Essay for the RS Challenge
|In his 1956 short story "The Dead Past," Isaac Asimov imagined a "chronoscope." It's a machine of a kind that had been posited before (T. L. Sherred's "E for Effort" develops one, to a similar thematic end), but Asimov gives it a nasty but inventive twist at the end. I don't like having to give spoilers, but I must if I'm to make my point.
A chronoscope, you see, is a machine for viewing the past. Imagine the Hubble Space Telescope -- for there is only one, and it tremendously expensive, and researchers must apply to the government to use it -- but it peers back into time, not out into space.
But the story's protagonists succeed in building one of their own, and in doing so discover that chronoscopes are in fact very cheap and easy to build. Too late -- only after they have released their research and blueprints to the public -- does the government explain why it held monopoly control of chronoscopes. "The past," the government agent reminds them, is not only a place that exists a hundred or a thousand years ago. "The past" also exists a millisecond ago. As a practical matter, then, a chronoscope can be used to spy on anyone, anywhere in the world, in what is for all practical purposes real time.
Privacy would be impossible in such a world. And, thanks to the idiots who have released their plans for the chronoscope to the world at large, the story portends the destruction of privacy. "Happy goldfish bowl to you," the agent tells the scientists at the conclusion. "To you, to me, to everyone, and may each of you fry in hell forever."
Now, what does a dystopian story about the banishment of privacy have to do with the real world and with freedom of speech?
It seems to me that in the last few years we have increasingly chosen to live in Asimov's dystopia, not by placing our bodies inside a universal Panopticon for inspection, but by placing our minds there. At least, that is what we have done with the internet.
The great promise of the internet -- the most powerful communication medium yet invented -- is that it allows anyone the greatest possible platform on which to speak, even if they have nothing worthwhile to say.
But it places readers on the same platform too. Or -- to vary the metaphor -- it knocks down every wall and puts everyone -- speaker and listener alike -- in the same room.
Now, when you put a bunch of strangers together -- people with something to say, and people with something to say back at those with something to say, and those with something to say back at those people who talk back to the first speakers; etc. -- you don't get a community and you don't get a seminar.
You get a mob.
So if internet allows equality in the sense that it allows anyone to put up anything for anyone else to see, it is grotesquely unequal in weight of numbers. If one person, or only a small group, puts up something unpopular or even merely unpalatable, then the greater number of people who are disgusted or outraged by it can -- in a mob effort -- take them down. Voice an unpopular opinion, or merely say something provocative or careless, and you may see your life destroyed in the social media equivalent of a prison riot.
Now, human beings have a strong need to express themselves, and writers -- I am, naturally, addressing patrons of WdC -- feel the need more so than others, even. But against the desire to share an opinion -- or a story, a joke, an observation, a reminiscence, an argument, or a simple need to shout -- one must weigh the consequences of drawing down the fury of strangers. This is no mere matter of weighing words carefully. There is, increasingly, a presumption that one must live much of one's life in the fishbowl that is the internet, in the form of tweets, Facebook updates, forum postings, blog entries, or any of the other myriad forms that internet entrepreneurs are ceaselessly inventing. Tell us what you think and what you're doing, comes the pressure from one side. Don't you dare say anything that could possibly be offensive to anyone anywhere, cautions the other.
Add "Big Data," and the corporate temptation to sell, use and display your purchases and preferences, and all that can be inferred from those, and it becomes frighteningly easy to imagine all the ways that the privacy of the mind -- your opinions, desires, interests, fetishes, and buried secrets -- can be exposed to the fanatical inspection of those who abhor transgressive tastes or "[insert variable here]-phobic" opinions.
This leaves most of us a Hobson's choice: Either we strictly police ourselves and our expression for unacceptable thoughts and interests, lest we be ruthlessly punished for it by others. Or we must withdraw from the world of the internet altogether. In either case, we are letting ourselves be restrained by the threat of mob action against us. The third choice -- to brave opposition -- is not an encouraging one.
The claim is often made that "freedom of speech" is only a carve-out from government coercion, not from social pressure: the First Amendment, we are often reminded, only restrains the US government and not other citizens from criticizing or attacking us. However, the concept of "freedom of speech" (and of conscience) originated in a context where only government coercion could effectively silence an unpopular opinion. A man who distressed his neighbors with his opinions could find himself new neighbors if he had to; or, if the peace really was threatened, he could even find protection from his neighbors from the government itself.
But in the world now evolving, social pressure -- simply because it is amplified by enormous numbers -- is possibly as powerful as government coercion in suppressing unpopular opinion and persecuting its holders into silence or self-abnegation.
Governments evolved, in part, because they were preferable to mob rule. But if the internet comes to be ruled by the mob, it is hard to see how the government would be able to control it -- not without replacing one sort of coercion with another.
We are going to have to learn to extend our presumptions for free speech, and to extend our habits to defend it not only from the government but from each other. The alternative is a world where only a very narrow range of thought and of taste can be publicly exercised, and in which select minorities, simply through the tyranny of outrage, can silence everyone else. This would be even worse than government control, because there would be no chance of appeal or reformation.