We want to be freed of constraints, until our freedom from constraints reminds us of why we created the constraints in the first place.
Once upon a time — not so long ago, really — there was something called the mainstream media, and it employed lots of journalists and editors and fact-checkers to filter the news. We came to resent these “gatekeepers,” as we took to calling them, because they restricted what we read and saw. They were self-interested elites who, granted their hegemony through the accidents of markets, imposed their own values on the flow of information. They were anti-democratic. They turned us into a passive audience of media consumers.
And then the internet arrived, and the flood of information poured over the gates and swept away the gatekeepers. We celebrated our emancipation from filters, and we praised the democratization brought about by “new media.” The “people formerly known as the audience” had taken charge, proclaimed one herald of the new order, as he wagged his finger at the disempowered journalistic elites. “You were once (exclusively) the editors of the news, choosing what ran on the front page. Now we can edit the news, and our choices send items to our own front pages.”
“The means of media are now in the hands of the people,” declared another triumphalist:
So now anyone can control, create, market, distribute, find, and interact with anything they want. The barrier to entry to media is demolished. Media, always a one-way pipe, now becomes an open pool. . . . Whenever citizens can exercise control, they will. Today they are challenging and changing media — where bloggers now fact-check Dan Rather’s ass — but tomorrow they will challenge and change politics, government, marketing, and education as well. This isn’t just a media revolution, though that’s where we are seeing the impact first. This is a chain-reaction of revolutions. It has just begun.
And the pundits were right — the old media filters dissolved, and “we” took control — though the great disruption has not played out in quite the way they anticipated. The “open pool” of citizen-controlled media looks more and more like a cesspool, “our own front pages” are often filled with fake news, and the “chain-reaction of revolutions” has been guided in its chaotic course by ignorance, insults, and misinformation. Now, in a last turn of the wheel, we are demanding that the hackers who took down the old gatekeepers — the Facebooks, Googles, and Twitters of the world — become our new gatekeepers, even though it’s a role they abhor and are entirely unsuited to.
In place of the thoughtful if flawed judgments of human editors, we seem fated to have as our new filters the robotic routines of secret algorithms written by software programmers, supplemented by squads of contract reviewers following procedure manuals written by corporate lawyers along with more powerful tools for muting offensive speech and the voices of people we disagree with. Regress is more palatable when it goes by the name of progress.
One of the less remarked upon effects of our digital age is that it has provided us with an opportunity to relearn the humbling lessons of the past, to relive all the hopes, disappointments, and compromises of our forebears, albeit in a much speeded-up manner. History is a GIF loop.