The Real Promethean Threat to US Technology and Freedom
Have any questions? Make sure you drop me a line here.
Now for today’s Prophecy….
Oh my, am I going to have to worry about my conservative friends joining the dims in a Luddite turn against technology?
Or is the real division in our politics between lawyers and their dupes on one side and everyone else?
Last night, at the gala dinner of the American Principles Project, I heard young lawyer and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri give perhaps the best speech I have ever heard at one of these Washington dinner celebrations. The sharp-eyed prehensile-beaked barrister from Stanford and Yale made a fascinating case against what he called the “Promethean Individual.”
In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a futuristic thinker and creator (“fore thinker”) who stole the fire of technology from the Gods and brought it to humans.
In Hawley’s terms, Prometheus is essentially a guy who thinks that man creates God rather than God created man. He dominates American universities. Ultimately he thinks he is God. As Yuval Harari writes in his book Homo Deus, America’s technology elite, with their belief in a singularity where their machines displace ordinary humans, are close to claiming divine powers.
Celebrating family and community, Hawley denounces the self-created paladin who imagines family and community are dispensable in a world of Olympian loners making billions off algorithmic inventions.
Whether a revolutionary politician beloved of the left or inventive entrepreneur celebrated on the right or sexual polymorph transcending the binaries of mere men and women, this heroic figure creates himself. He or she becomes they or even qwerty. They forge their wealth, shape their culture, and summon glints of a mirrored divinity in the crucible of their triumphant individualities.
Hawley luminously denounces this caricature of the human condition and obtuse devaluation of the human mind.
None the less, the young Republican Senator was essentially repeating on the conservative side the same sentiment that President Obama espoused on the left when he declared of entrepreneurs: “You did not build that.”
Hawley was stressing family and other traditional private institutions. Obama was pointing to the role of governments enforcing laws, building highways, and educating employees.
But it was the same communitarian vision.
The Real Threat to the Internet
A communitarian desire to deny the claims and accomplishments of individuals easily glides into socialism, or worse. In his short career in the Senate, Hawley has not been able to resist the temptation.
Because of Hawley’s advocacy of vast new regimes of regulation, my redoubtable advisor Ralph Benko described him to me at dinner the night before as the worst single US senator. Benko put Hawley at the very bottom of the ranks of one hundred, lurking in some subterranean crypt below even New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer.
Arousing Benko’s ire is Hawley’s strange presumption that the cultural influence of social media can be improved by a series of micro-regulations administered by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The key question is whether owners of conduits will be liable for the content transmitted on them, or whether the masters of social media platforms will be responsible for all the applications built on them.
Originating as section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, the principle that owners of conduits are not responsible for content made possible the emergence of telecommunications. It made possible the success of the internet.
If telephone companies had been liable for any hate speakers or news fakers using their lines, we would still be communicating by some upgraded pony express. If providers of internet platforms had been required to ensure that no lies, frauds, hate speech or fake news passed through their facilities, they could not have functioned at all. There would be no internet.
Until the passage of Section 230 and its survival of court challenges, US media lived in the disabling shadows of the “Fairness Doctrine.” This rule made media fair and balanced, or neutral. The result was a homogeneously bland and neutered broadcast regime run by three largely indistinguishable networks. In the end, they all became servants of government.
No one was allowed to say anything unusual because the voicing of any controversial statement required media to chase down, define, and then present the other side. This burden is impossible in the turbulent flow of news and opinion.
The obvious response was to prohibit any partisan or distinctive speech. Since the government was ultimately in charge of defining what was fair and balanced, all speech tended to assimilate and accommodate the prevailing governmental ethos and goals.
Now in two major proposals — the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” (ESICA) and the “Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act” (SMART) — Hawley and his allies would paralyze social media with a Lilliputian maze of rules administered by federal regulators. Restored would be a confectionary syrup of fairness and neutrality.
Hawley’s ostensible purpose is to restrict such routines as “infinite scroll,” “auto-refill,” badges and rewards for loyalty, data tracking, and data monetization. Under ESICA, the Fairness Doctrine would rise again and neuter the net. Hawley’s proposal would make social media prove the “neutrality” and balance of any moderation functions they perform, even through algorithms such as Google’s enabling PageRank.
The overthrow of the internet would presumably be fine with Hawley. At least, he has said the “country might well be better off without Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram…” and that “maybe social media is best understood as a parasite on productive investment, on meaningful relationships, on a healthy society.”
But all his goals are essentially irrelevant compared to the creation of huge new bureaucracies regulating speech, politics, network algorithms, and communications.
Hawley trusts his conservative purposes to mitigate the effects of such a gargantuan state. But his communitarianism, in the end, would be as intrusive and erosive as Communism.
And indeed it is easy to identify who would be the chief beneficiary of this disabling of the US internet and social media leviathans, who currently give the US five of the world’s top seven companies in market cap.
The chief beneficiary would be China, which ironically regulates its internet giants, such as Tencent, Alibaba, and Bytedance — far less oppressively than the US government already regulates Google, Facebook, and Twitter. And that’s without SMART and ESICA.
The real Promethean threat to US technology and freedom comes from ambitious lawyers such as Josh Hawley, whether on the left or right makes little difference.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy