Sit back and take a look. Stop clicking away and think for a second.
This whole new mode — of communication, of thinking, frankly for millions of us, of being — requires more thought if we are to avoid what could otherwise be the coming shocks. It is changing everything, but we may not really be properly anticipating how culturally destabilizing it can be, and probably already is.
“It” isn’t just blogs or, to update this piece a decade or so, Twitter and other social media. These are just particular manifestations of the end of barriers to entry into the marketplace of expression. The marketplace of expression, of course, is larger than the marketplace of ideas; you don’t even have to have an idea to enter it. You merely have to have a platform, a soap box, and yes, the Internet provides this. But that does not mean “the medium is the message” –” we are past that, Mr. McLuhan. The medium is by now, passé; it is so unbearably light — indeed it dances in the ether — that the medium is besides the point. Put differently, if the medium is the message, then the utter lack of real message, real content, pulsating across the vast majority of channels renders the matter itself moot. Or does it?
During the entire previous history of humanity until just a few minutes ago, elites — who usually had the stability of society, for good or for bad, as a central goal, as elites will — controlled the medium and the message. And the result was indeed a high degree of stability. You could not easily ruin a man’s life by communicating something false or scurrilous, though if you did it could hardly be undone. And little saw the light of day in print — be it by the hand of a scribe painstaking scratching out sacred writ, as the product of the crudest printing presses or over the air of the oligopoly broadcasters — without being weighed and vetted — no, not always, maybe not even mostly, for truth or neutrality, but at least for cost and usually for effect.
This sense of accountability flowed from the fact of accountability, often in its literal sense. Your quills could be blunted, your press smashed, and in a more enlightened era and place, your assets and good name put at risk through legal process. There was a high cost of entry to the market of expression, and that cost was, especially in unfree societies (as is still the case), often far greater than any true economic assessment; but once borne, this cost provided a counterweight — not a perfect one, but a real one — to the inclination to take no consideration of what costs others might bear as a result of your expression.
That world is largely gone. Libertarians rejoice. But are we quite sure we are as satisfied with the result as we constantly claim?
I am not overly sentimental about the old order. The vesting of the power of public or mass expression in the hands of a few, whether by genuine market forces or otherwise, led to corruption and changed history, sometimes for the worst. Walter Duranty‘s excercises on behalf of mass murder are only useful examples in the context that their harm is mitigated by the fact that the truth eventually came out, and by our appreciation of the fact that there were once other broadsheets in New York besides the Times. Who knows what accepted “facts” in our own mental worlds are pure inventions?
But today the world of expression is cracking up into an infinitely divisible collection of thought-worlds, a cultural Balkanization that may not foster the search for truth as effectively as we think. Yes, it is immensely easier, and a blessed thing, too, for bloggers to double-check the spin of the landed media, and to show half-, quarter- and non-truths for what they are. I have argued that this is what blogs do best and what makes them, really, indispensable. And of course it is damning that the media do not do this to each others’ work, but rather act as a pack, and with a clear political agenda.
But I am not talking about journalism, so much, as I am about entire communities of mentality that I see emerging. Of course, they’ve always been there. Let’s think of cranks: There were always, for example, people who bought Noam Chomsky books, and the sphere of influence of their like has probably not really changed. Their facts are as false as ever, and perhaps more easily disproved; their analysis is as faulty, too; and they couldn’t care less. Call it a wash to a plus.
But what troubles me, and motivated this long essay, is how easily it is to destroy lives, families and institutions today with no accountability. This is something the Internet has wrought, and back into the bottle that genie will not go.
Last night I was Googling the name of a person I do some business with, who is actually a friend. It led me to a link about an institution he supports, and positively scurrilous accusations against another supporter… and, in the same — anonymous — blog, of its leader… and its members… beyond innuendo; outright unsupported statements of purported fact about entire communities and their ways of life. The bloggers and most of those commenting, and heaping scorn on respected figures and leaders, were mostly anonymous — the true refuge of an Internet scoundrel, in most cases. But once pumped out there, the bilge does not retreat. The blog is on Blogspot, like many others, and will presumably be reachable, readable, linkable “forever.”
In the old days, cranks and complainers and scandalmongers of this ilk used to peddle such wares via stolen reams of photocopy paper or purple mimeograph printouts. Mailed anonymously or pinned up on storefronts they were easily enough recognized as the rantings of marginal people; once pulled down and crumpled up, they were gone forever, and usually rightfully so.
Now we know not to believe everything we read in a blog, of course. No one thinks any more that if it’s on the Internet, “there must be something to it.” But slander has a way of sticking, especially when it is directed to those whose stations or dignity do not make response appropriate or practical. And the virtual eternity of anonymous defamation makes it more insidious than anything that preceded it. Potential employers, spouses or in-laws, business partners — anyone who can work Google can forever gain access to and read the rankest falsehood on the Internet.
The cost to the anonymous hit-blogger, or commenter: Free. The effect on people, institutions, communities: Unfathomable.
They say that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I have argued that this is true of libertarianism, as well, which I consider the animating political spirit of the Internet. Traditional economists argue for government or collectivist intervention in economies where “externalities” — costs borne by others not a direct party to economic decision-making — are not “properly” incorporated into cost decisions made by the market. Libertarians reject this by insisting on a proper allocation of property rights and responsibilities.
How do you do this in the new world of asymmetrical cultural or information warfare? How can property rights and penalties for their violation be properly allocated and enforced in a world of anonymity and where there are zero costs to instantly uttering thoughts, accusations and claims that can be consumed by millions, capable of destroying lives? And is there no value to the virtues of civilized discourse, of accountability for what one says in all the senses of the word?
I propose no elite, no star chamber, no board of wise men to put atop the whole thing and answer these questions. But all I asked at the beginning was that we realize some of the implications of the trip we’re on, a trip I am enjoying and which benefits me. This is one of those implications, and while I am not a worrier, what I saw last night on the Internet — and what it portends, I think, beyond the narrow communal interests it implicated — is very troubling. This is the world we are making for ourselves. Will we be able to live in it?
Originally posted on Dean’s World in 2007.