Countdown to Commoditization

Excepting the things that should count, these days, we’re counting everything. Creditworthiness is rated. Steps walked are tracked. Minutes of attention are noted. Pageviews are ranked. Quantitative assessment can be benign; sometimes it’s even beneficial. Occasionally, it sinks ships. What I mean is that to count is a verb like an iceberg; the part that puts a hole in your hull lurks unseen.

What’s new isn’t the counting per se; it’s the scale on which we do it. Being a nerdy child, I learned the first dozen-odd digits of pi from memory. (I have since forgotten them.) Now, we count pi’s digits in the quadrillions. I confess, I’m not sure what the virtue is in the second quadrillionth digit discovered over the first quadrillionth. But it’s fair to say, I think, that the difference between the dozens I could memorize and the quadrillions we know now represents not an addition but a kind of paradigmatic shift.

To the chagrin of some and the triumph of others, we’ve learned to count journalism. Bundled, dead-tree newspapers and magazines didn’t allow publishers to see what articles were viewed the most, which were read the longest, how many times they were shared among friends. The internet changed that.

Franklin Foer, formerly of The New Republic, delivered a frontline report on the countification of everything in The Atlantic for its September 2017 issue in a piece titled “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism.” He writes: “Data have turned journalism into a commodity, something to be marketed, tested, calibrated. Perhaps people in the media have always thought this way. But if that impulse existed, it was at least buffered. Journalism’s leaders were vigilant about separating the church of editorial from the secular concerns of business.”

There are, in general, two ways that technologists respond to discontent with technological progress. The first is to treat you as though you are very old — as though you are an ancient Luddite who wants to go back and if you could only see how great things are now, you would certainly understand it’s better this way. The second is to treat you as though you are very young — as though you are hopelessly, idiotically idealistic and if you only you would wake up to the reality of this world, you’d see that toothpaste doesn’t go back into its tube any more than ad-tech just disappears, you naif.

I don’t want to do either. Chris Moran of The Guardian does both. On Medium, he reads Foer with as little generosity as possible, laying out a searing critique of a piece that bears little resemblance to what Foer was trying to get at.

“Technology isn’t an amorphous lump of stuff,” Moran shouts. “The single biggest problem with the piece is the tendency to take anything that went wrong around The New Republic and the wider industry, gather it up and shove it in a big bucket labelled Silicon Valley or Technology. At various points Foer covers the use of data, data itself, platforms, algorithms, selling advertising, advertising itself, revenue, virality and search engine optimisation.” It’s true that Foer takes aim at a lot of the technical side of journalism; it’s baffling that Moran doesn’t pause to consider what connects these pieces. Apparently, it escapes Moran that capitalism and computerization might have spawned some awful blob of a child, which could be fairly named Silicon Valley.

Foer, I admit it, doesn’t name his enemy well. Technocapitalism is what he’s talking about: a computer-backed engine of commoditization.

Under the heading, “Powerful ≠ Evil”, Moran notes that while “the wrong metrics and the wrong culture can cause real and lasting damage … data is equally a force for good, provided you’re prepared to think carefully about the change you want.” Moran is quite right that powerful does not necessarily mean evil, but he’s wrong in making it out that data is some kind of neutral tool — equally good or bad, just depending on how you use it.

First, the data we collect reflects two things: what we already care about and what we are able to track. Most publications care about “page views” because most advertisers bill off of “impressions”, which basically track to page views. Publications don’t collect data about value and impact because there’s not an easy way to do that on the web.

Second, measuring at all is a decision with far-reaching implications. As Caleb Crain writes in Harper’s: “One temptation, when a thing is countable, is to imagine that instances of it are interchangeable. The average, rather than the ideal, becomes the archetype. There’s little point in counting, after all, if you can’t take the mental shortcut of assuming that the aspects of a thing that can’t be counted don’t matter.” Moran seems to assume that to measure is some kind of objective, natural state; in fact, the kind of measurement — reductive — that computers do well, that technocapitalism encourages, would drive journalism off the cliff of commoditization if left unchecked.

Over and over again, Moran slams Foer for not accepting responsibility for the plight of The New Republic. Foer used data and technology wrong. If he had used it wisely, data and technology would have helped. I tend to agree that data and technology can, in limited ways, be useful, but the crucial point is this: to use the kind of data Moran champions is to bias yourself toward commoditization. It seems Foer fell into its trap. Maybe Moran is different. Maybe his superhuman clear eyes can see beyond the blinkers of technocapitalism. Maybe. Mine can’t.