I’m a free speech champion. I don’t even know what that means anymore

The president of the United States is supposedly the most powerful man in the world. He also can’t post to Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a bunch of other social networks as we discovered over the course of the past week (He still has access to the nuclear launch codes though, so that’s an interesting dynamic to chew on).

The bans last week were exceptional — but so is Trump. There may not be another president this century who pushes the line of public discourse quite like the current occupant of the White House (at least, one can only hope). If the whole Trump crisis was truly exceptional though, it could simply be ignored. Rules, even rules around free speech, have always had exceptions to handle exceptional circumstances. The president provokes a violent protest, he gets banned. A unique moment in American executive leadership, for sure. Yet, apart from the actor, it’s hardly an unusual response from the tech industry or any publisher where violent threats have been banned for decades under Supreme Court precedent.

Why then aren’t we ignoring it? I think we can all feel that something greater is underfoot. The entire information architecture of our world has changed, and that has completely upended the structure of rules around free speech that have governed America in the modern era.

Freedom of speech is deeply entwined with human progressivism, with science and rationality and positivism. The purpose of a marketplace of ideas is for arguments to be in dialogue with each other, to have their own facts and deductions checked, and for bad ideas to be washed out by better, more proven ones. Contentious at times yes, but a positive contention, one that ultimately is meant to elucidate more than provoke.

I’m a free speech “absolutist” because I believe in that human progress, and I believe that the concept of a marketplace of ideas is the best mechanism historically we have ever built as a species for exploring our world and introspecting ourselves. Yet, I also can’t witness the events that transpired last week and just pretend that our information commons is working well.

I get it — that seems contradictory. I understand the argument that I’m supporting free speech but not really supporting it. Yet, there is a reasonable pause to be taken in this moment to ask some deeper, more foundational questions, for something is wrong with the system. I’m struggling with the same context that the ACLU in its official statement is struggling with:

It’s a milquetoast response, a “we condemn but we are also concerned” sort of lukewarm mélange. It’s also a reasonable response to a rapidly changing environment around speech. In the same vein, I’m a staunch defender of the marketplace of ideas, well, a marketplace of ideas, one that unfortunately no longer exists today. Just think about everything that isn’t working:

  • There’s too much information, and it’s impossible for any reasonable human to process it all
  • Much of that flood is garbage and outright fraud, or worse, brilliant pieces of psychological propaganda designed to distract and undermine the very information system it is distributed on
  • We’ve never allowed so many people to gain access to the public square to distribute their missives, drivel and invective with such limited constraints
  • Few ideas are in dialogue anymore. Collegiality is mostly dead, as is constructivist thought. There is no marketplace anymore since the “stores” are no longer in the same public squares but in each of our own individual feeds
  • Coercive incentives from a handful of dominant, monopoly platforms drive wildly damaging communication practices, encouraging the proverbial “clickbait” over any form of careful discussion or debate
  • The vast majority of people seem to love this, given the extremely high user engagement numbers seen on tech platforms

We’ve known this event was coming for decades. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about the inability of humans to process the complexity of the modern, industrialized world, came out in 1970. Cyberpunk literature and sci-fi more generally in the 1980s and 1990s has extensively grappled with this coming onslaught. As the internet expanded rapidly, books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows interrogated how the internet prevents us from thinking deeply. It was published a decade ago. Today, in your local bookstore (assuming you still have one and can actually still read texts longer than 1,000 words), you can find a whole wing analyzing the future of media and communications and what the internet is cognitively doing to us.

My absolute belief in “free speech” was predicated on some pretty clear assumptions about how free speech was supposed to work in the United States. Those assumptions, unfortunately, no longer apply.

We can no longer assume that there is a proverbial public square where citizens debate, perhaps even angrily, the issues that confront them. We can no longer assume that information dreck gets filtered by editors, or by publishers, or by readers themselves. We can no longer assume that the people who reach us with their messages are somewhat vetted, and speaking from truth or facts.

We can no longer assume that any part of the marketplace is frankly working at all.

That’s what makes this era so challenging for those of us who rely every day on the right to free speech in our work and in our lives. Without those underlying assumptions, the right to free speech isn’t the bastion of human progressivism and rationality that we expect it to be. Our information commons won’t ensure that the best and highest-quality ideas are going to rise to the top and propel our collective discussion.

I truly believe in free speech in its extensive, American sense. So do many friends who are similarly concerned for the perilous state of our marketplace of ideas. Yet, we all need to confront the reality that is before us: the system is really, truly broken and just screaming “Free Speech!” is not going to change that.

The way forward is to pivot the conversation around free speech to a broader question about how we improve the information architecture of our world. How do we ensure that creators and the people who generate ideas and analyze them can do so with the right economics? That means empowering writers and filmmakers and novelists and researchers and everyone else to be able to do quality work, over perhaps extended periods of time, without having to upload a new photo or insight every ten minutes to stay “top of mind” lest their income tumbles.

How can we align incentives at every layer of our communications to ensure that facts and “truth” will eventually win the day in the asymptote, if not always right away? How do you ensure that the power that comes with mass distribution of information is held by those who embody at least some notion of a public duty to accuracy and reasonableness?

Most importantly, how do we improve the ability of every reader and viewer to process the information they see, and through their independent actions drive the discussion toward rationality? No marketplace can survive without smart and diligent customers, and the market for information is no exception. If people demand lies, the world is going to supply it to them, and in spades as we have already seen.

Tech can’t solve this alone, but it absolutely can and is obligated to be part of the solution. Platform alternatives with the right incentives in place can completely change the way humanity understands our world and what is happening. That’s an extremely important and intellectually interesting problem that should be enticing to any ambitious engineer and founder to tackle.

I’ll always defend free speech, but I can’t defend the system in the state that we see it today. The only defense then is to work to rebuild this system, to buttress the components that are continuing to work and to repair or replace the ones that aren’t. I don’t believe the descent into rational hell has to be paved by misinformation. We all have the tools and power to make this system what it needs to be — what it should be.

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