Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Big Tech

Even in these hyper-partisan times, Democrats and Republicans alike can at least agree on one thing. Both sides share an intense dislike of the giant tech firms that dominate social media and on-line commerce.
The House’s top antitrust subcommittee called the chief executive officers of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to testify, and they all came in for harsh questioning from both sides of the aisle. The two sides didn’t have the same complaints, as Democrats are mostly worried the companies are using their considerable clout to crush potential competitors, while the Republicans are mostly worried the companies have a left-wing bias and are censoring right-of-center opinions.
Both sides came with evidence-backed questions the CEO’s had difficulty answering, but we can’t get on board with the booing and hissing.
We don’t worry much about monopolies, as they tend go away without any government intervention. Once upon a time there was worry that Sears & Roebuck would wipe out every Main Street retailer in America, but no one is afraid of the company anymore. More recently Wal-Mart was expected to dominate the retail sector of the economy, but it’s now a distant second to Amazon, which is so dominant that some big money will try to take a chunk out of its market share, and by that time Amazon will be too ponderous to respond to whatever new idea the competition comes up with. Apple is powerful, but it’s a stretch to say they have a monopoly on the rapidly developing computer industry. If you don’t like Google you can search the internet on Bing, which is owned by the Microsoft Corporation that once seemed poised to take over the world. Facebook doesn’t have any significant competition in social media business at the moment, but we notice that people routinely abandon it and assume they’re finding other ways to share pictures of what they’re having for dinner.
As for the worries about censorship, we only worry when the government is doing the censoring. We’re free speech purists, but we also support the right of any company decide what information it wants to disseminate. Some on the right are angry that a video calling itself Frontline Doctors has been pulled from most of the social media platforms for being skeptical about face masks and social business and economic restrictions, saying that hydroxychloroquine is a proved cure, but they also believes that some gynecological diseases are caused by women having sex with demons in their dreams and doctors are creating medicines with alien DNA and the Illuminati are developing a vaccine against religious belief. We can’t see why any conservative would want to equate that with conservatism, and conservatives should also distance themselves from the conspiracy theories and racist rants that are routinely banned. There are still other places to post such nonsense, and if they’re not as widely viewed there’s a free market reason for that.
It’s nice to see both sides united, if only for a moment and for far different reasons, but it’s hard to see them coming up with any legislative solution that will satisfy everyone. For now, we have bigger problems to worry about than Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

