“For ALL the People” – In Conversation with author Michael Slaby

"For ALL the People" by Michael Slaby, available now from Disruption Books.
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Of all the books that I have read so far this year, one of my favorites has to be Michael Slaby’s exceedingly relevant, highly engaging, and brilliantly written For ALL the People (available now from Disruption Books). In short, the book is a masterclass on so much of what has ailed our country for so long, and could very easily continue to do so. The good news, as this book so very clearly illustrates, is that these ailments (i.e., the societal division and the political disengagement that has become all too common in recent years) will only persist for as long as we, as a nation, choose to do nothing to properly address the sources of these problems. The choice as to if, when and how we choose to address the various maladies facing the nation is ours — it is up to each and every one of us. The sooner we educate ourselves, and the sooner we begin to take an honest look at where we are and how we got here, the sooner and more easily we can repair the damage done and take the first steps on a new path, toward a government and a society that works for everybody.

Michael Slaby, author of “For ALL the People” (Photo: Courtesy of the Author)

Andrew DeCanniere: First of all, I have to say that I find the book to be extremely relevant, particularly as someone who, I think it is safe to say, was a bit hesitant to wade into the world of social media. I’ve had a computer from the time I was fairly little, so I am very familiar with much of the latest technology. I’m definitely not a technophobe, but I do feel as though I approach certain technologies with some skepticism. 

Michael Slaby: I think that’s probably healthy. 

DeCanniere: How did the book come about, anyway?

Slaby: I actually started to work on this book back in 2013. After the second Obama campaign, where I had helped run all of the technology and analytics and stuff. There was an awful lot of mythology that arose around the Obama teams, and this magical thinking about how technology and social media was this sort of magic, special sauce that had propelled President Obama to the White House. 

I was really interested in debunking or demystifying that mythology, and in trying to unpack what really happened. What about the world had changed? What about technology had changed that made what we did possible? Trying to separate truth from fiction, a little bit. I sort of stumbled into this insight into the basic architecture of information having shifted from channels to a graph. That really unlocked a lot of consequences that had enabled a lot of what we did — but that had these profound, broader consequences for society.

That’s when I really started down this road of how that basic shift in architecture has fundamentally changed our relationship to storytelling, and that relationship is so fundamental to society and culture that it sort of ends up having this incredible snowball effect — especially over the course of seven or eight years of these algorithms running unchecked, and continuing to distort and put pressure on society. A lot of book projects are long projects, so I had kind of picked it up and put it back down a couple of times. A few years ago, I even had decided that maybe I didn’t need to write this book. That maybe people had already figured all of this stuff out. In 2017, after President Trump’s victory, I realized that I felt like I had something that I needed to say. That’s when I really started shaping the longer manuscript that became the book.

DeCanniere: I think that the end result is a very much needed, very timely read. I think there truly is so much in it that is so very relevant to our lives today.

Slaby: Thanks. If I released it back in 2015, when I sort of thought I was going to publish this, I am not sure anybody would’ve read it. I think it’s a lot more germane, and much more relevant to a broader audience now, given what we’ve been going through and the emergence of misinformation and disinformation as topics that we’re really talking about — and watching both the 2016 and 2020 elections unfold. There’s a little bit of luck as far as timing goes with a project like this, too.

DeCanniere: I could see that, though I have to say that, given my background in communications and the media, I would’ve picked it up if it had come out years ago as well. 

Anyhow, I think that your book clearly illustrates how adopting certain technologies will impact one’s life and society as a whole.

Slaby: I think that a little caution and care is good. I don’t think it’s about being afraid of technology. It’s about wanting to understand the environment we are in, how we are connected to others, who we are connected to, and the nature of the relationship. I think there’s a lot of asymmetry and anonymity online that makes the relationships really tricky.

DeCanniere: Absolutely. I think that the anonymity, in particular, is a huge problem. There are people who do things that they would never do in person.

