Internet of Goldfish with Bruno Patino

photo of Bruno Patino
photo credit: Bruno Levy
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Internet of Goldfish with Bruno Patino
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Bruno Patino thinks the economics of the Internet are set up to give us the attention spans of goldfish. In this week’s episode, Bruno tells us why France, a country such good public broadcast media, has so much trouble reigning in corporate social media.

Bruno Patino is a journalist, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, and the president of ARTE TV.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hello everybody, and welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am Ethan Zuckerman, your host. I am thrilled to be here today with my friend, Bruno Patino. Bruno is the president of ARTE TV, it’s a French-German TV channel. He is a longtime and celebrated French journalist. He is the former Dean of the School of Journalism at Sciences Po. And he is the author of several works, but most recently a pair of books, which we might translate the titles as, The Civilization of the Goldfish, and Tempest in a Goldfish Bowl: The Revenge of the Civilization of the Goldfish. Bruno, it’s wonderful to have you here.

Bruno Patino:

Thank you, Ethan. It’s wonderful to be here.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So, Bruno, talk to me about the consequences of the attention economy, as you start outlining them in the book that you wrote in 2019, The Society or The Civilization of the Goldfish.

Bruno Patino:

Well, in fact, I’ve been working in digital journalism for almost 25 years now. And so, for a long time, I was… I am still thrilled, absolutely thrilled of what digital brought to our profession, to our societies and our countries. And I worked developing [foreign language 00:01:38] and other websites in France. So, I was really, at a moment and still, strongly convinced that digital was not only transforming our profession as journalists, not only transforming the information, but also transforming societies and maybe even our civilization. And at a time, when you are very focused on your job, you are competing for audiences, for attention. You try to, on an everyday basis, to compete for having the highest number of clicks possible, in order to promote your information.

And little by little, you realize that at a moment, something changed. Not only in your profession, but also in the way of us having and handling our tools and our digital tools. So, the small book, the first book, that Civilization of the Goldfish, came from the simple realization that two things had happened. First, some of us, and I’m one of them, were hooked on their smartphones. And the second realization that this global attention economy was polarizing our public space. But in fact, at the beginning, it was a very practical book that tried to answer the simple question, what happened?

What did happen to our expectations, to our professions, to what we want to see? So, in fact, the simple way to put it was that the attention economy in a way, centralized system, privatized them, and the duality between the business model and the technology, that is a business model linked to a technology, in fact, started this competition for attention that really is having a lot of consequences. So, individual consequence is, my attention span is really an objective for a lot of companies. And collective, also consequences, that is polarization.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And the goldfish, of course, is the reference to-

Bruno Patino:

Yeah, it’s an image, the goldfish in an image. I mean, it started with a YouTube, in fact, a YouTube seminar organized in Madrid. And I’m trying to tell that story. Of course it’s a metaphor, but it was a real good example because on the YouTube seminar, we had this Google, very smart engineer showing us the goldfish image and say, “You know, the attention span of a goldfish is eight seconds.” I don’t know if that’s true or not but the guy said that and he said, “Well, we try to figure out the attention span of the millennials and the attention span of the millennials is nine seconds.”

And he was laughing at that. He said, “Yeah, do you realize how difficult for us it is now to capture the attention span of the millennials?” This is a challenge. And you know what? We are meeting… We try to meet with this challenge.

Ethan Zuckerman:

We have figured out how to program for the goldfish, which is the millennial.

Bruno Patino:

Exactly. And so you had really two audiences in that room. The very optimistic audiences say, “Well, yes, we have tools that allow us to hook the attention for people whose attention is very difficult to capture, because every nine seconds they think to something else.” And you had people like me said, “Wow, what did happen?”

