Georges Dumézil in his 1929 book Flamen-Brahman proposed that Proto-Indo-European society was divided into three distinct social groups: The productive class, which practiced agriculture, pastoralism, and artisanship; the martial class, which waged war and defended the tribe; and the sovereign class, wielding authority both juridicial and spiritual, whose place it was to rule. As societies grew more complex and division of labor became more granular, further specializations came to be recognized, but they remained grounded in the original tripartite: worker, warrior, and priest.
The earliest incarnation of the priestly class made sense of the chaos of the natural world, locating agency in what appeared to be random processes. They performed rituals in an effort to beseech or control the spirits or gods that governed the land. They read the auspices by which the gods made their will known to mortals. They served as the memory of a people and enacted judgment against transgressors.
The priestly role is, in a word, systematization. Their chief purpose is to construct the reality in which their adherents live. They provide order and grounding, defining the base truths those of a society take axiomatically. It is on these axioms that all else is built.
It is customary to divide the history of communication into four periods: oral, manuscript, print, and electronic. Systems native to each period were in large part defined by the the means they provided to catalog and disseminate information. Writing enabled the development of institutions of knowledge unbound by the limits of memory and generational transmission, marking a shift from teaching and knowing to study and interpretation. Print allowed for texts to be distributed to the masses directly rather than dictated by an intermediary and enlisted their participation in the act of interpreting. The internet now is the means by which anyone may author and transmit their own texts unencumbered by previous physical constraints.
The Church in the manuscript era constructed a shared reality, a substratum of truth binding its members together and which they sought to recruit all peoples into, which we may call Christendom. The Reformation, waxing alongside print, irrevocably destroyed this framework; however, the Protestant faiths by nature could never provide the same unity of purpose. Instead, the writers who reformulated concepts such as rights and sovereignty such that they could stand alone, as axioms, laid the groundwork for the new reality to follow. In this way secularism, republicanism, and such can be seen neither as a salve for the century of bloodshed the Reformation inaugurated, nor as the culmination of the ideas Luther put forward. Rather, they formed a distinct set of beliefs competing for and eventually winning preeminence in lands Catholic and Protestant alike over a longer, multi-century period of religious war. This worldview likewise energizes its adherents to spread it across the globe, and it remains the most powerful and widespread meaning-making system to this day, commanding the mass of peoples that we may call the public.
With the Internet, we are in the early stages of its destruction. The passing of the rotary press to the television was in the direction of cohesion, toward a unitary Public. The trend for the past two and a half decades has been one of fragmentation, a diffusion of various publics. Just as the Church formed the basis of people’s understanding of themselves and the society they lived in in the era of the manuscript, and the press did the same in the era of print, a new mode is emerging shaped by present technology.
The major platforms at present incentivize the profusion of cloistered micro-communities, exchanging ideas among themselves and with their immediate neighbors that come to form their own realities inscrutable to outsiders. This is not a necessary consequence of the underlying technology, but rather the result of design decisions made by the programmers who author these systems. Discourse over how platforms “ought” to function tends to focus on a tension between the desire of tech companies to operate as simple businesses disinterested in higher questions against a perceived necessity for them to fill the role once occupied by the press as defenders of liberal democracy. This framing, however, misses the wealth of options available beyond letting events run their course or stemming the unwinding of the present order. A programmer class conscious of its potential to fill the now-vacant priestly role can leverage this position for arbitrary ends, design its systems to shape the reality of its choosing. Whether one finds this intriguing or frightening is a matter of taste.
Before there was writing, there was speech. Orality is best regarded as a technology in its own right, with its own techniques and affordances. In contrast to a common view of oral culture as necessarily egalitarian and collaborative, the priestly role, concerned with narration and preservation of societal memory, was a specialized one. The guru-shishya system of preserving the Vedas was the most highly developed form and serves as a testament to the possibility for thoroughness without relying on the written word. Students learned various recitations, or pathas, of the corpus–continuous, word-by-word, with or without euphonic combinations — and their consonance served as a built-in form of error-checking. Phonology was standardized as the Vedic pitch accent, sidestepping the problem many traditions have with linguistic drift. Putting the Vedas to paper was later done almost as an afterthought.
Most cultures were not nearly as thorough or organized, however, and over time many traditions drifted or diverged from their original forms. Especially in times of upheaval, there are no caches of texts to rediscover after the crisis abates. Tellers must simply make do with what they are given, and indeed the kernel of a shared tradition can often be found in wildly divergent bodies of knowledge from cultures cleaved from each other by distance, war, or time.
The advent of written language allowed oral cultures to be centralized and canonized, relieving the burdens and lossiness of memory. Traditions were made into texts, singular and authoritative. Externalizing memory to papyrus or parchment enormously expanded the scope of what could be retained. It also eliminated the necessity for exactitude and endless repetition when instructing students, allowing for a stronger focus on meaning and interpretation.
