As this blog has progressed, I’ve gotten farther away from the technical, and moved more towards a focus on the best that’s been accomplished, the best that’s been thought (that I can find and recognize), with people who have been attempting to advance, or have made some contribution to what we can be as a society. I have also put a focus on what I see happening that is retrograde, which threatens the possibility of that advancement. I think it is important to point that out, because I’ve come to realize that the crucible that makes those advancements possible is fragile, and I want it to be protected, for whatever that’s worth.
As I’ve had conversations with people about this subject, I’ve been coming to realize why I have such a strong desire to see us be a freer nation than we are. It’s because I got to see a microcosm of what’s possible within a nascent field of research and commercial development, with personal computing, and later the internet, where the advancements were breathtaking and exciting, which inspired my imagination to such a height that it really seemed like the sky was the limit. It gave me visions of what our society could be, most of them not that realistic, but they were so inspiring. It took place in a context of a significant amount of government-funded, and private research, but at the same time, in a legal environment that was not heavily regulated. At the time when the most exciting stuff was happening, it was too small and unintelligible for most people to take notice of it, and society largely thought it could get along without it, and did. It was ignored, so people in it were free to try all sorts of interesting things, to have interesting thoughts about what they were accomplishing, and for some to test those ideas out. It wasn’t all good, and since then, lots of ideas I wouldn’t approve of have been tried as a result of this technology, but there is so much that’s good in it as well, which I have benefitted from so much over the years. I am so grateful that it exists, and that so many people had the freedom to try something great with it. This experience has proven to me that the same is possible in all human endeavors, if people are free to pursue them. Not all goals that people would have in it would be things I think are good, but by the same token I think there would be so much possible that would be good, from which people of many walks of life would benefit.
Glenn Beck wrote a column that encapsulates this sentiment so well. I’m frankly surprised he thought to write it. Some years ago, I strongly criticized Beck for writing off the potential of government-funded research in information technology. His critique was part of what inspired me to write the blog series “A history lesson on government R&D.” We come at this from different backgrounds, but he sums it up so well, I thought I’d share it. It’s called The Internet: What America Can And Should Be Again. Please forgive the editing mistakes, of which there are many. His purpose is to talk about political visions for the United States, so he doesn’t get into the history of who built the technology. That’s not his point. He captures well the idea that the people who developed the technology of the internet wanted to create in society: a free flow of information and ideas, a proliferation of services of all sorts, and a means by which people could freely act together and build communities, if they could manage it. The key word in this is “freedom.” He makes the point that it is we who make good things happen on the internet, if we’re on it, and by the same token it is we who can make good things happen in the non-digital sphere, and it can and should be mostly in the private sector.
I think of this technological development as a precious example of what the non-digital aspects of our society can be like. I don’t mean the internet as a verbatim model of our society. I mean it as an example within a society that has law, which applies to people’s actions on the internet, and that has an ostensibly representational political system already; an example of the kind of freedom we can have within that, if we allow ourselves to have it. We already allow it on the internet. Why not outside of it? Why can’t speech and expression, and commercial enterprise in the non-digital realm be like what it is in the digital realm, where a lot goes as-is? Well, one possible reason why our society likes the idea of the freewheeling internet, but not a freewheeling non-digital society is we can turn away from the internet. We can shut off our own access to it, and restrict access (ie. parental controls). We can be selective about what we view on it. It’s harder to do that in the non-digital world.
As Beck points out, we once had the freedom of the internet in a non-digital society, in the 19th century, and he presents some compelling, historically accurate examples. I understand he glosses over significant aspects of our history that was not glowing, where not everyone was free. In today’s society, it’s always dangerous to harken back romantically to the 19th, and early 20th centuries as “golden times,” because someone is liable to point out that it was not so golden. His point is to say that people of many walks of life (who, let’s admit it, were often white) had the freedom to take many risks of their own free will, even to their lives, but they took them anyway, and the country was better off for it. It’s not to ignore others who didn’t have freedom at the time. It’s using history as an illustration of an idea for the future, understanding that we have made significant strides in how we view people who look different, and come from different backgrounds, and what rights they have.
The context that Glenn Beck has used over the last 10 years is that history as a barometer on progress is not linear. Societal progress ebbs and flows. It has meandered in this country between freedom and oppression, with different depredations visited on different groups of people in different generations. They follow some patterns, and they repeat, but the affected people are different. The depredations of the past were pretty harsh. Today, not so much, but they exist nevertheless, and I think it’s worth pointing them out, and saying, “This is not representative of the freedom we value.”
The arc of America had been towards greater freedom, on balance, from the time of its founding, up until the 1930s. Since then, we’ve wavered between backtracking, and moving forward. I think it’s very accurate to say that we’ve gradually lost faith in it over the last 13 years. Recently, this loss of faith has become acute. Every time I look at people’s attitudes about it, they’re often afraid of freedom, thinking it will only allow the worst of humanity to roam free, and to lay waste to what everyone else has hoped for. Yes, some bad things will inevitably happen in such an environment. Bad stuff happens on the internet every day. Does that mean we should ban it, control it, contain it? If you don’t allow the opportunity that enables bad things to happen, you will not get good things, either. I’m all in favor of prosecuting the guilty who hurt others, but if we’re always in a preventative mode, you prevent that which could make our society so much better. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like trying to have your cake, and eat it, too. It doesn’t work. If we’re so afraid of the depredations of our fellow citizens, then we don’t deserve what wonderful things they might bring, and that fact is being borne out in lost opportunities.
We have an example in our midst of what’s possible. Take the idea of it seriously, and consider how deprived your present existence would be if it wasn’t allowed to be what it is now. Take its principles, and consider widening the sphere of the system that allows all that it brings, beyond the digital, into our non-digital lives, and what wonderful things that could bring to the lives of so many.