I am an inveterate news/journal reader. Depending on one’s aspirations that may or may not be a good thing. I did not, for example, turn my doctoral dissertation on a worthy topic of Catholic women’s higher education into a monograph or the recent manuscript I drafted on information technology in higher education into books. Many a productive morning when I might have been working on those projects I could not pull myself away from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, The Guardian or The New Republic and a smattering of other reports found on the internet.
By the same token, that ingrained habit has been a boon. When I applied to be the director of IT Policy, without the word “technology” anywhere in my curriculum vitae, I nevertheless honestly knew a great deal because I had kept my nose to the grindstone of emerging technology news and how it was shaping the economy, society, culture and politics. More than 15 years out from that moment, I have still not shaken the habit. Hence my many posts on contemporary political issues that may, or in some cases may not, directly affect matters related to the internet.
Today’s observation relies not on digital journalistic analysis or any form of science but on a life-long history of that habit. Where is technology in the news? It has shrunk to a shadow of its former self. Instead of reports on Google’s rise, or Facebook’s recalculated steps, Amazon’s expanding markets, Microsoft’s remaking of itself in the imagine of privacy and security, or Apple being supremely capitalized and fighting the F.B.I., we have but one focus: Donald Trump.
In all my years, I have never known a public figure for being more successful at capturing almost every headline. Not Kennedy or Nixon, Reagan or Clinton (almost …). Trump beats them all, and, like my reading habit, it may, or may not, be a good thing. For the man, with insatiable, addictive needs for attention, it must surely be a constant rush. But just as the narcissist in the family who sucks all the oxygen out of the room of every family gathering, it comes at a cost to the rest of us. No one has time to hear about Aunt Sally’s tumble down the cellar stairs or Cousin Jim’s new girlfriend because all attention goes to the antics of the good, the bad, and the ugly of only one guest.
In public life, more is at stake than not knowing your cousin’s daughter just got into medical school or how, for the tenth time, Uncle Frank fought at the Battle of the Bulge. If we still believe that technology is “disrupting” the law, social norms, and the market, I will report that I know less now about all of that than I have in the last fifteen years reading about it. Not that those companies have ceased operations. Microsoft responded to WannaCry. Facebook just reached another milestone of users. Amazon notably purchased Whole Foods (so it can have an automatic physical outlet). Google, notwithstanding getting hammered by the EU, continues to dominate the search (and advertising) market. But most of those reports are either predictable (Amazon and Google) or expected (Facebook and all the rest, including Apple, still raking it in). Where is the excitement?
We are so distracted by the antics of our president that we have lost our focus on the entities that have so much influence over our lives: the corporations and banking and health care and pharmaceutical, insurance, and not least, technology industries. What used to be front page news now is at the back. That is, if it is reported at all. Political reporters at the NYT, for example, are now not only getting all of the front page, above-the-fold reports, but seasoned tech writers are scattered to the back pages if even still in the pool. Claire Cain Miller used to be one of my favorite NYT tech reporters. Lately she jumped ship for The Upshot. When was the last time that the opinion or reporting elite of the above-named journals wrote a searing, critical account of technology developments? I read them every day and couldn’t give you an answer without looking it up.
Maybe technology, notwithstanding its own proud P.R. for being a young Turk, is reaching a plateau, a young adult stabilizing point. Maybe it is not the big disruptive new kid on the block anymore. But even if that is the case, the tech industry is still of great significance in all of our lives. Together with the telecoms, the tech industry manages and mediates so much of what we think and like, how we shop, learn, and relax, who we are “friends” with, and — with last election history in mind — how we vote. These companies may be taking advantage of the fact that for the moment, with the public distracted, public pressure is off. That, of course, would be a mistake. These circumstances are a case of not one or the other, but both require our focus. As citizens, we need to right our republic. As consumers, we should not accept the data/technological transformations that disadvantage us. And as members of the higher education community, we must preference our missions in a comprehensive approach to public life.