Socrates — today most often cited by whiggish types as evidence of eternal opposition to Progress — called writing “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” in a dialogue with Phaedrus, remarking that it enabled surface-level understandings and made up for deficiencies of recall. He goes on however to make a rather subtler point:
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.
Writing, he argues, cannot elaborate on its meaning any further than what is written, a quality unlike that of a speaker. But where Socrates sees this as an objective deficiency, it instead comes to serve as a defining characteristic of the written word. With no necessity for chain of transmission from author to student, independent interpretation and commentary become central to text. Where the priesthoods of orality focused on memory, the priesthoods of the manuscript monopolized meaning.
As the Vedic guru-shishya traditions exemplify a structure defined by orality, Catholic Christianity serves as one shaped by the manuscript. Catholicism had since its institutionalization with the conversion of Constantine, been intensely hierarchical and strictly focused on the precision of doctrine. Many of its major controversies centered on theological disagreements by the clergy on unsettled questions of interpretation. In contrast to explicitly outsider folk movements such as the earlier gnostics or later medieval heresies, those pushing positions later declared anathema under labels such as Arianism, Nestorianism, or Monophysitism were insiders made into outsiders by conciliar fiat. The Great Schism, despite originating as a political dispute, became a dogmatic one as the two churches diverged, with East moving toward an experiential focus with theoria and hesychasm, while West embraced pagan philosophy and the austere studiousness defined of an emerging scholasticism.
Catholicism, in other words, evolved into a system organized around command structure and authoritative interpretation of texts exclusively done by the priestly class. As dogma proceeded down the hierarchy and completely excluded the input of the laity, much of the role of the clergy was to dictate to congregants passages of text and their proper meanings. The primary duty of lay members in Catholicism was to receive, in faith, the sacraments. Their access to and understanding of scripture was mediated by the figure of the priest, who offered narration during Mass and guidance during Penance. Lay Bible-reading was not only unnecessary for salvation but actively discouraged all the way until Vatican II, and to this day the practice is comparatively rare next to the protestant traditions.
Being the educated class par excellence, the priesthood and the rulership were long intertwined. Pepin the Short, in concert with Pope Zachary, effectively created the papacy as a font of legitimacy to get around Frankish laws that barred the possibility of legally usurping the last Merovingian king. This role would take on great significance centuries later, as popes leveraged their customary powers of anointing and excommunication to exert political power. Sale of church offices was an important source of income for emperors and nobles alike, and the power of rulers to invest churchmen ensured their loyalty, enabling their utilization in civil service. The Concordat of Worms largely ended these practices and in turn spurred the creation of a separate secular bureaucracy to meet the needs of administration.
The great medieval universities likewise emerged from the church structure — by the hand of the same pope who spurred the conflicts over investiture, the inimitable Gregory VII, who in 1079 ordered cathedrals to establish schools. Within a century and a half, the universities were societies unto themselves, its students subject only to canon law, its professors permitted with one examination to teach at any institution in the system. Book production moved from the monasteries to the cathedral schools, systematized in a manner similar to practices such as interchangeable parts and the assembly line. Source copies were split into sections which were distributed to scribes, allowing many to work on copying the same text simultaneously. Tasks such as illustration and illumination were separated into later steps and in some cases even subcontracted to third parties. Column sizes were standardized and fonts simplified. The shift from parchment to paper in western Europe, and the subsequent spread of paper mills, greatly reduced the materials cost of a volume. Yet the work of transcribing remained arduous and time-consuming, making mass distribution of text both economically and practically infeasible until the invention of the printing press.
Luther wrote his famed theses in Latin, intended for an audience of church and university men, members of the priestly class to which he also belonged. In answering his critics, however, he wrote in the vernacular and arranged for his responses to be printed and disseminated as pamphlets. Earlier heresies were generally confined to a geographical region, spreading largely by word of mouth; Luther’s writings, however, soon became a publishing sensation across Europe. The papacy likely did not expect this attack on its dogma to be fundamentally different from any other, failing to appreciate the way in which the printing press changed the equation. As his writings spread and his name became known, independent publishers found they could reliably churn out copies of his works assured his byline was enough that they would sell. Luther’s detractors, however, lacked the same marketability and thus were often made to pay up front and certainly never reached anywhere near the circulation he had. The situation spiraled out of control as German princes took up the Lutheran faith as a way to undermine the authority of Charles V. Political instability delayed the assembly of what would be the Council of Trent until 1545, merely one year before the start of the Schmalkaldic War. Further complications saw it convene and adjourn multiple times under several popes, and by the time it ended attempts at conciliation and took a hard line against the Protestants, Calvinism had already spread through much of the south of France. By the end of the Thirty Years, the conflict would claim more lives than any event since the Black Death and completely transform the nature and rationale of power in western Europe.
