Google and Facebook have conveyed nearly all of us to this page, and just about every other idea or expression we’ll encounter today. Yet we don’t know how to talk about these companies, nor digest their sheer power.
We call them platforms, networks or gatekeepers. But these labels hardly fit. The appropriate metaphor eludes us; even if we describe them as vast empires, they are unlike any we’ve ever known. Far from being discrete points of departure, merely supporting the action or minding the gates, they have become something much more significant. They have become the medium through which we experience and understand the world.
As their users, we are like the blinkered young fish in the parable memorably retold by David Foster Wallace. When asked “How’s the water?” we swipe blank: “What the hell is water?”
We pay attention, sometimes, to racism, death threats, outrage. Other than that, we have barely started feeling their algorithmic undertow. We have trouble grasping the scope of it: the vast server farms, the job cuts, the barriers to entry, the public-private partnerships, the manufacturing of data, the knowing cities, the branded self, the slavish service to their metrics, the monoculture.
Google is not an “engine” that simply drives us to an objectively correct destination and then sits inert, like one of the cars that it seeks to replace with its new ride-sharing service.
Facebook is not merely a “network” for connection, like the old phone network or electrical grid, as if it had no agency, and did not take a piece of every last interaction (or false start) between friends. When and how much we interact, we rely on Facebook to say. These are not mere “edge providers”, peripheral to infrastructure, or mere “applications” that we can select or refuse.
Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, offered up a more active image: “Facebook is eating the world”. She was concerned with the silos of power controlling how news is published and distributed. But the image she conjured of a ravenous engine of consumption suggested something more than mere media concentration.
Characterizing Facebook or Google as powerful media organs – even the most powerful – actually understates their power. Marshall McLuhan, 60 years ago, gave us another, fuller understanding of media. Electric light is a medium “totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized” that appears to us as media only when constituted into video content. Electrical current itself completely changes our relationship to the world and, in the process, reconstitutes us. A medium is not merely something that feeds us content. It is a condition like air or water, through which we move without noticing.
The analogy captures part of what is happening, but goes even further. Facebook and Google are not only carrying us, but constituting us. We are, in fact, their media. Geared as they are to sharing, clicking and eyeballs, these media do not measure and do not value solitary contemplation, reflection and disconnection. They thrive and pulse on popularity, not veracity. They feed on extremes, not common causes.
The echo chamber of social media magnified the appeal of Trump and Brexit to the casualties of globalization and free trade. What remained of the traditional media lacked the interest – because truth-telling is expensive and boring – or wherewithal – because they have no money, and fading influence – to effectively call out the lies spreading like algae over the warming western world. Sometimes the old papers came through with quality reporting, but mere facts are rarely sufficient to survive the torrent of the digital slipstream.
There is the ongoing conflict over these companies’ self-identification as mere “technology” businesses, and the media critics’ charge that they are “media companies”. The issue being debated is usually whether Facebook or Google produce content or make editorial decisions, and in that sense constitute media. It’s hardly worth debating: of course they produce content, if only by algorithmically selecting, prioritizing and presenting.