In the early 20th century, as early packet-switching networks evolved into the Internet, a generation of futurists and Ted-Talkers emerged. They began to explain this new, cutting edge system to us consumers with wide-eyed techno-utopianism in mind. They compared it to a superhighway, a marketplace of ideas. They talked about impending inventions as if they would be nothing but constructive and good for society. And it’s entirely true that recent technological inventions have been fruitful—they’ve made communication more efficient, organized social networking and brought us all closer together. But, in the case of advances in online media, they’ve also interfered in elections, propagated and popularized misinformation, and incited violence. As Mark Zuckerberg once said on his own Facebook, “When you connect two billion people, you will see all the beauty and ugliness of humanity.”
Countless social networking platforms, including Twitter, Reddit, Youtube and Facebook, were designed with good intentions, by entrepreneurs who wanted to change the world for the better. By providing a platform for everyone to have a voice and share their experiences and perspectives, the original entrepreneurs of these platforms wanted to put power into people’s hands. The assumption was that such widespread information would prevent governments and media companies from unjustly controlling which ideas can or can’t be expressed. But what they didn’t recognize at the time was this: when you hand over power to everyone, you don’t just hand it over to the education reformers and global warming activists, but also the profiteers, bigots and terrorists. When you grant everyone unrestrained free speech, what was meant to be an autonomous, positive space, transforms into a repository, a sewer for some of the most egregious and horrific material imaginable: florid racism, Holocaust denial, violent pornography, screeds from the cohort of misogynists now known as “incels.” The shooter who massacred Muslims in New Zealand live-streamed his enormity on Facebook, where it then circulated throughout the internet and was viewed millions of times. As Sacha Baron Cohen referred to social media in his ADL International Leadership Award acceptance speech, it truly is “The greatest propaganda machine in history.” What was supposed to be a utopia has ripened into a nightmare.
The printing press altered the state and face of the world multifacetedly. It set off a cascade of salutary movements and innovations such as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the steam engine, journalism, modern literature, modern medicine and modern democracy. However, many early printers were driven, at least in part, by the profit motive, and thus much of what they printed was propaganda and fabricated fallacy. This heightened ethnic tensions, the spread of medical misinformation, and about a century’s worth of European religious conflict. And yet historians, in favor of “the bigger picture,” still tend to couch all of this in a narrative of redemption. Similarly, nowadays, we are instructed to view social media as not a publisher, but rather a “platform” where people’s voices can be heard, and they can make up their own minds. It is claimed that it’s more important to explore the upside of technology than to protect against the downside, and thus social media and the Internet should remain unregulated. Founders once vowed to keep their platforms “content-neutral.” The argument was that all voices, even odious ones, deserved the chance to be amplified, that free speech and expression were human rights and would not be obstructed.
For centuries, the meaning of free speech has been refined and reinterpreted in universities, legislatures, courts and the press. In the early days of Silicon Valley, however, weighty decisions about free speech were more likely to be made in the course of an afternoon, in a cramped conference room, by a small team of harried computer engineers with complimentary snacks in hand. Often, they had no long-term plan other than rustling up a “minimum viable product,” “shipping” their code as quickly as possible, and then “iterating”— euphemisms for what was really trial and error. After more than a decade, these engineerings and entrepreneurs finally seem to understand that their imagined techno-utopia is not going to materialize, ever. Regulating social media might not mean limiting anyone and everyone’s free speech. It’s limiting racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and child abusers from broadcasting their views and targeting their victims.
We live during a pivotal time in human history when a confluence of computing power, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and social media hold a promise of changing what it means to be human. As we undergo what might be the greatest and most accelerated evolution in technology, the ideas and the history of Judaism could be extremely beneficial. Judaism is an ancient religion that has survived through centuries of repeated attempts at its distraction. Many tried to force assimilation and annihilation, but none succeeded. Our biblical stories, wisdom, and moral principles prevailed and now support us as we retain our historic identity and rediscover who we are, what makes us different and what we have to offer to the world at this moment. Judaism is the originator of so many truisms and virtues that we’ve lost sight of, and this loss pertains to the experience many Jews have had in America. Setting aside the past few years, Jews have been fairly accepted by the majority of American society, and as a consequence, we have sidestepped our own culture and religion.
Judaism is the founder of the notion that we are all created in the image of God and that all human beings have dignity—that we’re not alive for the sole purpose of serving absolutist leaders or future hegemonic machines. Judaism illustrates the hatred of tyrants, love of freedom, the atrocity of slavery, and the sanctity of human life. These are Jewish concepts that emerged from a people who were formerly slaves themselves. What can our experience teach us as we evolve and confront changing times? Unity.
Last year, 70,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. Between 2007 and 2017, the suicide rate of young Americans doubled. We are facing a spiritual crisis, an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. As Bari Weiss once told me, “We are the country of bowling alone. But Judaism has an operating system of bowling together.” Dependency, from an American perspective, is a bad word. However, Judaism is rooted in interdependency between people, and right now, that sort of we’re all in this together theme is imperative.
Nowadays, media companies care more about raising their share price than protecting democracy. They impose their vision on the rest of us and act as if untouchable by any government, elected officials, or the public. Yet, facts exist. There’s such a thing as objective truth. If they actually wanted to make a difference, these companies would install enough monitors in an effort to purge lies and conspiracies from their platforms. Of course, drawing the line as to what should and shouldn’t be removed will be difficult, but people’s lives are at stake. As for the financial aspect, media companies are the richest in the world and have the finest engineers.
Throughout history and to this day, whether it’s social media or the printing press, we have had to make sacrifices for the greater good, forfeiting one thing for something we believe to be worth more. And, unfortunately, when it comes to technological advancement, there’s no such thing as making the right decision, fundamentally speaking, only a decision. We will never achieve a “perfect” society, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for betterment. Technology can be a force for truth, awareness, transparency, individuality and social good, if we hold it to those standards—not utopian, but pragmatic. Now, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are threatened by conspiracies, lies, and hate. We must reassure that people, because of purely whom they love, where they’re from or how they pray, are not targeted, harassed and murdered. What we, our communities, our governments, the press and the companies we engage with can do is judge our adoption of technology through a sharper lens, one without breathless optimism or even the crazed cynicism we’re currently delving into. We can still have a place for free speech and expression, but for that, we need a more measured, thoughtful, genuine and unanimous approach designed to create a better world.