The prestige and authority of the popes had declined precipitously since Unam Sanctam and Avignon, and in a sense the Reformation served to effect a change in perception of a thing that had already changed in fact. But by declaring null the role of the pope — rather than asserting the role’s validity but arguing for a different candidate, as had been done with dozens of antipopes prior — no justification on spiritual grounds could be made for any protestant authority on doctrine. Mere years after Luther pressed sola scriptura into the mainstream, he had to contend with figures who themselves “armed with scripture” pushed adult baptism, iconoclasm, and revolution against secular authority. This trend has only accelerated since, with the forming of unknown thousands of protestant denominations, as well as later descendants that many would consider to be of dubious Christianity. The ultimate conclusion of this unwinding of religious authority is modern, amorphous practices that can hardly be called anything definitively: Unitarian Universalism, nondenominationalism, secular Christianity, “spiritual but not religious.”
But the shattering of the ubiquitous acceptance of religion as the basis of truth does not imply that the niche would go unfilled. Enlightenment-era writers such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquiue were in effect attempting to derive notions of sovereignty, legitimacy, and law from first principles subsequent to the destruction of the basis on which they formerly rested. The merit of their ideas may be a matter of opinion, but in impressing them into the hearts of men, they were without a doubt wildly successful. Their writings undergirded a wave of republicanism that swept the globe, the dominant principle standing in opposition to the old order for roughly a century and a half, from the American Revolution to the end of World War I. Charles I, at his trial by the Rump Parliament in 1649, refused to enter a plea to the charge of high treason on the grounds that no court had jurisdiction over him, a monarch appointed to rule by God. Louis XVI likewise claimed he could not be tried when the National Convention sought his execution. The higher power he invoked was the prosecutorial immunity clause of the 1791 constitution.
Though it remained disorganized and scattered, the young press was crucial to the rapid transformation of public opinion that buoyed the American Revolution and those that would follow in its wake. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” is famed for its influence and circulation, but it was one pamphlet amidst a daily barrage by the papers that served every major city in the colonies. Printers would send copies of their papers to colleagues up and down the Atlantic at a matter of course, allowing the same stories to be reprinted throughout, not only enabling, but directly creating a feeling of shared political experience between people in far-flung locales. Much like with the Reformation, by the time the existing powers recognized the problem they had on their hands, the upstarts had already spread their messages far enough that containment was no longer possible, wide-scale suppression the only viable strategy. Benjamin Franklin understood perfectly the power the press, or those who controlled it, could wield, as he wrote to a friend in 1782:
The ancient Roman and Greek Orators could only speak to the Number of Citizens capable of being assembled within the Reach of their Voice: Their Writings had little Effect because the Bulk of the People could not read. Now by the Press we can speak to Nations; and good Books and well written Pamphlets have great and general Influence. The Facility with which the same Truths may be repeatedly enforc’d by placing them daily in different Lights, in Newspapers which are every where read, gives a great Chance of establishing them. And we now find that it is not only right to strike while the Iron is hot, but that it is very practicable to heat it by continual Striking.
It is really with the Industrial Revolution that the news media begins to cohere into an institution in its own right. Letterpress printing had remained much the same for the 400 years after Gutenberg’s inventions. The advent of steam power, however, enabled a rapid series of innovations that would fundamentally change the practice. Paper could now be milled from wood pulp rather than rags and the cost per sheet plummeted to insignificance. The rotary drum press, invented in the 1840s, enabled production rates inconceivable to those who had been working hand-driven screw or lever presses mere decades earlier.
The sudden ease with which printed works could be produced in bulk and the commensurate decline in their price meant literacy finally became widespread throughout all classes of society. However, like many artisan professions of the time, the mechanization of printing entailed enormously expensive machinery whose cost was justified only by economies of scale. Small print shops closed their doors, replaced by far fewer but much larger factory-style endeavors. Mirroring the trend toward horizontal and vertical integration of industries such as steelmaking, textiles, and banking seen throughout the 19th century, the news business as a whole expanded its operations while aggressively centralizing. Much like the pre-industrial workshop system for craft goods, publishers had long relied on outside actors to bring information to them, their role being to package it up and send it to market. But soon the production of information would move in-house.
