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Re-framing how we talk about tech

By Peter A. McKay

My friend Gil Duran, former press secretary for California Gov. Jerry Brown, is obsessed these days with how discussions are framed. Before you can get down to a heated pro-con on any given issue, it matters a lot how you set it up and what your underlying assumptions are. Along with retired linguistics professor George Lakoff, Gil has even started a company and a podcast about framing, with a particular focus on how it works in politics.

In the tech world, I think we need to do some rhetorical re-framing as well. It's already beginning to happen to a degree, as everyday users are getting more aware (and more skeptical) of the practices of big tech companies like Facebook. But it strikes me that the public conversation about tech is still mostly stuck in the old frame where the big companies, not the users, are the center of the narrative.

Think of how much press coverage of Facebook's crisis is framed around questions like: Can Facebook fix itself? Will Facebook be regulated? Should its top executives be replaced? And so on.

Who cares? Those are Facebook's problems to solve itself as a massive public company. Do you work for them or own their stock? If not, perhaps you should spend less time trying to devise solutions to their problems.

Yes, I know that such companies are powerful. We in the U.S. have an important congresional election coming up in just a few months, and Facebook will inevitably play an important communication role in that process, for better or worse.

But over the longer timeframe -- there goes that word again -- the users have a lot of power over tech as well. This is what the popular conversation crucially tends to overlook.

Specifically, users have a degree of agency over the internet -- an ability to take action to proactively fix it -- that shouldn't be ignored. You see, the flipside of all the tech companies tracking you relentlessly is that they'll notice if you leave, or even just change your usage patterns, or switch to a competitor.

Even if you aren't a programmer, you have power because you vote with your feet every time you use Facebook or any other service. They ultimately, unavoidably have to respond to that.

(In a slightly different way, this also holds true of non-Silicon Valley industries as they engage online. That's why Indizr recently started the open Digital News Delivery Working Group, to help journalism organizations and producers tap into the power of technology on their own terms.)

You shape the internet, just a little bit, every time you use it. It's ultimately a reflection of us, not just something that's imposed on us, that comes out of the sky like the weather.

This is our agency, and it can be very powerful, if we resolve to act more purposefully over time in the tech choices we make.

Photo by Artotem via Flickr. Used in its original form, unedited, under Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Peter A. McKay

Peter A. McKay

Peter A. McKay, a news technologist based in Northern California, is founder of Indizr. He is a former prize-winning reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

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