Though sloth plagues us all, intellectual sloth, along with censorship in all its many forms — from the repeal of net neutrality to blatant redaction to SLAPP suits against journalists — is the enemy within as far as democracy is concerned. Without an “informed electorate,” as quaint phrasing put it in the ‘50s, democracy is a farce and little better than the rule by mobs of the brainwashed consumer.
So when New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas joined with all twenty other Democratic state attorneys general from California to New York and Hawaii to Vermont in a lawsuit against the FCC for abolishing the safeguards for an open internet, he and others were striking a blow for democracy’s most crucial condition — a free and open flow of knowledge. What the anti-net neutrality movement and the FCC seek to do is to allow big internet providers to choose which websites to support, which to use as cash cows and charge what the market will bear and which to make so slow and cumbersome that few will ever use them.
Big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon oppose the repeal of net neutrality because they have found a way to make trillions off “free” information and entertainment services and in the process do their own perverse damage to democracy by making information gathering on the net a deadly dull pursuit relative to the dazzle of distractions the internet spreads out before us.
Net neutrality is one of the only ways to avoid the total commodification of the internet and by implication, of much of American culture. Of the two prevailing views of American life — one as the land of freedom through “self-government” and the other as the land of credit cards and the freedom to choose among 50 kinds of raisin bran — the consumer view has been winning the hearts and minds of Americans for decades. Information in the “information age” comes in a distant second behind advertisement and other forms of corporate propaganda.
Is abolishing net neutrality really just a form of economic censorship in which money determines how smart and informed you get to be? Well of course it is. Unhappily though, in repealing net neutrality we’re really losing something that we as a nation of consumers were too lazy and distracted to make much use of in the first place. The internet, for all its cheap brain warping and redundancy, is nothing less than the vast popular library of the United States and the world, a library open and free to anyone who can find its true content beneath social media and other mindless firewalls cutting off curiosity and replacing it with impulse blabbing, addicted buying and ubiquitous data scamming. Is it possible that a combination of advertisement, junk entertainment and a ruined public school system turns out to be a malicious plot of anti-democratic mind control, trashing the idea of self-government and replacing it with a bastardized form of the pleasure principle, shopping till you drop while democracy itself is turned into a panhandler begging for handouts and our attention on the street corner of Bankruptcy Avenue and Conformity Road?
The internet could be used by all of us to give new life to our democratic government and to our own mental lives, allowing us to research anything we want. Of course, public education, ideological school boards and dumbed-down textbooks have not left our culture with a shared thirst for a knowledge nor a grounding in the techniques to find it. We could begin moving in the direction of self-government again if we work to create once more a nation of conscientious, responsible semi-scholars in charge of their own education and seeing as one of their chief duties in life to be a committed and intelligent citizen. If we hope to govern ourselves in an open society, we must have citizens who can’t be gulled by their representatives because they’re as up on the issues of the day as those whom they elected to represent them.
It seems clear to many of us that our current national leadership does not consider our form of government worth protecting, despite the oaths of office the Constitution requires them to take, vowing to protect and defend the Constitution itself and what it stands for. Conservative America has come to consider the United States not as a democracy but as a shopping mall in which consumers elect politicians to protect their right to consumption and the right of companies to create demand through advertising and supply the demand they’ve created while fleecing us deep into debt.
Using the internet as a research tool, testing hunches about the environment, let’s say, or politics or health care, is one of the great pleasures of citizenship so far in the digital world. Where members of Congress have the Congressional Research Service to keep them up keep to speed on the latest developments in hundreds of fields of legislative possibilities, the general citizen used to have a wide range of trusted print media and investigative reporting on TV and radio. We still have those sources, even though they are under attack and watered down, but now we also have the extraordinary resource of the internet, which allows every citizen to acquire expertise in whatever national and local issue that interests them not only for the purposes of casting an intelligent vote but also for the purposes of lobbying, the citizens other essential duty.
Of course, we have to develop our own standards of whom and what to believe. That’s basic to any kind of scholarship. But the internet allows us to also become serious investigators, using the same basic initial technique that any scientific analysis employs.
The esoteric terms for those initial techniques include “ansatz” and “priors,” terms that some researchers use to describe the hunches and guesses that start a course of investigation and data gathering to see if they prove out to be true, or false, or usefully approximate in ways that take researchers in novel directions they hadn’t thought of. This is another way of saying one starts with a hypothesis and sees if it proves to be real.
Let’s say a citizen of Albuquerque wants to know if the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill is unique to that site, or if the Air Force has a traceable history of sloppiness with hazardous materials. The internet allows you, in effect, to check a hunch by making a list of Air Force bases and then stating, as an ansatz or prior in the search window, something like “George Air Force Base jet fuel spill.” You don’t know whether George Air Force base has had a jet fuel spill, but the internet will tell you whether your hunch is right or not by finding information on spills or revealing the absence of such information. It’s as simple as that, for starters. As it turns out, most, if not all, Air Force bases in America and overseas have jet fuel spills and other hazardous materials infiltrating underground water at their sites. Having such information allows decision makers in Albuquerque to compare what the Air Force is promising to do here with what it has done and is doing elsewhere, providing a fundamental reality check that can’t be acquired in an information vacuum.
Net neutrality guarantees nothing, of course. It simply provides a key to open treasuries of knowledge. Without our culture rewarding curiosity and our sense of duty as a citizen, however, the key is a useless trinket. But repealing net-neutrality effectively tosses the key into a huge box of other lost keys, all but ruining the internet’s usefulness to the needs of a flourishing of self-government.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image by Christoph Scholz)