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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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