CXXIX – Taking a Byte Out of Free Expression

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The
search engine, Google, has been both praised
and criticized in recent days for its responses
to statist efforts to control this system of
open communication. On the one hand, when other
search engines quickly acceded to Justice Department
demands to turn over information on their customers,
Google was widely commended for refusing to
do so. Google has also been in the forefront
of resistance to efforts by the European Union
to regulate politically incorrect Internet content.
At the same time, however, Google was criticized
when it announced that, as a condition to being
allowed to operate in China, it had agreed with
the Chinese government to remove politically
undesirable information from its system in that
country.

I
must admit to initially being disappointed with
Google's decision concerning China. I had the
same kind of empty feeling as I do when a decent
person I know decides to go into politics. If
this marvelous search engine can make concessions
to the Chinese government as a condition for
doing business, what precedents might this forebode
for Google's relations with other governments
that want to co-opt this system to control information
for political ends? Such a future would be wholly
contrary to what Google and the Internet are
about. The image of Galileo – forced to
recant his views in order to avoid greater punishment
from a theocratic state — immediately came to
mind, where it lingers still.

But
in reconsidering Google's decision, I see potential
benefits to the cause of liberty that go far
beyond the superficial interest in making money.
This optimism arises from the uncertainties
that lie hidden in complex systems. The study
of chaos informs us that our inability to identify
and measure the seemingly endless factors at
work within a complex world, makes outcomes
increasingly unpredictable with the passage
of time.

There
are few matters more complex and unpredictable
than the interconnected interplay of information.
Even within the relatively simple organization
of a brainstorming group, one can experience
how one person's observation generates a multitude
of responses from others which, in their turn,
produce further comments. Through such responses,
revisions, and iterations, a constantly renewing
creative synthesis leads to results that no
one member of the group was capable of anticipating
or creating.

Information
is dynamic, not static or neutral. It has a
way of generating critical masses which, analogous
to the physical world, are capable of producing
chain reactions. While this energy includes
ideas, it also transcends abstract thought.
For reasons that relate to their interests,
intellectuals tend to give ideas the dominant
role in social change. Ideas do have
consequences, and libertarians, in particular,
are fond of reminding us of Richard Weaver's
observation of that fact. But if the quality
of life depended solely upon the force of ideas,
we would likely now be a society of cannibals,
with Hillary Clinton writing best-selling cookbooks
on serving our fellowman!

Numerous
other influences, whose identities and effects
we find it difficult to discern, are also at
work upon the human condition. There is an unseen
interrelatedness of factors in any complex system
that is bound to foster what our conscious minds
have learned to accept as u201Cunforeseen consequences.u201D
This is the social lesson to be taken from the
study of chaos and complexity.

To
draw an historic parallel to Google's situation,
we might recall how Guttenberg's invention of
movable type greatly expanded the information
available to ordinary men and women. In turn,
this increased information contributed to the
Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation,
and the scientific and industrial revolutions.
But even these creative epochs were underlain
by other influences about which historians have
offered varied interpretations. Why did the
Renaissance blossom in Italy and not Sweden?
Why is the cradle of the industrial revolution
to be found in England and America rather than
Russia and Spain? Who could have predicted the
answers to such questions from the invention
of movable type alone, whose role was essential,
albeit not sufficient, to the emergence
of such periods of greatness?

We
have been taught that u201Cnecessity is the mother
of invention.u201D If that is the case, why have
the greatest number of inventions not emanated
from so-called primitive cultures, where u201Cneedu201D
might be greater than in such places as Menlo
Park, New Jersey, where Thomas Edison out-invented
the entirety of mankind to produce the technological
foundations of modern culture? We know that
ancient civilizations had fairly sophisticated
technologies: the third century (A.D.) Greek,
Hero, invented a steam engine; early Egyptians
and Central and South Americans developed mechanics
capable of building great pyramids; archeological
finds in the Middle East have led some historians
to speculate that one second century (B.C.)
society might have produced a rudimentary form
of electricity; while ancient Roman engineering
continues in use today. Why did none of these
societies produce the cornucopia of the industrial
revolution? What unseen forces combine to direct
the course of events in our lives?

