Scholars, journalists, and technologists alike are prone to making bold predictions—both optimistic and pessimistic—about the ever-changing relationship between media, technology, and politics. Less frequently, however, do they look back on failed prognostications and draw lessons from them. For this conversation, the Social Science Research Council’s Media & Democracy program brought together three scholars to discuss futures past, and how to think about innovation in an era of seemingly constant change. David Karpf is an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, Sarah J. Jackson is an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, and Mike Miller is program officer for the Media & Democracy program.

Mike: I know that each of you have written about how the affordances of digital media have created new opportunities for collective action or for traditionally marginalized voices to carve out discursive spaces. Nevertheless, it feels like technology—and digital media in particular—have been getting a lot of bad press lately. I wonder if either of you can put this moment of anxiety (if it is that) in broader historical perspective. Are we in an unusually pessimistic mood about technology now or do I just follow a bunch of techno-pessimists on Twitter?

Dave: I think this is an especially pessimistic moment regarding digital technology, and that reflects the broader sociopolitical moment we’re in.

Sarah: I think we are in an unusually pessimistic mood right now because of the way technology was used to influence the 2016 election. It has become clear to even the most steadfast digital optimist that technology can be used to prey on the weak, to polarize and manipulate public discourse, to spread misinformation, etc.

Dave: Right, though I think we can parse that in two directions. The social discussion about technology is going to always reflect present politics. If/when we enter a more optimistic moment, we’ll see that optimism get channeled into our expectations of digital technology.

Sarah: Totally.

Dave: But also, there’s a learning process. I think, if the equivalent of the 2016 election hacking and propaganda had happened in the mid-1990s or mid-2000s, it would have been easier to treat it as a speedbump on the road to digital prosperity.

The internet used to mostly exist in the future, which meant optimists could imprint their expectations on the internet and hand-wave away any negative feedback loops. Now, the internet has a long enough history that we’re saying, “Huh. This is not what we thought would happen.”

Sarah: Definitely. I think part of why activists and other folks invested in social justice are feeling down is that they’ve been warning about the darker side of platforms for some time. Feminists, and especially women of color, online were writing about the intense trolling and fake accounts and attempts to derail organizing on Twitter, for example, at least 5 years ago. Folks are feeling frustrated they weren’t heard and now here we are.

Mike: So why were we so off base about the liberating effects of new media?1Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012More Info →Or were we?

Dave: I mean, we can call it at this point. We were.

Sarah: Oh I don’t think “we” ever agreed on “liberating effects.”

Dave: Agreed, though if we jump back 10 or 20 years ago, I think “we” broadly were. I’m thinking of IndyMedia and early Occupy, in particular.

Sarah: In my thinking, the digital optimists and digital pessimists both tend to be wrong—at least to some extent—about their predictions because they fail to account for the nuance of technological infrastructures, and, more importantly, variations in human behavior and motivation as well as the impact of systems like politics, economics, and culture on media/technology.

Mike: That’s a great point, Sarah. Maybe the way I’m framing the question obscures the variety of ways that Americans experience technological development.

Sarah: Sure. I’m also thinking of that infamous pessimistic Malcolm Gladwell piece from 2010. The pessimism was strong to some extent but it also was immediately undermined by the Arab Spring five months later.

Dave: Ugh. That piece.

Mike: Yeah. And I remember one of the prodemocracy organizers during Egypt’s uprising actually thanking Facebook when Mubarak fell.

Sarah: Exactly! Well here is the thing:

The pessimism then—the claim that the internet wasn’t really a tool that could enable significant social change—was wrong. But immediately after the Arab Spring, the Western digital optimists ran to claim that the rising tide in global revolutions and protest was caused by the internet, a claim which completely ignores the decades of on-the-ground organizing, activism, and sometimes deadly risk taking that was happening in the build up to these revolutions and long before most folks involved had access to Wi-Fi, for example.

Dave: Right, and that’s part of a pattern that we can also trace back to the 1990s.

One of the things that has fascinated me most in reading the early 1990s internet literature is how much the internet (as a globalized communication network) was shoehorned into the larger project of economic globalization.

Not by everyone, of course. But by the loud voices, the influential voices, the voices that received money and platforms to enact their vision and set the contours of the public imagination.

Sarah: Yes, absolutely. And this is one of the ongoing questions. Even in the early days of the internet many in the West and in economic and technology circles were ignoring the fact that there was an unequal flow of information—same as in the case of capital and profits—as a result of globalization.

Dave: I’d go so far as to say that ignoring it was part of the project in building the mythology of the early internet.

Sarah: Touché. Not to mention who was building the infrastructures and why.

Mike: So I wonder if, without abstracting “we” to the level of Americans, you would argue that there are particular cultural, political, or ideological biases adopted by elites (journalists, think tanks, academics) that lead us to think differently about technological innovation than other cultures (or polities).

In other words, do you have a sense that Americans (elites anyway) think differently about technological innovation than elites in other societies?

Sarah: I hesitate to speak broadly about how all Americans think—but certainly media elites, tech and innovation elites, business elites, etc., are often the ones who are shaping the narrative about what technology should mean to us and shaping the actual development of technology—it probably goes without saying that these folks have biases.

I think tech journalism also has biases. If we go back to the example of the Arab Spring, so many powerful Western journalism platforms suddenly reported that the internet was the reason people in the Arab world wanted democracy—there was something very self-congratulatory about the reporting that, like I mentioned, fell into a trope in social movement coverage that ignores people power and on-the-ground organizing.