Charles-Louis Havas in 1820s France built and operated an information network meant to gather news valuable to financial speculation, modeled after those of the Rothschilds and Fuggers, for his friend the banker Gabriel-Julien Ouvrard. When Ouvrard became embroiled in a corruption scandal that effectively ended his patronage of the project, Havas took his private service public. A one-time financial speculator himself, twice ruined by economic collapse, Havas saw the news market through a merchant’s eyes. For him, information was like any other commodity, a fungible thing whose inherent value meant little to the trader, who only sought to buy and sell it in the market at a profit. In 1832, he opened the Bureau de Traduction des Journaux Étrangers, gathering and translating foreign news into French so that it could be sold to domestic papers. Starting with the Correspondance Garnier the same year, Havas also began buying up domestic operations, enabling him to sell French news to foreign outlets. He consolidated his various operations into a single organization in 1835: Agence Havas, the first news agency in the world.
Havas was a genius at exploiting the potential of network effects; every deal and acquisition he made increased his leverage over the whole of the field. In a typical arrangement between the agency and a provincial outlet, Havas would guarantee a set number of lines of news per day in exchange for a subscription fee. But he also obligated them to send all their news of import upstream to him, setting his agency up as something akin to a clearing house, profiting by the movement of information between markets just as any merchant of old did with wares. His control proceeded so swiftly that a mere five years after the founding of Havas’s eponymous agency, Balzac — a fierce critic of the press in general, referring to it as the Fourth Estate — remarked, “The public can believe that there are many newspapers, but in the end there is only one: Mr. Havas.”
Bernhard Wolff and Paul Julius Reuter, two of Havas’s employees, went on, with his blessing, to found their own news agencies in Germany and Britain: Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau, and Reuters. Reuter in particular was keen to expand his organization’s power and prestige on the basis of the two principles that would define the news agency as a business: rapidity and reliability. He established his office in London near the site of the first telegraph connection with the continent while it was still under construction. In 1863 he built a private telegraph link to Crookhaven, a village on the southwestern tip of Ireland. His agents, bringing news from the Americas, would throw canisters overboard to be fished out of the ocean and their contents telegraphed to London, allowing news to be received and forwarded to customers before the ships could even dock. A relentless focus on speed meant that accuracy and depth suffered; rumor and innuendo spread quickly as competing services sought to be the first to press. Reuter, while obsessively chasing efficiency, also worked to build a reputation for himself and his agency as impartial and reliable. He mandated that all customers reprinting his dispatches listed him as the source, and his name soon became famous, a byword for trusted news. As Punch magazine quipped about Reuter, in 1869:
England believes his telegrams
Whether they please or fright her;
Other electric sparks are right,
But he is always right-er.
An attempt by Reuters to acquire Wolffs in the 1870s was thwarted when the latter sought and won patronage from Bismarck, arguing the national security implications of foreign ownership of Germany’s preeminent news agency. Havas, likewise, was quite profitable and effectively impossible to buy out, as it had long been a quasi-official organ of the French state. Given this situation, the three agencies entered into a compact, dividing the globe into spheres of influence between them and effectively cartelizing the entire international news business. As Havas did with localities, the cartel did with nations: a subscription fee granted a national news agency exclusive access within a country to a steady stream of cartel news, but also obligated it to serve the cartel with all news of its own. This arrangement defined the global flow of information for the next sixty years.
Objectivity, heralded in the 20th century as one of journalism’s foundational ideals, was for the news agencies simply a matter of business. Their goal was to gather information and sell it as widely as possible, to outlets of any stripe, and as such were well-served by simple reporting of facts rather than injection of interpretation or partisanship. But of course in any practical scenario “impartiality” is merely the pretense of such: the entwinement of the agencies with their host states and with the prevailing political order at large necessarily ensured their coverage of events would be biased in favor of the status quo. Large, centralized institutions are capable of exerting tremendous leverage, but at the same time their centralization exposes them to unilateral cooption, and even left alone their position inclines them to favor stability over dynamism. This “objectivity” they put forward served as the basis of the shared perspective engendered in the populace, built up through the power of the news agencies and those that followed in their methods, that would shape the mainstream discourse from the time of their founding to the popularization of the internet.
Journalism was considered a simple trade, passed from master to apprentice, through to the early 20th century. The project to transform it into a respected and credentialed profession, complete with ethics and ethos, owes more to no man than to Joseph Pulitzer, the founding vision behind the Columbia School of Journalism, the first institution of its kind. Pulitzer’s championing of such ideals served as a form of penance for what he called his “yellow sins.” He was for the better part of a decade the opposite number of William Randolph Hearst, peddling in sensationalism and falsity because the economics of the advertising market incentivized a disposable product that garnered as wide a circulation as could be achieved. Pulitzer published in 1904 his masterwork essay “Planning a School of Journalism.” Over forty pages long and largely discursive, Pulitzer poses question after question against his proposal, and answers each in turn in the sweeping style for which he had been famous. He takes the reader on a grand tour of the fields of law, history, economics, and literature, explaining the ways in which a journalist worthy of the name must be taught and made familiar with them and how they ought to inform the work they do. He finishes by arguing in defense of journalism not as the common craft it was in his time, nor the elite but banal profession he claims his critics believe he envisions, but a higher calling, a vital force of guidance necessary to secure the moral health of the body politic itself.
