Java and Disinformocracy

In his book The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold takes off his technologically rose-colored glasses long enough to start a discussion of "disinformocracy," the possible social-political dangers of new computer mediated communication technologies. Could they be used to subvert the democratic process, or at least to distort the more idealistic visions of "electronic democracy"?

This issue goes beyond much of our discussion of "quality" information as facts and accuracy, into social and economic issues of using the new technology, and questions about "technological elites" with access to more or better tools than "the rest of us." I'm writing this page in a week that has seen the idea of "programming the Internet" catch the imaginations of major companies, resulting in a flurry of early December deal-making around Sun and Netscape, including some "strange bedfellows" announcements with SGI, Macromedia, IBM and Microsoft.

Is the technology itself seducing "brand name" media companies (see our main quality discussion) to the point that they predominantly report an optimistic view of that technology? Or do the traditionally objective media find electronic publishing so threatening them to the point that they are overly critical, ready to leap on disinformational bandwagons like the "cyberporn" scare?

Rheingold concludes that the best defense against "disinformocracy" is for the public to educate itself and keep communicating:

Instead of falling under the spell of a sales pitch, or rejecting new technologies as instruments of illusion, we need to look closely at new technologies and ask how they can help build stronger, more humane communities--and ask how they might be obstacles to that goal.
Java and multimedia publishing, the latest revolutions in World Wide Web technology, are a case in point, especially with industry giants like Microsoft and IBM getting on the bandwagon.

I think of this as an issue of "hypermedia literacy" -- the ability of the audience to cope with any evolving persuasive rhetoric (advertising or political) that develops in the new media, when the audience hardly keeps up with the old.

(And I like the wordplay in "HYPErmedia literacy".... should I use the "dancing text" applet to make people get the point? Caps are unsubtle enough. Do these new media require some new form of subtlety? Or is a lack of subtlety what the post-television generation will need? Crash! Boom! Flash! This is a digression in the old hypertext format called parenthesis.)

Research issues and things to think about

-- Is there a different "quality" of information in nonlinear hypertext, with its structure based on association instead of linearity. As Vannevar Bush pointed out 50 years ago in As We May Think, association may be the way the mind works when being creative or retrieving memories -- but is a linear form better when making an argument or teaching? Do even this document's confetti-scattering of so many colored link-words distract from readability and linear argument? Is it just intellectual laziness, or a new way of offering thoughts, potential serendipity? Would you rather have a system that offered a map of the related chunks of information?

-- Are audiences prepared to judge the quality of information coming from multinational multimedia information moguls like Gates and Murdoch? Will they or politicians be able to use the Web and all the tricks of Java/Disney/Jobs to set a public agenda? What is the Javafied equivalent of a "Willie Horton" political ad?

-- Since Java unleashes the power of computers to do data-crunching and "interactive" simulations online, will we have competing applets presenting high-tech simulations showing how competing welfare reform or health care reform plans "really work"? Or battle plans for the next gulf war, beyond the government-provided films of way-cool high-tech weapons we saw the media rebroadcasting the last time?

-- With Java, the Web could provide the one-way "interactivity" of Nintendo games, leaving most of the key variables outside the control of the user. Does this technology give an audience just enough control to provide the illusion of "Truth"? ("Yup... this new Chevy is faster than a Ford.... I drove the simulation," "Newt is right, his simulation of the budget is better than Clinton's")

-- Can the truly interactive parts of the Internet provide enough discussion space to counteract lies and propaganda that have multimillion dollar production budgets? Does it all turn into entertainment and illusion? Is there room for issues and debate amidst all the fun and games?

I guess all we can do is hope stay tuned to a web near us...


Bob Stepno

This page is an afterthought/continuation to a class discussion of "quality of information" in Paul Jones' seminar on Internet Issues and Applications at the University of North Carolina, fall semester, 1995. I'd like to hear what you think of it. Write to me at bob@stepno.com
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