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How Big Tech seduced the Left In the 1960s, liberals stood up to IBM to defend free speech. Now they cosy up to Silicon Valley

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement would struggle to find a home in today's Left

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement would struggle to find a home in today's Left


October 27, 2020   5 mins

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”.

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.

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 naĂŻve 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.


Geoff Shullenberger is managing editor of Compact.

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Tom Hawk
Tom Hawk
3 years ago

It always strikes me as very odd how generation woke embrace the products of the same big corporate structures they object to. Being distrustful of capitalism yet buying into messrs Zuckerberg and Bezos, two of the worlds richest capitalist. Howliing about racism yet lapping up anything produced by the institutionalised racism that is China.

That they would actually wake up and smell the coffee.

Simon Burch
Simon Burch
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Hypocrisy on the left? Who’d have thought it!

David Stuckey
David Stuckey
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Burch

In contrast to the Right of course?! For example “levelling up the North” entails removing school lunches over the holidays as this will make parents “dependent on welfare”! Maybe having on income due to Covid would make the government more compassionate??

Zhirayr Nersessian
Zhirayr Nersessian
3 years ago
Reply to  David Stuckey

I don’t think “Right” exists within the UK government let alone most countries these days. since the financial crisis all we have seen is false, crony capitalism.
The current government, like many nations have fallen under globalist governments hell bent on power. And quite frankly it shares a similar relish for it as the hard left does. Or at least, the approach it takes to attain it (divide, victimise, censor, stoke fear)

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Ha ha, yes. In Amsterdam a few years I witnessed the student protests against the University of Amsterdam and capitalism in general by occupying various buildings. They were chanting ‘Down with capitalism’ etc while waving their smartphones in the air!

David Stuckey
David Stuckey
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Somewhat naive presentation of the left-they want to have stricter rules (laws) governing Capitalism so more wealth flows to Labour and a little less to Capital. Too much to ask with the poverty and concordant wealth in the UK?

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  David Stuckey

Depends what bit of the left. e.g. Corbyn’s lot wanted to seize 10% of all medium-to-large corporations. But then there’s the sane left who are more like you describe. But there is an even better approach – which is seen from parts of both left and right – which is to enlarge the economic pie rather than seeing it as a zero-sum division of economic proceeds. This is probably the only thing in common between Nelson Mandela and Boris Johnson!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  David Stuckey

I don’t suppose the middle-class students of Amsterdam are particularly concerned about the wages of the Chinese people that make their smartphones.

bsema
bsema
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Hawk

Capitalism’s no longer the enemy.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago

In the computer business there is a pendulum that swings between centralized and decentralized systems. This is probably because mew technologies can get a foothold on the periphery, but as a technology is deployed at increasing scale the management problems spiral out of control until centralization is imposed.

The PC boom was a response to the stifling centralized model of corporate IT, until IT departments realised that users were keeping local copies of business-critical data on virus-riddled systems that weren’t being backed up. So PC based computing became ever more locked down and centrally managed, until the experience of using a corporate PC was just as stifling as being an IBM terminal user some 15 years before.

So with the rise of “cloud computing” we are back to the 1970s model of “IBM and the 7 dwarves” in which companies did not buy their systems, but leased them from a big company.

The tension comes from the fact that centralization is efficient for solving well-understood problems; decentralization is best for new problems, special requirements, or rapid reaction to changing circumstances (the same is true of big state/little state arguments).

The Internet – and the world-wide-web that runs atop it – remain decentralised but efficiency and convenience mean that we overwhelmingly choose to use centralised services.

That efficiency is so compelling that using these services is a necessary evil, but I try to avoid becoming dependent on any one tech company and to limit the information that any one company holds.

There is a consistent pattern of tech companies moving from trying to win customers, to thinking that they own their customers, to constraining their customers choices so as to make it hard for them to use newer/better products & services offered by competitors. Without exception, all the giants have done this as they’ve come to dominate some part of IT.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark H

All true, yet it seems to take a long time to displace the fat guy sitting on top of everything. Everyone complains about Facebook, but they don’t quit and go to some alternative. Maybe they like complaining.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I don’t really buy this thing about the Left having once been on the side of free speech etc. By definition, these people will always be against freedom of expression, association, enterprise etc because only suppressing these things can you corral everyone into a socialist society and economy.