In all my planning the chief end I had in view was the welfare of the Republic. It will be the object of the college to make better journalists, who will make better newspapers, which will better serve the public. It will impart knowledge–not for its own sake, but to be used for the public service. It will try to develop character, but even that will be only a means to the one supreme end–the public good.
What will be the state of society and of politics in this Republic seventy years hence, when some of the children now in school will be still living? Shall we preserve the government of the Constitution, the equality of all citizens before the law and the purity of justice–or shall we have the government of either money or the mob?
The answers to these questions will depend largely upon the kind of instruction the people of that day draw from their newspapers–the text-books, the orators, the preachers of the masses.
Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.
The idea that the press had both the capability and the desire to control public thought and thereby determine the actions of the electorate acting in its voting capacity has carried currency long before Chomsky or Moldbug. Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, writing in aftermath of the remarkably effective propaganda campaign orchestrated by the Creel Committee, both took it as a fact that the press had developed and exercised such a power, and only differed in their assessment of it. Lippmann argued the role of the press was as an intermediary between the ruling class and the “bewildered herd” of the public, who lacked the intellectual capacity to understand policy. The political elite created policy, and the “specialized” or credentialed class existed to explain it to the masses in such a way as to ensure their cooperation, seeking not to enable them to make informed decisions, but to determine those decisions on their behalf. Dewey disputed none of this in his rebuttal, instead arguing for true democracy as the only human ideal, asserting the public was fully capable but distracted by technology and corrupted by the influence of the press and special interests. If the public were able to communicate among themselves unimpeded, he said, they might be freed from the shackles of top-down information distribution and able to participate fully and intelligently in the democratic process. As individuals engage healthily with their local community, the power of communication is all that is needed to inject them into a “Great Community” in which they can be active and intelligent participants. With the internet, that scenario has come to pass: the power of the pen has been taken from the priestly class and given to all. The result, however, is quite different from what Dewey foresaw.
The principal effect we are seeing now of the internet on the sharing of information and shaping of worldview is the destruction of consensus reality. Advances in technology through the age of print typically increased efficiency and decreased marginal costs by imposing massive fixed costs that could only be borne by institutional power. The internet and the desktop computer obviate the act of printing entirely, sending fixed costs through the floor and setting marginal costs to zero. Disseminating arbitrary text is now trivial for virtually anyone in the first world, and for nearly half of people on the planet. Entire industries are in a state of collapse over this, great institutions that formed around the tools of the industrial age now in the process of unwinding. But while anyone these days can be a publisher, a new set of institutions are on the rise: the technology companies that build the platforms that define how information may or may not flow.
Platform companies are most directly analogous to the news agencies of the 19th century. Both seem to form natural monopolies via the leverage of network effects, whereby each additional customer or user increases the value of the service in aggregate, making the most formidable barrier to new entrants building a network that passes the tipping point. Technological affordances make it much easier for smaller players to carve out their own niches, especially as users are likely to belong to several platforms with different uses, whereas there was no reason for a newspaper to need to look outside the cartel. However, the major platforms, attempting to build their networks as large as possible, must be all things to all people. Where the news agencies, and later television broadcast companies, sought to do this by homogenizing their content, platform companies have to compete for attention with the undulating mass of information available by other means. AOL attempted to curate a palatable ecosystem and lost out to the wild west of the web. The successful platforms now maintain their massive and varied userbases by catering to individual whims, customizing experiences to taste and allowing a much wider range of content than the news media ever did.
At the same time as the platforms consume the distribution channels of the news media and thus gain power over them, the existence of such platforms allows independent actors to sidestep the media entirely. The Awl published a strong article in 2015 on the symbiotic relationship between the media and their subjects and its unravelling as said subjects discover they no longer need the media. It argues that prior to the platforms, figures hoping for tailored coverage had to trade access to themselves to media outlets, which controlled captive audiences and facilitated communication to the public as an intermediary. Now, athletes and celebrities command immense followings of their own. They find it easier, safer, and more rewarding to speak to their fans directly, and they have much more leverage over the media when they do engage. And anything newsworthy they say on their personal feeds, the media will have to cover it anyway, a dynamic exemplified in the political sphere by Donald Trump. His prolific tweeting (missives covered as news in their own right) and videos of his incessant rallies (in which the press pit was often made a caged spectacle subject to mockery) served as his ground floor messaging to his base. His media coverage during the race was consistently negative, often vitriolic in a way that has not been seen in living memory, but it did little but confirm the belief widespread among his base that the media as an institution is partisan, corrupt, and dishonest. Previous candidates such as Dean and Obama made clever (relative to other politicians) use of technology to buoy traditional campaigning. Trump was the first to really exist on the net, to adhere to and exploit its norms rather than those of the previous era.
