Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Free speech demands courage from us

An interesting article by Tim Wu in Slate seeks to dispel any easy confidence that the internet will not become a tool of thought control. He discusses Chinese rulers' efforts to partition off a portion of the net, exploiting its power to promote Chinese economic activity and technical proficiency, but keeping Chinese net users quarantined from political ideas that would challenge their power.

His most important point is that China's version of the Internet will feel free to users despite being quite a different place than current US users experience. He catalogues how this will happen:
  • search engines will return many answers, but invisibly exclude some as well;

  • blogs and chat rooms will encourage certain kinds of officially endorsed enthusiasms that drown out other kinds of thinking. Wu cites the campaign rousing Chinese against the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 as an example. Here's another sample of this Chinese practice.;

  • the physical net backbone will employ partially incompatible protocols from the rest of the international net;

  • only forms of wireless networking that require every user disclose their true identity will be allowed;

  • and through these means, the Chinese implementation of the net will not completely shut out ideas, but will make some thinking difficult to express and rarely encountered.

I have to ask myself -- is this dystopian future really so far from our experience of the contemporary US media environment, including, but not limited to the internet?

Certainly obsessive excitement about trivia is the defining characteristic of our mainstream media -- Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, and runaway brides rule. Progressive political blogs do it too; there were recent moments when Ohio voting conspiracy theories or Jeff Gannon seemed to drive out most other content. Sure, there is other information out there, but it isn't going to get even roughly equivalent airtime. Jeanne d'Arc at Body and Soul launched a great discussion of this by pointing out: "the real game is taking control of the conversation."

However focusing on the particular means by which censors control conversation misses the deeper mechanism by which this is achieved or perhaps by which we are persuaded to impose it upon ourselves. Here in the US, our entire economic system teaches us to find our niche interests and preferred products and to consume within our niches. Marketing depends on developing and cultivating our attachments to various self-images, styles, and their accompanying products. We are very carefully taught to self-segregate from interaction or even information that challenges our carefully cultivated "individuality."

We feel we are choosing freedom.

But despite that feeling, we also make pretty good herd animals, following those who ratify our "choices" -- think Fox news consumers who love GWB because Saddam Hussein attacked the US on 9/11 -- or think anti-capitalists who protest the G-8 by fighting the police in San Francisco because "all revolutions included street fighting." Preserving our niches can lead us up some pretty wacky byways, something the structure of the internet facilitates.

Free speech is not just about having access to a megaphone, though having a bigger one amplifies anything said. Free speech that matters requires something much harder to cultivate: an inquiring mind that explores the unfamiliar. The prerequisite for such a mind is courage.

Guess if I want free speech on the internet or elsewhere, I had better follow my own prescription and go visit a lot of unfamiliar places and engage with people I don't know.

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