Nate Silver & Technology in Mass Communication

11 December 2012 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in Uncategorized

For one of my final exams this semester, we had to answer the question of whether technology is changing the role and function of media from the perspective of twelve different authors. More than a tedious final exam, I found this topic intriguing and thought-provoking. I've shared my final paper below, and would love blog responses from fellow science and mass comm-ers!

Is "Big Data" better at communicating than people are?

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The author of the Huffington Post article “Nate Silver and the Rise of Political Data Science” writes:

“Silver has proven to the public the power of Big Data in transforming our electoral process. We already rely on statistical models to do everything from flying our airplanes to predicting the weather. This serves as yet another example of computers showing their ability to be better at handling the unknown than loud-talking experts” (p. 1).

I start with Neil Postman in asking how the authors of the books we read this semester might respond to the idea that America is experiencing an information revolution driven by technology and data. In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Postman describes the emergence of an image-centered culture with the rise of technological media including the telegraph, the photograph and television. An “information glut,” (p. 68) consisting largely of decontextualized information in electronic media, faces modern Americans. The implications of this glut include “diminished social and political potency” (p. 68). Postman reveals a modern American prejudice toward truth as quantification, where “[m]any of our psychologists, sociologists, economists and other latter-day cabalists will have numbers to tell them the truth or they will have nothing” (p. 23). He does not argue the point of whether numbers best express the truth in particular fields. However, he warns against the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture. Postman writes that “every technology has an inherent bias” (p. 84) toward being used in certain ways, based on physical form and symbolic capability. Every technology has an inherent agenda. Technology as a machine “becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts” (Postman, p. 84).

In relation to the primary questions of this paper, Postman might argue that technology does change the role and function of the media. However, he might also argue that computers and technological devices in general are only as good at discovering and providing information as their symbolic codes and social settings permit. Postman writes that while Americans believe in technology as the vehicle of progress, “technology is ideology” (p. 157). Technology creates cultural change, changing cognitive habits and social relations. It changes notions of communication, history and religion. Postman argues that we must interpret the symbols that each technology brings to our culture with the knowledge of that technology’s biases. Postman refers to print, not technology, as the medium best suited to the accumulation, scrutiny and analysis of complex information and ideas.

In “Covering Islam,” Edward Said notes that media and the material they produce are “neither spontaneous nor completely ‘free’” (p. 48).  Pictures and ideas “do not merely spring from reality into our eyes and minds, truth is not directly available, we do not have unrestrained variety at our disposal” (p. 48). Said suggests that the mode of communication shapes the material it delivers. Television, radio and newspapers each have their own rules and conventions as well as their own corporate and political agendas. These media forms tend to deliver reductive and monochromatic pictures of reality, “promoting some images of reality rather than others” (p. 49).  Said might argue that technology changes the role and function of media based upon rules, conventions and practices of selection and interpretation specific to each technological medium. In relation to the role of technology in media and democracy, Said might argue that information and data, like media material and opinions, “do not occur naturally; they are made, as the result of human will, history, social circumstances, institutions, and the conventions of one’s profession” (p. 49). He might argue that we should not take objectivity and accuracy of information for granted, but instead look to the processes of selection and expression that factored into the production of that information. Facts “get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation” (p. 163). Interpretations in turn depend on historical context and on the original purpose of the interpretation. Said writes that all knowledge is interpretation. While technology provides data, Said argues that it is interest, whether personal, political or corporate, that drives interpretation and understanding of that information.

In “Media Control,” Noam Chomsky discusses how media and disinformation enter into a modern notion of democracy. In this notion of democracy, government must control means of information and bar people from managing their own affairs. In this context, public relations and mass media falsify history and distract the public from organization and dissidence. Chomsky writes that the United States pioneered the public relations industry “to control the public mind” (p. 22). Political decision-makers manufacture consent, manipulating consensus through the media, educational systems and popular culture. Although Chomsky does not focus specifically on the role of technology, he considers the dangers that technology made possible in mass media and propaganda tools. Chomsky might perceive today’s information revolution as an extension of propaganda efforts to distract and marginalize the public, doubting technology’s capacity to provide anything but elite-biased information.

