"Originality is a dodgy concept"

Martin Eiermann sat down with the British writer, technologist, and self-described geek Tom Chatfield to discuss freedom of information, the link between technology and human nature, and the decline of newspapers.

The European: In your Twitter description, you self-identify as a pianist, a tea drinker – and as a geek. There’s certainly a trivial way to talk about “the return of the geeks,” but I wonder about the substantive ways in which geekiness is part of who you are.
Chatfield: Partly it’s a label that focuses outward. But partly I’m interested in what you might call the “geekocratic moment.” It seems to me more okay than ever before to be honest and passionate about an interest in information systems and technologies – without making a fetish of it, but liking it in a cultural sense. Advances in information technology have pretty radically reshaped a lot of cultural practices, so in a sense a “geek moment” is affecting a lot of other disciplines like literature, arts, politics, or writing.

The European: So the label of geek is also an inter-disciplinary label?
Chatfield: I don’t consider myself a specialist – I have interests and passions, and following them often leads me into very different fields. So the geek label is a label of enthusiasm. But here’s the thing about information technologies: You’re never alone. If you are a passionate enthusiast, you can find other passionate enthusiasts. The ability to find co-enthusiasts, to find information, to follow endless daisy chains of information is a very powerful cultural force. For many people, enthusiasm is a road towards cultural participation and creation, and possibly to other forms of social engagement as well.

The European: There’s an element in geek culture that is highly self-referential, almost a sort of confirmation bias: The most minute details can suddenly seem incredibly meaningful when enough enthusiastic people start gravitating towards them.
Chatfield: We should be lovingly suspicious of geek culture. It would be wrong to make a fetish of technology and see everything as a nail for which digital tools are a hammer. Similarly, it’s dangerously easy to abandon all sense of proportion and priority. On Wikipedia, articles about Star Wars are better referenced, longer, and more passionately debated than articles about things that are more important by any sense of values that matters: About the Second World War, about Marxism, about the lives of major historical figures. We’re experiencing a seductive moment when it becomes possible to make an edifice out of the culture of debate. If every movie is a “cult movie,” as Umberto Eco warned, you’re risking the ability to affirm the things that really matter. Celebrating geek culture is great, but you still need a way of affirming that the Second World War is more important than Star Wars – or you end up with a solipsist and escapist culture.

The European: Do you see the internet primarily as a network for the transmission of information, or as a network for the facilitation of social relationships?
Chatfield: The rise of social media has for me been evidence of the universality of the human desire to import into this information arena as much human messiness as possible. We have imported a lot of ourselves into the digital world. At the same time, we’ve imported it into a lot of new information silos, like Facebook. The other stuff is still there, too, but they’re in different places, different systems. It’s not a monolith, online, and we need to be very careful about understanding just how differently it works from place to place and service to service

The European: In other words: Asking about what “the internet” is like skews the picture?
Chatfield: As technology becomes a fact of everything we do and everywhere we are, as access to enhanced layers of information becomes normal, we have to stop being generic about it, yes. We should perhaps talk about “internets” in the plural, about different information ecosystems around the world – and their unique features, hazards, potentials, and underbellies. If you’re doing an English-language search on Google, you’re probably excluding 99 percent of data on the internet. There’s no monolith.

The European: How do you define “technology”?
Chatfield: You can go Greek – “tekhno” and “logia”, the discussion of human craft. But when you talk about digital technology and about humans as technological creatures, you’re talking about a very particular part of the manufactured world. To paraphrase the computer scientist Bran Ferren, “technology describes something that doesn’t work yet.” Once upon a time, a pencil or a chair were technologies, but now they’re just stuff. So when I talk about technology today, I mostly mean interactive technologies: digital technologies that run on binary code, on zeros and ones, I mean the hardware and the infrastructure that supports them. And this also includes the potentialities of code.