That the platforms work a certain way is not purely a passive result of what functions well given technical and market conditions. These systems are built by people, with their own culture and inclinations, and as such their worldviews and wills are embedded in the output of their labors. Two main currents define the platforms of the present: quantify anything that can be to enable its automation and externalize the rest, and platforms exist to be neutral carriers of information, serving the whims of the users rather than imposing on them. Both of these points emerge from myriad sources, from the “hacker philosophy” the field began with (now in the minority, but echoes are still felt), to business concerns, to legal structures, to media pushback. Journalists largely oppose both, again for a mix of philosophical and self-interested reasons, though it is clear most don’t understand the views they argue against and simply see them as wrong. For them, little of value is quantifiable, all issues must be subject to human judgment, and platforms exist to transmit a message, and those with pretensions of neutrality are shirking their duty. The media now is in a position akin to that of the papacy of Pius IX, eclipsed and in danger of being replaced wholesale by a new model, reacting against it by leveraging the believers they have left.
All technology functions as a lever, amplifying the work produced by the same input of labor. What makes the computer novel compared to industrial labor-saving devices is that the fixed cost generalizes across tasks. You don’t need a new machine to perform a new job, you only need skill and time. The economic implications of this are profound, but this is an enormous topic and will be the subject of a future article. The cultural impact, however, is once you experience the leverage afforded by general purpose computing, you want to apply the techniques anywhere you can. This tendency of programmers, which journalists often decry, is to reformulate all problems as programming problems. (Journalists, of course, have the opposite inclination, desiring to reformulate all problems as editorial problems.) If you can’t automate it, you use programming techniques to break it down into morsels that can be shunted onto the userbase or parcelled out to unskilled laborers, or you ignore it as best you can. Content moderation, for instance, is typically handled by platform companies by a mix of rudimentary feature-detection systems, user flagging of content, and subcontracted content reviewers paid as little as possible. Journalists often take offense to a content reviewing regime that lacks editorial, or judging, input, the most recent example being the mini-controversies over the Facebook review guidelines. Their bias is toward discernment, seeing the “proper” role of content reviewer as a credentialed/professional role with a high degree of freedom for individual judgment, seeing the problem of moderation as intractably immune to proceduralization. Platform companies, on the other hand, want to deskill the task as much as possible, laying out specific guidelines such as Facebook’s “protected class/unprotected subclass” system, both to create an air of neutrality and to keep costs down for the incredible volume that must be processed daily.
The tendency of platforms with regard to user content has been to start from a place of near-total permissiveness, then add restrictions as reactive measures in response to or to head off controversies. Facebook’s travails are quite varied and storied, though the discourse surrounding its role in the election is particularly interesting and worth looking at in some depth. From “fake news” to “dark ads,” much of the criticism is created and amplified by the media increasingly under threat from Facebook’s effective ownership of their distribution channels. Modern journalism has very well-developed social mechanisms for the kind of content filtering and viewpoint harmonization they decry Facebook for lacking, but aside from the fact that such processes are impossible to scale to the volume of content that passes through a platform, they don’t seem to understand why a company might legitimately desire not to impose such measures even if they were practical, because news outlets and platforms are in completely different businesses. For the journalist, the idea of curating a narrow spectrum of content is by this point second nature, a business concern that was rebranded as a bedrock ethical principle long enough ago that most in the field take it to be an eternal truth. The idea that Facebook doesn’t *care* what flows over its network is abhorrent to the journalist, though they vacillate wildly between attacking Facebook as a threat to their field which must be resisted, or the next step in the evolution of their field if only it would emulate their practices (and hire lots of them). This mindset of boundary enforcement is pervasive in the field, with the primary differentiating factor being where those boundaries ought to lie. Explicitly partisan actors quite naturally favor bounding content to within that which is acceptable to their ideology. The old “objectivity” hands, increasingly crowded out by their more fiery peers, prefer bounding by accepted truth and good taste: their ideology is the upholding of consensus reality.
