Brokers in the Bits Bazaar

After exploring all sorts of scholarly nuances behind the phrase, “the medium is the message,” Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis in Blown to Bits bring us to the real: The money isn’t in the medium or the message but whoever brokers access to the bits.

In the opening of Blown to Bits, Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis state that we’re in the midst of a digital explosion since technology (bits) is intertwined with everything we do. The authors used the 2008 scandal surrounding a former governor of New York to illustrate their point that everything is a bits story, but I couldn’t help but make a more up-to-date comparison in the unfolding bridge-gate saga ensnaring the current New Jersey governor in 2014.

The now infamous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is a bits story too since the smoking gun is an email; an electronic message, which even if deleted, is never, really obliterated (Koan #6) and now that seminal message (retrieved via a redacted Freedom of Information request, which by the way illustrates the examples in Chapter 3 effortlessly) has resulted in firings and subpoenas within the governor’s inner circle.

And, in keeping with the authors’ examples, I illustrated another of their discussion points about bits when I inserted a series of hyperlinks into this blog post. In an effort to pass along information about the bridge scandal, I used two different search engines (Bing and Google) to locate news stories about the New Jersey bridge scandal. Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis devote most of Chapter 4 (Needles in the Haystack) to the rise of the search engines, or in the authors’ phrasing “brokers in the bits bazaar.”

Originally, I read stories and watched videos about the New Jersey bridge-gate scandal in the digital editions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC. I went straight to these various mediums to consume their messages on the unraveling saga, but the bits story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just starting, according to Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis, because none of these major media outlets control the ultimate digital access to their information; that power belongs to the information brokers: Google and Bing.

The open market understands that “information access has greater market value than information creation” (p. 158) because whoever controls the search engine has the power to shape what people see in the bits bazaar, which is the reason Google has a market capitalization of $157 billion versus the New York Times’ $3 billion (p. 158).

Once upon a time, such as in the 20th century, reliable information was assigned to such luddite-like information portals as encyclopedias and newspapers of record (the local daily in most places), but nowadays that job mostly resides with search engines and their endless spiders that crawl across the internet collecting and cataloging an assortment of digital information.

However, too many people are forgetting that just like producers of encyclopedias and newspapers, search engines are created by humans who on their best days might be impartial in creating their algorithms to collect information but nonetheless are always subjective in what they allow consumers to see in their aggregated listings (i.e. Google and China). In other words, humans are not bits, even though they have created an insatiable appetite for that search-engine technology with all its risks and opportunities (p. 15).


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3 responses to “Brokers in the Bits Bazaar

  1. Norma, your blog is an excellent critique of the book and offers many useful illustrations in the form of links and the attached video. As you correctly emphasized, the power belongs to the information brokers (search engines) such as Google and Bing. The search engines however are created by humans and do not always produce the most accurate and complete algorithms of all the data available. So we as users are presented with a certain slice of cake and not necessarily the best part.
    As Harvey Silverglate noted in regards to the Blown to Bits book, “The world has turned into the proverbial elephant and we the blind men. The old and the young among us risk being controlled by, rather than in control of, events and technologies.”

    As humans, we entered a new stage of rapid technological development, and no one can quite predict the future impact of technology on the society. On the surface, ICTs provide a lot of freedoms and allowances but at the same time in the hands of savvy business people, the technology can be utilized in ways that do not benefit humankind necessarily.
    I liked your comparison of the search engine’s functions to the endless spiders crawling around the web and cataloging and collecting digital information. How do we know what is truthful and accurate? There is much obvious garbage in troll posts, propaganda or intentional misrepresentation of facts. Yet even things that appear factually true may be presented with a certain manipulation and perception shaping purpose. The more we “live in public”, the more control we are giving up as data is getting stored documenting our every move and word.
    New technologies bring both risks and opportunities which again goes along with the notion of a type of technology user and their purpose.

    • I was really struck by your sentence “Yet even things that appear factually true may be presented with a certain manipulation and perception shaping purpose.” Don’t forget to incorporate concrete examples, even in your responses!

  2. As I mentioned on your comment on another blog, you write very well. I like that you link the George Washington Bridge scandal to the interplay of bits and atoms in scandals involving public officials. As a reader, I would have loved to have read more from you on this topic. In what ways is this scandal different? Or, if they aren’t different, what does that tell us? Further, what are the implications of this for those of us who aren’t government officials?

    Alternatively, I would have also enjoyed reading more about your experience with Bing and Google in finding sources for the post. You mention having gone directly to the websites of several major news organizations? What are the implications of this? What about your use of Bing and Google? Did you find the same sources? Why does this (or doesn’t it) matter?

    In other words, this is a well written and articulate post that does a nice job of illustrating multiple points from the reading. For future posts, I’d love to see you push beyond illustration to engage more with the readings. In other other words, I am interested in what you think in response to the readings.

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