— Bud Norman

Trump and Twitter and the Truth

President Donald Trump is known for using Twitter to hurl insults and accusations at his political opponents, and now he’s feuding with Twitter itself. Which makes for an interesting feud, and raises some important questions.
The social media platform has lately appended warnings to two of Trump’s recent “tweets” about the dangers of voting by mail, directing readers to stories by the Cable News Network and the Washington Post and The Hill and other sources, which prompted Trump to “tweet” that Twitter “is now interfering in the 2020 presidential election. They are saying my statement about Mail-In ballots, which will lead to massive corruption and fraud, is incorrect, based on fact-checking by Fake News CNN and the Amazon Washington Post.” Twitter has also apologized to the family of a woman Trump has repeatedly “tweeted” was possibly murdered by cable news host and frequent critic Joe Scarborough, although it hasn’t deleted or added any warnings to any of the apparently baseless claims.
Twitter and Facebook and all the other social media have long allowed users to promulgate all sorts of patently false propaganda, but have lately made promises to crack down on that, which has led to a public debate about free speech in the internet age. Twitter and Facebook and all the other social media are now an important part of the public square, where the soap box orators go to express whatever crackpot opinions they might have, and Trump’s supporters share his “tweeted” concern that “the Radical Left is in total command of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google.”and they fear for their free speech rights.
We have liberal friends who contend they’ve had Facebook posts deleted because of all the right-wingers running the company, though, and our old-fashioned and pre-Trump conservative instinct is to side with the right of any company to conduct its business in any that doesn’t present a clear danger to the public. Every print publication we ever worked for retained its right not to publish what we wrote, and although they occasionally did so we were annoyed but never felt we’d been deprived of our rights in any meaningful way, and we occasionally decline to publish some of the asinine comments we get in our small portion of the internet public square.
The internet is still a giant free-for-all, and if any Trump conservatives or pre-Trump conservatives or Trump-hating liberals or white supremacists or communist revolutionaries don’t like it they can still find a space on the infinite internet. It’s so easy, in fact, that even such Luddites as ourselves figured out how to do it. There are still the mimeograph machines that the lunatic fringes of the left and and right used to use, too. You can still compete in the marketplace of ideas, and see how you fare.
>President Donald Trump is President of the United States of America, so he needn’t worry that people won’t hear what he has to say. They’ll also hear what other people have to say, but as much as Trump hates that it’s just another peril of being president in a constitutional republic that allows a free press and free speech, so he needs to come up with more persuasive arguments. Which raises an even more interesting and troubling question for us, which is why Trump daily “tweets” the most embarrassingly misspelled and grammatically incorrect and provably dishonest and undeniably vulgar and unbecoming of his high office things?
The Washington Post and CNN and The Hill and those other fact-checkers have the better case about mail-in voting, which Trump himself and all the military deployed overseas and millions of other Americans have long used, but at least we can understand his political reasons for opposing it. Why he’s taking to Twitter to accuse a “low-rated” cable morning show host of murdering an aide nearly two decades ago seems inexplicable.
If you haven’t been following this sordid subplot of the Trump reality show, Trump is “tweeting” about the 2001 death of Laurie Klausutis, who was working for then-Rep. Joe Scarborough in his central Florida office, where she died of a head wound. A coroner’s report found that she fainted from an undiagnosed heart condition and suffered a fatal blow, Scarborough was in Washington at the time, and the police found new evidence of foul play. Scarborough was a Republican know for his tight-fisted fiscal conservatusm, however, and such loony lefties as Michael Moore spun conspiracy theories that Scarborough murdered her to cover their illicit affair. Because there was absolutely no proof for any of it, the theory faded away until Trump revived it.
Does Trump believe that this will win him any new votes in his reelection campaign? There’s a coronavirus pandemic and a Great Depression going on at the moment, and most people have more pressing concerns than age-old loony left conspiracy theories revived by Trump about a morning show host that he derides for having poor ratings. To the extent that people do follow the story, they’ll likely conclude that Trump is crazy. Trump fans will be satisfied that at least he fights, but they wouldn’t have noticed that he didn’t make any baseless charges of murder against low-rated cable news critic, and we can’t see how any way this furthers a political agenda to make America great again or expands that base.
We’ll all see how it plays out, and in the meantime we’ll continue to take our place on the soap box in this thing portion of the internet’s public square and fail against the way things are.