In “Discovering the News,” Michael Schudson provides an examination of how changes in society effected changes in American journalism, and vice versa, from the early 19th century forward. Schudson argues that the expansion of an egalitarian market democracy shaped the “triumph of ‘news’ over the editorial and ‘facts’ over opinion” (p. 14). The “advance of a market economy, the ideal and institutions of political democracy, and the emergence of an urban habitat” (p. 75) contributed to a rise in support of science as a process of data collection and empirical inquiry of human society. While technological and transportation innovations enabled the mass production and distribution of newspapers, the penny press in turn contributed to and invested in technological advances. Schudson suggests that the “peculiar disposition of the penny press to seek timely news” (p. 35) drove its use of the telegraph. He suggests that technology does not make mass circulation newspapers necessary.  Technology may help explain the low cost and high circulation of the penny papers, but “it says nothing at all about their distinctive content” (p. 35). In relation to the main questions of this paper, Schudson might argue that technology does not change the role and function of the media as much as a changing role of media spurs and takes advantage of new technologies. Schudson does point to the role of television competition in prompting newspapers to invest more in investigative reporting. Schudson might agree with the idea of a technology-driven revolution in information and news. However, Schudson suggests that “the ‘exploded’ sense of news was more than a competitive strategy – television, too, responded to a changing culture which welcomed critical perspectives in journalism” (p. 183).

Schudson also provides evidence that war propaganda and public relations efforts convinced American newspapermen that “facts themselves are not to be trusted” (p. 142). Journalists turned to interpretive reporting in the 20th century. While fighting for objectivity, journalists accepted subjectivity as inevitable. Schudson points to several attacks against objectivity as an obtainable ideal. These include criticisms of bias in the format of news stories, political biases and news-gathering processes reinforcing of official viewpoints. Schudson emphasizes the social forms and processes that shape the news. I do not believe that Schudson would agree outright with the idea that technology is better at providing information than people are. He would perhaps insist on analyzing the biases within particular forms of technology and the social and cultural factors behind the emergence of new technologies.

In “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam analyzes the causes and consequences of declining social capital in late 20th century America. Proponents of social capital theory hold that social networks have value to the “productivity of individuals and groups” (p. 19). Putnam discusses the role of the Internet as a potential countertrend toward greater social connectedness. Putnam’s arguments suggest that he might agree with the idea that a technology-driven information and communication revolution is occurring in America. Putnam’s question would be whether or not that revolution will foster social capital and community in America. While information is important, it “needs a social context to be meaningful” (p. 172). Computer-mediated communication fosters transmission of information and collaboration between people. It appears “to complement, not replace, face-to-face communities” (p. 179). Related to our question of whether computers are better at providing information, or social connectedness, than people are, Putnam points out that computer-mediated communications may even be more egalitarian than real communities. The Internet may foster contact across physical factors such as race and gender. However, computer-mediated communication may also foster misrepresentation, homogeneity of virtual groups, noise instead of constructive deliberation, social inequality of access to cyberspace and “depersonalization” (p. 176).

Putnam suggests that electronic technologies allow Americans to consume individualized news and entertainment in private and alone. He might agree that technology has in several instances changed the role and function of media in American life. In relation to television, Putnam writes that “those who read the news are more engaged and knowledgeable about the world than those who only watch the news” (p. 218). Television watching for entertainment correlates with civic disengagement. It also fosters impotence. Putnam suspects that electronic media are the “ringleaders” (p. 246) of declining social capital in America. Putnam writes that social networks “serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information” (p. 289) and that the performance of democratic institutions “depends in measurable ways upon social capital.” (p. 349). Thus, the technological factors behind declining social capital discount the idea that technology is better at providing information than people are.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin stresses the importance of writing, self-expression and the cultivation of reason. Franklin used his own printing press and newspaper as a means of “communicating instruction,” (p. 75) educating his fellow men. Franklin certainly lived in a time when the printed word ruled the minds of men, although important technologies such as the printing press and electricity were integral components of Franklin’s career. Franklin considered mass publication and distribution of printed materials important means of preparing and moving public opinion. Franklin did not express concern over an “information revolution” driven by technology and numbers, although he did contribute significantly to the development of experimentation and technique in both the world of printing and the world of science. I believe Franklin would have stressed the importance of man’s literacy and attendance to matters of philosophy and reason in the context of media and democracy, over data and numbers. According to his autobiography, Franklin would seem to support the idea that technology supports a more expansive role and function of the media. Franklin had direct experience with innovations in printing technology that allowed more widespread and timely distribution of newspapers and pamphlets. Franklin took full advantage of the opportunities that faster printing and distribution of printed materials presented, using his newspaper and pamphlets to exert great political influence in his day.