And
while you are contemplating such questions,
ask yourself why the United States government
was unable to predict that its creation, the
Internet, would become — like Guttenberg's invention
— the principal catalyst for a fundamental transformation
of social organizations; collapsing centralized,
vertically-structured institutions into decentralized,
horizontal networks?

Most
of us — libertarians included — accord political
systems a far greater capacity for planning
and efficacy than is deserved. The dreary history
of state economic planning confirms in practice
what the study of chaos explains in theory:
complex systems produce unpredictable consequences.
This is a lesson being relearned from the collapse
of government levees in New Orleans. While politicians
and their ideologues preferred to focus attention
on such irrelevancies as racist motivations,
the destruction of this city arose from the
incapacity of the state – or anyone else
— to predict, and thus control, the course of
complex behavior.

Through
its insistence upon metastasizing itself into
virtually every facet of human life, the modern
state has painted itself into a corner from
which it is unable to escape. Technology is
putting more information and decision-making
capacity into the hands of individuals, thus
contributing to the decline of centralized systems,
particularly the state. The efforts of governments
— such as the European Union – to control
Internet content amount to little more than
a rear guard action to protect retreating forces.
The Internet, cell-phones, fax machines, podcasting,
digital cameras, voice-over IP, and other technologies,
allow people to directly communicate with one
another in ways that are making political boundaries
meaningless. These systems speed up the transmission
of information beyond the sluggish capacities
of the bureaucratic state to keep up.

Political
systems are in a position not unlike that of
a motorist driving on a major highway in a blinding
blizzard, being unable to either stop or proceed
without great danger. If the state fights the
technological changes, its society will be unable
to sustain itself in a dynamically changing
world. Such undesirable consequences led to
the collapse of the highly-structured Soviet
Union. On the other hand, to the degree the
state tolerates such transforming influences,
it renders its own systems increasingly irrelevant,
as power becomes more and more decentralized
into the hands of individuals and autonomous
groups.

This
is the dilemma facing the state, as well as
those dependent upon its centrally-structured
coercive authority. This is why the u201Cwar on
terroru201D is but a desperate effort by the institutional
establishment to forcibly resist such processes
of change in an effort to restore the collapsing
edifice of state power.

I
might have been more troubled by Google's decision
to meet the Chinese government's demands had
it not been for the fact that the company thought
the matter of enough import to issue a public
statement. Far too many businesses — for whom
u201Cbottom lineu201D considerations translate only
into money – would be content to accept
such conditions with nary a twitch of concern.
Such are the firms Lenin had in mind when he
declared that u201Cthe Capitalist will sell us the
rope with which we will hang them.u201D Google,
on the other hand, recognized dangers to its
very purposes that were implicit in a practice
u201Cthat restricts information in any way,u201D and
asked whether such restraints u201Ccould be consistent
with our mission and values.u201D

Deep
within the labyrinthine interconnectedness of
complex systems lie forces that make our world
unpredictable and uncertain. Once Google's tool
for the proliferation of information reaches
the Chinese people — even with its political
blindfolds attached — computer hackers will
discover ways to circumvent governmental policy
— as, indeed, they have already been doing.
Information has ways of reaching those who want
it, and there is no reason to believe that its
free flow will be any less disruptive to the
Chinese political structure than it is to Western
systems. Because information has an inherently
marginal character to it — distinguishing the
unique from the common, the novel from the customary
— it has a centrifugal, decentralizing force
that will likely prove inimical to China's system
of centralized authority.

I
support Google's decision for no better reason
than that its presence, in China, will serve
to stir the pot — or, the iron rice bowl — and
likely produce consequences that no one — Google
included — will be able to predict. What if
Google should prove to be the kind of catalyst
that made Guttenberg the midwife of Western
civilization? What if — contrary to all expectations,
and for reasons as inexplicable as the centrality
of Manchester to the industrial revolution —
China should evolve into an anarchistic society?
I do not predict such a result, anymore than
the United States government predicted that
the Internet would facilitate a collapse of
political authority. But in the presence of
a search engine whose very purpose is to put
into the hands of individuals a means of providing
for the cross-fertilization of information and
ideas, I would not be making any long-term investments
in Chinese power futures.

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