Twenty years ago, I was one of the most bullish advocates of widespread internet access for the masses. I saw the web as anti-totalitarian, progressive, feminist, and leaning towards fair. It would expose us all to more information and culture. The "open air" of democracy, I thought, would prove harkening if not irresistible to people living under despots who had grown accustomed to dishing out "pravda" (truth) through government and corporate press hegemonies.
In some ways, internet access has, indeed, worked out that way. But the "democratization of online information" has also forced us to deal with other things we see in popular governance. Tyranny of the majority, gerrymandering, and appeal to rhetoric over reason... these are as much at play in the internet today as innovation and shared compassion. Plato's Republic must be required reading at Facebook headquarters. There are fewer editors of the internet, and fewer checks and balances of power. It may be a pure democracy (without executives, representatives, or judges) - which, Plato says, naturally gives rise to dictatorship.
"Wise men speak because they have something to say;
Fools because they have to say something" - Plato
People on both sides of arguments today (online) are trying to bully the moderates. In doing so, they share a common position on the social spectrum.
Increasingly, I'm reading that there should be a "right" and a "wrong" answer surfacing through the massive dialogue of left and right. Is the "marketplace of ideas" producing more philosopher kings, and fewer tyrants?
On the spectrum from certain to optimistic to hopeful to uncertain, and on to worried to despondent, my opinion of the online future is wavering.
On the plus side, experts have fewer editors. My particular case about "e-waste" exports shows that an idea can survive editors afraid to alienate advertisers and corporate sponsors. A charitable industrial complex of Big Shredders, armageddon waving NGOs, risk averse regulators, and bleeds-it-leads press crooners distilled a simple (essentially racist) stereotype into a definition of personal and corporate responsibility, and provided false "facts" about e-waste exports everywhere online. Whether a recycler "exported" became a question of "have you stopped beating your wife?" Answer "I have never exported" and the headline becomes "Recycler denies exporting".
A few of us (fair trade recycling adherents) found the loose jenga block at the bottom of the wall - the "80% export" fallacy - and pretty much made the continued boycott of geeks of color unstable at best. We may not have won completely, or toppled the jenga wall, but with a disproportionately weak base of assets and allies, we got truth and nuance into the discussion.Academia - the fountain of liberal ideology - is certainly more conflicted in the "war on ewaste" than it was 15 years ago. And a simple blog or two did as much as a multimillion dollar "stewardship pledge". Our ideas didn't melt away the stigma as quickly as a GOT blue-flaming dragon. But our opinion on free and fair trade of used electronics is as much an influence as Westinghouse-backed 60 Minutes, given time.
But how well does this example support an optimism for internet? Because there are just as many false statistics flying. This may only be a case of the internet putting out its own fire. Responding to collateral damage is not "net gain".
The example is weak in that junk electronics were never as important to the majority of people that we made it to be. It has been a fringe issue, even among environmentalists. We mistook a news story about CRTs dumped in Guiyu (they were not) as a validation of our own trade industry's importance and relevance. Meanwhile, during the two decades, the head of the OECD would be appointed from Mexico, and places like Slovenia joined the EU, and Hong Kong (the source of footage of CRTs allegedly traced by CBS "followed the trail" Scott Pelley) ranks in GDP (wealth) per capita just above the United States of America. So the internet made it possible to find data and respond, and using little more than a laptop, we fought the false claims merchants to a standstill.
There's not much evidence, aside from China's green wall and the imprisonment of Joseph Benson, or the IRS 990 Winnings of Basel Action Network, that 7 billion people 'by and large' care what happens to used appliances. Perhaps the "wisdom of crowds" prevails. Ghanaians know that charcoal for wood stoves has decimated their forests, and exposed their wildlife to poachers. They know smog comes from cars and burning tires. They know that the casings from wires stripped by machines (purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars) are probably moved to a burn pile and emit just as much smoke, in the end, as they did burned directly in a tire on the shores of Agbogbloshie's Odaw River. And the dirty little secret of BAN's pronouncements over African EPA concerns is that the EPA officials, on the QT, do not take the organization in the least bit seriously. They will accept $$ grants to "save Agbogbloshie" but the sea containers are unloaded in a government controlled barracks and they customs officials know, with certainty, that nothing imported at those costs of imports is intentionally headed for a junkyard. The importing officials know that bags of rice break in transport, but that banning rice, or hiring a Seattle NGO to "certify" the rice imports, are not a serious solution.
Africans in "Sodom and Gomorrah" are crassly jaded over the 20 and 30 somethings who show up with cameras, doing selfies in front of tire fires. They smile and wave and take selfies, but mock the western reporters (probably including yours truly) as soon as we go home to our creature comforts. And western public opinion has moved on as well. Sasha Rainbow didn't propel Brian Molko back to the top of the Billboard charts. Kevin McElvaney may have rode the last of the Mohican guilt-horses into the sunset.
So what does the E-Waste example tell us about truth and opinion and internet's role? The internet helps people set fires, and helps fact checkers put those fires out. Today, after decades of use, the internet demonstrates a Spectrum of Opinion, and we see how people are gravitating to leverage a body of 7 billion individuals with easy-to-digest examples that confit to pre-established-opinions. You don't retweet a meme that you disagree with, and for most "issues" non of us has the time to dig deeper than a meme.
World opinion is becoming jaded both by "poster child syndrome" and by surfacing of inconvenient facts (the number of TVs dumped in Agbogbloshie is defined by Accra TVs per household 15 years ago, not by sea containers arriving last week). The din of facts and causes and stats and lies is too much for the average TV owner to worry about. Put a picture of a doe-eyed kid at a dump with a perposterous statistic pulled out of your ass, and watch people occupied by "colonialism" and "globalization" and "cost externalization" glom together faster than a cartoon snowball.