Facebook’s public stance, repeated time and again, is that they are a tech company, not a news company. That is not to say they have not experimented with behaving like one, though this is all still in service to the business rather than any attempt to occupy the vacated niche of instrumental social authority. In 2014 they added a “trending” section clearly meant to emulate Twitter’s, a system meant to appear to organically surface popular stories on the platform. In truth, as it was revealed by Gizmodo in 2016, the trending section was human-curated and explicitly editorial. The manner in which it was run, and how its curators were treated, is rather telling. The trending team was made up of 20-somethings plucked from J-schools, hired as independent contractors, effectively barred from participation in being a “part” of Facebook in the same way as janitorial staff. They were instructed not to list themselves as Facebook employees on resumes, in part to conceal the human hands running the site feature. A dashboard would surface popular news items on the platform, and their role was to choose which stories to run and annotate them with one-line summaries. Facebook’s interest, beyond the draw of the feature for users, was largely to test the waters in curating media, in service to the business rather than any journalistic ideals. While some journalists hope for Facebook to take up their mantle and serve as a well-funded jobs program, the way in which it utilized its media people nicely illustrates the disdain for such types common among tech workers. The Gizmodo article is naturally breathless over such lack of regard shown for their noble profession by the industry presently supplanting them. In keeping with the spirit of this piece, I will decline to excerpt a word of it, but rather lift quotes from the ex-contractors directly:
“It was degrading as a human being. We weren’t treated as individuals. We were treated in this robot way.”
“We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”
“It’s an experiment. They are just running tests to see what would increase engagement. At the end of the day, engagement was the only thing they wanted.”
“They have it down to a science. We were truly slaves to the algorithm.”
The article states the ability to blacklist stories was never abused by curators, according to every curator interviewed. Three days later it came out that the team routinely suppressed conservative sources, according to the very few curators who happened to be conservative. This second story became quite the controversy among those affronted or affected by it, so Facebook summarily fired the entire trending team and began populating the feature algorithmically. Deathly allergic to the appearance of political bias or manipulation, the public relations fallout from this episode was likely a major reason Facebook postponed any attempt to handle the “fake news” issue until after the election was over. Had Clinton won, it is likely the last we would have heard on the topic. With no damage done, and no room for the opposition to declaim the fix was in, the issue would have been quietly swept under the rug, another specific exception to the default of permissiveness to add to the now rather long list. But of course it didn’t go that way, and the controversy this time has mushroomed into a media meltdown over the corrosive effects of the site on civil society concurrent with multiple congressional inquiries. There is much internal consternation — as its prestige employees are the software people, and most are of a liberal, progressive, or left-libertarian bent, tension results not from ideological disagreement so much as which of those two impulses to prioritize, the view of the platform as a neutral service simply driven by user engagement metrics, or a tool of social influence that ought to be harnessed to advance the Good Old Cause. Some quotes gathered in a Buzzfeed article from current and former Facebook engineers make a nice contrast with those from their dearly departed trending team a year prior:
“Before the election the digital community was complaining that Facebook was this monopolistic power that was overly censorious and buttoned-up. And now the same group is saying, ‘how’d you let Breitbart and fake news get out there?’ And they have a point–ultimately it’s because the election didn’t go the way they wanted. It’s worth pointing out that 12 months ago people said, ‘I hate Facebook because they don’t let all voices on the platform,’ and they’re upset and asking for Facebook to restrict what’s shown.”
“The view at Facebook is that ‘we show people what they want to see and we do that based on what they tell us they want to see, and we judge that with data like time on the platform, how they click on links, what they like.’ And they believe that to the extent that something flourishes or goes viral on Facebook–it’s not a reflection of the company’s role, but a reflection of what people want. And that deeply rational engineer’s view tends to absolve them of some of the responsibility, probably.”
“That Facebook played a significant part as perhaps the most important online venue in this election is not up for debate. But what we need to be debating is: What is Facebook’s role in controlling the outcomes of elections? I’m not sure anyone outside Facebook has a good proposal for that.”
“Everyone fears Facebook’s power, and as a result, they’re asking them to assume more power in form of human curation and editorial decision-making. I worry that two or three years from now we’re all going to deeply regret we asked for this.”
“I think there’s a real question if democracy can survive Facebook and all the other Facebook-like platforms. Before platforms like Facebook, the argument used to be that you had a right to your own opinion. Now, it’s more like the right to your own reality.”
Facebook as an entity, while beginning to implement more processes to sate their critics this time around, has differed little in its official response to the present situation. Zuckerberg called the suggestion that Facebook swung the election “crazy,” though was later pushed to apologize. Sandberg declared in a recent interview, “We hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters. No one is a journalist. We don’t cover the news.”
There is, of course, no reason why the major platforms must default to openness. As stated earlier, the tendency stems partly from idealistic sympathies (though generally superseded by business or public relations concerns), partly from the enormous overhead of aggressive moderation, and partly from fear that if they alienate enough users it may create space for a competitor to emerge and surpass the network threshold that would cause their platform to evaporate. But that isn’t necessarily what would happen. It is entirely plausible that the major platforms become anodyne and narrow, and develop a civic interest in curating a single, congruous view of reality for its userbase so as to serve as standard-bearers for some world-system that enough of society can agree upon. Liberal democracy is the order of the day, but who knows if its recent disfavor will reverse, or deepen. Certainly those in the media calling on platform companies to take up their mantle would blanch at the thought of them instead championing a consensus that serves *their* institutional interests. But it would hardly be the first time in history. Likely this happens after a period of crisis, a protracted chaos that instills in the populace a desire above all for stability and peace that only a shared worldview, solid and irrefutable, can bring.
