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As long as Silicon Valley and its futuristic technologies dominate our politics, we’re doomed to be stuck in the past.

The big story of the poisonous 2016 elections was how new digital media tools ended up crowding out two big topics from our conversation: the present and the future.

This phenomenon went way beyond the controversy about “fake news” on Facebook; the problem wasn’t just media quality—but excessive quantity.

California and the entire country were deluged by digital tidal waves of data and information from months, years and decades ago.

Many of these were dredged-up video clips or photos or records of the candidates and their families and associates. There were endless emails from old hacks and investigations, followed by all the historical echoes, endlessly rehashed, which kept us refighting the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the Clinton impeachment, 1980s New York real estate and 17 waves of feminism.

Donald Trump and his acolytes kept offering bogus ideas that refuse to go away—that President Obama wasn’t born here, that vaccines cause autism, that immigrants add to crime in the United States.

Because these waves never stop, those who have some interest in the truth are consumed by explaining—over and over—easily verifiable truths.

All this record-correcting leaves no time or bandwidth for conversations about the present: What to do about the wars that have been wound down but aren’t over?

How to take advantage of rising employment and wages to invest more intelligently in infrastructure and reckon with national debt?

And it also crowds out the future: How is this aging country going to make itself healthier, better educated, and more economically competitive?

With all the past occupying time for conversation about today or tomorrow, the stakes of the election were never made clear — especially about how the result might affect our role in the world.

All of this is bad — but the really bad news is that, in four years, we’re likely to look back at 2016 as the good old days.

Smart people in Silicon Valley say the digital media world is growing so fast (with more people around the world going online every day), that future ill-conceived regurgitations from the past could be even more destructive to our democracy.

New immersive technologies — augmented reality, virtual reality — will allow us to invent out of whole cloth whatever past serves our purposes and make it impossible for our brains to separate fact from fiction.

This is a public health problem, as surely as an epidemic of opioid overdoses. The more political noise, the less political understanding. The more data, the less coherence.

The digital age is not just the “post-fact” era; more dangerously, as Politico recently warned, it’s the “post-narrative” age of democracy. If you can’t follow the story, it’s because there isn’t one.

We’re not thinking hard enough about how to save democracy from media. Instead, we’re leaning on the false hope that the deluge of the digital past is somehow self-correcting.

The free speech folks say you can fix pernicious, inaccurate speech with more speech — but more speech actually makes the problem worse.

Instead, we should think about giving people more tools to stop the flow. Should we allow people to litigate and recover damages more easily for sins visited upon them on the web?

Do we want to regulate social media platforms more extensively? I find the most intriguing approaches economic. Is it possible to create financial consequences for constant past-sharing and tweets and Facebook posts that pollute our civic culture?

Sam Lessin, a former Facebook vice president writing at The Information, suggested a tax on political coverage. If CNN, for example, wants to spend 50 percent of its time on election coverage, it should give 50 percent of its revenue to the government.

“That would basically say that you can’t profit off the public discourse at all,” wrote Lessin. “We the people own it.”

Or we could create incentives for companies to change their designs to reduce the pollution around elections.

Could our smartphones be designed to keep us from constantly picking them up? Could social media sites be reshaped to slow people down, require them to verify posts before hitting “send”?

Somehow, and soon, we need to raise the costs of deluging us with the past —if the present and the future are ever again to have a fighting chance.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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  • noonan

    Joe, you will pardon me if I choose what I want to read and watch without the help of your or your fellow authoritarians. Damn, you people wet your drawers on the most ignorant things.

  • Bobs R

    The #TolerantLeft has always been in favor of Censorship.

    But they are triggered cause people don’t agree with them. Break of the crayons and play-doh.

    As comedian Rob Schneider said: “I haven’t seen the Democrats this mad since we freed the slaves!”

  • noonan

    They want to censor the news but not allow me to wear a sombrero. They want to tell me what news is fake or not, but not allow conservatives to speak on college campuses.

    Retards! Ooops, that word is no bueno also? Ooops, am I allowed to say “no bueno” since I’m not Mexican? Ooops, I’m not Mexican but I am Portuguese, does that count? Good grief, I can’t keep up with these authoritarians and all their rules.

