Review of Onora O’Neill “A Philosopher Looks at Digital Communication”

Among the distant ancestors of Onora O’Neill’s A Philosopher Looks at Digital Communication (Cambridge University Press) is a work by Plato, the Phedrusin which Socrates expresses misgivings about telecommunications technology.

The dialogue is not usually understood in just those terms, of course. But the technology that gets Socrates wound up is the written word, which allows a message to be stored and retrieved, minus the context in which it was created or the nonverbal signals that go with proximity to a speaker. Socrates recounts a legend about the Egyptian god who invented writing and showed it to the pharaoh. “This discovery of yours,” the king points out, “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; They will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” The new technology will not give its users access to the truth, he adds, “but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; They will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

This royal complaint comes late in the text. Up to that point, Socrates and his friend Phaedrus have discussed a number of problems that plague even face-to-face communication: indifference to the truth, seduction of the unwary and the bad effect that a gifted but amoral speaker may have on the public . Writing only makes it worse. Messages “are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them,” says Socrates, and their meaning can be deliberately “maltreated or abused,” like an orphan, since there is “no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.” One iron of the Phedrus may strike the reader only later: Socrates, who wrote nothing, makes this argument in a text exemplifying Plato’s subtle literary artistry.

But pointing out similarities between the Phedrus‘s critique of writing and complaints about digital media (eg, users “will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing”) generally rebounds to Silicon Valley’s favor as just so much evidence that the Luddites have always been with us. A less dismissive response would draw another lesson: any medium of communication will have inherent or intrinsic potentials to go awry—to distort or falsify meaning or to generate unanticipated effects.

O’Neill, an honorary professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge, identifies three aspects of any act of communication, whatever the means: “What originators seek to communicate must be accessible to recipient(s), must be intelligible to them, and must be assessable by them in ways that support understanding and interpretation, and enable forms of check and challenge.” (Plato anticipated her list but was less clear-cut.) Participants in necessarily communicate come to some evaluation of one another’s respect for, or competence to judge, the “relevant epistemic and ethical norms and standards” pertinent to a given message. And such is the case whatever the technology involved.

What distinguishes the menu of digital tools now on offer is that they make the means of communication available (“accessible,” in O’Neill’s formulation) on a scale once unimaginable. At the same time, O’Neill writes, “no earlier communication technology has made available such rich opportunities to disrupt assessability by redirecting or controlling, targeting or suppressing, both what is communicated, and information about its originators and recipients.” The Phedrus Treated the written word as subject to the same vulnerabilities, but on a scale now appearing infinitesimal by contrast with the volume of communication occurring in any given blink of the 21st-century eye.

Jonathan Haidt’s recent article on The Atlantic website, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” spells out some of the cumulative effects of accessibility without assessability. O’Neill is less concerned with the specific consequences than with how the status quo in digital communications now is perpetuated and reinforced through certain ways of framing the act of communication.

One tendency she identifies is “libertarian versions of populism … in which freedom of expression is seen as central, but other standards for ethically and epistemically acceptable communication are ignored or perhaps taken for granted.” This attitude recognizes “no requirement to be or to seek to be accessible to, intelligible to or assessable by others.” By her own terms, such expression barely counts as communication at all.

The author does not give examples, but one comes readily to mind: many YouTube comments amount to pure expression, uncompromised by the slightest concern with communicating much of anything. That may not be problematic in itself, but taking it as normative seems to imply a corollary: if every utterance is given the status of “expression,” a message that does seek to meet “relevant epistemic ethical and norms and standards” has no particular claim on public attention.

Very much the point is a passage the author quotes from another British philosopher, Bernard Williams: “In institutions that are expressly dedicated to finding out the truth, such as universities, research institutes, and courts of law, speech is not at all unregulated. People cannot come in from outside, speak when they feel like it, make endless irrelevant, or insulting, interventions, and so on; they cannot invoke a right to do so, and no one thinks that things would go better in the direction of truth if they could.”

Flooding online space with anonymous (and in some cases computer-generated) discourse also addresss real communication, with its expectation that a message will be subject to “forms of check and challenge” by recipients. “If those with power to control or fund digital communication cannot be identified,” O’Neill writes, “it will be hard—perhaps impossible—to hold them to account even if they promote false and misleading claims, suppress information, distort public debate, manipulate evidence or promote propaganda.”

Implicit in her phrase “perhaps impossible” is more optimism than the situation inspires—as if O’Neill thinks a program of regulation and reform might still bring the internet into alignment with the “institutions that are expressly dedicated to finding out the truth” that Bernard Williams indicated. Those institutions were created around, and largely by means of, the written word, in some measure with the intent of limiting the negative potentialities that Plato’s dialogue already considered in the fourth century BCE Our discursive regime owes more to the wisdom of Mark Zuckerberg, who summed up his doctrine in a phrase: “Move fast and break things.”

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