Slaby: Of course. There clearly are contexts in which anonymity is important — for safety, for whistleblowing, for at-risk populations. There are lots of places where anonymity really matters. As a general rule, I think that the default posture being anonymity online is a net negative to the quality of conversation. People are often willing to say things online that they would never say to somebody’s face. One of the places you see a distinction here — and it is subtle — is the quality of comments and conversations on LinkedIn. It’s very different than on Twitter. There are a lot of reasons as to why. Part of it certainly is because, generally speaking, LinkedIn is a place of clear identity. Anonymity is not the norm. You are almost never anonymous on LinkedIn, unless you are just faking an account. I think that makes a big difference. 

DeCanniere: And I think you touch on that as well. I think that if you’re in person, face-to-face with someone, you hopefully feel free to express your opinion in a healthy and productive manner. However, as you point out, on a lot of these platforms, all too often it goes from freedom of speech to an expectation of consequence-free speech. 

Slaby: I use that phrase, too, and I really like it. I think the distinction between free speech and consequence-free speech is something we need to think a lot about. I think only the very most Libertarian people in society really think there should be no constraints on what a person can say. We have lots of constraints on free speech for the health of society in law, and even in the Constitution. I think that is as it should be for healthy communities. 

DeCanniere: Right. I don’t really understand what those people, who argue there ought to be absolutely no limits to what one can say. I think that you should be free to express your own opinion, but I don’t think, for example, that you should deliberately spread disinformation. All too often, I think those people who argue for zero constraints are people who want to distort things or spread disinformation. It’s interesting that, on the one hand, when it comes to what they should be able to say and do, there should seemingly be no limits — at least according to them. 

Slaby: You know, I’ve been thinking how to reform the media systems and reclaim the public sphere. I’ve been thinking a lot about the values that underlie the Constitution, and how that can sort of inform how we think about where we are, relative to media. There is this concept in Constitutional scholarship of the difference between positive rights and negative rights. Generally, negative rights are about restricting the government’s ability to impinge on the individual, while positive rights articulate things that should be guaranteed, enabled or provided by the government for the people. If you are a landed white male in the 18th century who has just won free property rights from a monarchy for the first time, but you are largely safe — you are not worried about your personal safety in any way — you will mostly want negative rights. You want to keep the government from taking your property, but it doesn’t occur to you that the access and safety that you feel ought to be guaranteed in any way. So, you don’t worry about positive rights. So, the Constitution is largely a negative rights document. The Amendments are largely where we start to see positive rights. If you think about the people who founded the platforms that we rely upon online, the new founders looked a lot like the old founders, and you have a lot of the same problems. I think this question of “What are the positive rights we want digital systems to guarantee us in a digital sphere?” is an interesting lens through which to view things. I’ve been writing about this all morning. It’s an interesting lens through which to think about what we really need from these platforms, in order to have healthy public discourse and healthy civic conversation, and all of the stuff we really want from a more vibrant and more diverse public sphere. That’s what’s been on my mind all morning. 

DeCanniere: Right. I guess that’s to be expected, given that there is a certain similarity, as you say, between the founders of this country and the founders of these new digital platforms. They may be living in very different eras, but I think this country’s founders and the founders of these platforms are very similar in terms of how homogenous they are. 

Slaby: Largely male. Largely white. Largely wealthy. Largely, within American society, people who are safe. 

DeCanniere: When you think about it, you could see how there could have been a whole ton of issues they could easily have been blind to. 

Slaby: Sure. It’s just that safety is often a feature of privilege. It is something that you have to be super in-tune to and conscious of in order to make space for it, and to make sure you see your own blindspots, and include enough people in the design process and the ownership process, so that those blindspots are revealed. That’s one of the arguments for why diverse teams produce better ideas. You have more perspectives. 

DeCanniere: Absolutely. And I think that, when we talk about diversity, sometimes we can also define diversity itself in too narrow a way, which can result in excluding entire groups. For instance, when we talk about diversity, I feel as though all too often we aren’t thinking about diversity in terms of age as well. And, particularly if we want a broad range of perspectives, it is important to include people of all different ages, just as it is important to include people of all different races, genders, religions and so on and so forth. So, it’s important to have a truly broad range of people participating.

