Notes on attention, fake news and noise #2: On the non-linear value of speech and freedom of dialogue or attention

It has become more common to denounce the idea that more speech means better democracy. Commentators, technologists and others have come out to say that they were mistaken – that their belief that enabling more people to speak would improve democracy was wrong, or at the very least simplistic. It is worth analyzing what this really means, since it is a reversal of one of the fundamental hopes the information society vision promised.

The hope was this: that technology would democratize speech and that a multitude of voices would disrupt and displace existing, incumbent hierarchies of power. If the printing press meant that access to knowledge exploded in western society, the Internet meant that the production of knowledge, views and opinions now was almost free and frictionless: anyone could become a publisher, a writer, a speaker and an opinion maker.

To a large extent this is what has happened. Anyone who wants to express themselves today can fire up their computer, comment on a social network, write a blogpost or tweet and share their words with whoever is willing to listen – and therein lies the crux. We have, historically, always focused on speech because the scarcity we fought was one of voice: it was hard to speak, to publish, to share your opinion. But the reality is that free speech or free expression just form one point in a relationship – for free speech to be worth anything someone has to listen. Free speech alone is the freedom of monologue, perhaps of the lunatic raving to the wind or the sole voice crying out in the desert. Society is founded upon something more difficult: the right to free dialogue.

You may argue that this is a false and pernicious dichotomy: the dialogue occurs when someone chooses to listen, and no-one is, today, restricted from listening to anyone, so why should we care about the listening piece of dialogue? The only part that needs to be safe-guarded is, you may say, the right to speak. All else follows.

This is where we may want to dig deeper. If you speak, can everyone listen? Do they want to? Do you have a right to be listened to? Do you have a right to be heard that corresponds to your right to speak? Is there, in fact, a duty to listen that precedes the right to speak?

We enter difficult territory here, but with the increasing volume of noise in our societies this question becomes more salient than ever before. A fair bit of that noise is in fact speech, from parties that use speech to drown out other speech. Propaganda and censorship are difficult in a society characterized by information wealth and abundance, but noise that drowns out speech is readily available: not control, but excess, flooding and silence through shouting others down – those are the threats to our age.

When Zeynep Tufekci analyzes free speech in a recent Wired article, she notes that even if it is a democratic value, it is not the only one. There are other values as well. That is right, but we could also ask if we have understood the value at play here in the right way. Tufekci’s excellent article goes on to note that there is a valuable distinction between attention and speech, and that there is no right to attention. Attention is something that needs to be freely given, and much of her article asks the legitimate question of if current technologies, platforms and business models allow for us to allocate attention freely. We could ask here if what she is saying implies that we need to examine whether there is a freedom of attention right somewhere here as well.

When someone says that the relationship between free expression the quality and robustness of a democracy is non-linear, they can be saying many different things. There is a tendency to think that what we need to accept is a balancing of free speech and free expression, and that there are other values that we are neglecting. We could, however, equally say that we have misunderstood the fundamental nature and structure of the value we are trying to protect.

Just because (and Tufekci makes this point as well) the bottle-neck used to be speech we focused there. What we really wanted was perhaps free dialogue, built on free speech and the right to freely allocate one’s attention as one sees fit. Or maybe what we wanted was the freedom to participate in democratic discourse, something that is, again, different.

Why, then, is this distinction important? Perhaps because the assumption of the constancy of the underlying value we are trying to protect, the idea that free speech is well understood and that we should just “balance” it, leads us to solution spaces where we actually harm the values we would like to protect unduly. By examining alternative legal universes where a right to dialogue, the right to free attention, the right to democratic discourse et cetera could exist we examine and start from that value rather than give up on it and enter into the language of balancing and restricting.

There is something else here that worries me, and that is that sometimes there is almost a sense that we are but victims of speech, information overload and distraction. That we have no choice, and that this choice needs to be designed, architected and prescribed for us. In its worst forms this assumption derives the need to balance speech from democratic outcomes and people’s choices. It assumes that something must be wrong with free speech because people are making choices we do not agree with, so they must be victims. They do not know what they are doing. This assumption – admittedly exaggerated here – worries me greatly, and highlights another complexity in our set of problems.

How do we know when free speech is not working? What are the indications that the quality of democracy is not increasing with the amount of speech available in a community? It cannot just be that we disagree with the choices made in that democracy, so what could we be looking for? A lack of commitment to democracy itself? A lack of respect for its institutions?
As we explore this further, and examine other possible consistent sets of rights around opinion making, speech, attention, dialogue and democratic discourse we need to start sorting these things out too.

Just how do we know that free speech has become corrosive noise and is eroding our democracy? And how much of that is technology’s fault and how much is our responsibility as citizens? That is no easy question, but it is an important one.

(Picture credit: John W. Schulze CC-attrib)

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