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The Power of Disintermediation


“Disintermediation” is a simple idea: it’s a reduction in middlemen between producer and consumer. When it comes to media and information, it can give us access to raw, unfiltered news–or fill our heads (and social media feeds) with rank garbage.

Society today could not be what it is without the flows of information that influence and shape it. Before the printing press and widespread literacy, for most people there was only word-of-mouth. Governments had messengers and couriers who might carry information on clay tablets or parchment scrolls, but most information was communicated orally. This made that information’s reliability difficult to ensure. Indeed, if someone writing down a message wanted to be sure it reached the intended party unaltered, it would be sealed in some way, such as inside jar or a clay envelope, to be broken open only by the recipient. Those who could not afford such services–or, being illiterate, would have no use for them–had to depend on visitors, merchants, and others passing through their towns to give them the scoop, and there was no guarantee that anything imparted would be accurate.

Over time, bookmaking became a highly sophisticated endeavor, but since each book was hand-made, they were not accessible to the general public. Instead, they were used by select groups to preserve their knowledge. In that sense, books were essential for maintaining learned traditions, but they held little relevance for people outside those traditions.

The printing press, invented around 1440, changed all that. For the first time, information could be laid down in a fixed form that could be reproduced quickly and virtually endlessly. Books would become cheap enough that almost anyone could afford to obtain them. Literacy became a practical skill. By no means did this filter out to most people quickly: it was not until the 19th century that literacy grew to near-universal levels in Europe, for instance. But cheap book production provided the technological foundation that allowed information to be spread quickly and cheaply.

The press’ popularity exploded exponentially–by 1600, there were more books in Europe than people. Books revolutionized scientific and religious communications, making it easy to spread new ideas and argue old ones. It also led to the decline of Latin, as books were written in the common languages of the countries where they were printed.

One thing the printing press accomplished that happened almost by accident is the disintermediation of religious knowledge. Prior to its invention, the Catholic Church had a virtual stranglehold on religious thought in Europe. Bibles were written only in Latin and congregations taught by Latin-trained priests. Lay people could not read Latin and so relied on the Church to give them religious guidance. But once Bibles began being translated into common spoken languages–which was itself a contentious issue at the time–the Church began to lose its grip on the public consciousness. People could read the Bible for themselves, guide their own studies, draw their own conclusions. While it did not destroy the Church’s influence, it dealt a serious blow. Never again would the Church enjoy such power over the public dialogue.

Fast forward a few inventions: telegraph, radio, phone, television, Internet. All these and more had profound effects on the cultures that used them. The telegraph and telephone, of course, enabled rapid person-to-person communication. Radio and television made it possible to instantly and vividly communicate on a one-to-many basis. Broadcasters could reach millions through the power of radio and TV signals, and they could do it live–people could see (or at least hear) events as they happened. It’s easy to take for granted now, but at the time it was revolutionary. Mass communication allowed the development of an instantaneous, shared public consciousness.

But that consciousness wasn’t new. What changed was how quickly it could evolve. In the past, cultures were defined largely by their shared language, religion, values, and experiences–all of which were fairly tightly linked. This was crucial to the rise of nationalism: without shared identity, nationalism simply didn’t work. Mass communication was able to reinforce this. Obviously, it could be used as a direct propaganda tool. But it also created shared cultural experiences which reinforced a group identity.

The (in)famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 was heard by about 32 million Americans. The finale to the television series _M*A*S*H _was viewed by over 120 million people. We might be quick to discount these as fluff–as pop culture events that don’t particularly matter–but I would argue that sharing these experiences is important to maintaining a cohesive society. It gives everyone something to talk about, and it ultimately doesn’t matter what that something is, as long as enough people have it in common to act as a social glue.

What all of these technologies so far have had in common is that they are intermediated. Though printing presses were widespread, they were still only owned and operated by a relatively tiny share of the population. Likewise with operators of other mass media and communication methods. This relatively centralized control meant that everyone got, more or less, the same experience out of it. Two people listening to the same radio broadcast heard the same story.

