Guest Opinion: Our relationship with big tech must change

Published 8:13 am Friday, January 21, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Woody White

At this moment in world history, we are the richest, healthiest, smartest and most connected humans that have ever lived. Our drinking water is cleaner than it has ever been. Our GDP is the highest, babies are healthier, lifespans are longer and our food is abundant. (Ex: 150 years ago, a cow produced 1000 pounds of milk in a year. Today, a cow produces 16,000 pounds annually.)

Progress in every measurable category continues to move forward. We have learned that the earth is round, we eradicated slavery in much of the world, achieved women’s suffrage, invented railroads, airplanes, discovered quantum physics, electricity, indoor plumbing and how to perform organ transplants. We even sent men to the moon and now here we are at a coffee shop with our ubiquitous smartphones and their portal into a universal store of all human knowledge ever known.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

These advances occurred due in large measure to the foundational institutions that had held us together even in those times (like now) when we were tearing each other apart; our commitment to an unwritten social compact; the rule of law; our rights to the free exercise of religion and speech; and the premium we place on due process.

The cornerstone of everything we know about building a successful society has been the idea of “fairness and equality.” Starting with the Magna Carta’s rudimentary acknowledgment of democratic rights, to the Declaration of Independence setting in motion our national democratic experiment, then the loosely applied but practical Articles of Confederation that bound us together until the Constitution and its Bill of Rights enshrined universal civil liberties and led to the official founding of the nation.

With each chapter in history, our commitment to fair and just has deepened its root system in our lives, including in the modern age, as we have retained the Senate filibuster rule to protect us from the fevers of a rabid majority. And our appellate courts still publish dissenting opinions to recognize the value of differing points of view.

But in the span of a few years, everything has changed in how we view what is “fair.” The methods we use to govern ourselves and communicate our disagreements have led to an erosion of public trust, once unquestioned but now undeniable, in our most revered institutions: each new day’s fresh outrage and crisis results in someone dying a death by a thousand tweets.

Just short of halfway through this American experiment, we survived a bloody civil war fought over the Constitution’s structural inconsistencies. Indeed, it was a worse time than what we are living through. But not by much. The prospect of sewing it all back together today seems as elusive and beyond our grasp as it probably did in the months before the first battle of Bull Run in 1861.

The lines of civil discourse are blurred out of existence. We have our TV stations, Twitter accounts, echo chambers of groups within groups, where we seek one-dimensional validation of our viewpoints, with little chance of acquiescence to a point well-made by someone with whom we might disagree.

Socrates subjected his opponents to a series of cross-examining questions in the public square, with logic and reason providing the framework of conflict resolution.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas stood on wooden stages for hours, on seven different occasions, in the intemperate Illinois weather, to explain their different visions of America. As in all elections, one won, the other lost. Life went on.

But today’s 24-hour social media news cycle rages in a never-ending debate, where there are no winners.

What are we going to do?

Since most of our public policy conversation takes place on the social media stage, if we are to find a way out of our self-made Sargasso Sea, it must be in a mass repudiation of big tech. Not in the sense that large tech must cease to exist, but the way we use it must change. If we fail to find a better way to communicate with each other, the democratic experiment we value will morph into something worse than anything we could imagine.

Each time the thought police censor and delete views on their platforms, they become incrementally less relevant. It may feel good in the short term for these tech giants to hit delete on unapproved posts or to suspend accounts, but over time, reasonable people start to take notice and do not like it when voices are silenced, even when it is one with which they disagree.

Our basic notion of “fairness” stubbornly persists. Recent jury verdicts and the ascension of the Joe Rogan Podcast are just two examples of how our sense of fairness has overcome our new biases. For the most part, Americans are fair and decent people.

We are not systemically racist. We do not support censorship. We do not pull for cheaters. When we see an unfair application of rules, we do something about it. Or at least, we used to.

If the “rules” of censorship and cancel-culture were applied consistently, it would be bad enough. But reasonable people know that rules which allow terrorists to tweet, but not former presidents and current members of Congress, something is inherently unfair.

And the people making these disparate judgment calls in real-time are political activists/employees of big tech, recent devotees to “The Hunger Games” dystopia, sitting in Silicon Valley cubicles manipulating us to achieve what they see as a larger utopic, pre-arranged outcome.

But guess what: as a whole, people are smart, and eventually, we figure out when we are being herded into a pasture, we prefer not to graze. This phenomenon is referred to as “a pendulum swing.” And while COVID-19 has reconfigured everything we thought we knew about how society functions, the double standards in public health, sports and everyday life that we have endured for the “greater good” have now brought us full circle. The herd mentality is starting to go the other direction.

And it is because we still value our basic sense of fairness. Somehow, through all of history’s upheavals, here we are at the pinnacle of human achievement, invention and progress. It is starting to dawn on us that unless we get a grip on all this – unless the sane grownups in the room do something – we could go backward for the first time in a while.

It has happened before.

Victor Hugo once wrote that “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.”

The time has come when we must change our relationship with, and expectations of, large tech. They must adopt the rules of fairness that underpin every other facet of our lives. If we do not insist that they do so, it may be the final straw in the downward spiral we see all around us.

This guest opinion piece by Woody White, of Wilmington, N.C., was made available by The Carolina Journal.