TOC New Media in cat and mouse games Your Turn

August 2, 2011

An illusion is a lie which we live. It may be so because we have no other choice. It appears in hindsight no one could escape the pervasive surveillance to which Rupert Murdoch's empire subjected its British province.

According to Ravi Somaiya's report (*), the News of the World "championed the campaign of [a] grieving mother" while "details about her were among the papers held by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire", "convicted on hacking charges related to the paper five years ago". Looking for dirt even on your proclaimed favorites shows one has the dictator's secure touch on how to keep people in line.

But the most dangerous illusions are spun by charm, not harm. You must read Chris Nuttall's review of "Apple's new Lion operating system" (**). "Apple had convinced me that up was down and down was up". His irony may belie his words. Nevertheless he relates his encounter with the new scrolling convention as a religious experience, "almost a Zen-like moment of enlightenment".

More enlightening for us would have been for him to give us the straight facts behind Steve Jobs' playing with the mouse. A screen is but a magnifying glass through which to read a document, or less prosaically a window through which to see the world. The latter exceeding the former's boundaries, this intrinsic flaw knows only one remedy, moving one with respect to the other.

From a hands-on perspective, the result is the same whether you are told to move the glass down or the world up. From a historical perspective unfortunately, insisting it is "unnatural" to move down the glass erases four hundred years of hard-earned distinction between religion and science. For ultimately it matters to know whether the sun rotates around the earth or vice versa, whether one moves one's glass or the whole world.

Steve Jobs' magic is to instinctively feel people would rather move the world and to tell them what they want to hear. And if Chris Nuttall is no dupe, our children will outlive his scepticism and very soon popular truth will hold the whole world to be at our fingertips.

Should you, reader, worry about my sanity? The world out there is virtual. Can't we do with it what we please? Who cares? Barely anybody! Yet the issue will not go away. For, you see, like a good magician, Steve Jobs' illusion is there for a purpose. Make us forget about the glass.

Old Media, so dear to Rupert Murdoch, controlled the content. New Media controls the glass through which we are observed interacting with the world. The more we overlook our tethered devices, the more we believe we manipulate reality, the greater New Media's freedom to manipulate us.

No wonder Old and New Media fight about censorship. Clumsy clampdowns to control content make users aware of this glass we should not see.

Since its very beginning, Twitter has been used to defy the authorities. Michael Wines and Sharon LaFranière write "China's two major Twitter-like microblogs [...] have posted an astounding 26 million messages on [the Wenzhou high-speed train] tragedy, including some that have forced embarrassed officials to reverse themselves" (***).

Instead, the latter should follow Seattle's Police Department, which "started a 12-hour experiment of posting almost all its emergency calls on Twitter", as reported by Katharine Q. Seelye (****). With New Media, do not subtract, add data, truth pending.

Efforts by Chinese government "to rein in the Internet's influence" are mirrored in the West by those of "content holders, including Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, to control piracy". As Tim Bradshaw and Jane Croft tell us, they "won a case forcing BT, the UK's largest ISP, to block access to Newzbin" (*****). In the US, they have won the ISP's to their side while suing Google over YouTube.

New Media is quite the opposite. Far from cutting content, it strives to insert targeted advertising. To Rupert Murdoch's threatening style of surveillance, it substitutes ever so emollient pledges of privacy to hide the systematic spying which sustains its unstated business model.

New Media has a weak point though. As soon as we realize there is a glass, we find it physically in our hands. My self-interested message is that technology exists to enable us to turn physical possession into control (1). Breaking a master magician's spell is not easy though. At least knowing we play a cat and mouse game in which we are the mouse enables us to gaze through the glass at the cat. It comes in stripes of different colors.

Exploitation of our eprivacy is the first color. It comes in various degrees. While I oppose forced bundling, companies like Amazon and Facebook do provide us a service in exchange for our personal data, be it book recommendations or social sharing. Take IMS Health however. The US Supreme Court has recently sanctioned its right to collect and sell physicians' prescription data. So when physicians use "Epocrates [...] smartphone apps that lets them look up information on drug dosing, interactions and insurance covrage while seeing a patient", they should feel truly ripped off.

Why? Doesn't Duff Wilson tell us these apps are "free" (******). Not taken by Newspeak magic realism, he quickly adds "free comes with a price: doctors must wade through marketing messages". There is nothing wrong in principle for a service to be supported by advertising, even personally targeted, but in practice isn't it a bit much that physicians are in essence paying IMS Health, through Epocrates, for their own personal data?

Another color is intrusiveness, in other words the exploitation of our attention. Observe again the gradation. In Eprocrates, "marketing messages are difficult to ignore". Worse, this happens when the physician's time is at its most precious, i.e. "while seeing a patient". Similarly Tim Bradshaw details how Twitter tries to decide how intrusive to be as "[it adds] "promoted tweets" to users' main timelines" (*******). From advertisers' "timely tweets" to those who follow them to "promoted tweets from advertisers that users do not already follow", there is more than a nuance.

To appreciate the last color, recall our time is finite. Since content is infinite in comparison, no matter how fast we move our glass over the world, we only see a selection. The more New Media controls the glass, the more it behaves as Old Media by acting as a recommendation mechanism. And no matter how hard it denies it, scale burdens New Media's recommendations with a measure of social responsibility.

Social responsibility? Whether from a cat or a Lion, Old or New Media, in China or in the West, it is a cosmic illusion unless we create it ourselves.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Murdoch Tabloid May Have Hacked Phone of Woman Whose Cause It Championed, by Ravi Somaiya (New York Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (**) ........... A new world of computing, by Chris Nuttall (Financial Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (***) ......... In Baring Facts of Train Crash, Blogs Erode China Censorship, by Michael Wines and Sharon LaFranière (New York Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (****) ....... Twitter as Police Scanner Draws Feedback in Seattle, by Katharine Q. Seelye (New York Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (*****) ..... Film studios win landmark piracy case, by Tim Bradshaw and Jane Croft (Financial Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (******) ... Drug App Comes Free, Ads Included, by Duff Wilson (New York Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (*******) . Twitter risks backlash over tweets push, by Tim Bradshaw (Financial Times) - July 29, 2011
  • (1) for more details, see US Patents Number 6,092,197 and 7,945,954 and US Patent Application 2009/0076914.
August 2011
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