What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.
— Donald Trump
The quote above comes from a campaign moment in which the President-elect defended promulgating misinformation about terrorism during the election cycle. In defending another instance when he was caught sharing incorrect and racist information, Trump claimed there was no way to know from the “millions” of messages he sees which one is true.
He’s correct on that last point, at least.
We now live in what Clay Shirky has called the “age of abundance” — a time when information is so plentiful that the economics of scarcity have been overturned, the social narrative has been imperiled by rapidly shifting news feeds, and truth and fiction have in some cases become indistinguishable. We have news, information, and opinions pelting us like a steady rain. As David Smith described yesterday, we have misinformation competing effectively with actual facts and informed opinions — so much so that voices actively disrespecting and attacking expertise have gained hegemony among some major slices of the population. As Andrew Hoffman wrote recently:
Social media is perhaps one of the most disruptive forces in society today, and academia is not immune to its impact. Society now has instant access to more news, stories and information, including scientific information, from more sources and in more varied formats than ever before. . . . other interests are beating us to the punch, publishing their own reports, often with a political agenda, and using social media to have far more impact on public opinion. Add to this changing landscape a rise in pseudo-scientific journals and we must face the reality [of becoming] relegated further to the sidelines.
Social media-fueled political agendas have risen to the level of nation-state activities, with social media being appropriated as a tool in the propaganda dimension of the invisible cyberwar many nations are currently fighting. As the head of the NSA recently said about the US presidential election, social media was used as part of “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect” — namely, the election of Donald Trump. Seventeen US government agencies agree on the source of these efforts being Russia.
Information abundance, its enabling forces, and its effects have become so pernicious that the most powerful nation on Earth just elected a President whose views have largely been shaped by troll-infested news outlets, misinformation, dog-whistle (and plenty of human-audible) hatred, political influence from abroad, and outright lies. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, President-elect Trump admitted to not knowing much about the nationwide protests and marches sparked by his election. Clearly, his filter bubble was not allowing this information to find its way to him. He truly represents the modern media space.
Maybe this “abundance” thing isn’t working out as well as we’d hoped.
Years ago, abundance was viewed as something to cultivate and celebrate. In the late 1990s, we thought the Internet would provide us with only more good stuff — more articles, more news, more voices, more perspectives, more scientific reports. We took for granted the quality that coalesced under conditions of relative scarcity, and we thought it was scalable. The Internet would be the democratization of information, letting users take it back from the elites, giving the common person the same power as the media mogul.
Despite these hopes, we’ve instead seen the emergence of a new set of media moguls — Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others — who are barely accountable for the information they purvey and who are susceptible to promulgating misinformation, while being protected when doing so. (Thank you, DMCA Safe Harbor provisions.) Their behavior varies from the largely passive deployment of flawed algorithms that can’t distinguish truth from fiction, to actually allowing readers and users to be mislead by propagandists and demagogues.
At the societal level, abundance seems to be a root cause for a number of surprising problems — more fragmentation and polarization, fewer stable and trusted information landmarks, unreliable sources competing for attention, the decimation of professional and investigative journalism, the emergence of soft news and clickbait, chilling floods of backlash aimed at any perceived slight, lax editorial standards for a new breed of scholarly journals, predatory publishers hijacking articles and brands, commercial leakage for existing publishers as pirates and others use the infrastructure of abundance against them, and problems with reproducibility in published scientific studies.
One pernicious effect of so many web sites, cable channels, and news sources is that the abundance has grown far faster than media spending, which means that slightly more money is spread across many more outlets. In the face of expectations of free information, subscription revenues have fallen or vanished, leaving advertising dollars and other conflicted sources of funding (political groups, for instance) to shoulder the load.
The upshot of the incipient funding crisis is that each outlet has less or insufficient funding to do a really good job creating original content, whether that’s original or investigative journalism, thoughtful editorials and perspectives, or (for us) well-vetted scientific reports. Newsrooms have been gutted. As editors and reporters retire, they are often not replaced. Journals are facing similar stresses, seeking to cut costs, not corners — but that can only last so long. Already, some journals have been reduced to skeleton crews as finances force their hands. University presses are under incredible pressures in some cases because of funding difficulties.