Mike: I think that’s a great point and, as you’ve suggested, is something that we see a lot now in the pessimistic versions of technological determinism: there seems to be very little space for social context and human agency in these kinds of explanations. Maybe that is our predominant bias.

Dave: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t studied the discourse on technological innovation in comparative perspective. But I would say that there is a specific and influential/powerful genre of Silicon-Valley-tech-imagineering, and it has some unique traits.

Mike: How would you describe them?

Dave: Well, it has changed over the decades. In a positive way, in fact. But I think the central dynamic is that (1) it produces stories about the future and those who are inventing it; (2) it thus tends to glorify the inventors, imbuing them with heroic attributes and adopting their perspective on the world (because, from this angle, they know something or see something that the rest of us don’t); and (3) since there’s a ton of money involved, it tends to be very vulnerable to buying into flimsy sales pitches.

Something important changed back in 1995 with the Netscape IPO, I think. That was, as far as I can tell, the moment when Silicon Valley became the center of the financial universe. That leads to a stampede, resulting in the original dotcom bubble. And after the bubble burst, the infrastructure that had been built around promoting the digital future got back to promoting technologists as the heroes of every story.

And, connecting this to Sarah’s point, when (overwhelmingly white/rich/male) technologists are the heroes, then that inevitably means on-the-ground activists and a range of other social perspectives are decentered and/or erased.

Sarah: I also can’t help but note how the digital pessimism and optimism aligns with other moments of technological innovation. Certainly, much has been written and studied about the supposedly good and bad effects of television on society,2Impact of Media Use on Children and Youth,” Pediatrics & Child Health 8, no. 5 (2003): 301–306. for example, and yet we have enough distance from that one to largely understand that there are a whole lot of other factors and contexts that matter to measuring something like that.

Mike: I was just going to ask about the political implications of narrow or one-size-fits-all perspectives! But maybe one of you can elaborate on this. In particular, to what extent do elite projections about technological development tend ignore issues of power, race, gender, and class?

Sarah: I tell my students to work toward “digital realism.” Technology can and does change our habits and how we create change (or reinforce the status quo) but, maybe more importantly, society builds, applies, and reacts to technology and those factors are much harder to predict and are fundamentally tied to questions like those you are asking, Mike.

Dave: I think it’s useful to treat these elite projections as a genre.

Mike: Are there other genres you would place alongside them for comparison?

Dave: The genre of imagining how technology is about to change society (for good or for ill) doesn’t have much room for thinking about the complexities of present day society.

I think we need to consider it as part of futurism. Futurism, at least in most cases, is a project that ignores current power structures and inequalities, assuming that they’ll somehow be sorted out by the inevitable march of time and progress.

Sarah: Good point, Dave.

The early crowing about the democratizing potential of the internet, for example, was swiftly rebutted by digital divide scholarship. But decades on we understand that some of how we understood the digital divide was wrong too—still based in elite standpoints that failed to ask, for example, people going about their everyday lives in poverty or in developing nations the hows, whys, and whats of their needs around technology.

Dave: Right, and the response to the digital divide by techno-futurists was basically “yeah, yeah, but that’ll get ironed out over time. That’s a today-problem, we don’t have to address it.”

This is, I think, the biggest reason why we always get the future wrong. We don’t think about how the current power structure will respond. And we don’t think about how, in the short-term, financial imperatives will warp how technological innovations are developed.

We don’t think about those because the genre of mass-audience technological prediction creates no room for thinking about it. (And we also don’t think about it because it’s a huge bummer.)

Sarah: To that point, again, I think there have been groups of people since early on in these conversations, trying to raise the flags to say, “Hey, wait a minute, is this actually working for all people the way you say it is? What about race/gender/class/disability/access/etc.?” And those people were treated like spoilsports.

Dave: Right. They’re either ignored or actively ridiculed, depending on how seriously they are taken.

Sarah: And the people asking those questions aren’t against innovation or technology—they are arguably more for it because they are asking questions about how to develop it and respond to it in ways that serve more people and not just the economic interests Dave outlined.

There is a great example from Dave’s Wired piece about Uber and Airbnb.

Dave: Right, and/but that runs counter to the genre, because so much of the genre is really about promoting the next IPO.

Mike: I’m going to end with this. At the SSRC, we often talk about facilitating more anticipatory social research—scholarship that gets ahead of demographic shifts or that attempts to predict future problems, rather than reacting to problems after they have emerged. I think you’ve both answered this question in different ways, but to put a pin on it: What are some constructive frameworks either for anticipatory analysis or, more broadly, for thinking about media/technological innovation?

I’ve noted Sarah’s “digital realism” and needs-driven development frames. Are there others?

Sarah: If we assume technology can’t create change, we don’t treat it with enough seriousness and we miss opportunities to both regulate its possible negative impacts and harness it for change. If we think technology is inherently bad for society, we ask the wrong social, political, and regulatory questions about it and risk over-regulating and under-using it. If we naively assume that technology is a cure-all for social problems without having a systems analysis of those problems and the way they will be embedded into the very creation and maintenance of technological structures, we are likely to build technologies that in fact reinforce those systems. So as I see it, this is very much about asking the right questions before and as technology is developed.

Dave: I think we have to think in terms of political economy.

Sarah: Yes, agreed. And more concise!

Dave: 😊

Mike: Sarah and Dave, as always, it has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me!


Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012More Info →
Impact of Media Use on Children and Youth,” Pediatrics & Child Health 8, no. 5 (2003): 301–306.