The Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius stated, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
What we observe to be reality is not reality, but our perception of it. We are all marred by our own limitations in comprehending what is true. What then becomes of our understanding of the world when information is culled by intermediaries? The entities who do this say our comprehension will be heightened, but what is their authority? Might they not see the objects of their consideration parallactically ─ in which what they take to be truth is observed from different vantage points, altering its content and meaning.
The Internet today may be viewed as our century’s Gutenberg press. In the middle of the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg introduced to Europe a printing press with movable, metal type. Its creation facilitated many advancements, including the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and expanded literacy. As with any leap forward, pernicious ramifications also ensued. Religious friction, which exploded into riots, massacres and open warfare, was driven, to a degree, by this new technology, which accelerated the networking of allied forces.
When the frontiers of expression are enlarged, a compelling impulse for censorship follows. This may come from establishmentarians or supposed reformers. The online censors of our time may be compared to both the iconoclasts of the former era, who destroyed great works of religious art, or to the compilers of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which limited the expansion of human knowledge by banning transformative works.
The names of the banned on this list are testament to the errancy of “authorities,” for we would not have our modern world if the work of Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and John Locke were kept from us, but these and many other geniuses were the subject of restriction or removal.
The same excessive and deeply destructive desires for dominance are as present in our technological world as they were centuries ago, for the human heart has not changed. Today, the richest people who ever lived control the largest markets for goods ever conceived as well as the most prevalent means of communication.
Search engines, financial communication, social media, newspapers, television, movies and politics are all dominated by a few individuals. Paradoxically, though each made their fortune via the free market, all seem to be wedded to neo-socialist causes and woke politics that miscast race as the central issue in economics and social relations.
Deceit is wrought by lies and omissions, which are propagated to cover, to protect or to enrich. It, therefore, is significant that great numbers of Americans have asserted that search and social-media companies have acted deceitfully, for the terrain these companies control is vast. Are the leftist politics of such enterprises a cover for their rapacious greed to dominate economic life? Such supremacy requires political control that is attained readily if the putative goal be perceived as benevolence for the many and not dominion for the few.
These technological enterprises know no precedent. The Founding Fathers could not have conceived of the power, the scope and the wealth of the combines at issue. Their owners have been called barons, but such an appellation seems wrong. We may wager that if by some magic the Founding Fathers could be transported to our time, they would call these men, kings, and we know the Founders’ beliefs with regard to monarchical despotism.
It would be bad enough if the tools used by these companies were straightforward and perceptible to consumers. They are not. Intrinsic to targeted advertising is the placing of people into cohorts, which may be determined by their search or messaging patterns. Those with similar patterns are grouped together. Though seemingly benign, pattern recognition, aided by algorithms and artificial intelligence, allows companies to know more about the inclinations of users than people know about themselves.
With such knowledge, future actions may be plotted with accuracy, and suggestions, omissions of information and ephemeral goads may be used to entrench behaviors. All this can be done without conscious perception. These companies exceed ─ in their powers ─ the agents conceived by George Orwell in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … .” A law, foundational to the expansion of the Internet, has, in its recent application, done just that. Section 230 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The intent was to promote discourse. Through the censorship of disfavored speech, this intent has been turned on its head.
Reports exist of a nexus between fact-checkers employed by American companies and China. If proven, this is an extreme danger, for fact-checking has figured prominently in politics. A new rule to replace Section 230 is needed desperately.
To mirror our Framers’ intent, such a rule may read, “People may post anything that is lawful and which does not incite imminent violence.” Content or images prohibited by law would thus be excluded; there could also be an age-sensitive viewing function. While not a comprehensive solution to the ills of the medium, such a substitute could be of profound benefit.
Many actions can be explained by greed, some by cowardice and a great number by stupidity. We must limit all these as we strive to ensure that people are not manipulated nor information suppressed.
• John Poindexter is a physicist and a former assistant to the president for national security affairs. Robert McFarlane is chairman of an international energy company and a former assistant to the president for national security affairs. Richard Levine is a former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and a former NSC staff director. They recently authored the book “America’s #1 Adversary And What We Must Do About It ─ Now!”
John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, Richard Levine
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