER Yeah, and there are limits to what we can expect from for-profit entities. That's not to say that in a community, bookstores and cafes don't serve a vital purpose. But you don't want your library managed like a VC backed startup because it stops being a library.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does it stop being a library?
ELI PARISER If you talk to librarians about what they do, a lot of it is taking half an hour to walk someone through their unemployment registration form. You have someone who's experiencing homelessness over here and you have a young family over there and you have, you know, the small business meet up in the meeting room. A lot of the most important work that public institutions do is the most laborious, it's the most time consuming. It's the first thing that you would optimize away if you were trying to increase the profitability of your VC library, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
ELI PARISER And I think that's basically what we've done on the Internet. You know, that's what Facebook is. That's what Twitter is. We've taken this concept of community and we've allowed ourselves to imagine that it can happen without the people whose jobs and whose focus it is to hold the community together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Scholar Joan Donovan has called for 10000 librarians for the Internet, which sounds like a great name for a band.
ELI PARISER It's like a folk ensemble. But what Joan is calling for is this notion that the more you get close to how human beings are relating and how human beings are understanding, the harder it is to replace all of that with a fancy algorithm. And one thing about librarians is they know their local context and they understand the different constituencies that are involved. All of that knowledge is really important in figuring out how to make a space welcoming and thought provoking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your research, you tease out this idea by imagining what Twitter specifically might look like if it were a physical place, it would be something like a crowded parking lot on a busy shopping day.
ELI PARISER Yeah, as opposed to, a site, even like Reddit. Twitter is sort of uniquely normless. It's very hard to figure out who's here, what are we doing here? What are the rules of engagement? And so, it's not a surprise that the loudest and often most entitled voices get heard the most, because there are no rules. You know, communities have to have norms in order to function. One of our advisors is Nathan Matteus, who has this fascinating research about Reddit, where he looks at a Reddit channel where some folks saw a list of rules about how to engage and some folks didn't. And you might think, oh, this is going to put people off to show them all of the rules. Actually, the opposite was true. That especially for women and folks of color, they were more likely to engage when they saw the rules because there was some sense that, number one: there are rules. And that gives a sense of organization and safety. And number two, I have equal access to them, they're not hidden to me. And therefore I feel comfortable participating because it's an equal playing field. A more equal playing field. And so how we design these spaces has a lot to do with how people participate in them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's an example that you cite from the Memphis River Parks Partnership, which made an effort to bring black and white citizens of Memphis living near the same riverfront park together, people who were essentially living very segregated lives. It was amazing.
ELI PARISER The Memphis River Parks Partnership was looking at how do we create spaces where there might be some cross connection across these two very segregated communities. You know, it was easy if you had two playgrounds, even for the playgrounds themselves, to become kind of owned by one community or another. And so the final feature that they landed on was these fire pits with benches around them. People would come with their families and hang out. And there was something else to look at what urban planner William White calls triangulation. You don't have to directly engage with other people who are here. You can both be looking at the fire. You're having a nice time. You're warm, you're feeling good. And over the course of sitting for a while, there's opportunity to strike up a conversation or the kids start playing together. That's how community connections get made. It was just a striking example to me because it seems so different from how we're put into proximity in digital life, where the first thing that I see about you is probably like one of your most engaging and therefore likely incendiary beliefs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What I love about that Memphis example is that it's so elemental. Everybody, as you said, is looking in the same direction. They're sharing the same warmth. There is nothing better than sitting by a fire. And I don't have a clue how you could approach replicating a space that welcoming…online. I mean, what would it look like?
ELI PARISER You know, I think it's easy, especially when we're talking about technology, to imagine that the solutions are all technical. Most of running your own social networking is social. It's like, how do you get people together in a way where they're feeling something? So to the firepit question, to me, it points to play, it points to art, it points to other things that bring people together. Because the reality is in our physical, civic space, we reserve very little of that space for walking up to strangers and arguing with them about politics. And that's probably good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have established basically four principles that have to go into designing a digital public space welcome, connect, understand and to act. If you break that down, you're talking about programming, social activities like you mentioned. Offering visual cues as to what kind of behavior is invited in the space – that's like the norms you are talking about that make the space less threatening. You want to make it easy to get there and attractive to a lot of different people and to engage leaders and maintainers and to design in partnership with the communities that use them. Do you have any real-life examples of this kind of platform?
ELI PARISER I mean, I don't think we have examples of any one platform that's doing all the things perfectly. But I'm inspired by examples like Front Porch Forum in Vermont, which is kind of like a slow social network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like slow food?