In the face of abundance, we’ve come to accept less vetting of research by promulgating preprint servers, journals with reduced editorial footprints, and so forth. While the effects in our industry are less extreme, we are also being whipsawed by the forces of abundance.
For journalism, the problems are front and center every day. Consider how many times morning news teams read the newspaper from their desks rather than going to a paid television journalist who is breaking or covering an original story. The newspaper publisher doesn’t get paid for the distribution of information via television, meaning their funding is further imperiled because television just gave it away for them. John Oliver covered this brilliantly this summer:
Funding deficiencies lead to fewer reporters covering the state house, local issues, scientific findings, or the federal government. The Fourth Estate is a shadow of what it once was thanks to abundance. This was not what we thought would happen.
Scientific and scholarly journals are suffering from similar woes, with articles published without context or even relevance to any audience, more journals with a lack of editorial or review content, and a pace of publication that is simply impossible to sort through and consume thoughtfully. Not only is this a problem for working scientists and medical practitioners, it is creating a black eye for science in the public sphere, as our inability to drink from the firehose becomes more and more obvious with stories of retractions, conflicts of interest, fabricated studies, and conflicting scientific information. It leaves the credibility of science up for grabs, a new vulnerability that is being exploited. As Smith wrote yesterday, the entire concept of “an expert” has lost traction in the age when the barrier to appearing to be an expert via the media is so low.
Another sign of our compromised state is that the volume of information is celebrated instead of the quality, as illustrated by the release of PLOS’ corpus of articles for download:
— Dⓐniel Mietchen (@EvoMRI) November 13, 2016
When we celebrate how much disk space a journal consumes rather than its importance, relevance, or quality, we’ve slipped into a netherworld in which quantity is valued over quality. This is the strange world of abundance.
Another effect of the thin economics of abundance is the rapid updating and shifting of information, meaning that news stories, studies, and findings are treated superficially and headlines are rotated quickly, limiting their effect while feeding the click-monster. You wake up with news about an earthquake in Italy. Thirty minutes later, he said what?! Another hour, and there’s a shooting dominating the news feeds. Forty-five minutes pass, and the divorce of two famous people replaces it all. In the midst of this, you had to take a quiz to see which Hogwarts house you belong in, respond to a bothersome comment on Facebook, and check how many retweets you’ve had. When you turn on the television news, you mostly see angry people yelling at each other because now every opinion is falsely equivalent — James Lipton might give the collective noun as “an abundance of pundits.”
Within a single day, each of us is exposed to an incoherent litany of events, with no prioritization, narrative, or interpretation to give even a context of emphasis. Worse, because of the incessant voicing of opinions, there is no consensus. Jake Tapper can only do so much.
To deal with abundance, we created personalization, a technique applauded for increasing relevance and slowing the news flood to a drip. But with the kaleidoscope of news and research individualized, there is less of a shared social story to provide coherence about what is important or relevant. Worse, fabrications and lies redounding inside these individual echo chambers can become self-reinforcing, as algorithms continue to reward clicks, even if the information on the other side is false. Personalization’s problems are baked in — self-referential, vicious cycle information that creates barriers to serendipity and exposure to surprising ideas or shared experiences. Personalization’s premise isolates each of us — there is no single Facebook experience; rather, there are millions of disparate experiences, none observable.
As if this weren’t enough, abundance has fractured the concept of living in the same moment, as it’s not only fragmentation across too many options, but also across time.
To deal with abundance, we created the DVR, which means that even “live” sporting events can separate people, with fans urging other fans to keep the score of a game secret until the other person watches the recorded version. Instead of a conversation based on one person sharing irretrievable knowledge with another, we have people protecting their selfish experience, as they are now curating themselves for themselves. So, rather than one fan and another sharing the excitement of a shared moment, you have a uniting event becoming a dividing event. Similar things happen with binge-watched shows, with people warning “no spoilers” and so forth, again cutting off conversation for the sake of personal curatorial integrity. This is division through time-shifting. Social media has also adopted this, with feeds that re-sort and re-shuffle unpredictably to keep us guessing. The result is disordered and irretrievable information.
