Dear Apple, Save Us from Fake News
Since the election of Donald Trump, a common thread through the liberal/tech commentariat has been the woeful inadequacy of news aggregation services—Facebook in particular, but Google as well—to appropriately flag maliciously fabricated, misleading, or unsourced news articles. Although perfect objectivity is impossible to define, never mind achieve, the past campaign makes any complaint of the excellent facsimile of that objectivity provided by the New York Times, to name merely the foremost newspaper of record, ring chillingly hollow.
Facebook and Google have both readily aided and abetted Chinese censorship in the hope of gaining access to that lucrative market. Despite this, they are dragging their feet to stem the tide of fake news. This is regrettable but not surprising, because there is no financial incentive to produce factual (rather than popular) content, and users have made no credible threat to abandon their platforms. We should not hold our breath for their eventual half measures, if indeed they ever materialize.
Especially insulting is that newspapers were destroyed largely by Facebook’s emergence as the de-facto media company of everyone with an internet connection. Steve Jobs, in one of his finer pronouncements, declared his fear of descending into a “nation of bloggers,” in which a robust and impartial press ceased to exist. Apple, his gift to the world, has a politely-received News App, which aggregates articles and puts them into a very pretty interface. I have enjoyed it, but found that often, it gives me a paragraph or two and then forces me to jump into a makeshift browser in which all the typography is ruined and ugly ads brought back. It seems as though this app could use, so to speak, its own “killer app.”
Apple has ties both to the publishing industry, through iBooks, and to the subscription model, in Apple Music. Apple needs a differentiating feature for its News App. The traditional newspaper industry needs a sugar daddy. Apple has $231.5 billion in cash on hand. If Apple forged a relationship with the New York Times and other unimpeachably reputable publications, offering them a fixed monthly price to use their content in their news service—however many billion dollars per year—Apple would be able to (1) support Real News, (2) differentiate their platform, and (3) soak up oodles of free media celebrating their “brave” decision to support content providers and not screw them over ala Facebook.
Apple has argued previously that open/closed is a misleading and unhelpful framework, and that the curation of the App Store allows users to avoid falling prey to malicious apps. A much more provocative claim, but which they should engage, is that curation of news, and specifically partnerships with reputable news organizations that facilitate that curation, will allow users to avoid falling prey to malicious news.
Carl Schmitt, the “never Trump” conservative of the Weimar Republic who resisted Hitler as long as he could, wrote a fascinating essay “On the Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations.” In it, Schmitt describes a progression of intellectual frameworks from sixteenth to twentieth centuries, each discarded because it had become controversial and the next taken up because it could be neutral. Theology is neutral until the Reformation makes it controversial, and the metaphysical sphere is called on for neutrality. This, when the Enlightenment dawns, becomes controversial, and thus the humanitarian-moral sphere is turned to for neutrality, until it too becomes controversial, and the economic sphere is found. With the advent of Marxist thought at the end of the nineteenth century, economics too become controversial, and, according to Schmitt, the final sphere to arrive is the technological sphere. Schmitt writes:
The evidence of the widespread belief in technology is based only on the proposition that the absolute and ultimate neutral ground has been found in technology, since apparently there is nothing more neutral.
Juan Carlos Donato, introducing the essay, sums up Schmitt’s implication. Boldface is mine.
Concurring values flock around such belief in technology, given that peace, harmony, and reconciliation all seem to find their homeland in the appearance of absolute technological neutrality — a neutrality that grounds itself on the fact that technology serves all. But Schmitt again will flip the tables on such conception, arguing that precisely because it serves all, technology cannot be neutral. This is perhaps the closest we get to a definition of the spirit of technicity: because technology is essentially a tool, it cannot constitute itself as a central sphere severed from the politics, metaphysics, ethics, or economics that use it. To believe the contrary is to endow technology with a spirit — the spirit of technicity — that may not originate in technology, but that rather crystallizes in the psychic need to find reassurance in the appearance of absolute neutrality.
Apple goes to great pains to stress that its technology exists only to “elevate your content,” as Jony Ive put it in one presentation video. It would have you believe that it is a neutral platform between content providers and end users. We know, however, that this is prima facie untrue. Apple has at least since 2008 and the iPhone SDK positioned itself as the arbiter of good and bad apps. When Tim Cook became CEO, Apple began to articulate its current mission statement (which retroactively describes its offerings since at least 1998) of “making great products that enrich people’s lives.” Cook stresses that that enrich people’s lives is not an afterthought. Apple claims explicitly to have insight into what will enrich your life. Surely the people who reinvented the phone are smart enough to get to the bottom of Hillary Clinton’s sex-trafficking pizza ring in Washington, D.C. Surely the addition of quality, curated news to every iOS device and Mac would enrich the lives of those who use them.
Technology is not a neutral sphere in which politics, ethics, and economics can be obviated by empirical observation. It is a tool that empowers those politics, ethics, and economics that wield it best. Facebook and Google have abdicated every inch of moral authority that they might have had on this issue. It is unfortunate that on this point, as on privacy and user security, there is only one company that has the wallet, incentive structure, and mission statement to be a bastion for a free and robust fourth estate.
Mr. Cook: in the Age of Trump, act with moral courage worthy of MLK and RFK, those American patriots whose portraits in your office—I hope—are not mere decoration.