— Bud Norman

Trump Versus Twitter

President Donald Trump met with head “Twitter” honcho Jack Dorsey on Tuesday, and it made for a lively discussion. According a a “tweet” from “Twitter” the two were to talk about “protecting the health of the public conversation ahead of the 2020 election and efforts underway to respond the opioid crisis,” but much of it was reportedly spent with Trump’s gripes about his favorite way of speaking directly to the public.
Trump’s battles with the old-fashioned print and broadcast media are well known, but he’s also been picking fights with all the newfangled social media and the rest of the internet industry. He’s accused Facebook of suppressing his supporters’ voices, charged the Google search engine with directing its users to unfavorable stories, and told reporters that the government “might have to do something about it.” He’s now complaining that the number of his “Twitter” “followers,” who automatically see Trump’s “tweets” on their computers or tablets or smart phones or whatever other kind of device they’ve devised, is lately falling.
Trump takes his crowd sizes and poll numbers and television ratings “Twitter” following personally, so we can imagine he was none too pleased, and implying that he would do something about it. Dorsey, a slim and bearded and hippy-looking of typical Silicon Valley youthfulness, who despite having more billions in net worth than Trump probably has was unable to purchase a neck tie for his Oval Office meeting, did not seem intimidated in videos and photographs the old media printed and broadcast.
Dorsey had reasons for Trump’s declining numbers that had nothing to do with political bias, and so far as we can tell, given our considerable ignorance about how this internet thingamajig works, they’re persuasive. He explains that the company routinely reviews the followers of all its “tweeters” to remove fraudulent “spam” accounts, partly to ensure its advertisers that the numbers are real and partly to guard against foreign meddling in the vast political conservation that “Twitter” plays an outsized role in. That might only persuade Trump to rail further against the practice, but at this point Dorsey is probably more intimidated by his paying customers and the Congressional oversight committee looking into foreign meddling and other Trump-related internet issues.
Trump is unlikely to “tweet” that the government should shut down “Twitter,” and this hippy-dippy billionaire Dorsey fellow has no incentive to run afoul of any branch of the government. He’s met with several right wing figures with complaints of censorship, which has angered left wing “Twitter” users who clamor for censorship, but he’s also allied with Facebook and Google and the rest of Silicon Valley’s Big Social Media.
Besides, Dorsey can plausibly figure that Trump needs “Twitter” more than “Twitter” needs Trump. The president has made “Twitter” famous, but it was already famous when Trump started “tweeting.” With some 60 million followers still logged in Trump is an even bigger draw than any of the athletes or musicians or movie stars on the platform, but for now he doesn’t have a better way to speak directly to those 60 million presumably real people without the mainstream media’s annoying edits and annotations. “Twitter” is the perfect medium for short attention span readers who enjoy a good schoolyard taunt and bully boy rhetoric and don’t mind the misspellings and improper punctuation, and we notice that Trump — or @realDonaldTrump” as he’s known to his followers — was uncharacteristically restrained in “tweeting” about “Twitter.”
“Great meeting this afternoon at the @WhiteHouse with @Jack from @Twitter,” Trump “tweeted.” “Lots of subjects discussed regarding their platform, and the world of social media in general. Look forward to keeping an open dialogue!”
Which sounds very chummy, and might well be, and if so that would probably be for the best. Even if all those damnable @’s and other internet gibberish are painful to our Gutenberg-era eyes, this internet thingamajig is how we’re communicating with you at this moment, so we hope this newfangled idea somehow endures through the old-fashioned principles of the First Amendment and free markets. If that means Trump keeps on “tweeting,” and so do all his equally illiterate and bully boy critics, so be it.