Slaby: Right. Ideology, background, perspective, education, class — 

DeCanniere: While we are thankfully talking more and more about racism, anti-Semitism and gender discrimination, I think that age discrimination is a thing in our society. So, we need to be conscious of and talking about that as well, because I feel like that has been a problem, too. That should be included, when we’re talking about diversity.

Slaby: Absolutely. And ageism gets talked about a lot in the technology industry. Many are young companies that are run by young founders who are not that interested in hiring people in their fifties.

DeCanniere: I have to say that, from my perspective, that is pretty strange. I feel like there’s clear value when your workforce is diverse in terms of age as well. 

Slaby: You’d think so.

DeCanniere: And there are things that someone who is older can teach you. 

Slaby: Of course. I think we are well-served by seeing all of the people in our lives as teachers, as a general posture — even people who are difficult. That doesn’t mean make space for everything. We don’t want to make space for white supremacy. That’s not what I’m saying. However, I do think that when people come into our lives and we see them for what we can learn, we tend to interact with them more humanely, and not as a caricature. I think that’s the other risk of anonymity and a lot of online engagement. We often engage with people as caricatures rather than as individuals, and it then makes them easier to vilify, and it makes them easier to ignore and generalize about. When you meet someone face-to-face, you are less likely to do that. You’re more likely to see them as a whole person that is in front of you.

DeCanniere: You actually talk about that in your book — how there is this greater and greater ability to sort of isolate ourselves, and to engage only with those who view the world as we view it. Obviously, as you say, there’s the whole problem of confirmation bias — whether that’s on social media platforms, or that’s in the form of the networks we tune into and what we read. From my perspective, Fox News comes to mind. I feel like many people tune into Fox News to see their views spewed back at them, in order to see how right they are.

Slaby: Look, that’s the same as MSNBC. MSNBC is very ideologically oriented, and people like confirmation bias. People like feeling like they’re right. That’s everyone. I think the bigger distinction between Fox News and MSNBC is an adherence to the facts. Like there’s a difference between being ideologically biased and not living in the world of facts. 

DeCanniere: And, actually, I think that also brings us to the spread of misinformation or, more dangerously, disinformation. And some of these networks or commentators who don’t deal in the world of facts really serve to amplify the misinformation and disinformation that’s out there.

I also think that this sort of blurring of the lines between fact and opinion, or between just reporting facts and sharing your opinion, is partly due to the fact that some of these networks have huge chunks of time to fill.

Slaby: I think format drives some of it, for sure. Especially the shift from reporting to commentary and analysis. On cable news, you see this incredible dominance of analysis and commentary, partially as a function of format. If you have that much time to fill, you’re going to end up talking about what you think about what’s happening, and not just what’s happening. Eventually, that sort of analysis becomes the news — to a certain degree. I don’t have a problem with a channel that wants to do 24 hour progressive public affairs analysis and commentary. I just want it to be labeled as such, so I know what I’m consuming, and so that everyone is clear about everybody else’s intent. 

Michael Slaby, author of “For ALL the People” (Photo: Courtesy of the Author)

DeCanniere: I agree. I certainly think that more networks and more shows need to be more direct as to what audience, if any in particular, they are catering to. And, as you say, I do think they need to make it very clear as to whether they are just reporting the facts or whether they are providing commentary. Both are completely legitimate in my point of view. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with presenting your point of view on an event, but I think it should be clear that it is one’s point of view. If we could get to that place, where the network makes known exactly what they are about, we could move forward in a much healthier and more productive manner. And I’m glad that there are people out there, like you, who have started to think about a better way forward. That seems to be the first step. You know, being aware that there is a problem, and then thinking about the best and most effective ways to address those issues. Those are significant things.

Slaby: I think that’s right. I think that the fact that we’re engaging in this conversation at this level for your readers — and thinking about the nature of media and information, the nature of the systems, and building media literacy as a critical component of good citizenship — is a step forward. That is a step in the right direction. As a society, we need to be less at the mercy of these systems. They need to serve our needs and what we want, and how we want democracy to function.

