Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Information used to follow social hierarchy; the Internet changed all that, and now "national security" can jeopardize our permissive use of user generated content

The way Vladimir Putin throws around the term “propaganda”, and in fact the explanation my high school government teacher gave for the concept back in 1960, reminds me of the way most people both transmit and receive information, or have done so for most of history. 
Generally, people learn and transmit on a “need to know” basis, predicated in their role in the family and in a workplace and a political structure, much of all of this hierarchal.  Until the Internet, with the idea of user-generated content (and very limited downstream liability for service providers) came along in the mid to late 1990s, along with lower costs in traditional book self-publishing, you didn’t get heard by others “globally” until you competed successfully for the right.  You did get heard by people over whom you had authority, or for whom you were responsible.  A lot of people probably wish it still worked that way.  Particularly in authoritarian societies this is even more the case.  It should be no wonder that Putin, then, sees public advocacy of “gay rights” as “propaganda” that could influence young men not to have the children in quantity that “mother Russia” so badly needs.

You could compare Putin's idea to the way security clearances work, based on "need to know".  But that applies to only a tiny fraction of the information that flows in our society. 
The biggest value of a plethora of UGC is that all ideas stay on the table, so politicians (and advocacy organizations) are “kept honest” in the arguments they must make to remain partisan for their own constituencies.  Of course, the validity or arguments also depends on the ultimate “big picture” objective.  We’d like it to remain sustainable ordered liberty, with some balance between innovation and underlying fairness.  But some people think mainly about future generations for their own nation or religious creed.  Some groups think that “virtue” and “perfection” are their own valid moral ends.  And sometimes the freedom to speak and self-distribute that we have come to value so much can be turned on themselves to promote what turn out to be totalitarian ends, in the pursuit of some cult of “beauty”. The “logical” antidote to this possibility is that people have some “real” responsibility to others before they are “heard”.

Even before there was the possibility of self-distribution, I had made a personal career of playing devil’s argument.  Back in the 1980s, while living in Dallas, I had made an avocation of writing lots of letters (to newspapers, to the CDC, to politicians and lobby groups, including some hostile to gays) checking on the “logic” of arguments concerning putative future danger of HIV to the general public (the “chain letter amplification” argument circulated by the right wing in those days).  That sort of critical thinking seems to be needed today with other crises, such as obviously Ebola. 
People will, with some justification, retort to me that they have real responsibilities for others, which I, because of my schizoid nature in a more individualistic and permissive culture, have been able to avoid while still having some public effect.  Leading my “different life”, I’ve always felt offside, like the observer who is close enough to affect what he watches (just as relativity predicts).
A big concern is, of course, that the very asymmetry of UCG that keeps big boys honest and that make social and political hierarchy (and personal loyalty to it) less relevant to “people like me”, also facilitates or magnifies the harm that can be done by those who feel stiffed (genuinely so, sometimes, by inequality of opportunity and exploitation) or those with evil or psychopathic inclinations, when simply prompted to do so by what they can find online, planted right now largely by religious ideologues.  We may be making too much of this (people knew how to make pressure cooker bombs before there was an Internet) but the probability of mischief by “lone wolves” certainly increases in our permissive online culture (however constitutionally protected), especially when enemies are willing to trigger them, almost "Manchurian style".  In fact, right after 9/11, there was another concern, that amateur websites would be targeted to host “steganographic” content planted by hackers to convey instructions for future attacks, but that hasn’t materialized, as terror itself experiences diaspora.  Another idea is that in an asymmetric world, a much wider range of people (and speakers) might be perceived as targets for psychological warfare.  We saw that in a controversial FBI bulletin just last week.
I do think there is a “danger” that schemes to reduce the ease of deploying UGC will be proposed as a national security issue, even given constitutional questions (First Amendment) and given the value of trolling UDC for threats.  Perhaps UGC would be limited only to specific “friends” or “followers” lists and that those lists would be limited in a way related to the number of persons someone can really interact with.  Perhaps it would be limited in duration (Snapchat is the ultimate idea) or to content that can “pay for itself” in terms of the willingness of people to pay for it.  Of course, it’s easy to poke “Titanic” holes in proposals like this, and in a sense “the cat’s out of the bag”.  There remains also the question of the jobs and wealth that are generated by supporting UGC, and that seems to be a bit of a mystery in Silicon Valley.  But the times may have never been more dangerous since 9/11, and the Internet is working in both ways now. 

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