This is a long lead-in to a more important point about the marketplace of ideas and internet access. Is the Marketplace of Ideas selling as much snake oil as medicine?
Information is saturating, but so is disinformation and propaganda. And it may just be that the best we can hope for is that people tire of the emergency du jour menu. I see evidence that folks are tiring of journalism, and tiring of "bleeds it leads" news cycles. Our buttons are wearing out from repeated pushing by the extreme opinion holders.
When your eyes adjust to the noise, you stop seeing a spectrum of blacks and whites, nazis and antifas, democrats and republicans, alt-rights and socialists. You see a spectrum of people as listeners, deciders, button pushers and meme-buyers. Replace any "cause" on Facebook with an X and watch how people promote or deny it.
The topic du jour since Charlotteville has been USA history post civil war. The recycling of statues into prison bars or barb wire.
Using e-waste debate as a lens, I can see the dialog over racial politics in America as the leveraging of mass opinion through guilt and fear. Many Americans are just getting tired of the topic. And the "far left" is trying to resurrect it by depicting the defense of a 100 year old civil war statue as the equivalent of defending slavery or Jim Crow laws. In a recent NYT Opinion piece, critics of Antifa are placed beside holocaust deniers and slavery moderates.
Tsk Tsk: On both sides of the political spectrum, I read histrionics. My friends and family on the right tsk-tsk that "the silence on the left about Antifa is deafening". They assemble a false narrative that no one on the moderate left objects to academic sensorship and microaggression. And since our news sources are increasingly stratified, they may honestly not have seen the objectors on the left (myself among them) who defended local control. I got a blistering cold shoulder from my coastal liberal friends for reminding them that minority representation on city counsels and state legislatures is dramatically higher in Birmingham and Memphis than it is in Minneapolis or Montpelier. Perhaps, I suggested, they see the civil war statues as South Carolina saw the confederate flag at the state house... as a bargaining chip,not a symbol of supremacy. As something to yank away if the minority of active racists on the right cause too much trouble. Which is a way of leveraging the non-active racists to moderate their behavior. Which is a way to change society in a different approach than my liberal elite friends would approach it. If those friends feel strongly enough about it, they can move to the south, take residence and vote. Doing so, they might learn a thing or two from a black owned bank or law firm founder sitting on the Alabama House of Representatives.If those friends feel strongly enough about it, they can move to the south, take residence and vote. Doing so, they might learn a thing or two from a black owned bank or law firm founder sitting on the Alabama House of Representatives.If those friends feel strongly enough about it, they can move to the south, take residence and vote. Doing so, they might learn a thing or two from a black owned bank or law firm founder sitting on the Alabama House of Representatives.
No. Moderates in the South are not coddling or denying racism... at least, not by the virtue of their moderation. They are far more aware of white supremacists than liberals were before Charlotteville. They might occasionally see condoning or appeasing racists as a tactic... but they got a black president, and they are working on integrating public schools. To do the latter, they need a school budget, and if they can use a vote on a flag or a General Lee statue to win a few hundred thousand dollars, they'll take it. Because history shows that civil wars often and usually wind up belabored in violence and resistance. Friends on my left point to the Jim Crow south and say that's the equivalent of South Sudan, west Iraq, or Yemen. One (with a history background) pointed out that many of Lee's own rebel generals were harshly critical of his surrender and advocated continued guerilla war...they offer that (on Facebook) as a retort to what I was taught about General Lee. But in fact that's exactly as I learned it in school.. That Lee stood up and surrendered to Grant despite this criticism, and that he was a Moderate that the North needed badly, and that the North would honor rather than see prolonged battle into a potential racial holocaust during Reconstruction. Moderates in the south treat racists today like a Kim Un of North Korea without a nuke. They live in backwater trailerparks and shoot smack.
The case for General Lee wasn't that Reconstruction was "they lived happily ever after". But there was a far worse outcome that Lee, Lincoln and Grant imagined, and that Lee risked his reputation while he had it to leverage in order to deliver the best peace he could imagine.
My point in the title "Spectrum of Opinions" isn't that defense of civil war statues is the correct approach, or that opposition to Antifa is the only opinion worth holding (Perhaps Antifa gives a needed leverage-breather to BlackLivesMatter and Planned Parenthood). As a debater in High School, I had to be prepared to argue either side, positive or negative. It was easier to win a tournament if you had arguments you could believe in from either side.
As for those who implied I'm an apologist for racism because I resisted their call to impugn all conservatives as apologists and "friends of Nazis", everyone who knows me knows they are wrong about that. Bigotry has been my foe for a long time.
Ultimately, we are on the same team, and I'm a veteran player.
I was not a good frisbee player when I first started. But when someone new to the game of ultimate comes on the field and shouts and throws the disk as hard as they can in an empty wrong direction, I can point out, from experience, that you throw the frisbee in a way that it moves the right direction AND that someone on your team can catch it. Yelling at me that you threw it harder in the right direction doesn't make you a better liberal, even if I toss it so that a moderate teammate can still catch it.
Conclusion: There is an actual psychological spectrum on the internet today which measures people based on their ability to digest and deliver nuance. Trolls are all on the same side of the spectrum. It isn't left or right, or up and down, or north and south. It's polite and reasonable vs. arrogant. And it is a war for the future vote of people who may be wrong about a statue, but who are polite and reasonable and will make a good local moderate to continue the long process of reconstruction with.