The European: George Dyson compares biological evolution to the evolution of code. Even if you don’t buy that analogy completely, I wonder whether it forces us to reconsider what we mean by “life” and “intelligence” and other fairly abstract concepts. We take it for granted, for example, that the definition of life is very intimately linked to carbon-based organisms. But you might say, ’that’s a very narrow way of looking at it because it abstracts on the basis of our own experience, which is quite narrow in itself.’
Chatfield: Speculative fiction has been asking those questions for a long time, and philosophy for even longer. I’m always a bit suspicious of what you might call “techno-deterministic” attitudes to technology. All this talk about ecosystems and the evolution of technology is very eloquent and useful, but it also casts technology as a kind of second nature that we can’t alter or escape. We mustn’t forget that we’re talking about technologies that we ourselves have crafted, and can seek to undertand, criticize, regulate, and re-cast if needed.

The European: Yet it seems inadequate to describe technology as merely a set of tools that have no effects on who we are.
Chatfield: It’s certainly difficult to talk about “human nature” in isolation from our tools. The author Brian Christian has a nice philosophical take on the increasing intelligence and sophistication of machines. He says that it’s a challenge we should welcome because it asks us to be more careful and precise in defining the realm of authentic human and ethical striving. We are challenged like never before by our own creations. I do wonder whether we will – eventually – have to dispense with the drawing of firm lines between life and non-life and have to come up with more subtle ways of distinguishing between our creations and ourselves. In a way, there’s a template for that in the work of philosophers like Peter Singer, who has written extensively on animal rights.

The European: Do you see the realm of technology and the realm of biology as becoming increasingly intertwined?
Chatfield: We can’t know whether we’ll live in a kind of Kurzweil-scenario in which machines gain consciousness, although I’m personally skeptical of anything like the singularity as a concept, not least because of how it can distort our thinking in the present. We need to react pragmatically and humanely to changes as they occur, and that means drawing on older philosophical ideas about ethics and what it means to live well. Ultimately, we are the only judges of our own success. Human consciousness is the only yardstick we have to examine moral questions. But while it’s deeply unhelpful to get bogged down in quasi-religious debates about nature or machines, we urgently need more sophisticated ethical theories about systems design: and about the structuring of all technological systems, from drones to e-mail. What effects do these systems have on human lives, and what proliferating, unintended consequences might they have in the world?

The European: It almost seems that we’re lacking the literacy to talk about some of these issues. The ability to read and write is very much democratized in large parts of the world – illiteracy rates are generally pretty low – but the programming of code is still considered specialist knowledge. And it might preclude us from understanding how the digital world functions and what effects changes in code might have.
Chatfield: The great joy of interactive information systems is that asking for help and information can be radically powerful. I don’t think it’s realistic to say that everybody should be able to code. But there are plenty of people who do know that stuff, and we can seek them out and ask them for help. That’s a very powerful thing. The information we need to solve many problems is available; the challenge is finding it and applying it to our lives in a meaningful way.

The European: What might the conditions for a digital community of solidarity look like?
Chatfield: Net neutrality is important as a global condition. The basic underpinnings of networks must allow users to discover others without being censored or exploited or duped. We’re very good at duping ourselves, of course, so you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped – that’s why you need a basic media literacy. That’s not about coding, but about knowing that coding exists. Another condition is the evolution of leaders and champions and influencers. I don’t believe in something like a leaderless movement, I only believe in flat informational structures. The recommendations of people we respect still matter. They affect what we buy, whom we vote for or sometimes even whom we’re willing to die for. So the question is: What maximizes positive serendipities? For example, default settings have a very powerful effect on our online behavior – but are they primarily useful for the sale of ads, or are they really most beneficial to the people who use them?

