Warren Henry is the pen name of an Illinois attorney who writes an annoyingly compact and nuanced email that I receive. Annoying to me, because apparently his purpose is to “question his priors” and his emails often contain enough OTOH’s to leave one begging for a positive affirmation that does so in no uncertain terms. He is undoubtedly a very thorough lawyer.

One of his latest missives deals with technology – social media in particular – and the dangerous collapsing of institutions in terms of trust, but also in terms of how they are run. He links to a wonderfully written if alarmist article in Buzzfeed by the site’s political editor Katherine Miller titled: Donald Trump, #Me Too, Facebook, And The Breakdown Of Institutional Power. In her article she links the sex abuse scandals by the powerful towards those who lack it, to the general degradation of institutions:

Smash the exterior of an institution and you may reveal catacombs of cruelty, shame, sickness, all the terrible things people with power can do to those without it in the corridor of a hotel suite, inside an office, inside a home, in small places you feel you are not meant to be.

After wondering why our institutions do not foster and protect virtue, or kindness (she leads her list with the church and the military, two of the institutions that try to do precisely that and have not fallen nearly as far as somewhere like Hollywood or mainstream media or Congress) she turns to the new institutions of social media:

And then there’s all of us, consuming this weird year through our phones, living inside new institutions that are mind-blowing in scale and horribly ill-equipped for the task of handling us.

Or is it that we are ill-equipped to handle the way we interact on social media platforms and the way we seek out information on them? The connected global village (to use a phrase that is so quaint nowadays it seems hopelessly archaic) has turned out to be a rather toxic place. Back when people didn’t laugh at you for using phrases like “global village”, radical academic Lawrence Lessig wrote this:

Ours is the age of cyberspace. It, too, has a regulator. This regulator, too, threatens liberty. But so obsessed are we with the idea that liberty means “freedom from government” that we don’t even see the regulation in this new space. We therefore don’t see the threat to liberty that this regulation presents.

This regulator is code — the software and hardware that make cyberspace as it is … For unless we can understand how cyberspace can embed, or displace, values from our constitutional tradition, we will lose control over those values.

I can barely write a few (mostly wrong) lines of code in Python or HTML, but let me just say it’s really the software we’re talking about here when we say code. No kidding huh? But to the bigger point: Code is Law. That seems to be the creed for hacktivists whether related to Wikileaks or to the fact that you were dumb/unlucky enough to let someone hack your Ether coin. Code is law. And if you’re good at code, and good at a little psychology and bithneth, you build platforms that acquire a critical mass that makes them dominant players in today’s world. And where the engineering-dominant culture, according to another Buzzfeed article by Charlie Warzel, is:

… one that views nearly all content as agnostic, and everything else as a math problem.

Ok. Really? What scares you more? Content viewed as agnostic? Isn’t that the liberty that Lessig was crying out for back in 1999? Or non-binary transgender queer activists threatening you physically if you work at Google and don’t agree with their world views, and them deciding what content you should see?

Katherine Miller ends her article with the following words:

Whatever it is, now we are free to tear apart every last institution until every last vestige of that kind of pain is gone, hurtling towards some new future where you can only hope the kindness in our hearts wins out.

Allow me to dissent from Miller’s apocalyptic and poetic vision. Let us hope instead that the founder’s sober wisdom on the nature of mankind provides us a guide with how to live with social media in an age of partisan division and conflicting values. And to use that wisdom to sort out how to prevent another Russian or other foreign assault on America’s political system and it’s values. To do that we need to know more than we do right now on what happened this past election campaign. And to be able to come to some sort of judgement on what in fact happened. We’re not there yet.

Also, “liberty” and “code” are truly now inseparable. They will be part of every debate from here on in. Code is becoming law. But law will, or should, still lead us.

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