There’s been a recent surge in attention given to a relatively obscure British journalist’s thoughts on headline writing. “Betteridge’s Law” is the informal term for the argument that any (usually technology-related) headline that ends in a question mark can be answered “no.” Betteridge made his original argument in response to a TechCrunch article entitled “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?”
The reason that so many of this rhetorical questions can be answered “no” comes from their shared reliance on flimsy evidence and/or rumor. The TechCrunch piece in question ignited controversy and resulted in a slew of vehement denials from Last.fm, none of which TechCrunch was able to rebut with actual evidence. John Gruber also recently snagged a prime example in The Verge’s review of Fanhattan’s new set-top TV box, entitled “Fan TV revealed: is this the set-top box we’ve been waiting for?”
So we know what Betteridge’s Law cases look like in terms of their headlines, which feature overzealous rhetorical questions. But what sorts of stylistic traits unite the body of these articles? Moreover, why do journalists use this cheap trick (other than to garner page-views and lengthen their comments sections), and what types of arguments and rhetoric do they employ in following-up their question? I am guilty of writing a Betteridge headline in my own “Mailbox for Android: Will Anyone Care?,” which isn’t my strongest piece, so I’ll try to synthesize my own motivations in writing that article with trends I’ve noticed in another recent article that used a Betteridge headline, entitled “With Big Bucks Chasing Big Data, Will Consumers Get a Cut?”
Most visibly, Betteridge’s Law cases employ numerous hedges, qualifiers, and ill-defined terms, some of which are often denoted by italics or scare-marks. By their nature, they’re almost invariably concerned with the future, which explains the feigned confusion inherent in the question they pose. That is, they act unsure, but they have an argument (and maybe even a prediction to make). Nevertheless, they have to hedge on account of the future not having happened yet (the “predictions are hard, especially about the future” syndrome), or, similarly, use conditional statements.
I did this near the end of my Mailbox article, saying “This isn’t a critical problem yet, or at least for as long as Google makes quality apps and services that it doesn’t kill-off abruptly, but it will make life hard for the likes of Mailbox and Dropbox.” My “yet” is a hedge, and my “it will” is the prediction I’m trying to use to establish more credibility. In The Verge article linked to by Gruber, the authors say “IPTV — live television delivered over the internet — is in its infancy,” strengthen that with “Meanwhile, competition for the living room is as fierce as it has ever been,” and then feebly try to make sense of it all by saying “At the same time, if it matches the experience shown in today’s demos, Fan TV could win plenty of converts.”
Delving into the aformentioned article about “big data,” we find similarly representative text:
- “You probably won’t get rich, but it’s possible”
- “But there’s a long road ahead before that’s settled”
- “Others aren’t so sure a new market for personal data will catch on everywhere”
- “not as much is known about these consumers”
- “That’s a big change from the way things have worked so far in the Internet economy, particularly in the First World.”
- “big data”
This headline is really a grand slam for Betteridge’s Law. Simply answering “no” means that you believe that corporations specializing in data-collection won’t be all that generous in compensating their subjects for data that they’ve possibly given up without even realizing that they’ve done so. After all, lucid arguments have been made about how Google in particular could be subtly abetting authoritarianism via its data collection, which if true would constitute a reality directly opposed to the fairer, more democratic world proposed by advocates of data-related payments. To the latter point, Jaron Lanier has argued for “micropayments” to preserve both middle-class society and democracy in the West.
The article examines mostly nascent data-collection and technology companies and ideas whose success or failure is so far hard to quantify and whose prospects remain unclear. Accordingly, the author must use filler about the weak possibility of becoming rich, the cliché of a “long road ahead,” and the admission that many consumer habits are a black box and that maybe not all consumers are the same. Even the broad “consumers” term is flimsy, to say nothing of the nebulous term – “big data” – that the article must presuppose as well-defined (I have argued that it is not so well-defined) to even have a workable article premise.