ELI PARISER Like slow food. Yeah, of course it's in Vermont, right? So Front Porch Forum is basically very heavily moderated local email list that you can post to once a day. And if you post something and it's against the rules and norms, it gets sent back to you with a nice little note saying like, 'Hey, can you try saying this a different way?' And the once-a-dayness is really important because, you know, you have to have a lot of stamina and energy to sustain an argument across 14 days of back and forth. What's interesting about Front Porch Forum is it's used by a huge portion of households in Vermont. Front Porch Forum is like the email driven version of a local letters to the editor page in a local newspaper. Local representatives in Vermont are on Front Porch Forum because they know that's where the issues of the day are being discussed and addressed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've warned against defensive design, which since it's so bent on guarding against bad actors, doesn't offer users enough that's positive. So instead of asking you, ‘How do you beat the lies of Trumpism and QAnon?,’ I'll ask: how do we promote truth in online spaces?
ELI PARISER There's a tendency to want to go immediately to like what kind of content is allowed and how are we evaluating it. And I think that's important. But I also think ultimately what we believe is true has to do with who we trust. If you want a better truth architecture, you need a better trust architecture. I mean, when you think about it, I mean, we know firsthand so little of what we think we know and most of it comes from. You know, I listen to On the Media and I trust you, and so that helps me figure out what I think is true. It's why fixing the relational problems to me is as or more important as fixing the content problems. Because ultimately, if we don't change who people are in relationship with who people trust, then you can have the best content in the world and it's not going to have the effect that you want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do you think? Do you see an increased willingness to make these plans for public online spaces a reality... from anyone?
ELI PARISER It's inspiring. There's a coalition in the Netherlands, for example, the Public Spaces Coalition, which is a group of public broadcasters and museums and other public institutions that thought to themselves, Well, each one of us only sees a small portion of the Dutch public, but together we actually see a huge chunk of it. And we could build some kind of cross layers of community engagement together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So do you see this fundamentally then, as local enterprises? Community meaning small because you can't scale up Vermont or even the Netherlands to the U.S.
ELI PARISER The framers in the United States were onto something when they were thinking about federalism. You know, you have to have workable local communities before you can start to talk about bigger ones. And so I do think starting at the human scale is going to be an important piece of the puzzle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've been fighting this fight for a long time. Do you think as as some suggest that maybe we're at an inflection point?
ELI PARISER I do think we're at an inflection point. You know, for a long time, what everybody has been trying to do is figure out, like, how do we fix these existing structures, the Facebooks and the Twitters? We're finally starting to zoom out and say, it can't just be these few companies that are determining our digital future and we need to be thinking finally beyond that frame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eli, thank you so much.
ELI PARISER Thank you. Always a pleasure.
MICAH LOEWINGER Eli Pariser is co-director of Civic Signals, an initiative that uses insights from urban planning to think about how to create public friendly digital spaces. We first aired this interview in January 2021.
Coming up, we ask: are the tech bros okay? This is On the Media.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger, sitting in this week for Brooke Gladstone. Last October, Mark Zuckerberg announced a new name and vision for his company.
MARK ZUCKERBERG To reflect who we are and what we hope to build. I am proud to announce that starting today, our company is now: Meta. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The new name is Meta and the new vision is the metaverse, which already sorta exists on other platforms, including those offered by blockbuster online games like Fortnite and Roblox. To round out the show, which is all about how the tech titans shape our world, we revisit a piece by Brooke, about Zuckerberg's meta-ambitions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ethan Zuckerman, founder of the Initiative for Digital Infrastructure, wrote that 'really Meta's vision is about distracting us from the world it helped break." Zuckerberg seeks to build an all-inclusive, virtual, reality powered commercial, cultural and social space where cool things happen you don't want to miss. And where do many – maybe most of the coolest ideas come from? Science fiction or speculative fiction or S.F. If you will. Take Elon Musk pursuing space exploration and Neuralinks to the internet. He just loves Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which really seems to grok our Mr. Musk.
HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY NARRATION: And for these extremely rich merchant's life eventually became rather dull, and it seemed that none of the worlds they settled on was entirely satisfactory. Either the climate wasn't quite right in the later part of the afternoon, or the day was half an hour too long, or the sea was just the wrong shade of pink. And thus, were created the conditions for a staggering new form of industry... Custom-made luxury planet building.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you know Amazon's Jeff Bezos considered naming what would become his gargantuan retail disruptor, 'make it so'?
PICARD Make it so Mr LaForge. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But what happens when a great literary genre, yes, great – is misread? What might these tech moguls have learned if they'd only read slower or better, starting with the novel that introduced the word Metaverse? Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash?
ANNALEE NEWITZ So the metaverse is both a kind of immersive world that you can dive into, or it can be accessed through goggles that give you an augmented reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Annalee Newitz is a science fiction author and science journalist and co-hosts the Hugo Award winning podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct.