The abundance of devices and screens also means that people in the same room are often not experiencing the same information — whether it’s a family with each child on their own device and app, while Parent 1 is on Facebook, and Parent 2 is on Twitter, or a meeting where the speaker faces an audience with heads down in laptop screens and smartphones, there are few events people actually share these days. Shared experience cures fragmentation, and its absence is meaningful.
To deal with abundance, we’ve had to create additional infrastructure, none of which seems to be helping — from DOAJ to Beall’s list, nothing seems to be stemming the tide of predatory, exploitative journals, which now pollute Google Scholar and other discovery systems, creating false equivalency both accidentally (search) and purposefully (stolen articles, copycat journal titles, and fake editorial board affiliations).
To cater to the forces urging abundance, we had to lower the barriers to entry. As Angela Cochran wrote about earlier, these lower barriers to entry have led to a lack of trust in the scholarly ecosystem, affecting editors, researchers, and readers alike. With spam emails, stolen articles, fake editorial board involvement, and appropriated reputations, the new environment is alienating everyone from researchers to reviewers to editors.
We’ve also had to adopt a more vulnerable infrastructure that’s easy to exploit. From Russian hackers and astroturf campaigns influencing the US Presidential election to stolen credit card numbers and personal information, the safest password remains the one on the Post-it note under your mouse pad. Physical space and physical goods impose security that the infrastructure of the Internet cannot match. To achieve abundance, we’ve had to make ourselves, our political bodies, our financial institutions, and our children and loved ones susceptible to remote attacks by thieves we cannot trace.
In addition to these burdens around security, the shift from scarcity of information has placed the burden on individuals to manage their attention, and this is proving difficult and, as noted above, carries societal prices itself. As one cartoon recently noted, “I went on Facebook, and now I’m in an argument.” Inside our well-curated experiences, we are easily provoked, over-stimulated, and diverted. Part of effective curation and editing is to remove the extraneous and help the reader or user focus their mind on what’s important. Abundance leaves that task in the hands of amateurs who have no path to training and nobody telling them they’re doing it wrong. The only teacher becomes consequences, and we’re seeing ugly lessons emerging.
I’ve given a few talks recently to some thoughtful boards of directors and editors in scholarly and scientific publishing, and nobody seems to have any answers, while everyone sees these and other problems. Abundance seems to be a one-way change, with no going back. After all, to propose scarcity is to invite accusations of being reactionary or oblivious. But perhaps what’s needed isn’t information scarcity, but economic scarcity. This means to stop supporting sites that contribute to the maelstrom, while shifting to those that employ human editors with judgment and obvious accountability. It might even mean paying for information again. Perhaps paywalls make good neighbors in the information age, just as fences did on the open range. If investing in quality information is worthwhile, here are some ideas for how to show that you mean it:
- Pay for 2-3 additional subscriptions to quality publications right now (or donate to a quality news site)
- As publishers and editors, think harder about the governance role we have in controlling what gets published, and how important that remains
- Spend money on providing more contextual and interpretive materials in and around your content
- Cultivate reporters in your field, and bring quality journalism to your publications, ala Science, BMJ, and NEJM
- A unified effort along these lines might be required — reach out to friends in the industry to see if a “STEM ProPublica” is possible
- Create more watchdog functions in your editorial pages — readers love and respect these features, and we need more of them
- Start covering more economic, ethical, and social issues, because science can’t thrive if these factors are compromised
In its current, uncontrolled state, abundance appears to damage social cohesion and human success. It’s essential nature has delivered existential threats to liberal democracy. Perhaps Shirky himself summed this up best in 2010:
Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does. Society knows how to react to scarcity.
Who, exactly, is all this abundance intended to help if not our society?