Politizing the Internet

This year’s September is the month in which I’m returning to school. No, wait: partly returning to school. This year I’ll be a Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. That means, amongst other things, that I’ll be working and studying at Harvard. That’s also why I’m writing this piece sitting in the impressive Law Library in the centre of Cambridge, Massachusetts, surrounded by pale students who are already panicking because of the amount of work they’ve got to do for the first week.

It’s hard to explain what a fellowship is. I heard of it before, but didn’t know exactly what is it was either. I did know the group of Frodo and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings go by the same name (the fellowship, of course, of the ring). But a fellowship at a university is, on most days, quite a bit less dangerous. It means that for a certain amount of time you leave the hazards of daily life to affiliate yourself to a university, and during that time, you try to improve yourself and your field. You do that by getting extra education, by organizing and visiting lectures, by having lots of discussions, inside classrooms and in café’s and spending a lot of time with journalists from all over the world.

My fellowship is at the Nieman Foundation, which was founded in 1938 with a stroke of unexpected luck for journalism. The wealthy widow Agnes Wahl Nieman, after she died, left a substantial amount of money to the University of Harvard “to promote and elevate the standards of journalism in the United States and educate persons deemed specially qualified for journalism.” It was a completely unexpected gesture, since Agnes Wahl Nieman, or her late husband, didn’t have any special ties to University of Harvard. Even her relatives were said to be surprised. This donation meant the establishment of the Nieman Foundation, which is now residing in a wonderful wooden house at the corner of the campus.

I became a fellow this year because I ran into the call for Nieman Fellows in a blogpost on Nieman Lab, an indispensable blog for everyone interested in the future of media. The main condition to become a fellow seemed to be a good reason to apply. In my case, I had two reasons:

  1. These years are very exciting for the field journalism in The Netherlands, with many publications facing downward revenues, and yet also many young journalists that cease the opportunity to start new publications. I need time to think about that, about the future of legacy media and about all these news players.
  1. And also: I feel that technology-journalism (my field) is strangely still an issue on its own, while the technological and the non-technological can hardly be separated anymore. So what does that do with journalism?

The role of the tech journalist is extending. It’s moving beyond the technology pages, to the sections of economics, of policy, even to the front page. And that means the role of the tech journalist is changing as well. Many journalists are devoted to covering Apple events, or start-up news, but only few are concentrating on the politics of technology, or the sociology of networks, or the rights of labourers. These issues are mostly unexplored and they will ask for attention soon.

A big problem is: this is very difficult. When computing power grows, and hackers organize, and companies get more influence, there will be more need of standards and institutions. If not, the technology won’t a democratic platform for the people, but a plutocracy of Wallstreet and Silicon Valley. That’s the risk when journalists focus mostly on the Internet as a closed domain, as if it’s just friendly and innocent, and politicians withdraw to popular but simplistic narratives of innovation and start-ups. This falsely shows a very complicated world as a quite simple machine of ideas. Then it’s just an excuse to walk around the important political decisions on cyberwar, cyber-espionage, terrorism, crime, suppression, and exploitation, too name a few.

The journalist here could very well be the bridge between technology and policy makers, describing the dilemmas, devoting more time to studying the field and keeping up then we can possibly expect from policy makers. Journalists shouldn’t position themselves as mere tech-journalists, but as political scientists, as philosophers or as historians, difficult as it may be, describing decisions, setting the agenda. When you show what is at stake, you politicize the Internet and give it a chance to be a democracy.

This year as a Nieman Fellow is a perfect opportunity to remote myself from daily life as a journalist, to contemplate what it really is: the tech-journalist. And I thank the Nieman Foundation and Democracy and Media Foundation for giving me the chance.