ANNALEE NEWITZ The part that they seem to have forgotten is that the story around the metaverse in Snow Crash is that access to it is controlled by a crazy magnate named L. Bob Rife, whose name is clearly a reference to L. Ron Hubbard, and he controls a cable TV network. So to access any of the goodies in there, you have to go through this one corporation. Ultimately, Rife decides that the best way to maintain his control is to release this weird kind of semi-magical virus that's both a computer virus and a human virus that causes people's brains to shut down. They crash, and they are no longer able to speak or understand language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Does Zuckerberg not see how he would be cast in such a scenario?
ANNALEE NEWITZ I mean, that's certainly what a lot of people have been suggesting. It's about Zuckerberg kind of misreading his place in the story. I also think that it's about not being able to think about where Facebook fits into this larger social picture. It's interesting to see this discussion about who Zuckerberg is in the story Snow Crash at the same time that the U.S. government is asking, What is Facebook in the context of our nation? Trying to hold Facebook to account for everything from suicidal ideation among young people, to the attack on the U.S. government in January. Two parallel conversations, one of which is about what is Facebook doing to us right now in the United States and in other nations? And also, what does Facebook mean to the progression of humanity? Which is the bigger science fictional questions raised by thinking through Snow Crash
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1998, the philosopher Richard Rorty said that novels like Snow Crash, I mean specifically, was a writing of rueful acquiescence in the end of American Hope. Inspiring, right?
JILL LEPORE Yeah, that's what you really want to build your future out of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. I wondered if, as an educator, she saw reading comprehension is the issue.
JILL LEPORE They read the books for the gadgets. It's like reading Playboy for the articles.
JILL LEPORE I don't know. It's a weird thing. And that's why they don't read Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood or Ursula LeGuin. You know, it's one thing to read Neal Stephenson for the gadgets and ignore the social world, it's another thing to read Margaret Atwood for gadgets and ignore the social world. You just pretty much can't do it right. So it's a very selective and willful reading. It's an abdication of what reading is, and it's an abdication of historicism. If you were, you know, taking class and science fiction, you'd be learning a lot about the writers and the world that they lived in and the nature of the critique they were offering. These guys, as boys, read all these novels that were about the building of worlds, right? They're all world building novels, and now they're the only people on the planet who are rich enough to actually build worlds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lepore is talking about the tech moguls raised on fiction written during the mid-last century by mid-last century men, creating worlds suggested by, and imagined in a time and place very different from our own. The tech wizards, she says, used an exacto knife to extract the gadgets from these books, irrespective of the author's context,
JILL LEPORE Asimov and Heinemann were writing from this perspective of a 1950s Mad Men era culture of swaggering white male solves everything with his fancy new computer. We don't live in that world anymore, and in fact, science fiction has so long ago moved on from all of this stuff. You know, there's a whole world of Afrofuturism and post-colonial fiction and feminist science fiction. These guys never cite that stuff. "Well, we're really big science fiction fans," but they read books that were published generally in 1952. Like, their vision of the future is unbelievably obsolete and antique. It's not that people are not excited about the Metaverse are Luddites and backward looking, it's that the metaverse is Luddite and backward looking. You know, science fiction is not fundamentally about the future, really is always about the present or about the past. So, to read it as a manifesto for the future is to begin by misreading it.
GENE SEYMOUR Science fiction has never interested me as a vehicle for prophecy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gene Seymour is a longtime culture critic and science fiction fan whose works appeared in Newsday at CNN, The Nation, The Baffler, and elsewhere.
GENE SEYMOUR The idea that, well, someone saw, you know, nuclear submarines as far back as the 1800s. Yeah, it's interesting from a historical standpoint, but I've always been more interested in how we behave, whether it's a dystopia or utopia. What we do to accommodate those changes, and I find that science fiction writers are further ahead than most other people are in assessing those. Science fiction or speculative fiction has always appealed to people who see themselves are forced to see themselves as outsiders, ok. People either willingly or not left to their own devices and imagining, OK, I'm on my own. How do I magnify my knowledge? How do I magnify my presence? How do I magnify me? And this is why so many adolescents are attracted to it. It speaks to that impulse to not just figure out who I am in relation to others, who either dismiss or marginalize me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've written a lot about– you've thought a lot about Afrofuturism.
GENE SEYMOUR Yes. As you know, for many, many decades, you could see a science fiction movie or read a book and not find any characters of color or even acknowledgment that there is still such a thing as a person of color in the future. And many readers of science fiction, including me, wondered, OK, this has to be altered somehow, this paradigm has to be changed. And how do we do that? Well, in the years since, there have, of course, been many writers of color. Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, people like that
BROOKE GLADSTONE ....and N.K. Jemison.
GENE SEYMOUR Exactly, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I love her. In fact, a lot of the leading contemporary afrofuturists are women.
