October 27, 2020

These days, scandals tend to morph into meta-scandals, and the New York Post’s recent report on Hunter Biden’s links to a Ukrainian energy company was no exception. In the end, the content of the controversial Post story received far less attention than Facebook and Twitter’s moves to block its circulation on their sites, based on the claim that it constituted “disinformation”. While plenty of Democratic partisans applauded this move, others saw it as an alarming case of overt censorship on the part of the platforms that now exert broad control over the spread of information.

The journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the most vocal Left-wing critics of the tech companies’ actions, asserted that they “never wanted this role.” Instead, he said, “[i]t was foisted on them by people, led by journalists, demanding they censor.” And indeed, since the 2016 election, much of the Left-of-centre media has faulted social media platforms for what they see as overly permissive policies on political speech.

As many have previously pointed out, support for restricting speech is a sharp pivot away from principles once common on the Left. Notably, one of the most iconic protest events of the 1960s was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a revolt against the University of California’s limitations on political speech. (In recent years, in contrast, student radicals have been more likely to protest their universities’ unwillingness to restrict expression on campus.)

What’s less well-remembered about the Berkeley Free Speech Movement is that then, as now, debates about the freedom of expression revolved around technology — specifically, information technology. A hint of this emphasis is apparent in the movement’s best-known statement: the famous speech in which activist Mario Savio proclaimed: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part”.

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Today, most would probably interpret Savio’s use of “machine” as metaphorical, but to its audience at the time, it would have also had a literal referent: the IBM computers that were increasingly central to the university’s operation in the 1960s. For course registration and other purposes, students were issued IBM punch cards, which were the prevalent means of digital data storage prior to magnetic disks.

The radicals seized on these objects as a symbol of the repressive institution they were fighting. As Savio put it in an interview with Life magazine, “[a]t Cal, you’re little more than an IBM card.” He elaborated: “the university is a vast public utility which turns out future workers in the military-industrial complex. They’ve got to be processed in the most efficient way to see to it that they have the fewest dissenting opinions.”

In line with Savio’s thinking, Berkeley militants turned the ubiquitous IBM punch card into the object of many gestures of rebellion. They burned piles of the cards in public spaces; they punched out the words “Free Speech” on them, then hung them around their necks and attached them to their lapels. They adopted the phrase “do not fold, spindle, or mutilate,” which appeared on IBM’s cards, as a slogan, putting it on placards to indict a system that valued the smooth functioning of the machine over the full expression of humanity.

In satirical cartoons, they represented the university as a factory flattening human beings into two-dimensional punch cards. An album of protest songs from the movement featured punch cards marked with slogans on its cover art. The Free Speech Movement activists, it would seem, intuitively viewed centralised information systems like IBM’s as inimical to freedom and individuality. For them, the punch card embodied the prospect of the “one-dimensional man,” in the phrase of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, whose book of that title appeared in the same year as the Berkeley protests.

Marcuse’s account of how advanced industrial society turned people into mere commodities profoundly influenced the 1960s Left. Computerisation, which seemed to insert individuals into abstract mechanisms subject to hierarchical control, offered a particularly vivid illustration of the dangers he identified.

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More than 50 years later, the coordinates of this argument look both strange and familiar. In the 1960s, people feared the reduction of their identities to the size of a punch card issued by an institution; today, most of us have willingly allowed ourselves to be slotted into flat, standardised profiles controlled by private corporations with far more reach and influence than IBM ever had in the 60s. Far from resisting this fate, we embraced it as a means of enhanced individuality and freedom — or so we imagined.

A shift in the popular perception of information technology made this possible. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner details the remarkable evolution by which California radicals went from rejecting computers as instruments of state oppression to hailing them as vehicles of collective liberation. “Two decades after the end of the Vietnam War and the fading of the American counterculture,” he writes, “computers somehow seemed poised to bring to life the countercultural dream of empowered individualism, collaborative community, and spiritual communion.”

By the time social media emerged in the early 2000s, this positive view of information technology, surprisingly in line with the values of the Free Speech Movement, had become default. We felt that slotting ourselves into graphically enhanced virtual punch cards was a new means of self-expression, rather than a danger to it.

As Twitter and Facebook lurch towards more extensive control over content posted on their sites, we are in the midst of a new and even more disorienting shift in public opinion. What has emerged lately is a bewildering synthesis of the techno-dystopian views of the old counterculture and the techno-utopianism of the later cyber-culture documented by Turner.

In recent years, plenty of voices across the political spectrum have decried the power accrued by the major tech corporations, echoing 60s-era anxieties about IBM. On the other hand, those on the Left in particular now worry less about the repressive capacities of new technologies than their excessive permissiveness. This puts them in the peculiar position of, in effect, wanting to grant more power and control to the same unaccountable corporations they might otherwise criticise.

Information technology does not enable either freedom or control: it facilitates both at once. Because they did not recognise this dual potentiality in 1964, Savio and his fellow activists could not foresee that that the insertion of human beings into technological systems would not be imposed by faceless, repressive power structures.

Rather, the public would eventually embrace this integration, ironically seeing in it the realisation of a countercultural dream of free expression and enhanced individuality. For their part, the techno-utopians who brought us the internet were naïve about the dangers of placing mechanisms that now govern much of human life under the control of large private companies.

As the inheritors of these two outlooks, we now suffer from both blind spots. Most of us can agree that big tech has accumulated too much power, regardless of how and to what degree it chooses to use it. But no one is in a position to challenge this power effectively, because we all still want what big tech promises us — for ourselves, if not for our political enemies.

Recent developments suggest that many are willing to cede far more power to Silicon Valley, under the impression that this will preserve the dream of the internet it once sold us. This view is just as short-sighted as the ones that preceded it.

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  • November 2, 2020
    As a lifelong Leftie I have felt utterly betrayed by this new insistence on rule-following and safetyism, particularly with regard to COVID. What a terrible irony that this is the movement that in the '60s and '70s was responsible for advancing human rights in so many areas, yet now seem intent on... Read more

  • October 29, 2020
    Educate us then. Read more

  • October 28, 2020
    Excellent article and good comparison, thank you. "Most of us can agree that big tech has accumulated too much power," It is not just the Hunter Biden story (which is a legitimate news story that should have been covered by a responsible media), but the censorship of Libertarians (political... Read more

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