In “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann writes that individuals see the world through their own self-interests. According to Lippmann, the “world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined” (p. 18). Lippmann also writes that democracy “in its original form never seriously faced the problem which arises because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside” (p. 19). He suggests that transportation, trade and communication technologies exert great influence over the circulation of ideas. Monopoly of means of communication and transportation create barriers upon the exchange of news and opinions. Coded messages and language itself impose limitations upon meaning. Because the unseen environment “is reported to us chiefly by words,” (p. 41) the transmission and coding of printed messages can distort the images we form of events beyond our direct experience. Words have different meanings for different people. Lippmann writes that, theoretically, “if each fact and each relation had a name that was unique, and if everyone had agreed on the names, it would be possible to communicate without misunderstanding” (p. 42). He continues, “[i]n the exact sciences there is an approach to this ideal, and that is part of the reason why of all forms of world-wide coöperation, scientific inquiry is most effective” (p. 42). It would seem that Lippmann might agree that data, technology and technical information are better at providing information than people are, in the context of media and democracy. For people, factors including censorship and privacy, physical and social barriers, poverty of language, distraction, emotional conflicts, fatigue and other human factors limit access to the outside environment.

Lippmann also suggests that even experts disagree on the same data, approaching the information with their own agendas. He describes the role of the observer as an active one. The observer “himself brings something to the scene which later he takes away from it, that oftener than not what he imagines to be the account of an event is really a transfiguration of it” (p. 54). The journalist suffers the same limitations, constructing his opinion “out of his own stereotypes, according to his own code, and by the urgency of his own interest” (p. 227). Lippmann suggests that the failures of democratic political structures and the nature of the press further compel men to act on prejudices, stereotypes and constructed images. Lippmann writes that the source of the problems of representative government and the press alike is “the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experiences and their prejudice, by inventing, creating, and organizing a machinery of knowledge” (p. 229-230). Lippmann might support the idea of an information revolution driven by technology and data. He suggests that through scientific method and detailed organization of facts by the “disinterested expert,” (p. 236) the “difficult environment can be made intelligible” (p. 236). Lippmann might appeal to scientific method and technology to change the role and function of the media from subjective opinion to objective analysis. Lippmann appeals to objective knowledge of the outside environment as a means of “overcoming the subjectivism of human opinion based on the limitation of individual experience” (p. 249).

In “Governing with the News,” Timothy Cook argues that “politics and policy have been and are today central shapers of news organizations, practices, formats, and content” (p. 17). Cook writes that newspapers harnessed new technologies “to churn out increasingly large numbers of issues” (p.33). However, Cook rejects traditional emphasis on technology and economics in the development of modern news media. He writes that “[n]ew technologies come into play amidst already established expectations of what was news; they do not create new forms from scratch” (p. 18). Cook argues instead that “political practices and governmental policies centrally shaped the development of the American news media” (p. 19). Government subsidies made many media communication technologies possible in the first place, including the telegraph and the Internet. According to his arguments, Cook might disagree that technology alone substantially changes the role and function of the media. Cook writes that “technology offers a range of possible uses, but it is initially understood in terms of previous forms of communication; its ultimate shape owes as much to politics and society as anything else” (p. 170).

However, Cook does point to an “explosion of communication networks, such as 500-channel television and the Internet,” (169) as a means of making American politics “less beholden to the current biases of the news media” (p. 169). Cooks seems to suggest that an information revolution driven by technology and numbers could “dilute the single-minded biases and power of the news, succeeded as it will be by a great variety of information” (p. 169). New communication technologies enable increased volume of information, speed of information and citizen control over information. However, Cook appears to have mixed feelings on the question of whether technology improves information in the context of media and democracy. Cook reflects warnings by others that new technologies may “fragment and undermine information, knowledge, and deliberation” (p. 171). Equally concerning is the unequal public access to new technology. Cook concludes that “technology cannot be counted on to single-handedly counteract the negative side of governing with the news” (p. 173).

In “The Image,” Daniel Boorstin describes how Americans “have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life” (p. 3). A world of pseudo-events including television shows, tourism and popularized art blurred the distinctions between time and space and between knowledge and ignorance in modern America. Boorstin would seem to agree with the idea that America is experiencing an information revolution, driven by image-producing technologies such as photography and television. The  rise of “round-the-clock media” (p. 14) and technologies for reproducing events and images in print, photo, audio and video media in the 19th century lead to increasingly vivid and synthetic representations of reality. Boorstin suggests that image-based technologies such as television pressured the media to make news as well as gather it. Technology ‘played a role’ in changing the role and function of the media.