So, Big Tech didn’t really have to ‘seduce’ the Left because the Left, with its instinctive love of, and need for, suppression, was all too happy to run into the arms of Big Tech once Big Tech had demonstrated its love of censorship.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

But socialism is ‘the ownership and control of the means of production by the workers, or by the community generally’, and clearly the workers etc. cannot own and control the means of production if they’re suppressed — they have to talk to one another, associate, assemble, own, make contracts and so forth. Maybe you’re using the wrong word? What do you think socialism is? It seems to me you’re describing fascism, which Mussolini described as ‘Everything in the state (i.e. controlled by a government), nothing outside of the state, nothing against the state.’ I can’t tell from here. I see a lot of talk about ‘socialism’ but the subject doesn’t seem to be socialism at all.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Starry Gordon

Well I refer to ‘socialism’ as it has been applied in the USSR and its satellites, China, Cuba, Venezuela etc, or perhaps you want to call that ‘communism’. Anyway, the workers had no say in anything, and everything was controlled by the state. It astonishes me that anyone over the age of six would be unaware of this.

Michael Hanson
Michael Hanson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I thought it was commonly thought that communism is the extreme version of left wing/socialism and fascism is the extreme of the right wing.
And I’ve come to realise that the extreme right is not at an opposite end of a linear spectrum from the extreme left but that they meet side by side in a circular spectrum.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Hanson

There is no problem with workers owning and controlling their means of production. There are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of cooperatives where that goes on every day. So the problem seems to be the state, not the idea of socialism, for which see above.

Actual communism — a situation in which either all property is held in common, or where property relations do not exist at all — obviously has nothing to do with any state, because a state requires a ruling class and a ruled class, and obviously the ruling class will appropriate (propertize) the good stuff. Communism is off the forms-of-the-state board. I guess you could observe it in some voluntary religious communities.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
3 years ago

Why does the left-leaning intelligentsia – academics and journalists and politicians alike – nowadays continually believe that Twitter posts and Facebook ads and the like persuade people to think in a particular way? If it were so simple, then it would be equally easy to continually push out content on social media about, say, Differential Calculus, and we would have nation after nation replete with STEM geniuses. But (and I concede I may have missed something here) I don’t ever recall a Twitter pile-on with obscenities and accusations flying over a hot argument about Differential Calculus. (The last time time such an argument happened was the late seventeenth century, and neither Newton nor Leibniz are known for their activity on Twitter).

What in fact persuades people to change their behavior is… behavioral nudging, backed by low-intensity coercion, e.g. Social Credit in China, or punitive taxation on sugar or tobacco companies and consumers. And at least in the free world, voters may push back if they feel the punitive behavior is excessive, e.g. how the ‘Dementia tax’ proposal scuppered May. But changing behavior is different from changing minds. The collapse of the USSR and the fall of the Eastern block illustrate this. Several decades of suppression were not enough to unwind older attitudes and values, merely to push them underground. As Yugoslavia showed after the death of Tito, all that stuff came crawling out the woodwork and ripped the country asunder. The things that change minds are events and actions that hit people personally. And a negative hit is more likely to change minds than a positive hit.

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Interesting comment re. USSR. I think we’re already at that point. People are suppressing their true opinions (in public) – but still hold those opinions. This is why the left are constantly surprised at election results not going their way – people are hiding their views for fear of attack.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Boosh

You all have an oversimplified view of the Left which causes paradoxes to appear in your analyses.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

the left intelligentsia have become tabula rasa ideologues for some reason. Maybe as some consolation for lack of ideological cogency elsewhere, they’ve taken to the belief that if people like themselves can positively manage language, information & culture, then they can mould the masses into similarly enlightened beings.

vince porter
vince porter
3 years ago

It does seem the perhaps as many as 99% of the activists professors are pedestrian teachers rather than intellectuals, while the true intellectuals at universities are too busy with real intellectual activities to give much heed to the woke hysteria.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

What in fact persuades people to change their behavior is… behavioral nudging, backed by low-intensity coercion, e.g. Social Credit in China, or punitive taxation on sugar or tobacco companies and consumers.
When your plan relies on coercion and punitive measures, it’s a good time to rethink the plan. Twitter and FB do a fair amount of this as it is, between locking people’s accounts, banning their participation, or demonetizing voices they don’t agree with. That’s not persuasive; it’s totalitarian and guaranteed to create backlash.

