Automated Liberalism?

The liberal mind has probably always been troubled by the prospect of what we’re currently apt to call “thought policing.” Since the likes of Mill and Constant, liberals have believed that the spread of commerce and knowledge tends to be mutually reinforcing and conducive to enlightenment and peace.

They have also imagined that the age of commerce, to stick with Constant’s framing, has simply replaced the age of conquest. In a time when the machinery of enlightenment is laboring away, the ancient work of coercion—they might say—just doesn’t function well enough to endure, much less to dominate. Bad, illiberal words and deeds may burst on the scene like invaders from another planet, but the peaceful system of enlightenment is as hostile to them as an immune system to bodily invaders. At this point in history, according to the liberal imagination, immunity always wins. So the faster the historical progress of the machinery of enlightenment, the faster illiberal invaders are purged from the system.

The contemporary implication of this imaginative framing, developed over centuries, is significant.

Today, the machinery of enlightenment reaches around the world in the form of densely networked globalizing institutions. While just about all liberal institutionalists harbor a particular self-regard for the contribution to the work of enlightenment made by their own institutions, the pride that members of the communications professions take in their institutional contribution is especially pronounced. There are probably many interesting reasons for this, but one we ought to single out is the impact and influence of the internet.

The internet is by far the most dominant and definitive globalizing institution. Its development is in some crucial ways inseparable from the development of contemporary liberalism. For perhaps the most striking example—one we’ll return to later—the internet traces its origins to the attempt to ensure that the machinery of enlightenment would be able to survive even global thermonuclear war. That victory amounted to a sort of liberal singularity. Knowledge and peace were imbued with an almost superhuman character. Now, liberalism could plausibly persist in the aftermath of even the worst—liberals would say, the most illiberal—flaws of humanity’s given nature.

But if the internet has elevated communicative institutions to the highest tier of prestige, wealth, and power in the liberal world, it has also, just in the most very recent years, revealed a troublingly familiar yet frighteningly different problem for liberalism. In giving unprecedented powers of association and agency to illiberals worldwide, the internet has forced liberals into a deeply ambivalent and highly anxious position concerning the policing of “expression”—and, more deeply, thought itself.

The question is: How can illiberalism be kept from tainting—maybe even overwhelming—liberalism in its heart of hearts, the public space maintained by communicative institutions?

Obviously even liberal censorship, taken to a degree, can turn against liberalism. Since today’s online illiberals relish forcing the liberal machinery of enlightenment, especially “the media,” to attend to and reproduce illiberal knowledge virtually against its will, the censorship problem has grown not only more serious but more complex. (Think here of online trolls and meme masters who intuitively understand that going “viral” means forcing a system to replicate what it doesn’t want to—even what actively threatens or undermines it. To take just one big example, President Trump routinely uses the mainstream media’s own logic and imperatives to spread anti-mainstream-media messages through the media itself.) If one classical liberal insight was that human institutions can be better trusted with the enterprise of enlightenment than human individuals, contemporary liberalism is coming to believe—almost as a matter of perceived necessity—that human institutions are inadequate to protect and advance the enlightenment enterprise against the new upsurge of illiberalism online.

Consider how serious a situation this is. The internet is a technology that marks an epochal break in the phenomenon of illiberalism. Before the internet, illiberalism had to be organized at scale in the physical world—and in the inner world of the psyche or soul. This painstaking, difficult, and bloody process was proven to fail in relatively short order, even if it briefly imposed terrible human costs. The immune system of the machinery of enlightenment was adequate to beating back illiberal invaders of the physical world, even at their most highly organized and fanatical.

With the advent of the internet, however, the conceptual and organizational form of illiberalism has fundamentally changed. Rather than stochastic invasions into the physical world of “throwbacks” to inherently unsustainable ideas and practices, digital life made possible the perpetual bottom-up organization and association of people worldwide—but “in cyberspace”—into illiberal patterns of thought, word, and deed. Only then did the new illiberalism invade the physical world. The digital sphere of life was like another form of life, a “body” without an immune system of the kind liberalism knew and nourished.

The machinery of enlightenment, in short, requires of liberalism a new digital immune system.

But it is far from clear what such a thing could be—or indeed, whether it could exist. The ongoing agonies of the two premier communicative institutions in the world—the New York Times and Facebook—throw the uncertainty into stark relief. While the Times has been subjected to withering criticism for publishing more ideologically right-of-center opinion writers, Facebook has been heaped with scorn, sometimes from its own early allies, for failing to prevent illiberal knowledge and argument from being replicated and promoted by its particular machinery of enlightenment (social media having been conceptualized and sold as tending toward a singularity of “friendship” or harmony worldwide). The Times is a pre-digital institution, and Facebook is the definitive post-digital institution, but the controversial actions of both, and the blowback they’re receiving, are of a piece. Both illustrate the desperation with which liberals are rallying around automated banishment as the way to effectively ban illiberalism from digital life.

