Holding the virtual interview with Tom Standage on Facebook Live was comically ironic – the discussions that were about to unfold advocated for the redistribution of power away from social media monopolies, and yet we were using the largest one of all. Being a journalist, author and technology wiz, the recent political, technological and social climate has constructed a perfect melting-pot for Mr Standage’s multiple areas of interest. As he reflected on the past, the present, and how it all intertwines on a Thursday afternoon, an array of colourful books created the perfect backdrop for one of the most respected writers of our time.

The Economist

Born and bred in England, Tom Standage has been a part of The Economist family since 1998. After occupying various roles, he currently serves as its deputy director and head of digital strategy. In fact, Mr Standage is the creator and driving force behind the famous Espresso app, a feature in the newspaper’s smartphone application. The name befits what it is – a concentrated dose of important news that you need to know, to be consumed daily alongside your morning coffee. The addition is in line with the distinctive approach of The Economist. “We aim to meet people where they are,” he tells Room for Discussion, a vision that has driven, and continues to drive, the publication strategy of the newspaper. While competitors such as the New York Times churn out 200 posts a day, The Economist resembles a calmer counter-part that produces a finite bundle that is possible to finish. As Mr Standage himself puts it: “we sell the feeling of being informed, the antidote of information overload – that’s not a feeling you get from the Internet or The New York Times, though I do love the New York Times.”

A curious detail of The Economist is the lack of links within their digital articles, a common practice in online news sources to keep their written work snappy whilst allowing elaboration on related subjects, as well as to demonstrate a degree of credibility. Mr Standage acknowledges the merit of showing your workings – their writers do cite external sources,  but only when deemed absolutely necessary. However, the rabbit hole of clicking on links to fully grasp the situation that is being described in an article is all too familiar. When push comes to shove, the linking method resembles more of a marketing scheme to drum up views than anything truly informational. At the end of a regular news article, you are most likely left with four open tabs and an incoherent story. “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone reads through everything, [including] all the links, and summarises what is truly important? Well, that is exactly what The Economist does!” he exclaims, amused. 

Technology and Society

Being an engineering and computing graduate from the prestigious University of Oxford, it is safe to say that Mr Standage knows a thing or two about technology. It is well within his field of expertise. In 2013, Mr Standage published a book titled Writing on the Wall: Social Media—The First 2,000 Years. It brilliantly describes how the world has been social since the beginning of time. The ancient Roman media ecosystem was one of the earliest manifestations of social media; the Romans often wrote letters and had slaves deliver messages for them as a method of distribution. Modern mass media has emerged in the last 150 years and has allowed people to produce information much more readily, as well as for it to be received by a much larger audience.

The problem with initial mass media was its relatively short bandwidth, leading to each city typically having local radio stations or television channels, versus the ubiquitous nature of content today. The internet has infiltrated that process and has taken away the monopolies these media companies once had, especially within the realm of social media in relation to traditional media outlets. The latter have been grumbling away about how Google and Facebook are stealing their lunch money and advertisement revenue. In the larger scheme of things, however, the social revolution has actually come full circle rather than having been robbed of anything. Mr Standage explains that it was only the last few years that the journalism industry worked on an ad-based model – the way media and information are consumed now is much more like the way things used to be.

So how are we to respond? Mr Standage admits his view was somewhat overly optimistic regarding the positive effects of social media when writing his book almost a decade ago. The idealistic virtual world that was envisioned as powered by individuals, agile, and fast-paced, was largely replaced by a flurry of conspiracy theories, authoritarian figures such as the infamous Donald Trump, and censorship, which is emerging in even the most liberal countries.

The United States, a vociferous advocate of free speech, has come across turbulent times in recent years, starting with the divisive election of business tycoon Donald Trump as president in 2016. Trump, who has remained in the spotlight of scrutiny, was recently labelled as an instigator of the riot that saw people storm the country’s Capitol building. The former president was viewed as publicly endorsing the protest that quickly turned violent via the social media platform Twitter. Days later, after a total of four years of voicing his controversial comments, Twitter executives banned Trump from their site.

