Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.
~ Gen. William Westmoreland
What luck for the rulers that men do not think.
~ Adolf Hitler
In a recent commencement address, President Obama declared that "information becomes a distraction, a diversion" which puts "pressure on our country and on our democracy." Technological innovations — including the Internet — produces a "24/7 media environment that bombards us with all kinds of arguments, some of which don’t always rank that high on the truth meter." He added that "with so many voices clamoring for attention on blogs, and on cable, on talk radio, it can be difficult, at times, to sift through it all — to know what to believe, to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not." Hillary Clinton expressed similar concerns a few years ago when she suggested that a "gatekeeper" be created for the Internet, to prevent just anyone from putting their opinions out into the public.
A book I am currently writing addresses the epistemological question: how do we know what we know? This is doubtless the most important question ever to confront mankind, a question we nonetheless fail to ask because our institutional mind-keepers find such an inquiry too volatile and threatening to the maintenance of their status quo interests. If institutions are organizations that have become their own reasons for being, our inquiry into how we came to accept such thinking could be devastating to such systems.
Life itself is dependent upon our capacity for creative adaptation to changing surroundings. It is resiliency — not rigidity — that sustains life. But in order to act purposefully to achieve life-enhancing ends, we must be able to identify, analyze, and act upon the conditions that confront us. This is why liberty is central to human survival, for it allows people to respond to circumstances as their individual judgments best inform them. But how effective they are will depend upon their capacities for clear thinking, as well as the realistic and accurate nature of the information upon which they are to act.
The problem we encounter is that information is a very elusive, incomplete, and subjectively-defined quality. Each of us looks for, discovers, and assesses information according to the demands of our prior experiences. Added to this, the study of "chaos" tells us that our universe is far too interconnected with networks of variability to allow us to know all of the influences at work upon our decision-making. Our ability to predict outcomes requires a "sensitive dependence upon initial conditions," which translates into our being able to not only identify all of the factors that influence events, but to measure the precise degree of their influence. (If you doubt this, try predicting the precise events that will occur in your life for the next seven days.)
As uncertain as it is, the quality of the information available to us is a principal factor in determining how well we are to live. One of the main characteristics of an entrepreneur lies in his or her abilities to identify and act upon information that others do not see. If I have located a source of widgets that I can purchase for $10 apiece, and I know of a sizeable group of people who (a) are not aware of this source, (b) are willing to pay me $20 for each widget, and (c) my costs in getting them to this market amount to only $1 per widget, I will likely have a successful business.
Information is also at the core of our social and political behavior. A tribal leader established his authority over our more primitive ancestors by telling them of threats from others — known only to himself — and of his special pipeline to the gods who would assist him in his rule. As we have seen more recently, fear causes us to huddle together around those who promise us protection. This is due to our innocent belief that our alleged "protectors" have more information available to them than do we.
In time, information provided not only by others, but from our own experiences, tell us not only that those we have empowered enjoy no greater access to "truth" than do we but, further, that most of the fears of which they warn us have been fabricated and propagandized by the power-seekers themselves. Do you remember all of those "weapons of mass destruction" with which the Iraqis planned to attack us? Have you heard of the contrived "coming ice age" (oops, "global warming," oops, "climate change") that continues to be modified and employed in political efforts to control our daily lives?
Johann Gutenberg demonstrated to the world that the free flow of information is very liberating. His invention of movable type permitted men and women to read and inform their own minds, without a need for authority figures to tell them of the nature of things. Gutenberg’s efforts were responsible not only for the Reformation, but for much of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the scientific age, and, ultimately, that most creative and liberating of all periods, the Industrial Revolution.
Over time, humans began to see just how personally relevant information was to the quality of their lives. At the same time, the political racketeers whose interests depended upon their victims remaining in a state of institutionally-controlled ignorance, saw the threat to their rule. In one form or another, the control-freaks embraced censorship and the burning of books. It was people’s minds, not just their bodies, that got burned at the stake. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 shows how far a totalitarian state might go to preserve its control over the minds of people. Mark Twain expressed the proposition more humorously when he said: "Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it."
Computerized technologies continue to innovate new systems for the creation and communication of information, the most familiar of which is the Internet. Begun as an in-house network for military agencies, it quickly spread — like a genie released from a bottle — into the rest of society. Tens of millions of people were soon communicating with countless others whatever material they chose to send and receive. The model of vertically-structured information flow one found in schools, religions, the media, and the government — premised on the idea "we will tell you what we want you to know" — collapsed into horizontal networks run by nobody who had a monopoly power to control content. Your Uncle Harlow or niece Marcia could become sources of information to others who chose to read their opinions.
But the liberating influence of free-flowing information has proven troublesome to members of the corporate-state establishment whose authority over others depends upon the maintenance of a mindset of subservience. Information gets people thinking about the arrangements in their lives. They begin to see the lies, corruption, deceit, violence, and looting that have been employed — with the help of propaganda supplied by schools and the major media – to keep them in their servile state. Like the disillusioned denizens of Animal Farm, the herds have begun to break up. Sheep are deserting their pens; the cattle are stampeding to greener pastures.
The establishment’s presidential sock puppet warns Americans that the "distractions" produced by the free flow of information and opinions will create more "pressures." A dictionary defines "pressure" as "the action of a force against an opposing force." The ruling classes cannot tolerate such countervailing influences that would upset the status quo they wish to maintain. To do so would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of interests other than their own. Besides, efforts to distinguish "truth" from "falsehood" place a great burden upon the individual mind. Most of us are content to allow others to bear this burden for us; to have the schools and the media provide us that optimal level of knowledge and understanding with which we can function in our assigned stalls as useful institutional servo-mechanisms. The keepers of our thoughts could summarize their message to us in the words implicit in Pres. Obama’s address to college graduates: "confine your thinking to what is in our interests to have you know. We will keep you informed."
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.