The logic is straightforward. Just as liberal human institutions are an improvement in the enterprise of enlightenment over individual liberal humans, so can liberal automated institutions—bots, algorithms, what have you—reach and succeed where liberal human institutions are too, well, human to do so. Just as the European Union served as a masterstroke of liberalism because it effectively founded a regime without any human founders. The creation of faceless bureaucrats nobody knows, its masterminds all but intentionally lost to time and memory, the EU possesses institutional authority that doesn’t have to depend on what liberals see as fragile and fallible human authority. But while the EU must still be enforced by mere humans, liberalism in the digital sphere can be institutionalized and enforced by founding automata.

Bots and algorithms, though lacking in human souls, are needfully better liberals than mere humans or merely human institutions. They can be programmed or taught to be truly better at liberalism; they possess the capability to better operate and manage the machinery of enlightenment in ways that better harmonize peace and knowledge. They are the immune system against digitally institutionalized illiberalism that merely human liberalism can never be.

Yet, recall, the epochal change in illiberalism wrought by digital life is that, online, illiberalism is now perpetually present and reproductive. This is why communicative professionals trying to institutionalize liberalism online are focused around the idea of “no-platforming,” whereby banishing bad/illiberal individuals and groups from institutions like the Times or Facebook makes ever-larger swaths of the digital sphere defensibly liberal. Implicit in the idea behind the strategy, however, is the animating principle that effectively “all” of the digital sphere can eventually be liberalized—perhaps very swiftly, if AI technology progresses as fast as some claim. That technology could possibly soon be able to instantly banish people with prohibited thoughts or facial expressions from the entire network of human communication—inside and outside our bodies.

But if all this is so certain, why the tremendous anxiety among liberals? The answer is probably to be found in our deep human intuition that the internet can never be made into a closed or universal single system—one reason why young people speak much more of “online” than of “the internet.” To return to the matter of the origins of “online,” the internet’s founding as a means of giving communicable knowledge the ability to survive apocalyptic devastation to the human world causes it to protect, almost as a prime directive, any form of content from complete eradication. Online banishment, on this understanding, will never lead to a successful blanket ban. And if even automated liberalism, the most perfect machinery of enlightenment devisable, will remain imperfect in this way, how much faith or confidence can liberals—especially those who still believe in human souls—place in the headlong rush to strip human beings and institutions of their role as guardians of liberalism?

Despite the possible objections, liberals seem anxious enough to risk ceding more and more control over liberalism and its institutions to machines. It also seems clear that illiberals know this. Even people who are just growing skeptical or suspicious of liberal institutions are increasingly conscious of both the sharp limits on communication liberalism imposes online and the massive demands of time and psychic energy liberalized digital life imposes. It’s likely that one major challenge to would-be founders of automated liberalism online will come in the form of many people worldwide self-banishing from the communicative institutions meant to be instrumental in the founding.

There is no reason to believe that the present array of online platforms and institutions will persist that much longer than previous ones, many of which dissipated or folded shortly after boasting tremendous usage and ubiquity. In fact, given the degree of intuitive discomfort with the uncanny character of an automated liberalism, there is fair reason to believe the opposite. Although automated liberalism faces few limits on the constraints it imposes on users inside the system, digital life is a realm too inherently impervious for even automated liberalism to contain and control. The “failure” of Facebook and the Times—and Twitter and the rest—to enforce proper liberal hygiene over their content betokens a broader failure to come: the insurmountable inability of liberal institutions to keep people and content “safely” quarantined inside the enlightenment machine.

Reader Discussion

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on April 02, 2018 at 11:08:09 am

I really can't make heads or tails of this piece. I can't tell if certain assertions by the writer are intended to express his own beliefs or if he is claiming that a particular worldview relies on them as axioms without his either endorsing or rejecting that worldview.

However, having seen the kinds of speech and beliefs that today's self-appointed "guardians" of (Left-)liberalism attack as being "illiberal," I for one have no intention of supporting any self-appointed guardians in their efforts to purge anyone from anywhere. Like television (which was the great enabler of "illiberalism" in my youth according to that day's bien pensants), one can turn the Internet off if one believe's one's own enlightenment is at risk from the scary unwashed who loiter in its shadows. Another way of saying this is that if global liberal enlightenment is at risk of destruction through illiberal Internet doings, then there wasn't really any enlightenment to begin with.

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on April 02, 2018 at 15:51:19 pm

I think that if Mr Poulos had placed quotation marks around each and every use of the word "liberal" and "liberalism", this essay would be more readily understandable.

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on April 02, 2018 at 18:13:59 pm

I really can’t make heads or tails of this piece.