The recent censorship in the United States has sparked many interesting discussions. Western liberals, such as the majority of those who work at The Economist, find it hard to justify the act. “It may seem like a double standard, but the thing we do support is democracy and self-determination in the rule of law – something you do not have in China but do in America,” concludes Mr Standage, when asked about how Western liberals disagree with taking down Trump but approve of and encourage the overthrow of the Chinese government. 

The problem with the Twitter debacle, Mr Standage explains, is their lack of consistency with their own policies – they have let him roam free over the past few years after all.  The social media platform made the questionable decision and then tried to justify it instead of the other way around. Twitter is within their rights to do so – the first amendment, the right to free speech, dictates that the government cannot intervene with freedom of speech, not private companies. “There is a good case for not allowing hate speech and for not allowing incitement,” Mr Standage explains, “but there is also a case for saying that heads of states, in particular, have a right to be heard.” The event has created a dangerous precedent and a comfortable situation for authoritarians worldwide, who are now able to use America’s events to justify their own disallowances.

Demonisation of Technology

Amidst the escalation of polarising views online, many have called for social media platforms to be held accountable. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has even been summoned by Congress to answer a series of questions regarding his business’s course of action towards conspiracies and fake news.

Mr Standage disagrees with the view of demonising social media and recognizes that “the real problem is white supremacy – it’s the underlying social illness. Facebook is not the problem, [but rather] the accelerant.” Mr Standage refers to a book written by Carissa Véliz, Privacy is Power, where she emphasises the need for both front and backstage behaviour. Front stage behaviour being what everyone can see, and the latter being everything going behind closed doors. Social media has allowed for everything to be front stage behaviour, even for people who are not well equipped to be under public scrutiny. A problematic feature of social media is how public everything is and how fiery opinions are shared in real-time, causing heated arguments in a matter of seconds. In that aspect, having more privacy may be ideal. But privacy is not the same as censorship.

Moving forward

Competition is a term that has two polar associations, and it instils either fear or motivation. In this case, more competition is necessary to break up the larger corporations that dominate the internet. Some less mainstream platforms have emerged recently, only to be swiftly acquired by the incumbent giants. Facebook, for one, acquired over 50 companies in the past 15 years, with most being dismantled after the fact. Nevertheless, people are becoming increasingly aware of the inner-workings of social media monopolies, and are predicted to become more selective in choosing which organisation receives their support. The hope is that smaller platforms will arise, rally enough users, and redistribute usage. “[Due to] less power per platform, there will be no megaphone effects,” explains Mr Standage. 

Looking beyond the effects of social media, Mr Standage mentions his technological areas of interest, which naturally include artificial intelligence, a career he had initially planned to go into after graduating university, as well as virtual reality. The latter has been said to have recently found its killer app – fitness applications. Of course, with rapid technological advancements come worries. The age-old concern that machines will take over jobs and render people redundant has still not been put to rest. Mr Standage remarks, “machines don’t take jobs, they change jobs.” In his view, automation compels people to be more productive. As a matter of fact, companies with more technological innovation have previously needed to increase hiring as they experienced the most growth. It has been a continuing fear that has yet to come to fruition, and Mr Standage does not see why it would be the case in this era while history has proven it wrong.

A less optimistic stance towards the future is not unpopular. Robert Gordon, a prominent economist, has suggested that all good things have already been invented. “I completely disagree with this,” Mr Standage states. He recognises similar attitudes from the past and cites the Luddites as a prime example – they adopted a stance similar to Gordon’s right before the world had multiple technological revolutions, including steam engines, the telegraph, and the beginning of electrification. “We’re right at the beginning of enormous changes, and at the end of this century we’ll look back and think ‘well there you go, the roaring 20s!’”