Promoting Progress in the Digital Age

Over the past three years since the internet industry first had to respond to the so-called “Techlash,” various comments on the theme that “the internet didn’t turn out like we expected” have generally shared one common flaw—a failure to acknowledge that the expectation itself was folly.  Whether parties are debating the amount of moderation that should or should not be done by a platform like Facebook; or whether breaking up the internet giants to foster competition would ameliorate the negative effects; or whether curtailing liability shields and treating platforms like publishers would do the trick, the big lightbulb that has not dimmed nearly enough is the original assumption that more people expressing, sharing, posting more stuff could only benefit the world.  All evidence points to the contrary.

When I started this blog in the Summer of 2012, I was partly motivated to advocate artists’ rights (copyrights) against the agenda of Silicon Valley, but I was also skeptical that the underlying assumption justifying the abrogation of those rights—that the information age was fulfilling its promise—was true in any meaningful way.  I asked at the outset whether the internet, as it was shaped since the 90s, was in fact empowering our better angels and ushering in a second Enlightenment grounded in science; or whether it was more effectively aggravating our worst instincts and undermining the pillars of republican democracy.  

In this context, I use the word science in its broadest sense to encompass the principle of a politics rooted in knowledge and reason, and this expansive reading is roughly how we have interpreted Madison and Pinckney’s use of the word science in writing the constitutional clause that gave Congress the authority to adopt copyright law.  This is why the tech-utopian assumption that the internet would bring about the aforementioned second Enlightenment is directly tied to the anti-copyright agenda. 

What authors of works see as the protection of their rights, the digital-age copyright critics characterized as barriers to accessrent-seeking mechanisms, and corporate gatekeeping, all of which results in what they call “artificial scarcity” of expressive and informative works.  Hence the critic’s logic that “free” digital distribution inherently abridges—if it does not simply obliterate—the original purpose of adopting copyright as an incentive to produce and distribute works of science.   

Bizarrely, this utopian narrative persists despite the fact that the United States has now arrived at an existential crossroads.  Mired in what some observers have gravely termed a “cold civil war,” we are officially a nation divided and sub-divided into separate realities; and relatedly, our so-called “age of information” is witnessing an unprecedented volume of brain-drain at the highest levels of government and public service.  While the owners of the major platforms double down on their idealistic talking points, the real world increasingly resembles the worst corners of cyberspace, complete with mob-like assaults on expertise, professionalism, and patriotism for the sake of what can only be described as the cult of Trump.  

In the space of two years, the Republican Party has abandoned its own core principles, sloughing off actual conservatives, and even going so far as to faithlessly attack the characters of career service professionals who have risked their lives for American interests.  And all because they are afraid of being the targets of a presidential tweet.  “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth,” Lincoln wrote to Congress in 1862.  So, is it really conceivable that a century and a half since the Civil War, the party that used to call itself “the party of Lincoln” will allow the Republic to falter because an illiterate mean-girl wearing a tinfoil crown has a Twitter account?  Talk about going out with a whimper.

It is presently unavoidable to blame the GOP for this particular moment of history-altering fecklessness but also worth remembering that thanks in no small part to social media, my friends on the left helped loosen the bolts on many of the same girders this administration is now dismantling.  It may be shocking to watch Members of Congress disrespect public servants like Lt. Col. Vindman, Dr. Hill, or Ambassador Tayor, but it was not very long ago (2014) that, for example, Naval War College professor Tom Nichols, wrote for the decidedly-conservative Federalist, “I fear we are witnessing the ‘death of expertise’: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”

To a great extent, Nichols seemed to be addressing a progressive-leaning constituency of netizens who, just like many latent Trump supporters, dismissed authority, expertise, and experience as “elitist.”  And they still do.  So let’s not pretend the GOP is alone in amplifying and weaponizing internet conspiracy theories like the “deep state.”  Mainstream media, the intelligence community, the military—even the U.S. Copyright Office!—have all been generically maligned as “the government” by disparate constituencies—as if the government did not already comprise thousands of people just like Vindman, Hill, and Taylor. 

By contrast, all that ebullient swooning a few years ago over data-dumpers like Assange, spraying their cans of sunlight, was naïvely perceived as leaking truth to power.  But what that illusion of access really achieved was an erosion of faith in the same professionals now having their patriotism questioned for political gain.  Likewise, bloviators like Reps. Jordan and Nunes may be the most prominent figures calling the mainstream media “puppets” and “enemies,” but let’s be real: the word mainstream as a pejorative has been used across the political spectrum to justify dismissing any career journalist who reports something that some constituency doesn’t want to hear. 

Suffice to say, the battlefield was well-softened for armies of disinformation trolls to start what former State Department official Richard Stengel calls a full-scale information war we are not winning:  

“Governments, nonstate actors and terrorists are creating their own narratives that have nothing to do with reality,” Stengel writes. “These false narratives undermine our democracy and the ability of free people to make intelligent choices. The disinformationists are aided by the big-platform companies who benefit as much from the sharing of the false as from the true. The bad guys use all the same behavioral and information tools supplied by Facebook, Google and Twitter. Just as Nike buys your information to sell you sneakers, the Russians bought your information to persuade you that America is a mess.”

Having dutifully fulfilled the trolls’ prophecy—because America is certainly a mess now—it is a pretty harsh referendum on the information age to watch the GOP respond to clear evidence that the President of the United States abused his office, asserting a combination of internet conspiracy theory and the eccentric proposal that Trump is too incompetent to break the law (see Sen. Graham comments).  That’s one hell of a rationale to pitch to the American people about their president, but it is astoundingly effective thanks to the “democratization of information.” 

So, no, the second Enlightenment did not happen.  Science is now a choose-your-own-adventure game you can play on your mobile device, and the “illusion of agency”* provided by social media is being moderated by some over-caffeinated, professional rat-fucker in St. Petersburg.  All that being the case, perhaps the tech-industry activists who still insist that copyright is a gremlin sabotaging the promise of the internet, might find some better targets for their censure than the authors and artists of the world.

*All credit to Neil Turkewitz for this expression.

Unicorn illustration by julos.

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