Yeah, I found it kind of abstract, too. But I think Poulos is making a familiar argument about the use of speech to undermine reasoned discourse:

Classical liberalism/the Enlightenment emphasized the importance of free speech and reasoned discourse as the path to a continually improved mind and world; thus, classical liberals have favored ever freer speech. But social science and advertising have demonstrated that the human mind is predictably manipulable. On the right, some sophisticated parties and other folks who just have innate trolling instincts have learned how to exploit free speech to spread anti-liberal messages. On the left, people have learned that certain kinds of speech ("micro-aggressions") can predictably diminish people's willingness to engage in speech, leading to de facto censorship if not de jure. In short, the factual foundations of free speech have been undermined.

How to respond? Liberals value free speech in part because they believe that no one is free of bias, so placing any one person in charge of speech cannot help but result in bias. But given a conflict between the shortcomings of troll-laden speech and the shortcomings of subjecting all speech to a mortal moderator, liberals look to some kind of transcendent moderator--something that wouldn't have a human weakness for bias. So they look to "objective" automated systems for screening speech. Alas, such objectivity is illusive because any automated system will tend to have the biases of its creator.

In short, the problem is intractable. Rather than look in vain for some objective standard, the best we can hope for is to have humans/institutions exercising their editorial judgment, and to let consumers know who the editors are.

Another aspect about the battle between liberalism and conquest: Totalitarian regimes have some vulnerability to rumors and propaganda, but alarming the masses doesn't always have much consequence because the masses don't have much power. In contrast, democracies such as the US are uniquely vulnerable, both because of the amount of power held by the masses, and by a value system that emphasizes being open to new ideas.

While there are statutes that Russian trolls may have violated, those statutes seem like thin fence-posts that can barely find purchase in the hard rock of free speech.

It's unclear to me that anyone has accused the Russians of engaging in any kind of conduct that would violate US laws had a US citizen done it. If we truly believed that the remedy to bad speech is more speech, what's the problem? The fact that we find a problem suggests that we don't really have faith in the idea that the remedy for bad speech is more speech: That's just a line we tell disfavored people when we choose not to remedy their harms.

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on April 02, 2018 at 18:29:45 pm

Good points - especially liked the insight on the "thin fence posts" found in totalitarian regimes.

Oh and BTW; Trolls come in both right and left flavors AND "micro-aggressions" by definition may affect only *micro* people who, in turn may deploy that characterization as a means of suppressing the speevh of others. Otherwise great and insightful stuff.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 03, 2018 at 07:56:49 am

" the insurmountable inability of liberal institutions to keep people and content “safely” quarantined inside the enlightenment machine."

Aren't we simply seeing played out again that the Enlightenment, from its very beginnings, was and is a polemical project? The values of the Enlightenment are posited as self-evident and true but in reality they are one set of beliefs fighting in the arena against many other possibilities. No sooner did the Enlightenment claim its victory than Romanticism entered the fray and the fight has been on in one form or another ever since. All the internet is showing us is what we should have always known: Reason, rationality, truth, etc are not universal values universally shared. If people are scared of the internet it's because it makes clear to us the depth of the resistance to the Enlightenment, and the shallowness of our culture's commitment to the values we pay lip service to.

I disagree with much in post-modernism, but I am thankful for it at the same time because it makes explicit that the challenge to the Enlightenment is alive and thriving. Make no mistake, Leftists are only afraid of the internet, trolls, fake news, etc because these things show that post-modernism is not the exclusive domain of the Left, but has found purchase in causes that the Left abhors.

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on April 03, 2018 at 14:00:21 pm

So many words. So little content. I don't believe we will tolerate being controlled by algorithms.

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Peter Moseley
on April 03, 2018 at 22:00:54 pm

This is well said.

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on April 14, 2018 at 13:54:12 pm

I did a construction project at a Facebook office about a year ago. When I went to inspect an existing office, I had to sign in, get a badge and go inside with an escort. Once I signed in and gave them my business card and driver's license, I thought it would go quickly. THEN, the two people at the front desk hit a snag. They discovered I didn't have a Facebook account. Panic set in. It took them at least five more minutes to adjust to and recover from the reality that they had no choice but to let me in, not knowing what FACEBOOK wants to know, about me. As I stood there laughing at them, I knew in my gut, they were longing to answer their (not so) secret, but critical question: Are you a Liberal? Are you one of US, or are you one of THEM?! As I watched their new offices being built, I noticed the separation(s) between Facebook employees and construction workers was far greater than normal. It wasn't that they hated each other; it was more like: The Facebook people were all young, smart, rich and arrogant. The construction workers were all seen as old, dumb, poor and Goober types. I think I deserve an honorary degree in Sociology now. If you want to know what Liberals and Facebook are up to, you'll need to join them because they will otherwise go WAY out of their way to reject you entirely.

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John Wiant

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