The media has the power to confirm or refute social narratives, depending on how it frames a story.
This power is a major responsibility because people rely on the media to keep them informed — especially when the story in question is about something the audience has very little experience with or understanding of, write Glasgow University researchers Dr. Catherine Happer and Greg Philo.
When people are completely reliant on the media for information, or even for an informed perspective, they’re very susceptible to the very biases that color someone’s reporting.
This dynamic is perhaps clearest in tech reporting, especially when those stories are framed for general audiences. As a result, audiences often come away from tech coverage not any more knowledgeable about the tech in question, but with the biased perspective (e.g. technology as something suspicious, technology as something messianic) the reporters brought to the story.
The Media Love Stories About Technology Solving Problems
The press often has exclusive access or the first look at new technologies. This glimpse behind the curtain can create a sense of anticipation in people, and either stokes consumer appetites for products coming to market or engenders a vague sense of wonder just on the horizon.
That latter consequence is how tech-utopian ideas begin to flourish. Technological utopianism is a belief that technology will create a “perfect” society in the near future. In his book “Technology and the Human Condition,” Bernard Gendron, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, explains the four principles of modern technological utopians:
- The world is in the midst of a post-industrial technological revolution.
- Technological growth will be sustained.
- Technological growth will lead to the end of economic scarcity.
- The end of scarcity will lead to the elimination of all social evils.
Those who espouse some version of this belief are confident that technological innovation holds the solution to the world’s problems — unemployment, climate change, resource scarcity, hunger, disease, rudeness, social disorder, aggression, etc.
The justification for this belief, writes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, is that technology democratizes society and encourages the best aspects of human nature. In doing so, technology bridges gaps between people and allows them to communicate and collaborate. This inevitably leads to progress.
Those who believe this assert that progress, if left to develop on its own, will eventually lead to the creation of an ideal society.
Why This Techno-Utopian Perspective Is Problematic
When the media adopts this frame in its coverage of new technologies, it’s feeding a vision of a perfect world that simply isn’t manifesting.
People have “an unduly optimistic view of how much technological progress we’re going to have,” says Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias.
As Yglesias explains, people born toward the end of the 20th Century aren’t “riding the wave of a paradise of new technological achievements.” He notes that there have been “massive improvements in a very narrow range of telecommunications and electronics fields that have dramatically altered our ability to entertain ourselves during our free time but haven’t really dramatically altered living standards.”
Gendron wrote his book in 1977. Yglesias wrote those lines in 2011. And yet, the idea persists that big tech solutions to big human problems are on their way.
Canadian researcher Imre Szeman says, techno-utopianism is “a bizarre narrative” without any evidence to support its achieveability. “What it shows is the extent to which we place a lot of faith in narratives of progress and technology overcoming things, despite all evidence to the contrary.”
The Vicious Cycle of False Hope
It’s important to understand how tech stories get produced and consumed.
Let’s start with the production, or reporting, which can be rife with embellishments and misunderstandings. Zachary Lipton, an assistant professor at the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, spoke to The Guardian about this in 2018 for a piece on how the media covers artificial intelligence.
A major problem, Lipton argues, is reporters are either too strapped for time or simply fail to grasp what a technology can do. As a workaround, their reporting leans heavily on the press releases from the companies producing the tech. As a result, the story is biased heavily toward marketing hype.
Now, imagine that from the news consumer’s perspective. They’re accepting the projections, the hype and the pure hope attached to an emerging technology alongside more straightforward reporting. Then, when that technology fails to live up to that hype, people become disappointed and disillusioned.
The easiest remedy for that? More hope and more hype cycles. It’s like watching someone trying to gamble their way out of debt.
Tech’s Prevalence in Our Lives: The Bigger Picture
In 2018, the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center surveyed 1,150 tech experts on human well-being. A third of respondents to that survey, 32 percent, said they believed people’s well-being will be more harmed than helped by technology in the future.
“If the baseline for making a projection about the next today is the current level of benefit/harm of digital life, then I am willing to express a confident judgment that the next decade will bring a net harm to people’s well-being,” says one respondent, Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University.
“The massive and undeniable benefits of digital life – access to knowledge and culture – have been mostly realized. The harms have begun to come into view just over the past few years, and the trend line is moving consistently in a negative direction.”
Because there’s no way to definitively predict the path of technological innovation, it’s irresponsible of the media to give people hope for a future that may never manifest. Instead, all of us in the media must work to ensure we understand the technologies we write about.
Otherwise, we just become vectors of whatever doubts or hypes people before us have attached to a given technology.
- Why Tech Media Coverage Is Often Irresponsibly Utopian - March 24, 2020
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- Media in 2030: The 4 Content Trends That Will Shape Audience Engagement - February 11, 2020