In order for us to try to figure out how to build instruments, in order to capture the attention span of people every eight or nine seconds. And this is the start of the book. That is a challenge for tech companies, but something has happened and let’s try to figure out what.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Something you said a moment before, I think really gets into the argument in the new book, which in many cases is about the power of the platforms. And it’s this question of centralization. You and I have both been involved with the technology space for more than 25 years. There’s this tremendous surprise, I think, at the power of the centralized platform. The early promise that the internet was a diversity of voices, there would be many, many people speaking on many, many platforms yet. In some ways the world seems more centralized than it was in the era of just two or three broadcast networks and a small number of newspapers.

What happened from your perspective, and maybe from a French perspective, around that centralization? Why did we fall so short of those ideals?

Bruno Patino:

I think none of us, from what I know… I didn’t, understand the power of scalability when user’s data is concerned. I’m pretty sure that at the very beginning of the internet, that both of us experienced… Experimented. We saw this complete power of the centralization itself. The voices, like you say, the offer, the capability of everybody putting available whatever content you want and the ability of the tool, of really having this share economy. We didn’t really figure out what would come with users’ data.

And when you have the ability and the economic model allow the platforms to have the ability to accumulate users’ data. And really, at the end of the day, there is a very strong scalability there. And the scalability really, it’s like at the beginning of the industrial civilization, when you have the accumulation of capital, that really brought up a very strong centralization of the industrial economy. And at the end of the day, the states, the powers had to intervene in a way in order to try to decentralize this accumulation of capital.

I’m not a very strong fan of comparisons as far as history is concerned, but in a way we could make this kind of comparison and say, “We have experience from let’s say, 2005 till now, the power of accumulation of users’ data.” And the problem is when you accumulate users’ data, it’s not only a quantity of users’ data you accumulate. You change the quality of the data because you are able to derive some intelligence from this data. And this scalability of accumulation of data, this is what happened in fact. Of users’ data. And this, at the end of the day, really allows you to manage the interface in a way that provokes oligopolistic power.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s almost a Thomas Piketty argument, right? That you start with this accumulation of capital in data. And at a certain point, it gives you an advantage and you are then that much further ahead of everyone else. There is the possibility in capitalist systems that the government can step in and redistribute. I’m not sure redistribution of data is something that anyone wants in this case. What are your thoughts on how we de-center the power of platforms? You have some very practical thoughts for how individuals detoxify, disconnect, all of these things. Talk to us about some of the systemic change that could happen in this space.

Bruno Patino:

Well, in fact, if you realize that as far as systemic change is concerned, let’s say we have three path… Different path. One would say that, let’s try what I said, in French is [foreign language 00:10:57] machine. And that is, let’s try to fix the machine from the inside, let’s say. Either because the users pushed you to, drive you to do so, or because the state drives you to do so. Or the second path would be to regulate the machines or the platforms. And the third path would be to build the alternatives. Whatever the path is concerned, the strong question is, what is really the legal status of the data you accumulate? If you are always able to privatize this data and makes it non interoperable with all the platforms, then you don’t solve the problems.

Because the problem is when you accumulate a lot of data, once again, this change, this is changing the nature of the data, because it’s, I’m pretty sure that the data you accumulate at the moment allows you to build intelligence from this data you accumulate. So at the moment, we will have to think about the legal status of the data you accumulate. I’m not… I absolutely agree with you. There is no redistribution possible. But in a way, we are here and people are listening my accent, my French accent. So in France, we used to make a difference between between a public good and a private good.

In the U.S., you have also the common good that is coming. So we have three kind of legal stages of what data could be considered, how data could be considered: public good, common good, or private good. At the moment or another, we will have to try to have this kind of discussion. Once again, I’m not a big fan of people saying the user should be the owner of its data. Okay. Can fix something for privacy reasons or whatever, but it doesn’t fix the problem of centralization of the internet. Not at all. The problem is, when you accumulate this kind of data, can other company use it or not? Can association use it or not? This is the main question it seems to me.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So that takes us to, I think, an interesting question about paradigms that are at work in different countries. In the U.S. right now, the obsession is with everything becoming property. So it’s your data. You should be able to sell it on the market for as much as possible. I’m sure at some point we’ll conclude that not only can you sell your data, you can also sell your kidneys. It does seem like the logical direction to go. I’m just back from the UK. I heard a lot of enthusiasm there for private data stores. And so the idea there is you control your data. There’s no money associated with it, but it is yours. It’s sovereign.