On the other hand, it is quite true that priestly classes have rarely if ever held power in their own right. Contrary to popular imagination of the medieval period as dominated by Rome, the papacy was only truly independent and paramount for a few short centuries, emerging from German domination with Gregory VII in the 11th, and descending into French control after Boniface VIII in the early 14th. The crusades of Urban II and Innocent III were made possible by stirring the will of the faithful rather than any direct control over them, just as the oft-used excommunication of rulers was not true deposition but only the encouragement for others to try. In other words, they held auctoritas, not imperium, the power Mommsen called “more than advice and less than command, an advice which one may not safely ignore.” The press likewise in the height of its power could not truly enforce, only suggest and persuade. A strong priesthood defines the reality its adherents live in, but this can only go so far. All the legitimacy in the world pales in the face of force of arms.
Indeed, the most materially successful and secure in their position have been priesthoods that integrated themselves into, and in a sense became, the state, as in the case of the Chinese scholar-officialdom. Shades of this may also be seen in the American government apparatus. The most common bureaucracy creature is likely the amoral and myopic careerist, but certainly there are many, especially in State, who see themselves as piously working to make every human creature subject to liberal democracy. To most, the present condition of the United States is hardly something that can speak to the soul. But one need only read SIGINT Socrates to see the face of a true believer.
China again presents a remarkable example of a programmership captured by the state and model of how it may be done elsewhere. Old cyberpunk hands in the 90s believed the internet by its very nature imposed a state of openness and freedom that transcended culture and predicted that its introduction in China would be the beginning of the end of the one-party state. Clearly this has not come to pass. The Great Firewall has effectively created a separate, national internet, complete with its own set of platform companies beholden to the PRC. Monitoring is ubiquitous, with WeChat and Baidu enthusiastically cooperating in censorship and offering the government effectively total access to all content flowing through their services. The government itself announced several years ago it was building a “social credit” system, assigning each citizen a score based on their criminal record, online purchase history, social media posts, likely whatever metric they see value in. In the words of the officials touting its potential, it will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.” Despite the western sense of such systems as nightmarish and Orwellian, an affront to the very idea of civil society as embodied by the Public, they are generally well-accepted in China. A vast majority thinks it right and good that the state should control the internet, and the upcoming social credit system is seen by many as a potential solution for what has become one of the lowest-trust societies on the planet.
The western tech industry, though lacking in both political power and prestige compared to that of their priestly forebears, by contrast enjoys a great deal of independence from the state apparatus. They deal with host governments not as subjects, but as parties to negotiation, variously cajoling, capitulating, or defying as a situation calls for. Time will tell whether this is a sign of things to come, or a moment of laxity before control is reasserted. But with our entire world-system in a state of flux presently, even governments are scrambling to adapt, so predicting how it all turns out is futile. As long as platform companies continue to see themselves as simple profit-generating enterprises, the only economic situation that could spur them in supplanting the state is one in which they must take on its roles out of simple necessity, they’ll never do it just because — but that is a topic for another essay. On the cultural side, however, it is entirely plausible the class comes over time to create for itself a higher mission, to become more exclusive and thus accrue prestige and mystique, to conceive of itself as a guiding force and thus seek out avenues to power. Much has been written on the abyssal purposelessness of the modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. It is not inconceivable that the class best positioned to exert leverage over society in the coming decades decides to fashion something more for itself.
There is no reason it has to go any particular way; it is easy to envision any number of wildly different eventualities. Maybe the tech companies step in to fill the selfsame role of the press, serving as a bulwark for the liberal order and thus granting it a second wind. Perhaps states begin to consume the industry, deciding the potential of these technologies as instruments of social control outweighs the public backlash, which they may by doing so be in a position to snuff out. Political crisis or simple decay leads to de facto extraterritoriality for tech campuses, which graduates into true sovereignty. Surprise election result could lead to the transformation of the government along technocratic lines, obviating the need for further maneuvers to secure a place of power when an established one presents itself for the taking. Regulated out of existence, or deskilled to the point that good-enough workers become commonplace and thus fungible, and the industry ends up having no more social impact than any other particular manufacturing or business profession. Or maybe they never aspire to anything and just keep selling ads until the bottom falls out of the whole enterprise.
The primary responsibility of a priesthood is to create a shared reality for the flock. As the Church was to Christendom, and the press was to the public, programmers are now in a better position than any to construct the new reality that is to define the world after the present one, by now moribund, finally makes its exit.
Alice Maz is a programmer based in Austin, Texas.