DeCanniere: And that actually brings up another great point. I think that we, as a society, need to begin prioritizing media literacy much earlier. I know that it, historically, has not been something that most schools have spent much time focusing on — if they’ve spent any time on it at all. However, it is increasingly important. 

Slaby: Absolutely. There’s a really great non-profit in New York that I mention in the book called Take Two Film Academy, that uses creativity and film as a way of introducing media literacy as a fundamental pillar of literacy. So, reading, writing, arithmetic, and media. Literally making it that fundamental to peoples’ understanding of the world. They start teaching that in middle school.

DeCanniere: I think that is wonderful, especially since I feel like the basic curriculum at your average city public school, whatever the city we are talking about may be, has not changed much for decades. So, I’m glad that there are places like that, that do develop media literacy skills, and I think that they represent a much more intelligent way forward as well.

Slaby: I hope so. I hope that, ultimately, we see this as a problem we can get our heads around and engage publicly, and that these tools can be redesigned. These are problems that can be fixed. I am ultimately pretty optimistic about these challenges. I think there is so much potential embedded in the idea of greater connectivity and visibility, and more voices and better storytelling. We just need better ground rules for how we do the telling and do the discovery. I really do think we are a handful of significant innovations away from a much healthier landscape. 

DeCanniere: One thing that I did want to add, and I think that you agree with this as well, is that the media is most certainly not the enemy of the people — despite what Donald Trump may have tried to say. I don’t think that is the case at all. While there may be some bad actors in the industry, so to speak — as there can be in any field at any time — I do think that the industry as a whole is not the enemy here. Not by any means. Anyhow, I just didn’t want to play into his hand or reinforce the notion that they are, because they really and truly are not. 

Slaby: I think the reality is that media companies — particularly news media companies — are really stuck in some very unhealthy business models and systems, but are generally trying really hard to inform. As a rule, journalists are hard at work, trying to be a Fourth Estate in a system that doesn’t really let them. You get algorithmically written headlines, and you get a certain type of attention. You’re forced to focus on conflict in a certain way, by systems that are kind of allergic to nuance. It’s actually quite hard to really embody the sort of Fourth Estate that’s focused on transparency and truth to power, and empowering citizenry to understand dynamics of power, and who’s in control and what decisions are getting made, in a world where conflict is a currency to a certain degree. So, I have a lot of sympathy for editors in newsrooms. I think it’s a really tough world to be in. 

DeCanniere: You also kind of talk about how we are kind of living in two or more Americas right now, where people seem to find it more difficult to come together, and seem to be more and more entrenched in their positions and perspectives.

Slaby: I think that’s true. I think that diversity, plurality and people being empowered to tell their own stories — and to help drive American culture to a place where it is genuinely inclusive of the complexity of our history — is actually incredibly important. I think what’s also important in that construction is that we share a place where we can share those stories. Right now, to a large degree, we have more content and more stories and more storytellers, but we’re not actually sharing more of that story. That diversity exists in lots of independent bubbles. So, it’s less about shared diversity and more about siloed diversity. It doesn’t have the same effect, and there is a missed opportunity for bridging and expanding society, and expanding peoples’ perspectives. We miss that when we don’t actually share those stories, and we don’t actually have a place where we can do that cultural bridging together. 

DeCanniere: I also found it interesting that you touch on how these various social media platforms work. Obviously, they think a lot about our psychology and they seem, all too often, to design these platforms to exploit certain tendencies of ours — often to our detriment and to the detriment of our society — rather than being designed in such a way as to encourage healthier behaviors and to expose us to new perspectives and challenge our assumptions. As you say, right now, more often than not, social media encourages confirmation bias, because you are mostly — if not exclusively — exposed to others who share your views.