You seem to be suggesting that there’s something more complex than this, which is that once you’ve accumulated the data, once you’ve put it together, it’s an entirely different good. Is that a European alternative to this, the marketized versus the private, something that’s more of a collective good with data?

Bruno Patino:

Well, first, I’m speaking here in France. So in France, we are absolutely obsessed with the state. And if you look in a very, let’s say in a nutshell of our history, you have in fact, two ways to consider the state here. One, which would say more center and right wing oriented. That is, the state has a force to regulate the market because we don’t believe in the free power of the market. Or, on the other way, the state has been an actor in this market, a public actor that is really having a kind of role and who’s… Which can re-calibrate the market because he enters the market as the state. So as far as digital economy is concerned, we have those two, the two models here in France today.

The ones that are obsessed with regulation, the state has either the state or the European commission as a regulator of the market. And in this kind of things, the state will try to figure out how the market of the data is re-calibrated between users and platforms. And in fact, that drives us to your UK example. That said, how should… Could the state organize the free market of the individual data between the user, who is a very small part, and the platform who has billions of users and for which a user doesn’t count. And so we have seen this policy developed by the European commission, by some French political forces here. And say, “Okay, let’s try to figure out how we recalibrate the relationship between the user and the platform, as far as the individual data is concerned.

But the problem when you do that, is that you don’t focus and you don’t address the problem of platforms having billions and billions of users’ data and others, new actors emerging, or coming, having non-user data. I think it, maybe it re-calibrates the relationship between the user and the platform. And for me, it’s most privacy issues than really market issues. Because the value of your individual data is very small, but it doesn’t address at all the problem between the inequality and maybe the market barrier entry that you can build when you have billion of futures that are accumulated.

For the moment here in this country, almost nobody addresses this problem. We are so focused on the relationship between the users and the platforms that we don’t focus on the inequality between digital actors, as far as users’ data are concerned.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You just offered a very thoughtful political distinction between a European right point of view and a European left point of view. In a European right point of view, the state is important as a regulatory agent in the market. On a European left point of view, the state is important as an actor in the market.

Bruno Patino:

Exactly.

Ethan Zuckerman:

You are the president of an ambitious television partnership between France and Germany, that ends up creating extremely high quality content. We’ve seen a great deal of European public media creating top quality news, top quality content. What we have not seen is the European state effectively building digital services. We could go back to Minitel and talk about the ways in which [French 00:19:00] has been very successful in the past, but in the contemporary internet era, we haven’t seen much state involvement in the internet market economy, per se. Could that change?

Bruno Patino:

This is a very interesting question. And let me give you maybe two answers to that. First, if we go back to the Minitel, the interesting thing was the Minitel in France. It was not developed at all by media companies, but by [French 00:19:38]. That is the mail company. So it was always seen as a technical stuff, a technical way to distribute things,

Ethan Zuckerman:

But not as a media company.

Bruno Patino:

Not as a media company. And this is the main problem, as far as I’m concerned, because when we’re talking about public media companies in Europe and in France, we’ve been very… It’s been very easy for us to develop content and to show that we could promote content, that we’re not financed by the market. You know, [foreign language 00:20:15] or other public service broadcasters or media in Europe doesn’t produce or finance these kind of programs, they won’t be financed. You won’t see them. So it’s been quite easy to convince people that we were useful in a way, because otherwise, this kind of content, you don’t see them. It escapes the market. And one of the biggest questions for the moment is about information. Can you have general information financed by the market when you are in Europe and you don’t rely on the market of 3000 people that are speaking English, but that speak French or Danish or Swedish or German or whatever.

