Streaming and Politics: Can Video Escape the Online Echo Chamber?

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Politics in a trade magazine? About streaming media? Whoa. Are you really going to go there?

Oh yeah, baby. Sure I am.

Not sure if you’ve noticed, but recently the ol’ media tubes have been chockablock with that politics stuff.

Over here in the U.K., the apple carts all got upturned in the market in early June. And the U.S. is split between two camps that I am not convinced anyone really wants to be in.

In general, stepping away from the mania, most of us really just want to be friends. And those who don’t probably prefer to either live in a bunker or have some delusion that being king­of­their­own­land is somehow safer.

All of them are wrong, of course. At least according to those who don’t share their view. And it’s a complete mess for the rest of us. Stressful, scary, unsettling.

Good, isn’t it? Really well done to those societies that predated our generation. You may have spent 50 years dithering since you realized that if things escalate we can at least kill everyone with a nuke, and that will ultimately save us a lot of soul-searching about boring things like provisioning stable food and water and occupations for those bored billions who are not required to help provide stable food and water.

In the meanwhile, let’s at least distract those bored billions with fierce debates about things that are only given meaning by the debate itself. Let us polarize our groups around stories that shouldn’t affect us in any way. Let us like, worship, and gather totems that are erected by the unknown and unmet.

Let us make sense of data fed to us through curated filters that recommend randomly but learn patterns about which of those totems compel us, and the taboos that repel us. Let us live in an eternal echo chamber of our own fear and hope, regardless of its bearing on where our water and food come from. Let those echoes be amplified by those who build the chambers. At least we are not bored.

I watch my kids begin to consume media. I understand deeply the technology that brings it to them, from the user interface to the global telecom networks that underpin the content delivery networks. I have worked with heads of state, leaders of thought, artists, musicians, and athletes.

These “customers” of the media networks that have evolved around me over the past 20 years of webcasting all feed their narcissism, their own totems. They project their likeness on screens small and large in the hope that they will scare off those who may reject them, and they surround themselves with “friends” and “connections.”

Traditional political propaganda channels fought hard to monopolize the technology of communication, for that allowed them and only them to project their totems and limit the choice of data for us to amplify our echo chambers with, thus enabling the proponents to project their own messianic self-belief and drown out that of others.

Twenty years ago, it was different. Twenty years ago, we saw the internet differently. Suddenly, the potential of reaching millions was democratized. The individual had hope that his or her view could be relevant to others. A vision of the future, a new cultural revolution, was born.

The responsibility of public oration, deemed since Ancient Greek times to be the fine art of representing the views of the many, and the foundation of court and parliamentary debates, which had historically been forced on us as “the only way,” was rendered “optional.”

No longer would we need debating chambers for those orators to make big decisions on behalf of us. And no longer would we need divide­and­conquer politics and electoral systems to choose who those orators would be. No longer would the personality of someone else, his totems, and the content of his echo chamber be relevant to making decisions for us.

The internet was coming. Soon any one of us would be able to express and project our own totems way out of our echo chamber and find others with whom we could collectivize our thinking. No longer would we be bored with our thoughts and feel so distanced from “the debate that mattered” in the parliaments. We would be able to create our own debates.

The internet opened up the possibility that any one of us could project our own propaganda. Each of us could fantasize about becoming dictator of a world run the way we wanted it to be run.

Of course, those who had spent generations building up their monarchies and mafias, their dynasties and oligarchies, have become threatened. This is not a physical threat. This is an existential threat. The supply and demand for would-be dictators and power-hungry manipulators has been changed forever by the internet. Where it used to be the aspiration for very few to lead other people in great volumes into a common line of thinking, the internet brought the possibility that many lines of thinking could be shared by ever­smaller gatherings.

Rather than become atheist, we have become polytheist again. We have so many totems we can follow, and we are allowed to erect our own. We believe in narratives that others share.

But that too has become the internet’s weakness. We increasingly live in fear that the narratives of others have hidden agendas, that the data they convey is incorrect, and we have grown accustomed to shutting out any source that doesn’t fit with our existing line of thinking. We are losing our ability to share a common goal. We are losing our sense that there can be a commons. We think the world is “in” or “out” of our echo chamber. The internet’s own binary fabric is reflected in the polarity of our decisions.

Had the internet evolved on a tertiary computing model instead of a binary one, we may have naturally evolved to give ourselves a third option in all situations.

And had we had three arms, we may have developed tertiary computing. On the one hand this, on the other hand that, and on the other hand another option....

In the meanwhile, in my own echo chamber, it makes sense to me that we should no longer be dancing around the totem poles of the arrogant and self­edifying. Those who crave power are invariably the least suited to the job. We know that from 12,000 years of their social engineering.

In the first 15 years of the web, the traditional political leaders were so caught up in their own historic narratives and protecting those stories with “rights,” that they failed to grasp that protecting their own stories was immaterial—every individual online could now create their own narrative in its place.

And yes, the traditional politicians are learning how to restrain the internet, by controlling the telecom networks on which they run. The gradual, creeping centralization of internet governance seems inexorable as narratives about the topic are created and the openness of the internet is gradually firewalled and balkanized.

But it is a complex and big place, and the engineers—many of whom read this magazine— know how to work around these firewalls. You feel enlightened; you can deliver vast arrays of data over the world’s video networks in innumerable ways. You can get the news story out of the area, even when the “official networks” are down.

Yet despite this, we face a bigger hurdle. We are now all under attack by even bigger challenges. The internet is being pumped full from many directions by seemingly disconnected narratives. Gradually, however, they are duping us into the echo chambers of others. Those who crave power over us, to live out their own king­in­their­own­land fantasy, are flooding us with narratives that lure us in, make us stressed, scared, angry, and that cause us to seek their “protection.”

Therefore, as a webcaster, streaming engineer, and broadcast technologist, I am—in my echo chamber—faced with a binary option: either refuse to stream that crap, or make damn sure that everyone who has something to say can do so and can find an audience, in order to drown out the deluge of narcissism that we are being subjected to by the current political narrative.

With video being the largest and fastest-growing network use and the dominant form by which the most information is spread in today’s world, we have an extreme responsibility to keep the networks flowing, and to ensure that the internet realizes its potential to be the true parliament of the people.

In the meanwhile, I will be back out on the farm at the weekend, learning how to irrigate the land.

This article originally ran in the Autumn 2016 issue of Streaming Media European Edition as “Streaming and Politics.”

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