F Wallace
F Wallace
3 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

“continually believe that Twitter posts and Facebook ads and the like persuade people to think in a particular way?” the existence of this QAnon garbage shows that it clearly does work, since Facebook and Twitter in particular are the vehicles through which this tinfoil hat stuff is spread.

Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
3 years ago
Reply to  F Wallace

But so is much nonsense about T.? Who will make the decision?

Most of these things are not nearly as massive as the press makes them look, except maybe the T. Stuff where they they think things make sense, and these ideas tend to die out. When was the last time you heard of a flat earther.

However, most important is to build up immunity. Many flat earthers are probably more careful today. If these things are not allowed to cause damage you create a very fragile society lacking immunity to an actual bad guy. Read Taleb on anti-fragility.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

The flat earther’s I’ve know were all wind-up merchants. They loved to expound patently ridiculous theories in order to get a rise out of others.

Ken Palmer
Ken Palmer
3 years ago

Twitter, Facebook etc have escaped government regulation up to now by claiming that they are platforms, not publishers. But when they have started censoring content and banning content providers, they have stepped over the line; they are now clearly publishers.

The EU for one has a good track record of taking action against US technology companies; so why hasn’t it, or any national government, started taking action against them to correct this abuse of their position.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Ken Palmer

Because they’re private companies and involvement with them is at least ostensibly voluntary.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Starry Gordon

so was the Colorado bakery and look how that turned out. And without a congressional carve-out, too. They’re private companies with a govt-granted exemption that they are ignoring. That’s now how it works.

vince porter
vince porter
3 years ago

No one has yet answered JSM’s always pertinent pronouncement: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
3 years ago

That is why I call today’s left the formerly left. An Uber class openly fighting the working class, like the police, side by side with grand capital is many things but not left as we knew it.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

An interesting essay, thank you. I must read up on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. A key sentence: 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.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff she puts forward the theory that the purpose of Facebook, Google et al has changed from that original techno-utopian, providing services, facilitating communication and sharing information objective to one where the primary purpose is to collect information about people, process it, develop predictions from it and then sell it. If industrialisation turned us into commodities the internet turns our every thought and emotion into a commodity.

Democracy isn’t just about voting. It’s also always been about democratising the means to communicate with voters to influence the way they think and feel. This is why in the UK there are limits to how much political parties can spend on campaigns and controls on where that money comes from. We have a free press but it’s almost exclusively owned by capitalist organisations or individuals who use their commercial muscle to suppress competitors and support their world view. The same is even more true in the world of the internet.

For an unreconstructed lefty – the problem isn’t the technology, it’s the way it’s used and the people who control it.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

We have a free press but it’s almost exclusively owned by capitalist organisations or individuals who use their commercial muscle to suppress competitors and support their world view.
For as bad as journalism is today, to the extent that it exists at all, consider the alternative: state-run media that promotes a single world view and suppresses competition, at gunpoint since it’s state-run. At least those “capitalist organizations” are not bound to a single viewpoint.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Agreed. In Apartheid era South Africa it was the capitalist-owned newspapers that held the government’s feet to the fire (as much as they could without getting banned).
Now in the UK there are a range of newspapers, including non-capitalist ones. Classic case being the Guardian. People can get the Mirror or Guardian just as easily as any other newspaper, therefore the bit you quoted from the OP doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I can’t see how the Torygraph suppresses the G (or vice-versa especially when the latter can be read for free online). Although in my opinion they are both versions of the same thing and equally untrustworthy.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

In the 1960s, liberals stood up to IBM to defend free speech.
Today, those liberals are no more, replaced by leftists who have no interest at all in free speech. Big Tech is not a revelation of this, just the latest confirmation of an ongoing and sorry trend.