But when we’re talking about the transformation or the digital media, the… Let me answer you very frankly here, and kind of sadly, what I’m perceiving when I talk to the state, is that, okay, go into the digital, field, it’s fine, but don’t mess with users’ data. There is a kind of conviction in our states and we have to change that conviction, is that it’s not public service at the moment to handle users’ data. A public service should be kind of far away from algorithmic recommendation, from management, from user data. You can have all the content data you want. You can build all the content data system you want, but users’ data, a public service shouldn’t really try to go into that field.

So at the moment, there is, at least in France, there is a kind of ferocity, or the kind of even, let’s say, they’re almost afraid of us trying to go deep into users’ data and say, “We can prove you that we can manage users’ data in other way that the attentions economy platforms are doing.” So we are, have a long way to go.

So first you are threatened by the, let’s say, the budget policy. And we’re not at the moment where states wants to develop their public media company, with an exception of Germany. Germany has improved, has increased the finance of the public media companies, and because of the challenges of today, but in France and other countries that are really saying, “Well, do we need really public services media company as we did 30 or 40 years ago? We’re not sure.”

And the second thing is that to say that they have this conviction, and maybe I’ll take 10 seconds to say that, it’s done. I’ve heard very high level people in this country say, “Bruno, what are you talking about? Everything is done.” [French 00:23:40]. It’s done. You know, the competition is closed. Facebook has won. Twitter has won.

So American platforms has won, and we are not able to build an alternative of something else because they see that as the only pattern. A social network is only a social network with 3 billion users. Otherwise it’s not social network and say, you know, there are a lot of social networks patterns possible. You, Ethan, have developed a lot of ideas about it and said, “No, no, if you are not able to build, let’s say the European Facebook, you don’t build anything.”

And it’s the same thing as far as video platforms are concerned. If you’re not able to build YouTube, you shouldn’t try to do something. If you’re not able to make a Netflix, it’s not possible. And so there is this strange things in Europe. Either you build big and you won’t be able because this company already exists, or you don’t do anything.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So let’s… There’s a tendency in American academe to ask questions which are basically encouraging the interviewer to give a speech. So I’m going to try to avoid doing that, but you’ve identified that European regulators are nervous about experimenting with user data. Build what you want, stay out of the data game. There’s an alternative, which is you could build tools that empower the user. As you’ve mentioned, I’m trying to build tools that give users control over their social networks. You could imagine, for ARTE, a tool that allowed a user to navigate the streaming content space. So in the way that I would like to build something that gives a user more control over Facebook, over Twitter, over small social networks, you could build a player that supports content, but also supports Netflix and YouTube and HBO instead of all of the others here.

Is there an appetite, from the European regulatory point of view, to empower the user to escape these algorithms that you are justifiably worried about? Can you imagine Europe taking that seat at the table and say, “To remove users from the power that Netflix has over collecting data and such, we are going to build tools loyal to the user.” Is that a possibility?

Bruno Patino:

Let’s say that I’m… You know, you have to consider two stages. The first stage would be a kind of regulatory stage with interoperability of the system. And the second stage would be financing and building. From the first stage, I’m very optimistic. There is a [foreign language 00:27:03] and the European commissions are really focused on that. And saying, “Let’s try to have the walls tumbling down, allowing interoperability into different social networks.” Maybe one day into different video platforms. Otherwise, I mean, you can navigate easily with your preferences that you can manage. So I think we can be reasonably optimistic that, let’s say, the legal framework or the regulatory framework in Europe allows you at the moment to have more power. I’ve seen these articles in the U.S. press talking about, “content fortress.” Let’s say you have a platform. And then after the platform, you build the fortress so that you-

Ethan Zuckerman:

Make sure no one will ever inter operate, no one will ever challenge you.

