By Tom Lamia
In South Bristol, Maine, I keep up with events by watching television and reading. The New York Times online edition is a good source. It is adequate, but not fully satisfying. My God, do I miss reading the New York Times on paper.
Having news of world events available from trusted sources reporting in real-time makes even Maine a place comfortably habitable by former urbanites like me. This capability is an inarguable benefit; I concede that. Yet it has two drawbacks. The first is a modest one that can be dismissed as minor and peculiar to the individual—in this case, me. The second, and by far the more important, is an immediate threat to our democratic system.
As for the first: reading the online edition of the Times must be easier for many of you than for me. The text is limited to what can fit on the screen, the electronic image strains the eye, and many headlines must be scanned to select the few that might be read, among other inconveniences. The print edition is mobile, it can be taken anywhere in the house, the garage, or the lounge chair in the yard. There is no urgency to closely examining news, opinion, and the rest. All sections can be laid out together to compare each with the others.
The print edition is familiar and comfortable, but there is no home delivery in South Bristol, Maine. It’s sold in Damariscotta, ten miles up the road, but “today’s” edition is filled with day-old news. Trucking the paper up from Boston is an aging process. So, I read the Times online. What used to be a daily pleasure in the West Village is gone. It’s been three years and it still hurts.
The second drawback—the weightier one—is the threat to our democracy that comes with our current reliance on free market, unregulated electronic communications to fuel all that we do, much of what we think and, very likely, how we vote. Technology products and the marketing of them have reached the point where only a few companies exercise control over world populations. Market control (lack of competition) is part of this, but not the essential part. There are two other factors that seem more threatening: design features causing intentional addiction and a frightening lack of security in the Internet systems that broadcast them.
That the leading companies in this problem are American provides some comfort, but all business today is global, and no country or international authority has the power or inclination to regulate this industry for benevolent purposes. Authoritarian governments have a simple fix: block them. The United States will not do that.
In the early days of the Internet, when what has now been achieved was only a dream, the engineers and venture capitalists who saw its potential and made it happen were opposed to regulation in any form. They feared that their dreams would be strangled at birth. What do they think now? It may be too late for regulation. How could it be imposed? Or enforced? The horse may have left the barn.
The main threat is from the social platforms—Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the rest. The second level of manipulation is commercial. Amazon is the best example, but the infection of data manipulation is pervasive. All who can pay for your data know your capacity and inclinations as a consumer, and the data information is constantly being supplemented.
The abuse of your data for political purposes is no longer doubted. Hacking into systems is commonplace. False identities are used by a spectrum of bad actors to insinuate themselves into the unguarded worlds of those who seek goods and services. The data provides a profile of who you are at every level of your online activity. Using this capability to affect how you vote is already occurring. It would be naïve to think it will stop or that it will not gain in its effectiveness. The cost to control buying and voting choices is ridiculously cheap. No postage required. No mailing list needed. No need to gull a majority of voters, just a handful will do. The model is what Nigerian scammers have done successfully for 25 years. One fool is enough when the cost to find that fool is essentially zero.
If we all would read our local paper, on newsprint, the threat would lower. Fewer of us would be dependent on electronic information. More of us would appreciate the need to regain control of what is aimed at us, and by whom. As Abraham Lincoln purportedly said, “You cannot fool all the people all the time.” My hope is that a few—a responsible and powerful few—will see what is coming, and with our help will be able to do something about it.