GENE SEYMOUR Yes, they are. And talk about world building. They've done some incredible things. With not just the details of their world, the actual physical details, but also the societal development. When I read one of her books, I'm always struck by how fully she imagined this and also the detail. Not just in the different settings, but also in the social fabric. They seem to have an understanding of that as good, if not better, than some of the great white male science fiction writers of an earlier time. I think it comes out of a sense of urgency with black writers and writers of color to stake a claim for themselves in what the future holds. They're saying we want to get in on this since it's wide open, not just to buy into this, but as a means of self-defense and it costs from being overrun by whatever's coming, wherever it comes from. Tech millionaires trying to reshape the face of politics or deepen perhaps what's already oppressing us. You mentioned Meta earlier. There's something kind of disquieting about a Meta concept, particularly because it somehow seems out of not just our control, but out of our immediate access, and we want to make that access less remote. And I think that's one of the reasons why there is such vital interest in Afrofuturism in whatever manifestations it takes. I always, always have been enraptured. It's not altogether inaccurate to use the term rapture to describe it. I'm enraptured by how people can imagine how other people are going to deal with that and in essence, what that means in dealing with others. I don't know if that makes me typical of the people who like reading these books. All I know is the lure of those books remains principally to find out what it means to be human. And I grew up with the generation, the boomer generation that was always concerned about when the bomb was going to drop. And even back then, I'd always ask some of these people too, “well, the bomb is going to drop. It's all going to end.” I would ask them: what if it doesn't? And they look at me as if I was quite mad sometimes. And so these are the things that drive you to the science fiction book when people look at you that way.
GENE SEYMOUR These are the things that sort of tend to marginalize you. But I think it was a valid question then, and it's a valid question now. If that makes me more of an optimist than I have a right to be, my answer that would be the question, well, what other choice do we have?
BROOKE GLADSTONE In fact, Neal Stephenson himself has launched a project to collect and catalog positive visions of the future as a response to these dark times. His rule? No hackers. No hyperspace. No Holocausts.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Yeah. So it's not about just painting a happy picture of the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Annalee Newitz.
ANNALEE NEWITZ I mean, I think Neal Stephenson was expressing something that many of us in the science fiction community have been feeling for at least the last decade, which is that wallowing in dystopian stories or dark stories at a time in history when things are already feeling chaotic can create a sense of helplessness. So instead of turning outward to your community and trying to make things better, even if that's just by voting or giving a meal to a friend, instead, we just go back to the Metaverse, right? You go back for more and more entertainment, more and more dystopian stories that just confirm your already existing bias that the world has fallen apart and there's nothing we can do. It's a very dark, nihilistic tunnel that you can go down. And I think that's what's so provocative about the idea of the metaverse, because it provides us with this metaphor for what it means to indulge endlessly in entertainment without ever leaving your computer. I'm not saying you can't make the world better from your computer because lots of people do. I just mean that we can get caught in these loops that just keep reconfirming that there's no use in trying to make things better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What science fiction books would you suggest the scions of Silicon Valley read?
ANNALEE NEWITZ Becky Chambers. She has a new series out now called Robot and Monk, which is all about imagining technology and ecology working together. One of the big writers in the science fiction field now, of course, is in N.K. Jemison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Oh god, yeah
ANNALEE NEWITZ Who is just fantastic, and she's also thinking about the future of the planet and how technology and environment will go together in that future. One of the things that's interesting about both of these authors is that they are engaging with technology, but it's just as important to think about the civilizations that that technology is embedded in. And you know, if you're a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and you're trying to create some kind of app that has a social component, it's really important to be reading science fiction that deals with the social world. That's something that you just don't see in a lot of those kind of golden age, 1950s science fiction writers. Tade Thompson, who is a Nigerian-British author. His series that begins with the book Rosewater is a really interesting exploration of alien technology and how it transforms cities. And again, it's all about the social world, also really cool technology and mutants and stuff like that. So these are all books that are fun, but they also will make you think about these social issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I have just written those down. I'll be well-equipped when I become a high-tech media mogul.
ANNALEE NEWITZ Yep, when you're ready to just start melting people's brains, but then you're reading, science fiction will hold you back. Yes, and you'll realize
BROOKE GLADSTONE I just don't understand why Snow Crash didn't have that effect. So you can lead a techie mogul to a book, but you...
ANNALEE NEWITZ ...can't make him think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess the moral of the story is that reading isn't merely fundamental, it's existential. You just have to read the right stuff. Ursula LeGuin.
URSULA LeGUIN I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives. Who can see through our fears stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being And even imagine some real grounds for hope. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's it for this week's show! On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Max Bolton with help from Aki Camargo. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter and our show was edited by our executive producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Adriene Lily. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Micah Loewinger.