The European: There’s a narrative of the history of the internet that roughly goes like this: ‘The internet was born out of an anarchistic impulse and has gradually been encroached upon by corporate interests. Free spaces have been replaced by walled gardens, and innovation has been stifled as a result.’ Do you agree?
Chatfield: You can recast that narrative as the trajectory of early adoption, mass adoption, and universal adoption. Someone like Tim Wu talks about the history of media as a history from openness and experimentation to codification and monopolies. The internet has actually been fairly good at resisting that trend and has allowed for both processes simultaneously. There is the basic fact that a few players have gotten bigger and bigger, and that networks are controlled by those who control the infrastructure. Yet the nature of the internet as a medium – the original protocol – has not been changed, yet; and many tools built on the internet, like the world wide web, remain powerfully open. The question is whether the hardware of the future will still support the old as well as the new.

The European: And many people might choose convenience of use over the freedom of open access.
Chatfield: It’s very easy to be idealistic or snobbish about this, but if you really want to change things, you have to look at what people want. The best intentions serve people’s real needs. Many of us see the internet as very wild and dangerous, and having certain choices taken away feels very appealing. It delivers a lot of immediate good in terms of lifestyle, but the bad consequences are much more distant.

The European: Arguably, the idea of “the Common” is becoming more important again.
Chatfield: Yes. A lot of exciting new tools have almost gone back to the basics, rather than pursuing increasing sophistication. There are a few walled gardens – Apple, Amazon, parts of Google – that are very hard to compete with. But openness can be a good business strategy. Internet services can now be accessed from many devices, so there are tremendous opportunities for tools that are open enough to run on many different devices. I think that says something about the ability of the digital realm to resist monopolization. It’s about “many-to-many” instead of traditional “one-to-many” monopoly patents.

The European: You write a lot for the BBC and you write popular books. How is your role as a writer and as a communicator changing because of the way that media is changing?
Chatfield: On a fundamental level, I very much like what is happening. You can endlessly dispute the economics of it, but the idea that authors are being forced off their pedestals is very appealing to me. Pedestals were always an illusion. It’s healthy that people have their own voices instead of having others speak on their behalf. As an author, you can’t fall back on institutional reputation as much as you used to. You’re quite exposed and you have a duty to be interesting. Some people say that all of this is very Darwinian and that it fuels a race to the bottom of the media market by encouraging sensationalism. There’s some of that, but there’s a proven demand for other stuff as well. You can win an audience almost in an 18th-century style. You can be entrepreneurial in a non-facile sense.

The European: There’s a chance to democratize curating. The most important force might not be the editor who puts everything together for the day’s paper, but the collective of people who tweet and like and share that content online with their personal stamps of approval or disapproval.
Chatfield: I hope that people don’t read me because I write for the BBC, but because some of the stuff I do cannot simply be found elsewhere. The prize for intelligence and distinctiveness is higher than ever. I like that I can listen into conversations about my work, that I can present what I perceive to be good arguments, that I can do the stuff I find interesting without having a screen of authority to hide behind. It’s less forgivable to be boring. A lot of the people I respect are not being given an easy ride by their audiences; and the marketplace of ideas is not just unified by the lowest common denominator. I’m being idealistic here, but I’d rather have too high an expectation of my audience than too low. And I think there’s a dangerous amount of despair and veiled contempt behind many blanket critiques of “democratization.”

The European: Content creation is relatively expensive, content aggregation is relatively cheap. How do you think that’s changing our media environment?
Chatfield: It’s paradoxical, because the creation of low-level content has never been easier. Aggregation is an inevitable by-product of the amount of content that is being created. So it’s a bit of a false dichotomy: There is meaningful and meaningless aggregation. Thomas Mann once said something like, ‘you don’t make things up, you just select.’ You pick and compose. Writing has always partly been about that. Digital culture now confronts us with a very emphatic version of the old truth that we are part of a human ebb and flow of ideas. Originality is a dodgy concept, really. Intellectually and linguistically, it’s a weird word: It’s an aspiration, not a description. Ideas aren’t just created out of nothing. I prefer to talk about content creation that has your personal signature on it, that is more than just an instantly broadcast response. I prefer to talk about aggregation that has personality, that adds value. I don’t see aggregation as the bogeyman that everyone makes it out to be. There can be a problem with algorithmically-driven aggregation, Google News and all that – but that’s almost a different question – about the hollowing out of others’ efforts, about appropriation without accreditation. Here, we do have a real problem, and I suppose the temptation of something at once inexpensive and extremely powerful is very hard to resist. Because no worthwhile human effort, whether of selection or composition, is every really “cheap.”

