Rebuilding our public sphere was always going to be hard

And not just because the companies we rely on are corporate giants that don't want to change.

When we imagine redesigning modern media and reclaiming civic life, we often think in idealistic moral terms about a public sphere optimized for public good supported by the technologies and innovations we’ve come to love but that currently exploit us and undermined healthy discourse. And that reality is exactly what we should aim for — especially in light of the events of January 6th. Our democracy will not survive parallel discourse indefinitely, and while not 100% of the solution to our mean, small politics, modernizing and reforming or media systems has to be a foundation to rebuilding a productive discourse. When we think about the barriers to that future, we usually think about the usual political hurdles to reform like the corporate capture of Washington, armies of lobbyists, and elected officials who either do not understand the landscape or are not willing to prioritize media as the fundamental infrastructure of democracy that it is. In the case of media and technology reform and transformation, what we forget is the economic and national security implications of shifting the balance of power of data and information globally. Looking beyond American shores reveals just how complicated these reform will be.

In their Top Risks for 2021, Eurasia Group sees three of the top five related to technology and the ongoing technology cold war with China. Ian Bremmer, founder and president at Eurasia Group, identifies the US-China conflict as an cold war for strategic and economic dominance being shaped by what he refers to as a Global Data Reckoning at #5 on their list:

The global data reckoning starts with strategic competition between the US and China but doesn’t end there. Just as the data-driven 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) revolutions are gaining steam, other governments concerned about who is accessing their citizens’ data — and how — are disrupting the foundations of an open global internet. … Authorities around the world have become increasingly preoccupied that their citizens’ personal data could fall into the hands of adversaries who could use it to improve their AI algorithms, influence public opinion, or commit blackmail. When the world’s biggest economy and its most populous democracy try to ban apps over these concerns, it encourages other countries to do the same. … Growing data protectionism and sovereignty will spill over into fintech and digital currencies this year as well. This, too, will challenge the US government’s financial data control, creating pushback. … To those who say that data is the new oil: Here comes the new Great Game.

American companies represent as much of the frontlines of the conflict as any government institution even as cyberconflicts and cybersecurity remain dominated by state-based actors. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google make up a disproportionate percentage of the growth and holdings of the U.S. stock market — a narrower concentration of value than at any time in our economic history. Despite the reality of surveillance capitalism and the incredible domestic economic dominance of these Silicon Valley giants, the ongoing balance of technology power with China is tilted badly against the United States as their centralized party power and autocratic central planning give them massive advantages in the progression of data and artificial intelligence tools. China’s decades long corporate cyber espionage and IP theft of American innovation has also provided a significant advantage that we have never been willing to properly check. Combining their role in the US’s ability to control it’s own data future with their centrality to an American economy still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic makes reforms that challenge this dominance more complex. Meanwhile, three major Chinese telecom companies (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom) were kicked off Wall Street in the last weeks of the Trump Administration’s order banning Americans for investing in firms suspected of being owned or controlled by the Chinese military revealing the ongoing collision between strategic and economic conflict. Major media reform that flies in the face (legitimately or not) of national security or global competitiveness priorities faces greater friction than the purely domestic political winds that we might expect.

Reforming and transforming our media systems moving from hard to complicated is no reason not to envision a future where these systems serve us as individuals and us as a democracy more effectively. We need to make the case that basic steps - like requiring media systems to make algorithms transparent and optional for users, better distinguishability of type and intent of content, better systems for trust and credibility - will not hinder our competitiveness or jeopardize our national security. Nor will encouraging more competition by enforcing existing antitrust law. More competition would increase – not decrease – our global competitiveness by encouraging creativity and innovation that we desperately need.

There is a painful irony here: the media systems that exploit our citizens for their attention and data are seen by many as more strategically valuable to our national security and global competitiveness than a more vibrant, more effective civic discourse in America. 

Media systems aren’t the only forces sorting Americans — globalization’s winners and losers and urban rural divides are also creating intense social pressure toward hyperpolarization. The key here is that like bad fiscal policy the media systems we rely on exacerbate all of the worst momentum in modern culture. We are a runaway train — anything not done to actively shift course creates more momentum toward catastrophe.

These parallel reckonings — about data, media, and what it means to be strategic — should force us to question the underlying nature of how our social contract and our economy are structured and who they serve. We can not allow a complex global balance (and imbalance) to prevent us from modernizing and reforming our media systems or our discourse will not enable us to confront the broader challenges America and humanity face.

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