This is an edited version of a speech by News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson in London on Friday titled Big Digital: After the Awakening, the Reckoning:
I COME from a journalistic background. Dog Bites Man is never a story. Man Bites Dog is certainly a story. Bytes Dog Man — that is THE story.
Almost 12 years ago as editor of The Times I gave evidence to a House of Lords committee:
‘The problem that we have as a society is that there is a significant number of people who have grown up in a different information environment … surrounded by much more information, but whose provenance is not clear … The rumours will be believed, the fiction will be thought of as fact and the political agendas, among other agendas, will be influenced by interest groups who are coming from some quite strange trajectory to issues based on collective understanding that is founded on falsity.’
And so it shouldn’t surprise us that there are problems with provenance and opportunities for bad actors to damage democracies.
MORE: News Corp CEO predicts digital ‘reckoning’
Thankfully, there is indeed a more contemplative crew of contemporary politicians and regulators, not merely dazzled by the digital, or falling for the fashionable — they are able to divine the difference between artificial intelligence and the artifice of intelligence. Let’s be very clear — the digital world has brought manifold benefits, in choices and chances, in efficiency and efficacy. It is core not a coda. And because its core we need to be conscious of consequences, and not diss dissent as has happened for too long. At last we are discussing more seriously the fine lines between engagement and addiction, between repurposing and piracy and pillage, between belonging and bullying, between identity and insecurity, all of which are magnified digitally.
I was with the astute, acute Senator Graham in Washington last week, and he clearly understands the potency of dominant algorithms and the anti-social potential of social media. As the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and with the respect of both parties, he will be a profoundly important voice in coming years as the awakening becomes a reckoning.
That word has biblical overtones and so who will ultimately be the cyber Solomon, ensuring that the digital ecosystem develops to its undoubted potential? One certain outcome will be less dominance by a few players whose reach across horizontals and deep into verticals is a fundamental contradiction, whether in content or in commerce. No one wants the reckoning to be a wrecking ball but the digital debris trail is already rather long.
There is generally an understanding in business that connections lead to partnerships lead to relationships with responsibilities — and that’s the implied social contract, but digital relationships very quickly descended into abusive relationships. Serial cheating, digital denials, haughtiness, smugness, playing content creators for suckers who don’t understand the ecosystem. Allowing rampant piracy, sometimes actually encouraging it; it was core to the business model for some, not all. It’s not a compliant culture — it’s a complaint culture. You complain about the most obvious, egregious, outrageous abuse and these companies may eventually be compliant. But complaint compliance is neither sincere nor a sustainable strategy.