Slaby: I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg sat down in a room and said “Look, I don’t want to challenge people.” However, I do think that a business model that is predicated on maximizing attention and engagement is going to drive certain kinds of content and certain kinds of behaviors. It turns out that if you need somebody to stay on Facebook for as long as possible, outrage and confirmation bias are the answer. You know, carefully, kindly confronting people’s worldview with countervailing opinions, and helping them expand their view, is emotionally challenging in a way that confirmation bias is not. It turns out that the good, healthy, productive, diverse discourse is just not as profitable for the Facebooks of the world. So, it’s not how their algorithms are tuned. That may have been an accident at the beginning, but they have known this now for a long time, and it’s time for them to change. 

DeCanniere: You also touch a bit upon why they were seemingly hesitant to even get involved when disinformation about the election began to circulate. 

Slaby: Right. I think they hold onto this fiction that they’re neutral. However, if you are running an algorithm that is making choices for people, you are not neutral. That algorithm is not neutral. The whole idea that Facebook is a neutral space is absurd, but they hide behind this idea that they don’t want to be judged, and they don’t want to be calling balls and strikes. I do think they have a lot more responsibility than they intended to have. When they talk about wanting healthier media technology regulation, I think that they are telling the truth. I think that they also want to write that regulation, to make sure they can continue to make money. I do think they have more responsibility than they know what to do with. 

DeCanniere: I think that, historically, the message from all of these tech companies about their platforms has been “Hey, don’t look at us. We’re just the delivery mechanism.” In reality, they play a much more active role. 

Slaby: Of course they do. They’re making choices everyday about what you see. Those choices have consequences — and how those algorithms are optimized, and how they are shaping our worldview, has profound consequences for how society functions. The idea that they are neutral is laughable. 

DeCanniere: You also talk a bit about how what goes on both on social media and on cable news can, in turn, contribute to the decline of civic life. It can contribute to a decline in civic engagement — a decline in something as basic as voting. You actually say that participation in elections is pretty low — and even worse when we are talking about local elections.

Slaby: Yeah. It’s worse at the local level. There’s this incredible lack of local information. People don’t know what’s going on, and if politics feels kind of gross and corrupt and conflict-oriented, people then start to back away from participating in it. It just doesn’t feel like something that they want to be a part of. Eventually, it leads to the sense that it just doesn’t matter. You heard this a lot in 2016. You know, “It doesn’t matter. Clinton or Trump, it doesn’t matter.” I think there is a sad resignation to that kind of frustration, but I think that it is this sense of “My life is not impacted by this. My life is what it is.” That reveals a real disconnect between government and politics, and how people understand their own lives and communities. People talk about how turnout was through the roof in 2020, but we are still only talking about two-thirds of the country. There are just not enough people participating. I don’t blame people. I think that politicians often talk about how apathetic voters are, but I think that’s an excuse. I think they don’t do a good enough job contextualizing the value of leadership in government. I think voting is too difficult. I think access to the ballot is too hard. All of those things are solvable. 

DeCanniere: I certainly agree. I feel like I am very aware of what’s going on in politics — including at the local level. In this last election — which was a local election — I made sure to register to vote by mail as early as possible. Normally, I vote in person. However, given the pandemic, I didn’t want to stand around in a line with a bunch of strangers, potentially contract COVID, and then pass the virus along to others. I did register to receive a ballot by mail as early as possible. I think it was in January. Then, almost as soon as I received it, I sent it back. I mailed it in pretty much right away. 

I feel you’re absolutely right. Many people do need to be made aware of just how important it is to remain engaged in what is going on, and how important it is to vote — including, of course, in local elections. This is all very relevant to your life, and though it may sometimes seem messy, and though there may sometimes be conflict, I think it is important to remain engaged.

Slaby: I do, too. Ultimately, we live in a system of self-government. So, we can look at the elected officials and point and stare and talk about how gross they are, but they are who we are choosing. If we disengage from that process, we cede the swamp to the swamp monsters, and it just gets worse. We have to be willing to re-engage and it’s tough sometimes. I grew up in D.C. I spent my life in professional politics. There are a lot of times when I feel like I want to turn away a little bit. However, we moved to this little town in upstate New York, and my wife is now on the Village Board in our little 2,500 person town. She’s works really hard to take care of people, and is working really hard right now as a part-time elected official to ensure that outdoor dining works, so that people can enjoy their community and the restaurants can stay in business.

