By Nancy Scola, journalist and writer specialized in technology and society and former head of technology at Político magazine. She participated as speaker in our Global Politics Program and Tech & Society Program.
Hola, as they say, from Madrid, where I (as in, Nancy Scola) am spending the week doing a series of events with the Aspen Institute Spain, discussing the intersections of technology, politics, and media, and in particular the changes that are coming about — and should come about — as a result in shifts in understandings about the power of American technology companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
A couple of the events so far have been particularly illuminating conversations under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that I can tell you what was said, but not who said it. The participants have been a fascinating array of figures from Spanish politics and media — politicians, journalists, and civil society figures — and their perspectives have illustrated, frankly, how American our U.S. perspective on social impact and, more broadly, the impact of technology on society truly is.
(Lo siento this edition of Slow Build is coming so late. It’s been a busy time. Also, dinner here happens at 10 p.m.!)
The Spanish perspective — as much as a “Spanish perspective” can exist — is a great reminder that our obsession in the U.S. with the American experience with technology limits our imagination of what’s possible. So, in that spirit, I share some takeaways from those sessions. Again, these capture the takes of politicians, media, and civil society leaders on how social media in particular has shaped their politics and their media in recent years:
—The quick pace of social media is a poor match for Spanish politics. While participants in these sessions were generally fans of the sort of intense coverage that is the hallmark of the social-media age, they argued that minute-to-minute, day-to-day-reporting doesn’t give the sort of breathing space to work out some of the key issues that persist in a country that has only been a democracy since 1975, like how to structure the judiciary. They need room, they said, to contemplate how to go to best go about navigating these changes, and that that was extraordinarily difficult to get under constant scrutiny.
—“Politics has always been a rough game,” said one participant, “but at least there was agreement on the game being played.” The argument: that social media and 24-7 coverage has splintered Spanish politics, making it difficult for politicians of differing ideological stripes to compare notes and just maybe come to agreement. Politicians are afraid to be in each other’s company, lest it get posted about, and as a result, they said, they hardly know what their colleagues are thinking.
—Still, the great ‘parlaying’ isn’t happening. I shared the example of Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the North Carolina Republican who said he “built [his] staff around comms rather than legislation,” and discussed the notion that some members of Congress are focused less on constituent services and passing laws than they are on building a national profile that might lead to future opportunities outside electoral politics. To a person, the participants were horrified. Of course, Spanish politicians have all sorts of motivations, they said, but they argued that there’s no pattern in Spanish politics of those figures ignoring the work they were elected to do in favor of ginning up outside attention.
—“Journalists see the world through their trauma.” Spanish journalists, they said, have been so beaten and battered by changes in the business that they’re generally coming at things from a cynical place. (Relatedly, they said that Spanish journalists are under intense pressure from technology companies over the tone and specifics of their coverage in the same way their American counterpart are.) In the same vein, said participants, journalists are increasingly the protagonists of their own stories, a shift that has helped turn political figures into something resembling their adversaries.
—Europeans are frustrated by their inability to reach American tech companies. They argued that as much as legislators, regulators, and civil society figures in the U.S. might see themselves as unable to connect with tech companies to share their concerns, it’s nearly impossible for their European counterparts to have any sort of influence on the decisions those firms make — a dynamic they find quite annoying, and inspiration to take more robust regulatory action against the tech industry.
Finally, one of my own:
—Spanish people really do drink wine at lunch. They really do.
Originally published in: https://slowbuild.substack.com/p/lessons-from-madrid
Cover photo by Nancy Scola ‘Morning view of Madrid, Sept. 21, 2021‘