— Bud Norman

Googling and Binging and Trumping

Around this office we never “google” anything, as we prefer the Bing search engine for our internet queries, but that’s partly because we hate these cacophonous neologisms that make a verb out of everything, and mostly because we find the soothing photographs on the Bing.com search engine’s home page more appealing than Google.com’s always garish and too-often annoyingly didactic artwork. Both search engines have always answered our arcane questions well enough, but President Donald Trump is recently complaining that Google is rigged against him.
In a couple of conspicuously early morning “tweets” this week Trump has griped that if you type in “Trump news” in that box at the Google search engine you’ll find the first several pages of links are to stories that reflect unfavorably on his presidency. He even hinted that perhaps some government regulation is needed to correct this, although he later seemed to back down from that in a chat with reporters, even as he continued to condemn Google for its obvious bias. There were also some reiterated complaints about various social media companies silencing conservative voices, but that’s another and equally weird post-modern matter that we’ve already commented on.
Trump didn’t mention any other search engines, but when we typed ¬† “Trump news” into the box on the Bing page — for the very ¬†first time, as our queries are usually far more specific — they featured pretty much the same first few pages of links. There are probably other search engines available on this newfangled internet thingamajig — we’re old and not at all hep to the young whippersnappers’ high-tech lingo, and are too tired to “bing” it, so we can’t name them — but our guess is that most of them would yield pretty much the same desultory results.
Trump blames the internet’s bias on its reliance on such left wing media as The New York Times and The Washington Post and the few other remaining big city newspapers, as well as the over-the-air newscasts and a couple of long established cable networks, and although they all do seem to relish in bad news about Trump it’s not “fake news” in almost every case, and for now they’re still so widely read and watched that they turn up on the first few pages of any old internet search about “Trump news.” Perhaps there’s an algorithm that would pop up only reports about the low unemployment rate and the the recent rains here in Kansas, with news about vanquished Democratic foe Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama and their “deep state” conspiracy to depose Trump, but it would have to compete with a lot of more convincing noise from that establishment media.
The death of bona fide war hero and former Republican presidential nominee and lauded-as-a-statesman on both sides of the aisle Sen.John McCain couldn’t be kept out of any honest accounting of the recent news, and it would have been hard to come up with a front page link to a story lauding Trump for courageously continuing his express his disrespect even after the hero’s untimely death. Somewhere out there on the internet or talk radio you’ll find a full throated explanation of why Trump’s campaign manager recently being convicted on eight felony counts and his former deputy campaign manager and national security advisor pleading guilty to felonies and his former lawyer and longtime top business executive cooperating with an ongoing investigation into the “Russia thing” is just proof of that “deep state” conspiracy,but it would take some doing to put them at the top of a search engine’s priorities.
Our understanding is that these so-called “algorithms” are so called in honor of Vice President Al Gore, inventor of the internet, and we don’t claim to at all understand how the heck they work, but we’re not the least bit surprised that Trump is displeased with the news they routinely come up with. Our advice to the president is to stay out of the news for a cycle or two, starve them of anything to report about but latest unemployment numbers and the absence of any recent wars, and hope for a bombshell report about the Democrats and their dastardly “deep state” conspiracy, but even in these crazy days either possibility seems unlikely.
We have our own complaints with these danged newfangled search engines, which never seem to put such an august internet publication as The Central Standard Times on the first few pages unless your queries are pretty darned specific, but we’ll not call for any governmental regulations to address this grievous error. With all due respect to the office of the presidency, we hope Trump will do the same.

— Bud Norman

Christmas in the Information Age

Today is Black Friday, when the annual Christmas shopping season begins with bargain-hunters duking it out over some Chinese-made gewgaw or another in the store aisles, and as usual we’ll pass on the ritual. This is expected to be the first Christmas when on-line sales surpass those in the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores that you have to drive to and walk into and then interact with other people, but we’ll also take a pass on that.
As much as we resent all the current stores on the east and west sides of town for driving away Gateway Sporting Goods and Reader’s Bookstore and all the other locally-owned retailers who used to transform downtown Wichita, Kansas, into a winter wonderland during our youth, we don’t want to see them driven away by the computer or other newfangled device you’re using to read this. That would leave a lot of empty buildings, and a lot of unemployed shop clerks, and what with the drones Amazon is already using and the driverless trucks that Google is threatening to unleash it’s hard to see what space-filling businesses and jobs the new economy might offer them.
Such potentially dire economic consequences aside, the technological tectonic shift that’s expected to occur this Christmas season has a cultural effect we also don’t care for. Although today’s stores lack the personal touch of the mom-and-pop operations we so fondly recall, there’s still something to be said for driving to a store and walking into it and interacting with other people. The drive takes you past places that evoke fond memories and gives you a chance to hear the local radio, and if you don’t get hit by a car the walk across the parking lot is healthful, and maybe it’s just a Wichita thing but we find that most of our interactions with other people are generally quite pleasant and often have a very salutary effect on our mood.
Somehow, despite the crass commercialism and creeping secularism of this modern age, people always seem to become more pleasant to interact with the closer it gets to Christmas. Lay off the Black Friday sales or the Cyber Monday bargains, hunt down some fascinating shop some local oddball opened, and it might just instill some Christmas spirit. We also suggest you call your far-away family rather than texting them, and meet face-to-face if at all possible, and gratefully accept any invitations you might receive to a holiday party, and except for your daily visits here spend less time looking at some sort of screen.
There’s no fending off progress, even when it goes too far, but we’ll be damned before we go along with it.

— Bud Norman