DeCanniere: And I will say that when we are talking about how politics can be gross, I do feel very privileged to live in a place where that hasn’t been my experience at the local level. I feel as though I have been extremely fortunate that has not been my experience at all. I feel as though all of our elected officials — the Mayor, the Village Board — truly have been consummate professionals, and have been truly kind individuals. They have been people who are very dedicated to what they do, and they do seem to have sought office for the right reasons. I can say that they care about all the people who call the town I live in their home. 

For example, there is someone I know who served on the Village Board for 20 years. He actually just retired this past Monday, and he is a really good guy. He’s a very honest, conscientious person, and arguably an example of what an elected official should be. So, as you say, there also are some very good people who are in office.

Slaby: I totally agree. That’s a good lesson, right? We were just talking a minute ago about engaging with people as caricature. The more human we see each other, the better these conversations get, honestly. 

DeCanniere: So, personally, I would hope that people aren’t completely turned off to the point where they disengage, because it just seems like it’s just this vicious cycle — and, as you say, you then come not to expect real leadership from people who are supposed to lead. Anyhow, I feel as though we spent quite a bit of time discussing the issues that are facing us as a society, I will say that you also spend a bit of time discussing some solutions. So, I was wondering if you can discuss some of those as well?

Slaby: I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground in this conversation. As far as solutions go, there is work to do relative to the platforms, and redesigning systems like Facebook, and making them more transparent. There’s work to do around the content itself, and how we are clear about things like distinguishability and intent and provenance. There’s work for us to do in order to become better consumers of information, and to be more media literate. There’s more regulation that is needed. There is a lot of work to go around, and I think that what is important is not to see all of that and go “Oh my God, this is so hard.” Rather, we should see all of those opportunities and say “Let’s start wherever we are.” If it’s starting with our own behavior, then do that. I recommend everybody keep their phone on “Do Not Disturb” all the time. Just turn off all the notifications on your phone — except for maybe text messages from your significant other or something like that. Take all your social media apps off of your home screen. Just try to step back from the addictive flame a little bit, so we can start to reclaim some personal agency. That’s a good starting point. 

DeCanniere: And I certainly think that with social media, you notice a major difference if you take some time away from it. If you take some time away, it’s suddenly a lot less important. I like to be able to connect with friends and family and all of that — with the people that I care about — but the longer you are away from social media, the less urgent it seems to be on it. 

Slaby: I think that is true. These systems are designed to make us feel that way. They are designed to feed that sense of FOMO, and to make us feel like we’re not enough. It turns out we are. If we use them to stay engaged and build relationships and stay in contact with others, they can be incredibly valuable, as long as we can try to not be at the mercy of the tools themselves. That’s probably the best thought I can leave you with.

DeCanniere: Last but not least, who would you consider your influences or what would you recommend reading? I always find it interesting to know what someone I speak with has been reading themselves, or who they consider to be an influence on them as a writer. 

Slaby: There are a lot of really smart thinkers in this space. My book is just my contribution to a conversation that has been going on for a long time. I really think Yael Eistenstat is incredibly brilliant. Jonathan Zittrain is somebody whose work I have really admired and followed over the years. He’s a professor at Harvard. He wrote a book called The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It back in 2008 that I think is really brilliant. There definitely are others as well. 

Michael Slaby helped lead Obama for America as chief integration and innovation officer in 2012 and as deputy digital director and chief technology officer in 2008. A world leader in digital strategy and technology, Slaby has devoted his career to repairing our broken information systems. He currently serves as community director at the media research nonprofit Harmony Labs. He lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with his wife, author Lydia Slaby. For more information, please visit his website.

Extra: You can find out more about Michael’s influences, and find additional suggested reading material, by clicking here.


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