A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said, she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility for informing the public. Seeking truth and reporting it is becoming less about finding consensus, which there is simply less of in the world, and more about publicly sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones. They can no longer fall back on “experts,” as if every professor or researcher is equally trustworthy.
A very provocative post by Clay Shirky hit Poynter a few days ago, and I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts about deeper meanings.
The quote above hits the refrain that Shirky and Jay Rosen have been singing in harmony for years now. The ears in traditional media who still view the digital sphere as another channel for the known, comfortable product find it so difficult to tune into this critical point that it sounds discordant to them. But what Shirky and Rosen are trying to point out is far deeper than learning the best search engine optimization tips for Web headlines or how to use multimedia to embellish the same inverted pyramid stories we’ve always written.
The idea that the new technologies beget new theories and new approaches shouldn’t be so shocking. The term ‘shovelware’ came out of the realization that we couldn’t just shovel print content onto the web, creating an electronic version of a print product. The web was a different animal. As video climbs in views and importance, have broadcasters paid attention to this?
But Shirky is delving into deeper and more thoughtful spaces, as he is known to do. What is factual remains factual, beyond how we perceive facts or how the powerful try to create ideology and label it as fact. It is not a fact that capitalism is a natural state no matter how many politicians will try to convince an audience of their version of truth, it is a fact that capitalism is a theory, model and framework… an abstract construction. Such remains true regardless of print, television, mobile or any other media platform where commentary, non fiction and news information exists for public consumption. Facts are not necessarily agreed upon by the powerful or the masses, they exist in reality contextually grounding the epistemological spheres of belief and knowledge. Whether one cares to accept it or believe differently, the earth does orbit the sun. No matter which candidate has what jobs plan and what economists might interpret in the condition, the income inequality of the United States is a fact. It exists regardless of recognition and acceptance by any one individual or any group.
As Shirky contemplates the post-fact world and the new paradigms presented as a result of the digital culture, he dips a toe into a very provocative place with this passage:
Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the right of reply rendered impractical or illegal or both. Expansion of public speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after considerable struggle, and of course any such victory pollutes the sense of what constitutes truth from the previous era, a story that runs from Martin Luther through Ida Tarbell to Mario Savio, the drag queens outside Stonewall, and Julian Assange.
What is being described here is a classic Marxist revolution. It isn’t one of materialism, but one of ideology. And the group being overthrown by the public (or proletariat) isn’t the government, but the 4th Estate.
Interestingly, the New York Times published a piece on the “Self-Destruction of the One Percent” just a few days before Shirky’s post appeared at Poynter. Put together, the two pieces add up to an image that isn’t very comfortable for people raised with western ideology during the cold war. Counter culture media and the Occupy movement brought the economic disparity in the United States out into the conversation in a way that probably hasn’t been seen since labor fought for rights in the early 20th-century, and certainly not in the decades following the seventies.
But the dot com bubble and the gold rushing into new economic frontiers opened by virtual economies and financial services where money appears out of thin air instead of converting natural resources into manufactured goods represent something new, even if we can see a Marxian model at work.
There is a digital one percent, the overnight billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg are the stories that the popular media have popularized. This is a new riff on an old ideology: a new American dream where anyone with the work ethic and ingenuity can elevate themselves out of their socio-economic class to become super wealthy and elite. It requires as Marx defined in his modes of production an access and knowledge of the means of production. The entrepreneurs of the digital frontier turn their ideas into pixels and their pixels into gold.
The established elite, the real one percent, are the ones who speculate on which new idea is going to strike it rich. Venture Capitalists gamble on the risk, investors put make the calculated risk to see which will pay off when the startups go public. When they go public, the aspirational investors, a group of middle class who buy small stakes in these companies, either benefit from their investment or have their investments disappear back into thin air. Money for nothing, and chicks for free.
Still, the dot com world is one of the only places left where social and economic mobility can still happen. Traditional actors, such as the news media industry, are the ones being upended by the experimental innovators who are revolutionizing how people act and interact with each other and the old business models have crumbled. The revolution happened.
And as Shirky shows, in the new post fact space, talk is cheap. It is so cheap that it is nearly impossible to make money off of content. Those who could afford the capital infrastructure to play in the mass media market in the past are seeing those investments depreciate in real value very quickly while new capital, cheap servers and bandwidth, take over.
Instead of capitalizing on content, the most powerful startups, such as facebook, are capitalizing on community, profiting from the act of sharing and communicating, not on selling the content of professional creators. It is the bourgeoisie — the traditional content creators in this mix — who have either the most to lose or the most to gain. Instead of aspiring to climb the ladder to become executives in a traditional media company, many are leaving to strike out on their own.
They’re joining the revolution, but will they emerge as the new elites or will online become a classless space where ideas themselves live and die in equality? Time will tell, but there can be no doubt to those that recognize it, the revolution has come and the post fact world is really a post revolutionary space. A new frontier of ideas where commerce of content will live in a totally different relationship than they have for the past four centuries.
Free speech has freed itself from the constraints of the powerful, elite class that controlled it behind a veil of service and nobility and truth while profiting from it. The facts are out there for those that can see and accept them. From the market valuations of companies like facebook, it remains to be seen if any company will ever again be able to capitalize on the ideas and content of others ever again.