Boorstin writes that the successful dealer in the graphic arts gives the public what it wants: the “fantastic, unreal image that we wish to believe of ourselves” (p. 180). Even the objective and analytic fields of science and technology progressed into “unintelligible frontiers,” (p. 54) leaving the lay public with only dramatic images of scientific mystery and discovery. Boorstin suggests that “[m]ultiplication of forms and improvements of technology inevitably make all experience a commodity” (p. 179). According to Boorstin, technological advances account for the flood of political pseudo-events in modern journalism. Based on his arguments, Boorstin would likely disagree that technology is better at providing information than people are. He emphasizes the fact that communication and image-based technologies lead to “the dissolution of forms and to the increasing secondhandness of our experience in twentieth-century America” (p. 133).

In “Land of Desire,” William Leach writes that a new aesthetic serving market business needs spread through 20th century America. Businesses coopted pictatorial advertising, show windows and other forms of eye-appeal to move goods from retailer to consumers. Technological advances in light and color production and photography helped retailers “awaken individual desire” (p. 113). Retailers coopted communication technologies including the telephone to revolutionize customer service. New manufacturing technologies and new energy sources led to mass production of consumer products, while communication and transportation technologies enabled the “rapid movement of goods and money” (p. 17). Like Boorstin, Leach might agree with the notion of an American information revolution, with an emphasis on the impact of image-producing technologies on the market place. Leach writes that the strategies of commercial aesthetic and visual enticement “have intensified through new media – above all, though television satellites, which can beam consumer desire into every hamlet and village around the world” (p. 384). According to Leach, technology did not change so much as intensify the role of media and advertising in creating desire in a culture of consumption. Merchandisers and businessmen came to view the pursuit of knowledge, data and facts as keys to success in consumer research in an American culture of desire.

The authors of “Four Theories of the Press” propose that the press “always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates” (p. 2). In answering the question of why the press is as it is, the authors give limited recognition to technological factors and to the “mechanical ingenuity and resources that can be put behind mass communication” (p. 1). The press reflects primarily the system of social control in which it operates. Thus, the authors might disagree that technology alone changes the role and function of the media. Instead, the owners and managers of the press use communication technologies to further the Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility or Soviet-Totalitarian goals of their press structures. For example, the Libertarian press maintains a different role and function than the Authoritarian press based on different assumptions about the nature of man and the nature of knowledge and truth. While pointing to the implications of new communication technologies for media operating in a democracy, the authors of “Four Theories of the Press” would perhaps not take a stance on the issue of whether technology is better at providing information than people are. Communication technologies instead have implications primarily for the structure of the press and the press’ ability manage or distribute information.

As the Commission on Freedom of the Press suggests in “A Free and Responsible Press”, the 20th century revolution in communication technology demands increased social responsibility of the press. The authors write, “[w]e are now in the midst of this technological revolution” (p. 31). To the point of whether technology changes the role and function of the press, the authors suggest that technology helped change the commercial structure, character and power of the press. New technological instruments “contributed to the growth of huge business corporations” (p. 30). The concentration of power within the press threatens press performance in a democracy. The Commission writes that new technology does not guarantee understanding. The Commission calls for “the full and responsible use of the new instruments of communication to get before the peoples of the world a true picture of one another and of what goes on among them” (p. 36).

In “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcolm discusses the impact of the writer-subject relationship on the content and nature of print narratives. Malcolm also mentions the subjectivity of material and evidence: “[it] is like looking for proof or disproof of the existence of God in a flower – it all depends on how you read the evidence” (p. 127). Based upon her suggestion that “material does not ‘speak for itself,’” (p. 127) Malcolm perhaps would not agree that technology is better at providing information than people are. Malcolm points to the moral dilemma of the writer-subject relationship, not technology, as a primary force in the character of modern journalism.

Thoughts?


One Response to “Nate Silver & Technology in Mass Communication”

  1. Bora Zivkovic Reply | Permalink

    Very, very interesting. How many of them, though from different eras, focusing on different things, converge on some of the same themes. And how pessimistic most of them seem to be.

    Of course, Neil Postman is a must - I have read probably ten of his books, and everyone should. Interesting how gloomy and pessimistic he is, yet his most well-known mentee from grad school is Jay Rosen, the ur-optimist of technological revolution in the media.

    If I had to do this assignment, I would have included a couple of science fiction writers - they have produced some of the most thoughtful analyses, depicting (i.e., turning into a picture) through storytelling, the societies in which technological changes follow the current trends into the future, following logical trajectories. I would not go for the usual ones, e.g., "Fahrehnheit 452" or "1984". I'd probably choose "The Space Merchants" by Pohl and Kornbluth (decades later, Pohl wrote a follow-up, also good, "The Merchants' War"), and Vernor Vinge's "Reinbows End" which I reviewed some years ago on my old blog, using the review to write some of my own musings on the topic.

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