In 1996 John Perry Barlow penned A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a radical call for complete online freedom. The document begins with an optimistic word of caution for states the world around; “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us.”
The internet did not develop as Barlow had hoped, as Jacob Mchangama illustrates in the latest episode of his podcast, Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech. He notes that the “digital promised land turned into a dystopia of surveillance, disinformation, trolling and hate, to which governments responded with increasingly draconian measures.” China has simply banned foreign social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, while inside the “great firewall,” the government manipulates its population’s infoscape through a combination of flooding popular sites with positive comments and the prohibition of specific characters. Elsewhere, states pressure social media companies to establish sophisticated censorship mechanisms with threats of regulation and liability imposition.
“The Great Disruption: Part I,” interrogates the claim that the disruptive effects of the internet and social media on the spread of information are historically unprecedented. In some ways, of course, the internet’s effects are unparalleled. But throughout the podcast, Mchangama demonstrates that they are less novel than they might appear. The human rights lawyer turns to the early 16th century and the Great Disruption, a period of social and religious upheaval sparked by the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1447.
Like the internet, the impact of the printing press cannot be overstated. The social effects of the printing press are mirrored by the consequences of social media today. The new technology allowed a single document to be cheaply, reliably copied (making it hard for authorities to get rid of material they deemed problematic), allowed authors to effectively write anonymously (allowing them to put pen to page with less fear of consequence), and provided individuals with the ability to bypass traditional authorities and gatekeepers when creating content.
Scholars disagree on why the printing press failed to take hold in the Ottoman empire, but many think religion played a role, as some were fearful the printing press could contribute to the distribution of erroneous copies of the Qur’an. After all, the printing press had fueled religious schism in Europe. Their disruptive potentials aside, both the internet and the printing press have driven tremendous growth and economic development. The Ottomans increasingly lagged behind Western Europe in terms of literacy, science, and the spread of new ideas – “disciplines in which Muslims had previously been civilizational frontrunners.” The cost of being outside the information loop was high then, and is high now, exemplified by the fact that it would be nearly impossible to be successful starting an “offline” business or university. Societies that spurn technological adoption may be more stable in the short run, but they miss out on opportunities for future benefits, productivity, and progress.
Mchangama recounts Martin Luther used the printing press. In October 1517, Luther sent his list of 95 theses to the local printing press, prompting the Reformation that disrupted the religious unity of Europe. Mchangama compares Luther’s work to a twitter post (95 tweets?) as his arguments often were short and simplified so they could be spread widely and easily digested. They found an audience: by 1523, one third of Germany’s book titles came from Luther alone.
The effects of Luther’s work would eventually lead authorities to create and expand an index of prohibited books, and other extreme censorial measures. Luther himself would also try to take up the censor’s tools as well, eventually advocating the death penalty for blasphemy and idolatry. He condemned Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake atop a pyre of his books. Despite the Calvinists’ best efforts, three copies of Servetus’ book survived, demonstrating the difficulty of controlling the new technology.
The past is never really past and so it is here too. Mchangama observes: “But for all the social and political progress, the explosive effects of new communication technologies has still seen liberal democracies increasingly copy the playbook of those desperate European rulers, whose world was turned upside down by the double whammy of the printing press and the Reformation.”
In short, censorship as a response to new communicative technology is not new, and we should be wary of its effects. Returning to a statement made by Mchangama earlier in the podcast, “censorship has now…gone viral,” and “the platforms once hailed as the global infrastructure of freedom and democracy, are now often seen as the enemies of these values.” The internet, much like the printing press, has “the ability to inspire innovations in political philosophy” and should be a place for free expression. Societies can respond to new divisions created by technology with skepticism and increased polarization, but the only lasting balms seem to be greater tolerance and acceptance of human freedom.
The entire series of the Clear and Present Danger podcast merits a listen. Many people discuss legal doctrines and current issues regarding freedom of speech. Mchangama covers both and more while recounting a reliable and informed history of free speech. Free speech has many detractors just now, but Mchangama shows it was ever so. The struggle for free speech should and will continue.
You can see a Cato forum with Jacob Mchangama here.