For additional seasoning, the article resorts to the outmoded term “First World” (a leftover from the Cold War) and the ill-defined “Internet economy.” I think I know what he means with the latter: the targeted-ad model of Google, Amazon, and Facbook. But the vacuity of the term “internet” leaves the door open: would Apple’s sale of devices that require the internet for most functions count as part of the “internet economy,” too, despite having a different structure in which users pay with money rather than data?
Like many Betteridge-compliant headlines, the accompanying article isn’t a contribution to any sophisticated discussion of the issues that it pretends to care about. Hence the teaselike question-headline; Betteridge’s Law cases pretend that they’re engaging in high discourse, perhaps in the same way that the valley girl accent – riddled with unusual intonations cadences that throw off the rhythm of its speaker’s sentences and draws attention away from content – pretends it is partaking in real conversation. Perhaps we really should bring back the punctus percontativus so we can see these rhetorical questions for what they really are.
“If the Internet were a world, Morozov blithely ignores whole continents, whole oceans, to make his criticisms of certain aspects of one small province—Silicon Valley—and then extrapolate from them to encompass the rest.”
This is a telling metaphor: it shows just how vaporous and indistinct the idea of a single, coherent “internet” really is, if the best description anyone can formulate is that it’s like a bunch of continents, among which Silicon Valley (itself hardly well-defined) is a province. However, the metaphor does prove the existence of “Internet-centrism”; what kind of person assigns the statehood and governmental responsibilities associated with a “province” to a bunch of California VCs and startups? But I do think that this is what many advocates of relentless technological “progress” want: their own country, their own rules, and the right to move “forward” without regard for general welfare or dissent.
A person living in the increasingly stratified, inequality-ravaged West should take note. The more one thinks about Bustillos’ (likely offhand) metaphor, the scarier it is: a world run not by democratic laws and the humane inefficiencies of the governments that make them, but by titans of industry focused not on public welfare or equality but on profits, masked as “efficiency” borne out of technological innovation. And their vehicle is “the internet,” spoken of in hushed terms as if it were an immutable force equivalent to “gravity,” when it is actually not even a physical space and not even remotely objective, with its primary inputs often coming from predominantly male demographics (Reddit, Wikipedia) or proprietary algorithms (Google).
Jaron Lanier has recently commented on the shortcomings of Internet-centrism (and for some reason earning a rebuke from like-minded Morozov), chiding it for decontextualizing information and acting as if truth can be dispensed from anonymous masses:
“I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.
So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.”
I touched upon some similar points in my piece about the inherent non-objectivity (subjectivity?) of “the internet,” and the various contingencies that make it what it is. I’ll just add that I find it unsurprising that both Silicon Valley and “the internet” would do little to promote the integrity of books, music, and creative arts, as well as the people who create them. For every success story of Kickstarter star, there’s someone who is struggling because creative work is now assigned value via cultural capital and “likes” or “+1s,” rather than actual money or employment. But, hey, it’s all in the name of “open access” and “openness,” so it must represent real “progress” for mankind, no? What can one do when “the internet,” despite not being a real agent/actor, is relentlessly changing everything, as they say?
Lanier talks about the help that the middle-class needs to maintain its status:
“I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.”
These types of gatekeepers, protections, and institutions are exactly what many of the purveyors of technological “progress” want to destroy. Morozov himself has belabored this point using comparisons such as Uber (the quintessence of upper-crust Silicon Valley muscle eroding a purposefully inefficient public service in the name of “efficiency”) and taxis, and one can arguably see it even in seemingly populist drives like John McCain’s attempt to dismantle the bundled cable television package model (which actually saves money for consumers and gives them more choices without being priced out of the market), but I think an even better example is education.
Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker analysis of the effect of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on higher education is balanced, with a nuanced look at how, on the one hand, online learning could solve classroom space issues and propagate knowledge and, on the other, shrink the academic job market and centralize all academic thought and opinion. I’ll take a look at this later, when I write part two.