Proposing a speed limit on information

How fast should knowledge travel?

Like a lot of people, I’ve spent this last month following the US elections - and in particular, the role that the tech companies have (reluctantly) taken in mediating and managing the information around it. 

The thing that caught my attention the most was not the election itself or the aftermath, but a flare-up that happened about a fortnight earlier, when the New York Post published a story about a laptop with some purported link to Hunter Biden.

Fascinatingly, Facebook and Twitter made a decision not to delete the material, but to slow its spread. Facebook allowed the links to remain, but paused its algorithmic promotion while their fact-checkers examined the story. Twitter kept existing links to the story, but clicking on those links took users to a landing page that warned them the material might violate Twitter guidelines.

The story was still published and discussed, but this added layer of friction meant it couldn’t travel as far or as fast until other sources had verified the facts. The result was that by the time it spread, it did so alongside a second layer of fact-checking and context. This move caused an inevitable backlash, but it struck me as a really interesting response to the problem of verifying contentious news stories. 

My brother Chris remarked, ‘Is there anything wrong with delaying a story or limiting its algorithmic spread for the duration of time where there is uncertainty about its key premises for 24-48 hours? During this time, the global media response - interviews with key players, fact-checks of this or that aspect - can become part of the story. People can obviously still read it from the moment it’s published on the original website, it's just that the article won't be algorithmically suggested before the broader media establishment has produced content in response.’

My reaction was, why isn’t this the default? Why don’t we apply this friction to all online content? Or to put it another way: What benefit do we actually get from the instantaneous sharing of all news and current events? Should our news and current affairs move at the rapid speed of social media?

There’s definitely times when instant communications is critical. During riots in London in 2011 and floods in Manila in 2013, I found Twitter to be a vital tool in navigating the city in an rapidly evolving situation. But in social contexts, the hyperactive speed of online discourse is destabilising as much as it is useful. An insightful post or a joke can blow up quickly, but as Richard Seymour says

The temperate climate of ‘likes’ and approval is apt to break, lightning-quick, into sudden storms of fury and disapproval. And if ordinary users are ill-equipped to make the best of ‘going viral’, they also have few resources to weather the storms of negative publicity. We may be treated as if we are micro-enterprises, but we are not corporations with public-relations budgets or social industry managers.

This is not our first time to address the question of how fast is too fast. When casualties of road traffic (both human and wildlife) began mounting in the 1910s and 1920s, we set out to manage them by instituting speed limits. Speed limits are neither foolproof nor perfect - but by and large, they’ve helped to limit the damage of traffic accidents

So what speed should information travel at?

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I’ve been prompted to think about these questions as part of a project I’ve been doing this month with Boho for the Australian National University. The ANU’s 3A Institute have commissioned us to create a series of games looking at technological systems, including the internet. 

Founded in 2017 in response to the rise of ‘cyber physical systems’ - meaning, roughly, AI inside things that aren’t computers, from drones to fitbits to autonomous vehicles to fridges - the 3A Institute’s mission is to imagine how we might manage these systems in ways that are safe and equitable.

For this project, we’ve been examining certain technologies in the broader context of social, economic and ecological systems. We’ve been looking at image-recognition systems, dating websites and fitbits, and digging into fascinating research like Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s map of the supply chain of the Amazon Echo, or 3A director Genevieve Bell’s history of the elevator.

The core principle of this approach is that we need to ask critical questions of the technologies we use. We need to step back from things we use every day and practice seeing them with fresh eyes.

Everyone alive today was born in the middle of this huge global system. There were forests being cleared and ships transporting goods to us before we even knew that forests or ships existed.

The complexity of our society is incredible - and yet no-one planned it, no-one controls it. No president, no CEO, no thinktank or architect set out to make this system, or even fully understands it. We are all participating in something that no-one built - something that built itself using us.

No-one asked us if we wanted this kind of world, let alone told us what the consequences would be. We don’t get to stand outside it and decide how much of it we accept or not. By the time we become aware of our environment, we’re already a part of it, we’re already caught up in the flow.

But this approach of framing critical questions - what 3Ai sometimes dubs ‘the new cybernetics’ - is a good reminder that we are not just passive witnesses. We can ask questions, we can engage, we can identify leverage points, and we can make interventions.

And the social media industry which now constitutes much of our public sphere is not some abstract meta-space - it’s a system designed and managed by people. As I think we’re all aware, right now that system is unstable, in flux, and not working the way its designers imagined it would. In five years, the information ecology will look very different. So now is an ideal moment to stand back from it and start asking these critical questions, to create an image of the kind of public sphere we want, and then to demand it.

As Facebook and Twitter’s intervention to slow the spread of the NY Post story demonstrates, questions such as ‘how fast should information travel?’ are not a matter of how fast data can travel through fibreoptic cables - they are up to us. 

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NEWS AND PROJECTS

I’m thrilled to announce that my romantic comedy 44 Sex Acts In One Week will have its first public outing from 16-20 December at the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney. 

The extraordinary performers Rebecca Massey and Sheridan Harbridge (aka Moonshine and Tits) who I worked with in Griffin’s production of Kill Climate Deniers, are hosting a ‘live sex gig’ version of the work, with musician Steve Toulmin and a whole foley table of fruit. 

Here’s the story of the play:

Clickbait blogger Celina Valderrama has just been given the assignment from hell: do and review every item in a new book entitled 'The 44 Sex Acts That Will Change Your Life'. By Friday. 

With no other partner available, Celina is forced to turn to her nemesis, brooding animal activist Alab Delusa. 

As these two mortal enemies set out on a highspeed journey through the wild landscapes of kink, will the friction between them become... something more?

You can read more about the play - and about high-stakes sex in pressure cooker situations - in this piece I wrote for Audrey Journal, and you can book tickets here.

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Last week Typhoon Ulysses swept through the Philippines - the sixth major storm to hit the country in the last five weeks. Many families have lost houses in the flooding, and people urgently need food, blankets, facemasks, soap, towels, toys and books. If you have the means, I highly recommend donating to one of the mutual aid groups working on the ground - Project Pearls is doing good work in this space.

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As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.

Peace!