6 min read

077 - On The Duty To Let Ideas Live - Moral Letters for Modern Times

It is the hallmark of great civilizations that they let their citizens speak freely and, moreover, that they organize themselves to facilitate open communication far and wide.
Castle fortification with a wooden bridge over a moat - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

It is the hallmark of great generals that they can win battles and conquer lands. It is the hallmark of great leaders that they can unite the peoples thus conquered. But it is the hallmark of great civilizations that they let their citizens speak freely and, moreover, that they organize themselves to facilitate open communication far and wide.

It was the generals and leaders who first established postal systems so that they could communicate with their armies and be apprised of matters of state. The most successful systems expanded to make the post available to all citizens, and this led to the sharing and spread of ideas for the ultimate benefit of all humankind. It is no accident that the most successful epochs in human history were accompanied by the development of increasingly comprehensive systems of delivering news and mail: from Persia, India, and Rome, to China and the Mongol Empire, up through to the last world-spanning power, the British Empire.

I was thinking of this today as I watched the parade of electric postal scooters scurrying about town, bestowing their gifts. For among the occasional invoice that I have not switched to online billing, or the advertising flyer I have not cancelled because they serve as both reminder and test of all the things I have trained myself not to need, the mail yields up the great treasure of an old-fashioned letter. Someone took the time to write me by hand! Though it be but a postcard or a few scribbled lines added to a printed letter, this paper is a physical reminder of how far we’ve come in that great human endeavor of enabling the meeting of minds.

We think we have taken a step forward with electronic mail, Deuteros. Most would say rather a massive leap, because our computers now allow connections with a convenience and speed the ancients could only have dreamt of. I can see the point, and I am as enthusiastic a user of email and the Internet as any. But let us be alert to some reasons why we may have leapt into a position of great danger in our rush to convenience.

The computer is a tool that can be put to many purposes, and how those purposes expand when we put many computers together! Or rather the many minds behind those many screens. Because of the world wide web and the Internet, for the first time we can say that most of humanity across the globe is connected, or can be. Now we need not wait weeks or even days for a precious missive to make its way physically from one end of Empire to the other. An electron can circle the earth in seconds, bringing with it almost instantaneous communication among friends, partners, scientists, strangers, and more.

Because the Internet is everywhere, and presently under the administration of no government but instead the benevolent Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), we assume it is free from control. Nothing could be further from the truth and it takes but a short reflection to reveal why.

When anyone with a pen can put their thoughts to paper any idea can be brought into the world with relative permanence. When publishers number in the hundreds and thousands, hundreds of thousands of books are published. “But the reach of traditional publishers is limited and thus progress slow,” you say, “and has not the spread of ideas greatly improved by giving them much broader scope in the hands of giants like Amazon and Google?”

I grant you, Deuteros, that today ideas fly around the globe on the wings of Twitter before the traditional publisher has even wielded their letter opener to do battle against the day’s mail. It is surely true that where we once counted thousands of publishers we now have countless millions of self-publishers, all chattering, clamoring for attention, and churning out content. If I do not rejoice, it is because I ask at what cost have we purchased this amplification of our voices and with what attendant risks?

Consider again how we initially lionize the conquering general and the charismatic leader. Some of the greatest leaders, having mastered all earthly endeavors, still failed to master themselves and so led their nations from greatness into ruin. Rulers like Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, and Hitler stained the 20th century in the blood of their citizens. Why is this? A person who is truly the master of their thoughts has conquered the need to be right in all things and can handle any challenge to their views. A dissenting view is either wrong and can be dismissed or it has some elements of truth, in which case the original idea can be improved. In contrast, the person who is unsure must constantly be proving themselves, though they have overrun continents, and can brook no challenge to their ideas or their authority.

Thus the greatest threat to a corrupt ideology comes from no army but from rot within. The stench of decay becomes impossible to ignore when citizens can speak the truth of their opinions freely. Dictators seek to control what their subjects see and hear to limit what they consequently think. And here is where we see the true power of ideas, Deuteros, for as much as they create, ideas can also destroy.

The Soviet communists were unable to squelch Aleksander Solzhenitsyn from publishing The Gulag Archipelago though they confiscated every copy they could find. The words of one courageous man lived on in samizdat and survived to undermine the moral foundation of the entire corrupt regime. Think now how the Politburo would have danced for joy if Solzhenitsyn had committed his words to the Internet alone.

Though ICANN offers neutrality in theory, its domain is limited in practice, and it most certainly does not extend to the fiber optic cables carrying electrons into dictatorships. If Vladimir Putin wishes an idea to be gone from the Internet available to Russians today, it is eliminated much more easily than dissidents sipping their polonium tea in London.

If Xi Jinping wishes to ensure that Chinese people see and hear only approved ideology, he calls upon his modern army manning the Great Firewall, as imposing and ambitious a construct as its physical counterpart was five thousand years ago. And if partisans in the U.S. wish to suppress a story damaging to a Presidential candidate in the runup to a national election, why a phone call to Jack Dorsey is sufficient.

“Wait, wait!” you cry, “I was following along well with your argument there, but why have you introduced the United States into your discussion of oppressive regimes? The U.S. government is nothing like the communist leaders you mention.”

The U.S. Constitution enshrines the freedom of speech with the greatest protections against encroachment by the government but provides no protection whatsoever against private depredations. And what of it? Does this mean we should ignore that our freedoms can be taken from us in ever more brazen displays, and that this is perfectly legal because the government has kept its hands clean? This is like assuring the lamb that you will commit them no harm, sweet words soothing them while your compatriot nears their throat with a knife clutched in their hands. The lamb is just as slaughtered.

Truly we should view with the greatest alarm the explosive growth of the private giants Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, as well as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like. At present the entire foundation of free speech, free thought, and free expression is in the monopolistic hands of a number of people you can count on your two hands. I don’t need to know anything at all about Satya Nadella, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, or Sundar Pichai to know that it is dangerous in the extreme for so few persons to control the great majority of computers, publishing, collaborating, and searching.

In the freest of countries, we have gone from having thousands of publishers and millions of self-publishers to every one of us being subject to the whims of a single arbiter whose decisions cannot be appealed. Or worse, put in place an “objective” Oversight Board to decide whether to let President Trump back on Facebook, but then let them be influenced by thousands of public comments. In the meantime, it is not only Mr. Trump but any who amplify or support him, the “voice of Trump,” that is banned. This makes perfect sense when you consider that it is not Mr. Trump himself but his ideas that present an existential threat to the fragile left. A single voice speaking reason can topple corrupt empires; we have already seen it. The dictators think this time they have the technological keys to lock up debate and thereby ensure it can never happen again.

If unelected CEOs can throttle open debate more completely and more easily than the most aggressive of dictators, whose citizens are more oppressed? Those who know they are laboring under oppression, or those who are laboring under the illusion that they are still free?

No, take no pleasure in the decline of the U.S. Postal Service, itself a year older than the U.S. Declaration of Independence, or the closure of another independent bookseller. If that other great general, the first postmaster general, Ben Franklin, were still among us to dispense his wisdom, he would say the few pennies we save in our one-click order with Amazon are a great payment towards our eventual loss of independence.

It is our duty to fight to let ideas live free from threats public or private. If we fail in this duty, we cannot be surprised when we suffer the same fate as our ideas: to die an ignoble death.

Be well.

Next Letter →
Overview of All Letters ↑