If a picture is worth 1000 words, what are three cartoons worth? It turns out: two days of conversation among 25 speakers and hundreds of audience members across five lively panel discussions. This past November, the Knight Institute convened a major symposium titled “The Tech Giants, Monopoly Power, and Public Discourse” to address concerns arising from the dominance of a small number of technology companies over the online speech environment. In addition to the scholars and experts in law, computer science, economics, information studies, journalism, and political science who presented their work, we invited illustrator Gary Zamchick to chronicle the event. Today, we’re publishing his drawings.
We asked Zamchick to attend the symposium to listen for the big ideas, the shared questions, and the emerging solutions, and then to create three signature images that pull it all together. In addition to the symposium’s final papers, we wanted a visual record and framing of the conversation that could spark further discussion and inquiry. Zamchick did an amazing job with this challenge, developing three intricate full-color drawings: A Delicate Operation, Selfie Awareness, and Shades of 1984 (a riff on Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl Commercial).
To give the drawings more context, we asked him about his work and his experience observing and responding to our symposium. Below are his answers:
How do you describe what you do?
I am a creative generalist and drawing is at the heart of what I do. I have two core passions—a focus on what people think and feel strongly about, and making ideas visual and accessible to broader audiences. Childhood sketches about my family, became “this-is-your-life” personality portraits of people in my community, became drawings on a broad array of topics in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. So when I chronicle a session, I first listen and tap into people and their ideas, and then sketch up ideas using metaphor, story, and characters. For this event, the drawings speak to the impact of large tech platforms on public discourse.
What drew you to this project? How does it relate to your goals as an artist and professor?
I've had a front-row seat to changes in the media landscape—from developing services for large media and tech companies like Time Warner and AT&T, to facilitating sessions on AI and Ethics, to founding a social tech startup that enables creative expression (wordseye.com). Our goal with the latter has been to enable everyone to go beyond simple social interaction—sarcasm, disses, hearts, likes, and hate—to more thoughtful visual communication via a new form of language-driven visual banter. Understanding the potential, policies, and abuses of large tech giants is instructive to this end and is also important to my role as an adjunct professor at Columbia. In my “Creative Application Studio” class, I help computer science undergrads orient themselves to an evolving tech marketplace.
How did you prepare for the event?
I reviewed the symposium paper abstracts to get up to speed on the policy and legal language I'm unfamiliar with. I'm very receptive to new ideas and comfortable having just a vague understanding of the subject matter as things get underway. I'm prepared to watch for a narrative to emerge from the panels and pay attention to what weaves that story together. I am then armed with plenty of paper to track, capture, and translate the emerging discussions. For instance, hearing the word, “asymmetry” during a panel, I remember sketching out a big tottering 3D “J” (for Journalism) and gave news organizations the short, truncated part of the “J”, while tech companies got the stronger, more vertical portion. Later, this becomes a more finished sketch in my studio.
What do you see as your contribution to the symposium’s conversation?
Law and policy discussions are the domain of experts; people with a strong point of view and rationale. The work I do benefits from my having looser intellectual boundaries than the participants, allowing playful thoughts to filter in. My goal is to help people see issues from a novel perspective. Using a board game to describe antitrust law, enables them to think in a more surprising way about a very serious issue. Tapping into Apple's 1984 Super Bowl commercial lets me prompt reflection on how things have changed given mobile computing.
What is it like to capture the essence of a conference like this?
Visual capture is a way of bearing witness—with a twist. For me, this is not a journalistic enterprise but a Rashomon-like thing—somewhat blindly trying to give meaningful form to ideas advocated by competing voices. Two underdogs emerged during the two-day session—end users of large tech platforms (e.g. us), and news organizations that are subject to their influence and control. This David and Goliath relationship sets up human drama. While not intending to take a position, each drawing, in its own way, takes a swipe at this asymmetry, e.g. the intrusion of AI into something as personal as a selfie. My hope is to bring “beginner’s mind” to the work.
Talk a little bit about your process. Initially, you sent us 26 rough sketches. That’s a lot! How did you come up with the various concepts after the event?
I am a copious notetaker, and tend to mash up ideas, impressions, and preconceptions into a kind of half-written, half-drawn soup. During the event, there were colorful words and phrases that popped: like asymmetry, diagnosis and remedies, echo chambers and bubbles, surveillance, breakup, antitrust and trust. These helped trigger 26 rough concepts. I was surprised by the Institute’s initial response to these sketches—it was a "what is" (journalistic integrity) meets "what if" (cartoonist's license) moment. But the Institute’s feedback on my unfinished sketches gave me the opportunity to add the insight and context I needed to finish the drawings. From the large set of sketches, I worked up three as posters. I hand draw the images, scan them, and color them with Photoshop.
Did anything surprise you?
Everything from the history of antitrust law to proposed, inventive solutions were fodder for surprise and exploration. “What would it be like to pick tech platforms apart using existing antitrust tools?” “Just who is *with* us when we take a selfie, and what happens when our data becomes a product for use by others?” and “Weren't there other times when monopoly power needed to be questioned, and perhaps shattered, to allow for something more fair and balanced?” The excitement for me is at the intersection of ideas—the liquid space between concepts I am able to nail down and those that raised questions. Some of the policy discussions were above my *play* grade.
How do you hope people use the images?
Media formats come and go but human attention remains the same. Posters allow people to live with an issue, engage in spontaneous discussions, and to track matters of importance to the Knight Institute and its partners. The large drawings also work on two levels—one, as an impactful visual icon (“Hey that's a tech giant on the operating table”), and two, at a secondary level of detail (“Oh, there's an echo chamber next to that data-driven heart”). I purposefully designed the images so that the Institute could use portions of drawings as well as the full posters to illustrate the papers, blog posts, and other work that evolves out of the conference.
Lorraine Kenny is the Knight Institute’s communications director.