This has downsides, though: those who control the medium control the message. Benevolent newspaper and TV and radio station owners are well and good, but in reality we’ve had quite a mixed record. Scaremongering and outright fabrications have, at times, been rampant. This is to say nothing of governments that have censored the media or bullied journalists into reporting less truthfully. Relying on centralized sources of information, then, can be unreliable–they’re subject to tampering by outside parties, or the source may have reason to deceive. Everyone gets the same experience, but that experience may be untruthful or manipulative.

Enter: the Internet, the first medium in which information is fully disintermediated. Want to come to my blog and read a post without having it filtered through what someone else wants you to read? You can do that. That’s disintermediation! It’s great… until it isn’t. The ability of anyone and everyone to publish to the entire world brings a lot of complications. For one thing, there’s still no good way of knowing whether what one reads is true. One could seek out other sources, and hopefully some of those are reliable, but in many cases it’s a crapshoot. Ironically, it’s major news sources with credible reputations that bail us out, here. I’m more inclined to trust NPR, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and similar publications than I am to trust Joe’s Random Blog. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for treating this blog the same way. Who am I, and why should you take my word for anything? I hope I’ve managed to earn your trust through months of posts, but by no means am I infallible, and I have my biases just like anyone else does.

There are plenty of articles out there which extol the virtues of the Internet as a communications medium, so here I will just describe some of the ways it sucks in that regard: it’s extremely easy to spread false information. The NY Daily News (a tabloid, I know) has a roundup of Internet hoaxes from just last year. These are usually harmless, but sometimes they aren’t. The Internet has also made it possible to build entire communities out of fringe beliefs–sometimes very dangerous, hateful beliefs. Anyone reading this probably knows what Stormfront is, and if you don’t, consider yourself lucky.

What is perhaps most ironic about this Internet without middlemen is that there are often many middlemen involved in what you see–only now, they’re invisible. You might know that NBC is owned by Comcast, but do you know who wrote that comment on the BBC website? Astroturfing is alive and well on the Internet, too, and unlike ads on TV that are easy to spot as ads (and usually easy to tell who they’re representing), there’s almost no way to know whether a given comment is legitimate or is paid shilling. The same goes for any website that accepts reviews or ratings for goods and services. Are you getting an honest review directly from a fellow consumer, or is it a paid ad? How can you tell? Legally, they are supposed to be visibly distinguished, but this kind of fraud is so rampant and so difficult to track down and enforce, we’re on our own.

The situation is not much better when it comes to information about current events, either. Usually, the best thing to do when a story is developing is wait. Early reports tend to be wrong, especially when there are people who get their kicks by making false reports and getting people worked up. Over time, a consensus will develop across multiple sources and that’s about as good as we’re going to get.

By the time many others see it, it might be as a trending topic on Facebook or Twitter, which adds another layer of filtering to it. Do you trust this story more because it’s being posted by your mom, or your best friend? Do you even click through to the original source to see if it looks remotely legitimate? In my experience, most people don’t bother–a lot of folks get their news directly from friends and acquaintances on social media, in which case it’s difficult to pin down exactly where that information actually originates. It’s nice that we now have the ability to get information straight from those closest to the events, but in practice very few people do it, preferring to see it filtered through some other mechanism they already trust.

All told, this presents an intractable problem in terms of creating a shared public consciousness. It’s like the greatest game of telephone ever played. It wouldn’t be such a big deal except for the political problems it presents. It’s hard to get people to agree on policy ideas when they can’t even agree on the basic facts of the situation. Only time will tell how much harm this really does to our political discourse, but so far it’s not looking good.

Of course, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle, nor do I think government censorship of the Internet is a good idea. My answer is education: people need to learn how to discriminate between sources of information, and to be critical. This is much easier said than done, since almost everyone prefers to have their biases confirmed rather than challenged. This leaves us with some difficult problems to solve. Will technology deliver us from these problems it helped create?

I wouldn’t bet on it. But we’ll have to find a way through, or face the slow, chaotic disintegration of public discourse, and an end to any concept of a public consciousness. It really will be everyone for themselves, and I don’t know how you build a functional society out of that.

Photo by martinhoward