Media and Technology (Reading 10)

The last fake news article I remember encountering on Facebook was, ironically, about Facebook itself. My mother actually posted it on my wall. It was a short article about the Facebook AI labs. Headlined with a picture of a tall white robot, the article reported on a failed language-generation experiment in their research lab. The picture, of course, had nothing to do with Facebook’s AI labs; I actually traced it to a tech booth hosted by TOSY, a Vietnamese robotic toy company. The article itself does not appear to make any false claims. It says that the Facebook AI research lab had to shut down their experiment when two bots starting developing their own idiosyncrasies of language generation, in a way “making their own language.” That is what happened, but coupled with the picture and the language that two AI’s were communicating in their own, invented form, the clear implication was that we had terminator bots secretly communicating. The researchers for Facebook, I have heard, were quite upset about this post, but somehow it stayed up on their own website.

This incident does reinforce that Mark Zuckerberg’s claim that Facebook is a technology company, and not a media company. No matter how their image might be distorted by the wild media conglomerate they created, they are making major advances in AI and other technologies. Still, as ambitious and innovative as their research might be, what purpose would it serve without consumption of media that channels so many advertising dollars towards them. As indifferent as they might to the content of the media, they would not create any technology without it. All this consumption and dissemination of media has become a bit like the material layer of production that underlies the superstructure of capitalist ideology. Supposedly not a matter of concern for the capitalist elites, but actually crucial for their way of existence.

In my last post I touched upon how the message cannot be extricated from its messenger. In other words, there is no pure content beneath its formal presentation. John Ashbery reaches a similar insight as he reflects upon the painting by Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, in a poem of the same title. The self is not experienced immanently but as mediated, filtered through shifting sets of phenomena and associations: “How many people came and stayed a certain time, / Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you / Like light behind windblown fog and sand, / Filtered and influenced by it, until no part Remains that is surely you.” Looking at a distorted self-portrait, he sees how the self, or any fact of experience, cannot be presented purely and completely but only partially through some kind of mediation. In Emily Dickinson’s terms, the truth is always “slant.” Facebook has not come to terms with the influence their algorithms exert on media and the perception of facts. In the Vox article, about how Mark Zuckerberg is in denial about how Facebook harms our politics, they cited a conference with him where he stated that it showed a lack of empathy to believe fake news stories would sway someone’s voting decision. In other words, even if they had been exposed to these sources, they should stay peripheral to someone’s true beliefs and major life decisions. Well I would argue against him, citing that poem by John Ashbery. The self is not experienced immanently as a Cartesian center against which you can check all this misinformation, but at a remove, mediated through different aspects of experience. I would say it is a limited empathy to believe everyone has some privileged position from which to comprehend the significance of these stories. As Obama said in a speech, it stirs up this cloud of confusion where we cannot see the ground below it.

The interview with the Denver Guardian founder, Coler, was perhaps the most fascinating and disturbing article on this reading list. I couldn’t believe how nonchalant he was, especially since he had realized early on that fake news was a problem and plannedĀ  to invade the echo chamber. Later on in his career, he is one of the major disseminators of fake news, raking in the cash, and also in complete denial over the effect that it has on the public. He reminded me of Kurtz from Conrad’s heart of darkness, someone intrigued by the more obscure and pernicious aspects of his daily life, ultimately drawn in to those darker realms to become integral to their process.