Marooned in a place without cellular coverage and internet access for just a day, I recently suffered through a kryptonetic weakening of all of my cognitive systems.

Off-grid and no longer with instant access to the Library of Alexandria. No worldwide publishing platforms at my fingertips. No direct link to family, friends and the all-knowing Cloud.

Suddenly ejected from Plato’s cave, and now safely back within our brave new world, I can see through these fresh eyes how extremely far removed we already are from our pre-internet lives, in which an unhackable daily newspaper still could be published and distributed widely during a power outage.

This evolving state of humanity is not a wonderful or a horrifying thing. It’s both. Rejecting duality, I don’t think we should demonize our gadgets but instead be constantly mindful of them and their power to affect and shape (and distort) our lives, however we let them.

A few weeks ago, I was moderating a news literacy panel for Civil Beat at Manoa Public Library. The topic was “Navigating the Flood of Information,” and one member of the audience asked me afterward what tools I’d recommend for controlling and limiting information on the internet, especially for kids who wouldn’t get off their iPads. I suggested the power button accompanied by a firm application of the language technology known as “no.”

She asked again, thinking I was joking. But I wasn’t. Technology rarely solves a problem in our world without creating another, and whatever filters we build, we still need people to do the hard work. For the most part, that’s your job, and it can’t be fully abdicated to the tech companies.

Apple cannot be faulted for making an engaging and alluring interface to the storehouse of human knowledge and activities. An iPad, though, just like a TV in the 1980s and a desktop computer in the 1990s, was not designed to be a brain or a parent substitute. Apple has profits in mind, not your best interests or significant concerns about the health of the world’s ecosystem.

Google and Facebook benefit tremendously from the work of others while each puts a hand around the neck of the golden goose in a competition to see who can squeeze harder.

In other words, exhaust is coming out of the smokestack now that can’t be stuffed back into the pipe. It’s in the ether, unavoidable as well as inseparable from what we all need to function on a daily basis, despite its potential for causing ill health. Instead of suppressing or destroying these systems, though, I think our focus should be on better personal engagement and collective management of them.

A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal by David Chavern, of the News Media Alliance and the American Press Institute, emphasized how ubiquitous computing systems that now envelope us can diminish public discourse, weakening journalism as an industry and threatening First Amendment rights — including the right to a free press.

This seems counterintuitive, I know, since information is more abundant than ever, more diverse speakers have microphones and more details about any particular issue can be discovered online. But as the Wall Street Journal editorial outlined, and as this Axios piece notes as well, Google and Facebook benefit tremendously from the work of others while each puts a hand around the neck of the golden goose in a competition to see who can squeeze harder.

Current legal restrictions on the newspaper industry, the argument goes, mean it can’t fairly compete.

Google and Facebook don’t create the information they share, but they do control it and richly profit from it. They don’t hire journalists to ask tough questions of people in power, but they get the glory of sharing breaking news when others do.

They claim to be just networkers and distributors, not responsible for the content that flows through their pipes any more than a trucking company is responsible for what’s in its cargo. In that way, they also shirk any responsibility for the quality and integrity of information that circulates in their channels, including dangerously false and misleading pseudo-news.

This free labor for Google and Facebook costs newspaper publishers and television stations around the country enormous amounts in an unsustainable imbalance (again, remember, one of these factions pays the bills, while the other collects the checks).

Meanwhile, social media minions spend many hours a week toiling to fill Facebook’s and Google’s channels with other types of engaging content, for which the pay is intangible social capital (while Facebook and Google secretly and opaquely sell this information and your related data — including your eyeballs, and ears and hearts — for untold riches).

This is a cutthroat competition for attention and resources. Audiences, most conveniently, have a smartphone in hand and an array of options from which to choose, ranging from the comfort of cute cat videos to the cognitive disturbance caused by our current president’s conflicted acts of self-interest, documented by professional journalists doing the toughest types of investigative reporting.

Along these lines, I recently reread Neil Postman’s 1993 book, “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” which puts into socio-cultural and historical perspective the changes every era of humanity faces with disruptive technologies. Imagine, for example, being the people who were shaken out of their comfort zones by the mass implementation of agriculture, the printing press, electricity, the railroad and the telegraph.

What startled me most about Postman’s book was that it was written well before the creation of Google or Facebook, but it read like a direct reference to them. Instead of the robber barons of the late 19th century controlling the physical transportation of ideas, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the like are simply the latest incarnation of the ruthless and endlessly greedy entrepreneurs throughout history amassing obscene wealth through monopolistic control of our communication channels, until they were regulated to a reasonable extent.

Think of the control Google has over this column, for example. I’m writing it on Google Docs, storing it in Google Drive and then sending it to Civil Beat via Gmail. To do it otherwise would be inefficient. But by doing so, I’m giving Google’s servers (and potentially Page and Brin, if they so desired) the first look at what I’m writing and all of my draft thoughts.

Our media environment is dangerously under the umbrella of such consolidated and under-regulated powers. Barack Obama, for example, was considered the first “social-media” president, in part based on historical timing but also on his skill in communicating to his constituents through new media forms. Without social media, I suspect Obama would have had a much harder time getting elected, if he would have been elected at all.

His successor, though, has taken such snappy communication to the extreme, condensing the complexities of foreign and domestic policy positions into easy-to-digest 140-character or less statements. As the propaganda goes: Big wall is good. Muslims are bad. Hillary is crooked. I also can’t imagine how this guy would have been elected without the power Twitter offered him.

In that respect, we are now intimately invested in these communication systems as a society. These systems shape our lives. They have all the power and money and aren’t going to give that up willingly. So the question becomes, what are you going to do about it? And going off-grid, as I quickly found out, is not a good option.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.