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a cat’s tale: how getting canceled by twitter made me more optimistic than ever about free speech
once upon a time, on an internet not so very far away, there was a cat who met a bluebird. the cat had opinions and ideas. the bluebird had a forum and a promise to “stand for freedom, empower dialogue, and speak the truth to power.” the cat believed the bluebird and set about joining this community. he made many friends and had many adventures. by and by, the cat grew to some small prominence and was friend to pundits and politicians, researchers and soul searchers, nobel laureates and nattering noobs. but twitter was not an honest bird, and one day, without excuse or apologia, the abusive avian banished the cat from all the realm. many others who failed to suit the narrative of the bullying bluebird were treated likewise. and so began the madness of king jack…
a good fairy tale has a moral, and the moral of this sad and all too common parable is this: it is easy to become that which you purport to hate. those who conquer kingdoms by “speaking the truth to power” are, once enthroned, often those least likely to allow truth to be spoken to (or even nearby to) them. after all, who better to understand the dangers posed to rulers by such truths than those who just used them to supplant the antecedent sovereign? put a shiny hat upon a man’s head and watch as he becomes the very king he once condemned: from @jack to @jackboots in one business cycle. it’s just human nature. you cannot fix it. you cannot get smarter or more noble guys next time. there is nothing new under the sun.
how we respond to this new king and his transformation into the keeper of the very system he once knew to be the problem is going to matter greatly. many conservatives and even self-described libertarians are now calling for government intervention to ensure 1st-amendment-style access to this modern version of the public square and to eliminate censorship of viewpoints within it. this has greatly intensified after what happened to parler, a competing service to twitter that was gang-tackled off the internet through a savage collusion of apple, google, amazon, and others. they barred parler from app stores, kicked them off the AWS servers with one day of notice, and demanded that service providers, from email services to lawyers, drop them or get blacklisted. it was a concerted attack to prevent political and personal expression and keep “the conversation” within the confines of spaces the reigning technocracy can moderate and shape.
this newly omnipotent and assertive technocracy, it is argued, proves that the playing field is not level, fair, nor even reasonable. it’s a rigged game, and the notion of “go build your own” or “this is not a monopoly” is a fantasy. even governments must kiss the ring (though given newfound congressional interest in censoring conservative media, it appears they too would like to climb into this melee). while I can certainly see how people have arrived at this viewpoint, it is one with which I must respectfully disagree. to my mind, it has proven the precise opposite: it has shown just how badly we need to build our own. it just shows that we tried to build it incorrectly. there is an old adage in nautical construction: “if a wave tears a piece off your boat, that piece should not have been there.” so, what did the ocean just teach us about designing our future community?
we learned that centralized power and walled gardens, be they forums like twitter and facebook or server managers like amazon, are the problem. trying to build ever-more-clever versions of this same fundamental flaw without addressing the root problem of centralization merely erects another castle on a foundation of sand. it’s never going to work, nor will the establishment of government regulations or agencies to promote fairness. when the problem is that a system has too much power, giving it more power is not the answer. we’re just erecting a bigger mommy to run to for redress. even if it gets us a cookie today, is this the path to a future we want? shall we render every election a war over who gets to speak in coming years?
tattling is the act of a child. solving one’s own problems and standing on one’s own feet is the act of an adult. transitioning from the former to the latter constitutes the key aspect of growing up. but if we never stop clutching the leg of our mater familias, we’re not going to grow up. ever. we’ll remain stunted and dependent, our potential unrealized. and the potential here is vast. if we the people want the right to speak and transact and engage in liberty as suits our personal preferences, the first thing we need to do is move out of the house. do you really want a company or a government to be the guarantor of your rights and privileges when you can take this power on for yourself? we’re not even twitter’s customers. we’re twitter’s product. they package and alter us to suit the advertisers who pay the bills and to placate the government agencies they rely upon to protect them. one might go so far as to ask some pointed questions about whether we are government’s customers either given their ability to force upon us policies that others demand yet we abhor.
asking a fickle tyranny of the majority to ensure that companies like twitter only turn us into the right sort of product cannot be the way forward. it is, instead, a sort of awkward adolescence for the internet that needs to come to an end; a larval state, due for transformation into something far better and grander. the internet need not be centralized. we need not play in their agora. we can create our own, and it can be everywhere. it’s time for a fundamental change in architecture, for a move from central servers and domain registries to a real peer-to-peer distributed internet. and this move is already starting. we can move to decentralized protocols like IPFS that allow for a “geographically distributed swarm network.” this takes routing and naming and access to content out of the hands of centralized agencies. this will not only unify the internet experience through common, open source protocols, but it will break down the walled gardens in which we’ve been held like so many zoo animals, finally leaving us free to roam the wide world as we choose.
it’s time we abandoned the misbegotten idea of “too important to be left to free markets” and realized that creating the real public square, commerce, money, and internet are too important NOT to be left to free markets. there is no one we can trust to control these systems, so we must design systems that are not controlled by anyone.
you will not need a company like twitter to see or participate in social media. it will be everywhere. you will no longer be its product, you will not even be its customer: you will be a principal, a stakeholder. your data will be yours to keep or share, trade or donate as YOU see fit, not as a corporation or government allows or demands of you. this vast peer-to-peer experience will be free from their meddling, and so will you.
it will be so ubiquitous and intertwined with money and investment and markets and media that you will struggle to tell one from another as they will conjoin into one tissue protected by strong encryption and massive distributed redundancy. there will be no one who controls it and no “off” switch. the concept of censorship will be rendered anachronistic.
advertising and information scraping will die as a business model in the age of seamless, low-friction micropayments and blockers for malicious content and data intrusion. you will be free to chart your own course, pick your own friends, and decide in the most granular of fashions which trade-offs suit you.
but this only happens if we move out of the house. it is the very pressure created by the current crop of internet barons trying to censor and fleece us, compounded by their gleeful entrée into partisan politics and of partisan politicians into internet media that provides the impetus for the next stage in the internet’s evolution. yes, it’s going to be a messy next 3 years. yes, there is a lot of work to be done. yes, we have to do this all the way down to layer one as we cannot leave even the pipes in their control. but yes, it’s going to get done. it’s the market-clearing solution. inviting “more government” into this evolution just tightens the ties between media and state that are already being used to such unfortunately fascist and partisan effect. it increases our dependence on both, prevents our development of the tools we need to truly gain greater and lasting freedom, and fortifies the very walls from which we must escape.
the enemies of free speech and human agency are making a serious mistake, and as sun-tzu advises us, we should not interrupt them.
every time they crack down and play dirty and place ever-more-visible thumbs ever more prominently upon the scales, they are driving more and more people into the “let’s get out of here” camp.
every time they slant facts and deny access, they are undermining their own foundations, both morally and financially, and thereby inviting adaptation away from their pretty prisons.
evolution comes from pressure, not from coddling, and there is so much energy in this system ready to become. it’s the sound and fury that will come to signify everything. we should not impede this; we should put our shoulders in and move it forward. we need not topple today’s edifices, merely step away from them. in the end, they need us, not we them.
remember what actual freedom looks like: its roots lie in self-reliance, not convoluted permission.
remember that, and this future becomes certain.
and this future is bright.