  • Bobs R

    But…
    But…
    They are the #TolerantLeft how could that be?!?

  • Nishka

    “Donald Trump and his acolytes kept offering bogus ideas that refuse to go away—that President Obama wasn’t born here, that vaccines cause autism, that immigrants add to crime in the United States.”
    “Because these waves never stop, those who have some interest in the truth are consumed by explaining—over and over—easily verifiable truths.”
    “All of this is bad — but the really bad news is that, in four years, we’re likely to look back at 2016 as the good old days.”

  • noonan

    “that immigrants add to crime in the United States”

    Are you saying that the rate of crime would be exactly the same if deported 2 million criminal illegals? Behold, a Clinton supporter!

    • phil ellis

      Why don’t we ever hear about how many Obama has deported?

  • Nishka

    “We’re likely to look back at 2016 as the good old days.” BEHOLD!!!!!!!!

  • James de Bree

    This column needs to read in the context of may last column about disruption which can be seen at http://www.signalscv.com/2016/11/14/jim-de-bree-increasing-role-disruption/

    Like the rest of us, Mr. Matthews life has been disrupted. They key is to understand the nature of the disruption and to come up with an appropriate way of dealing with it.

    • tech

      Mr. Matthews message, pared to its essence, is curation of media via economic sanctions, i.e. litigating free speech. This is bound to chill political speech via threat.

      This is an extremely dangerous ideology and is by no means “an appropriate way of dealing with it “.

      • Bobs R

        I agree Tech.

        Who will determine what is True or not? Sounds like we would be headed to a N. Korea or China situation, which is scary and un-American

        Media on both sides don’t necessarily report false or fake news, but misrepresent it – report it in a way that leads viewers down a certain path. For instance, when CNN covered Clinton, they intentionally ignored the email scandal. What they said about her was not wrong necessarily, but it was very incomplete with the goal of misleading the viewer. Fox, MSNBC, et. al…. they all do it.

        But censorship is not the answer. Holding “journalists” to higher standards should be. Go back to the old days of reporting news, not trying to make the news.

      • James de Bree

        Exactly–he is unable to deal with disruption and seeks to put the genie back in the bottle on his own terms. That is the funny part about disruption, you cannot control its consequences.

  • nohatejustdebate

    “Donald Trump and his acolytes kept offering bogus ideas that refuse to go away—that President Obama wasn’t born here”

    It’s not Donald Trump and his acolytes that keep this going, it’s the left that keeps bringing it up again and again. Now that America has chosen to move away from the failed policies of Barack Obama and his legacy is about to face the trash heap of history, perhaps his disciples will finally let go of their birther fixation.

    • phil ellis

      Anyone remember where the birther movement originated?

      • tech

        Those that subscribe to the Magic (D) Memory Hole® model of history do not.

  • Brian Baker

    Well, well, well. Yet another Dem/socialist elitist who wants to limit free speech, this time through the mechanism of a “tax on political coverage”. The only surprise in here anywhere is that he used CNN for his example instead of Fox. Otherwise it was just SSDD.

    Yep… WAY too much free information floatin’ around out there for those poor, uneducamated, unsophisticated slobs to indiscriminately soak up. You can tell… the wrong person got elected.

  • robert stauffer

    Poisonous election? I totally disagree.

    This is what it looks like when you take on the a three headed monster, The DC Establishment, the Media, and the Democrats, and WIN!

    To me, this election was spiritual and uplifting – YES!
    How long has it been where someone who was mocked so mercilessly, rose up to lead?

    And now, Obama says he’s staying in DC after his time – probably to try to protect his ‘legacy’…who better than Trump to take him on?

    If you liked the election – you’ll love the first 100 days – Oh boy is this gonna be great!

    I’m with America!

  • robert stauffer

    And another thing…I heard that Obama recently met with Putin. The media reported that Obama didn’t mention the accusation that Russia was ‘meddling in our election’ – Why didn’t Obama even bring it up? Probably because Obama knew it was a lie….did they report that?

    Can you imagine the look on Putin’s face if Obama did say something about that lie? He’d probably do some Judo move and flip our commander and chief onto the floor in front of the whole world the see (kinda like he already did in the Ukraine and Syria).