The European: It’s about the “how,” not about yes or no.
Chatfield: Automated aggregation comes down to the ethics of algorithms or systems design. Poor algorithms can have a very bad influence, as can lazily and exploitatively designed systems. But I do believe in the human element, in the capacity of passionate, informed effort to make its mark. If the rise of social media signifies anything, it’s that we don’t want pure and naked information.

The European: It goes back to our earlier discussion about the transmission of information versus the facilitation of human interaction.
Chatfield: Google became arguably the best company in history at algorithmic recommendations based on unprecedented levels of mass observation and analysis. But it turned out that people wanted more than that. I think it’s fair to say that the rejection of perfection caught Google napping, at first. People wanted to hear what this person or that person has to say. There’s a place and a role for both. Interestingly, what seems to be happening is that a lot of market-induced laziness is becoming impractical. Newspapers did a lot of interesting stuff, but they also got away with a lot of stuff that they could do for money because their print and distribution systems were without rivals. Now they’re being out-competed, and this is pretty grim and tragic in places, but it’s also a reflection of better and sharper as well as more convenient offerings elsewhere.

The European: The struggle of print newspapers is a kind of positive disruption, in your opinion?
Chatfield: I don’t cry over the death of monastic scribes even though the books they produced were very beautiful. But I don’t want to dance on the grave of old media, especially as I personally mourn a lot that is being lost, but I see new ideas popping up elsewhere. In a way I’d rather be descriptive than proscriptive. It’s easy to use evidence selectively to serve this or that agenda, but that’s not a very interesting response, compared to trying to see what’s actually going under our noses as clearly as possible.

The European: The US Library of Congress has a rather ill-fated plan to archive all tweets. Given the increasing about of information, what about the importance of memory versus selective amnesia?
Chatfield: To some degree we’re outsourcing aspects of our minds to machines. We have to outsource the right stuff and make it useful to us in the present tense. Why not archive all tweets if they’re accessible in an open data format – that’s a marvelous resource to have. But big data is powerful only in certain ways. Nicholas Carr is right to point out that human memory isn’t the same as machine memory. Our debates about politics and art and culture are partly about all the memories and emotions we carry around with us. And the idea of forgetting is partly a synonym for prioritizing and forgiving. Should we have the right to digital oblivion, for example?

The European: One idea is having personal data with expiration dates – it stays online for a user-defined period of time before becoming inaccessible.
Chatfield: Yes, we might want to think about a statue of limitations, given the bewilderingly extensive online history of our past life and actions. We’ve got to ask what the world should remember and forget about us. Historians know that once you have a certain amount of evidence, you can tell almost any story you want. So the old questions remain, but they’re being amped up. If you think that having all this data will allow us to settle debates about who is right and who is wrong, you’re a fool. You can’t make do without human judgment and human legislation.

The European: Kevin Kelly said that technology is only powerful if it can be powerfully abused. Should that worry put the brakes on the pace of innovation, to some extent?
Chatfield: I don’t want to overstate the danger from personal data – it’s certainly not up there with the danger from drones and other forms of automated weapons. There’s only so much political will, so we might want to look at weapons systems first and at privacy second. That said, the dominant current model of exploiting and selling personal data – and indeed the general notion of an “attention economy” supported by advertising – is full of inefficiencies and undesirables, and it would be good to see a market response offering a more ethically robust basis for tech services. I don’t think that’s completely unlikely – although I doubt the market will get there entirely on its own.

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