In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman anticipated the future of public discourse by contrasting the different worlds as predicted in two dystopian novels: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He wrote:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
As a journalist who believes in the power of informed societies, as a geek who considers technology should ultimately be a force for good, and as a citizen who cares about the future of liberal democracy, Postman’s words ring alarm bells. Some downplay the significance of his fears. Technology evolves, they say, and society adapts. I disagree. The world today faces an unprecedented threat from new methods of information consumption. Postman must not be ignored, lest we truly amuse ourselves into a premature grave. His diagnosis succinctly describes the state of information dissemination in the modern era.
Digital media has created a conundrum. On the one hand, information has become democratised. There is more information than ever before, and anyone with an Internet connection can reach out to people across continents and publish what the powerful want concealed. But on the other hand, thanks to information overload, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find authoritative information that one can trust. Delegitimising the media is now a part of the strategic toolkit of politicians, who then exploit the trust vacuum to give way to conspiracy theories, to appeal to our emotions and downplay facts — ultimately, to strengthen their power and further their propaganda.
In short, in the context of the information landscape, digital technology helps avoid an Orwellian future — notwithstanding the privacy issues arising out of tech surveillance — but furthers the vision of Huxley. Citizens in democracies would now prefer to consume information that supports their opinions, rather than adapt their opinions to real, if challenging, information. Instant gratification trivialises culture.
This is why I believe that any discussion on the future of news and journalism must take into consideration how information flows in the society, understand the process of how knowledge is distributed and spread. To be sure, this does not really fall into the realm of journalism, but that’s one aspect where technology meets journalism—and journalists should care abut it.
Three personal instances led me to think deeply about this area.
First, until the summer of 2015, my news consumption was restricted to digital platforms. And then, I went old-school: started reading news from a physical print newspaper. Gosh, I was taken by surprise. I got exposed to ideas and stories I had never come across as compared to the time when I exclusively relied on my social media feed for news. I knew that my Facebook feed was driven by algorithms, but I never consciously thought how instrumental it was in shaping my worldview as it programmatically curated my information diet. The advantages of moving from print to digital notwithstanding, we have lost something in the transition.
Second, in November 2016, the Indian government demonetised high-value currency notes. This was one policy decision which impacted the life of every Indian. In the following months, one could see, in conversations with friends and family, how easy it was to spread misinformation. While the US was concerned about the interference of bots and paid advertisements in swaying elections, India was witnessing the rise of a different beast, WhatsApp, which I explored in this story. After being exposed to this phenomenon, reporters further found the rising importance of “Whatsapp Messages” in formulating election-campaign narratives. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, was astute in his observation when he claimed that the next general election in 2019 would be fought on the mobile phone.
Third, as observers of Indian politics have noted, the political discourse in India is becoming increasingly polarised. Facts appear to disappear, being replaced with rabble-rousing television “debates” and quick-hot-takes on complicated issues. The public’s declining trust in the media has eroded its authority as a gatekeeper and authenticator of truth. As a result, the public often cannot agree on a common set of facts, much less have a meaningful debate about them. For one such issue, we built a myth-busting quiz to make readers think about their perceptions. This continues to be a big challenge that cannot be overcome by facts and data alone.
The Economist has aptly described the “post-truth” age in one of its lead editorials: “Post-truth politics is made possible by two threats to this public sphere: a loss of trust in institutions that support its infrastructure and deep changes in the way knowledge of the world reaches the public.”
It is clear that problem exists. But phrasing crisp problem statement(s) does not seem that easy. (I am not even talking about solutions right now.)
Earlier, I used to think about these issues from the lens of technology and journalism alone. Which is why I used to get lost. Because I realised that’s a flawed approach. The problem is as much about our politics as anything else.
What I mean is this: at the heart of all the current debates on the future of news and public discourse, lies a common central question—what is the definition and what are the duties of citizenship in the digital age?
Consider the following questions:
Is it our civic duty to read the news? Should citizens let their social media feeds be a front page to learn about the world? If no, what’s the alternative? If one can’t trust the media, is there any point following them? Are major newspapers reliable? Do they really put the interests of citizens at the center of their editorial efforts? Will citizens pay for news?
What does it mean to be an “engaged citizen”? What should news organisations do to foster that spirit? How do we create a common body of information so that citizens can function together as a community?
As news organisations fight with entertainment and tech platforms for readers’ attention, how can we stimulate consumption of news about government and public affairs? Should communication technologies be evaluated by their impact on people as citizens or as consumers?
Most importantly: with the power of digital media, how do we enable citizens to take action on issues that they care about? How do we empower citizens to hold their elected leaders to account?
I don’t have clear answers to these questions. But we can’t afford to ignore them in our discussions about the future of news and public discourse. Information matters because it helps citizens to think about the world and organise their lives and actions around it. And an informed citizenry is key for sustaining a liberal democracy.
We must not let truth be drowned in a sea of irrelevance, as Postman had warned. And if you believe, like I do, that truth is a means to change the world for the better, this is a great time to start thinking about these problems—and ultimately figuring out solutions.