Liberalism has never had a prefabricated essence ascertained all at once or implemented with a coherent plan.
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.