John Baker
John Baker
3 years ago

The fond hopes of those who thought that the diffused democratization that the internet would surely provide would guarantee a reliable corrective to a MSM biased by vested interests have long been dashed. The earnest attempt from some quarters to hold Big Tech to account will likely end in extracting some cash but won’t tame FB and Twitter and the like.

In other words, discerning the truth of cases like the Hunter laptop will continue to be guesswork for anyone not close enough to the action to see the evidence with their own eyes.

If not actually in cahoots as regards the election, it is clear that the MSM (NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, etc) and Big Tech are working effectively in unison to deprive as many people in America of knowledge of the fact that Trump is on a fantastic roll with those who attend his rallies and that Biden is not able to function as a credible candidate.

(By the way, what a thing to be at a thunderous meeting places of giant forces but know that at the same time your own faculties are failing you, the poor fellow).
It seems clear to me that individual achievements of statecraft by the two men is irrelevant. All the money, so to speak, is on an assumed enormous unleashing of investment to push a return to wholehearted Globalism and eco-revolution, with enough cash made available to keep the show on the road while the big corporations retool into clean mode. And the providers of that money aren’t prepared to let someone like Trump stand in their way. All’s fair in love and war against the orange man.

Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago

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 rolling back the clock and removing our constitutional rights and freedoms. Historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote that “a just end cannot be reached by unjust means,” yet that is precisely what the Left is now doing as it sniffs its chance for ultimate power. Sickening.

Zhirayr Nersessian
Zhirayr Nersessian
3 years ago

The left have probably unwittingly partnered up with not only big tech but all big business. It was the big banks during the EU referendum (the very same banks they blamed for the 2008 financial crisis) and now it’s big tech for the “new normal”. It will be too late before they realise it.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

They are private companies with the right to banish what they don’t like.
In relation to the Biden story it has been all over Fox News, talk radio, right wing websites and so on. The REAL story is that the Trump team handed over the story to WSJ (a right of centre paper) and expected the story to be published. The problem was (and is) that THERE IS NO evidence that Joe Biden got paid so the WSJ could not prove the allegations. Only after WSJ refuse to publish the story did Bannon/Giuliani go over to NY post.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

‘They are private companies with the right to banish what they don’t like.’

Not really, because Section 230 of the 1996 Internet Act (or whatever it was called) granted them the privilege of being a ‘platform’ not a ‘publisher’. Now, I realise that these terms and concepts might be somewhat redundant as they relate to the online landscape that has emerged since 1996. However, the way in which they wield the astonishing power they have is chilling, especially when allied to the way in which 90% of the legacy/traditional media has abandoned all impartiality and journalistic standards.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The power Facebook and Twitter have was voluntarily granted to them by the people. No one who doesn’t want to has to participate. It is true that revocation of 230 would give them some serious problems, but apparently that’s not going to happen.

I have been reading, listening to, and viewing mass media since around 1950, and I have never known a time when they were impartial or objective; just a time when they used to pretend to be. But that pretense was destroyed, first by the underground press, and then by the Internet, starting in the late 1960s. The appearance of social media and blogs in the ’90s finished it off. These days, I am shocked when I encounter people who believe in such as the Times.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Starry Gordon

The power Facebook and Twitter have was voluntarily granted to them by the people.
When did that happen? FB and Twitter began with basic terms of service regarding things like obscenity or violence, low-level stuff. THAT is what people granted them. Now, both have moved into far different terrain, behaving very much like publishers.

Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

As far as I know, no one has to be a participant. Therefore, all those who participate are agreeing with Facebook’s policies. I think that Facebook is reprehensible, but being reprehensible isn’t against the law and Facebook seems to be the choice of billions. I don’t understand it, but there it is.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

After three years of the dossier, collusion, and Russia Russia Russia, this is weak tea. There was no evidence of collusion. Mueller himself said so. The transcripts from the House Intel Committee confirmed it. Yet, we had a three + year melodrama based on nonsense. While ignoring how a sitting administration authorized the surveillance of the opposition party’s nominee. All that FB and Twitter have managed to do is ensure that more people will be aware of the story than otherwise would have been.