The Great and Unreliable Informant

There was a dust-up recently when a group of Christians on an airplane on Easter Sunday got out a guitar and began to sing Christian praise songs. At the moment, I have heard conflicting reports over whether the flight was commercial or chartered by the Christians themselves. If it was a commercial flight, I’d find their behavior rude and counterproductive. On the other hand, a “flash mob” singing the Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall—that seems a glorious thing indeed. I suppose that the distinction lies in the peculiar physical sense of crowding and confinement that characterizes the airplane flight. There is no way out.

In the meantime, as everyone plugged into the Great and Unreliable Informant knows, Elon Musk, whose worth is $283 billion, has been trying to gain control over Twitter, one of the liveliest of the Informant’s vehicles. Musk is vaguely libertarian in his secular outlook, and that has caused some conservatives, who will take tiny favors wherever they think they can get them, to cheer him on. 

Liberals—statists, more properly speaking—complain that Musk is too wealthy, and some of them, a bit wobbly in their arithmetic, have said that Musk could give a million or a billion to every homeless person in America and still have enough left over for Twitter and pizza. They complain that he has not paid his “fair share,” though they never quite explain what that share is and how they determine it.

Now, the real problem with Musk is not personal but, as liberal theologians are fond of saying, structural, and it is similar to the problem posed by the singers on the airplane, assuming that it had been a commercial flight. For a few minutes, the singers were exercising great power over a captive audience. They were exercising what I have called the power of the turnpike, or of the only bridge across a river. You place yourself in a position that compels people to go through you or to go along with you or to accede to you if they want to transact their ordinary business. Such turnpikes are largely artificial. Sometimes they develop without any ill-will or Machiavellian calculation. Sometimes they are extortionate from their inception. They can sometimes be conducive to the common good, as when a nation desires to shelter and foster a fledgling industry and hands it over to an effective and temporary monopoly. 

But I would not depend on it. 

It should give us the shivers to consider that a few men, or worse, a few algorithms, should exert tremendous influence upon what billions of people see and read and think. We are far past the thumb on a scale. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos, unaccountable to anyone but the stockholders of their companies, and to them only in the most distant and general way, are each more powerful than any individual senator or congressman. When it comes not only to shaping public opinion but doing so without appearing to do so, they are surely more powerful than Congress itself. They are, so to speak, beaming their molecules from the Enterprise to any selected coordinates on the political planet, while Senator Jack S. Phogbound is asking at the general store if anyone is nearby who can mend a broken wagon wheel.

Their influence is more dangerous for its being largely invisible. Does a single congressman know what happens when he types his own name into a search engine? Or a phrase such as “church and state”? The old card catalog in the library was an honest sort of machine. But Google is not, and probably cannot afford to be. 

Imagine a ghostly confidence-man who, when you express some interest in “the Oregon Trail,” will shuffle the cards in the catalog so that you see some things first, or in bright colors, and others only later, if at all. Imagine, too, that the information on the cards is not the bare facts of who wrote what, when, and where, but a blurb posing as mere information. Imagine the Shuffler in the act in millions of places at once, by virtue of its all-rummaging and all-meddling algorithms of choice, of sifting, of categorizing, and of ranking. There has never been anything like it. 

Of course, it is possible to find what you want if you are patient or dogged and you already have a clear idea of your object. But the great power of the Shuffler is that it need not care about the residual people who still exercise patience. Arguing with three people in a bar is not like the “conversation” that goes on, interminably and largely to no purpose, among hundreds of millions of us all, who are fairly required to flit from one post to the next, from tweet to tweet and twit to twit. Let old Sol look things up in a book. He is a blade of grass against a steamroller. Who will ferret out the 30th entry that appears in a search, the one that is most accurate but less favored by the algorithm? It is far worse than burying a story on page six of 60. It is like burying it on page 60,000 out of 600 million. 

In the good old days of jaundiced and mendacious but still somewhat literary and rational journalism, you could read the half-truths in the Times, then read the other half-truths in the Tribune, and compare; or at least you could have the words in front of you, not blaring from a screen, to analyze, or to discuss with somebody across the table. But the momentary and ephemeral nature of our engagement with pseudo-articles on the internet mostly bypasses calm and slow analysis and perhaps even makes us incapable of it. The algorithms are our instructors, and they who write the algorithms swing the tiller of the world. 

Again, we are not talking about a person persuading a person, but about an agglomeration of unconscious and unspecifiable but genuinely active influences weighing upon an electoral mass.

The American founders didn’t insist upon freedom of speech and of the press because they believed that every individual had something important to say. They saw such rational discussion, even when swayed by passion, to be essential to man as such, and to his securing the common good. The broadsides and pamphlets published during the debates about ratifying the Constitution are to our current political speech, such as it commonly is, as Shakespeare to an advertisement on a pack of bubble gum. 

Now of all times we need vehicles of rational discussion, and the internet provides a few—we trust that this site is one of them! But social media, in the aggregate and in the essential case, is not conducive to the clearheaded and dispassionate evaluation of alternatives that must characterize every prudential decision. And if those media are in the grip of a very few people, or of people of a narrow range of cultural beliefs, then democracy will be little more than a tremendously expensive puppet show.

What do we do about it? Rather, what should be a true conservative’s aims? Mine are these: to protect and foster freedom of religious, political, and cultural speech and argument; to prevent the amassing of unheard-of kinds of power into a few hands, and to blunt that power; to do so by means that will not simply fold social media into the all-covetous arms of the Management State; and to do so by means that will not make social media into thoroughfares for obscenity and pornography, those sure cheapjack corrupters of the human imagination and of culture itself. 

I am quite aware that the Supreme Court can give us little more than feeble and uncertain guidance; it is also a problem to look there for help. When it comes to shaping the culture, something that the Court is supremely unqualified to do, the Court also is more powerful than Congress, the so-called branch of the people. Still, I am persuaded that this new power that makes William Randolph Hearst look like a seller of bad lemonade must be opened to political discussion, and to political action. 

What form might such action take? Let the discussion begin.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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