Wednesday, November 29, 2017

NYC-DC Elites Struggle With Midwest-NoCal Elites Over Controlling Narratives


thenewyorker |  McCarthy wasn’t persuadable on the matter, and certainly not through personal testimony. To his way of thinking, there was no such thing as inappropriate tech or inappropriate speech. Besides, who could be trusted to decide? One post, which McCarthy endorsed, suggested that letting I.T. administrators determine what belonged on the computers at Stanford was like giving janitors at the library the right to pick the books.

McCarthy’s colleagues innately shared his anti-authoritarian perspective; they voted unanimously to oppose the removal of rec.humor.funny from Stanford’s terminals. The students were nearly as committed; a confidential e-mail poll found a hundred and twenty-eight against the ban and only four in favor. McCarthy was soon able to win over the entire university by enlisting a powerful metaphor for the digital age. Censoring a newsgroup, he explained to those who might not be familiar with Usenet, was like pulling a book from circulation. Since “Mein Kampf” was still on the library shelves, it was hard to imagine how anything else merited removal. The terms were clear: either you accepted offensive speech or you were in favor of destroying knowledge. There was no middle ground, and thus no opportunity to introduce reasonable regulations to insure civility online. In other words, here was the outline for exactly our predicament today.

McCarthy, who died in 2011, considered his successful campaign against Internet censorship the capstone to a distinguished career. As he boasted to a crowd gathered for the fortieth anniversary of the Stanford computer-science department, on March 21, 2006, his great victory had been to make the school understand that “a faculty-member or student Web page was his own property, as it were, and not the property of the university.” At the time, almost as much as in 1989, McCarthy could safely see this victory as untainted; the Internet still appeared to be virgin territory for the public to frolic in. Facebook wouldn’t go public for another six years. The verb “Google” had yet to enter the Oxford English Dictionary. The first tweet had just been sent—the very same day, in fact.

Today, of course, hateful, enraging words are routinely foisted on the public by users of all three companies’ products, whether in individual tweets and Facebook posts or in flawed Google News algorithms. Championing freedom of speech has become a business model in itself, a cover for maximizing engagement and attracting ad revenue, with the social damage mostly pushed aside for others to bear. When the Internet was young, the reason to clean it up was basic human empathy—the idea that one’s friends and neighbors, at home or on the other side of the world, were worth respecting. In 2017, the reason is self-preservation: American democracy is struggling to withstand the rampant, profit-based manipulation of the public’s emotions and hatreds.