Bruno Patino:

Exactly. Yeah. And so the fortress will be you, as a user, you will be really a prisoner of the content fortress. And I’m reasonably optimistic that the regulatory and legal framework in Europe will normally prevent content fortress from being fully operative in this continent. And that is something really nice and very nice to have position, compared to other countries. I’m not for the moment as optimistic as far as the second element is concerning. That is, financing a tool, because we have a long way to go. We have a long way to go in order to change this conviction, which I told you about, and which relies on two things. First, the game is already done. Nobody can build anything else. Otherwise, something completely different. This is why our president is talking about a French metaverse, which I absolutely don’t know what he’s talking about. But okay, let’s assume, a French metaverse or European metaverse. Say, okay, this battle was lost, let’s say. Let’s focus on-

Ethan Zuckerman:

The French metaverse will have very, very good cafes in cyberspace.

Bruno Patino:

And cheese and bread, but anyway, let’s talk seriously. So, first conviction they have is that the battle was lost and is definitely lost. And the second conviction is that… It’s a very French conviction, that we French are not good as, in order to create things, but to regulate things. You know, there is… We have a long way to go in order for that to happen. I’m not sure also that the European commission will be… Or the French state or whatever, will be the good institution to think about these kind of things. And I have not seen, for the moment, an encouragement for public companies in order to try to create those things.

The tools exist normally on the paper. You know, you have this line of financing that we could do something else, but the French public service media companies are not tech companies. This is the problem. And for the moment we have not seen that solution.

Ethan Zuckerman:

There is one thing to say for the power of regulation, which is that if French regulation influences EU regulation and there’s good progress being made with the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, it’s possible that along with Germans, Scandinavians, so on and so forth, there could be a great deal of creativity in this space. And you could imagine the French regulatory genius creating the environment where there is something new and cooperative coming out of it, which would be marvelous. You’ve given us two very provocative books in a short period of time. We have The Civilization of the Goldfish. We have The Revolution: the Goldfish Civilization Fights Back. You’re a media professional. Obviously you’re thinking in terms of trilogy. Is there another topic in this space that you’re anxious to bring attention to?

Bruno Patino:

You know, the real question now is centralization, de-centralization. In fact, it’s… So for the moment, I don’t have that in my mind. I mean, the last book was published three months ago, but you know, this… What I’m very keen to avoid is to replace centralization by another centralization. The market centralization was not very good for us. I’m not sure when I’m speaking here as a French guy, that a state centralization would be a good… Even if, let’s say, a free market platform centralization was not good for the web. And the state regulatory centralization wouldn’t be as good either.

So I think we have to figure out with those blockchain NFT, metaverse, whatever you want. In fact, we’re seeing once again, centralization, the centralization debate taking place. And I think the user is very far away from this debate. Once again, we are not taking into account, in this kind of debate today. But I’m… Maybe there will be a trilogy. The publisher say, laughing, “It will be The Aquarium Trilogy.” But for the moment, have not that in mind. I’m really trying to convince people here that we should build tools. And this is why I’m always very focused on your work and the ideas you develop, Ethan, because I think that the… You know, everybody was so obsessed by scalability, that we are feeling powerless because we don’t have scale at the moment.

But I think the real way to envision the centralized internet is to accept, once again, that small can be beautiful. You mentioned I’m working with ARTE. ARTE is a small channel as compared to big networks in Europe. But we have been able to convince people that we were useful and we had some quality, and people love us. And we have been able to develop whenever we’re small. And I think the big challenge for us is to have a digital media space, a digital economic space where small actors can live. And this is the main challenge we have. If the digital is completely obsessed with scalability, then we will replace a nightmare with another nightmare.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of the things I love most about your writing and I love most about you as an individual, is that you’re always centered on the human, and the books are very human in scale. They’re very much about that personal struggle with the device, how we are all individually navigating this.

Bruno Patino, President of ARTE Television, professor journalism at Sciences Po, such a pleasure to see you.

Bruno Patino:

Thank you very much, Ethan. Thank you.