Our phones, tablets, and computers have opened unimagined new avenues for work, entertainment, creative arts, shopping, relaxation, education, tomfoolery, and personal improvement that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Our heads reverently bowed to the silicon deity held in our hand, we exercise our devotion for hours each day, even cuddling up with our bright little screens as we doze off for the night.
However, we also properly identify as beloved devices as wasting our time, robbing us of a personal life, exposing us to all variety of unfocused rage and outright bullying, tyrannizing our public discourse, normalizing the abnormal, spreading falsehoods, and extinguishing the very notion of personal privacy. One step beyond, dead-eyed databanks mindlessly collect every aspect of our existences, market our secrets to the highest bidders, and make heartless decisions that affect every facet of our daily lives.
We need stronger protections for our private information, and even public figures should be allowed some greater measure of personal privacy—unless we want only wanton exhibitionists to seek elected office. In addition, those who profit from marketing our private information need to be legally liable for the misuse of that which they sell to make a buck.
The world that I grew up in clearly no longer exists, and the plot line of our world has been altered—some might say mutated—beyond all recognition by the almost magical technology now available. We no longer find community with physical beings; we go online and chat with strangers who might be half a world away. Information is both easily accessible and likely unreliable. Ten year olds dream of PlayStations instead of playing baseball on a summer afternoon. We are more “connected” by technology, yet more Americans are lonelier than ever before.
However, technology has also empowered countless voices that were once ignored, vastly broadened the opportunities for truly open democracies (while perhaps concurrently providing dictators with a powerful platform), and revolutionized our world’s economy and the very nature of the work we do—along with what is even considered work. Who would have twenty years ago imagined that a child could become a multimillionaire posting videos on some strange new system called YouTube? Oh, Brave New World!
However, our ability to lock in our own private reality through our choice of digital feeds, shut out the world by jamming to songs no one else can hear, and block out people and information that make us uncomfortable tends to erode our critical thinking skills, reduce our ability to empathize with those different than ourselves, and enable those who want to appeal to our emotions rather than our reason. Living in a box—even one you personally design—is neither preferable or beneficial, which perhaps bears much more attention than it receives at present.
One other aspect of the stupendous revolution in computing technology that passes with little comment or examination is the birth of that which was never before considered possible: infinite consumer choice and radical price transparency. Old school economists peering fruitlessly about for signs of price inflation often seem oblivious to the simple fact that many prices are being ruthlessly suppressed by the ease with which we can all find whatever we wish at the lowest price possible from a global marketplace—and have it delivered directly to our doorstep. The free and open market now available for a broad range of goods and services has put consumers in an unimaginable position of power over vendors.
This is an immense blessing because the three major expenses of our lives—housing, healthcare, and higher education— have been heretofore largely shielded from the price pressures of the Internet. Direct and intrusive governmental intervention driven by lobbyists bearing campaign contributions has allowed monopolistic and anti-competitive pricing practices to flourish that have harmed America and Americans by jacking up prices heedless of any market-driven realities.
It seems that we may soon see some small changes, but the heavy hand of regulation, once extended, cannot be easily withdrawn. No system of any type can, or course, exist without some regulatory framework, but there is a huge difference between those regulations meant to protect the average individual from harm and those regulations meant to protect the interests of those who are supposedly being regulated
The contrast between those sectors of the economy subject to the marketplace and pricing pressures available due to the advent of cheap and convenient information and communication technologies and those still cosseted in a regulatory safety net could not be more clear. America benefits from openness and competition; it is harmed by faceless bureaucrats and craven lawmakers.
This same analogy applies when considering the chorus now calling for the censorship of the range of ideas and opinions available online. Those seeking to regulate and restrict the richness of our political, social, and cultural commentary hope to profit by convincing Americans to silence those with viewpoints considered inconsiderate, inconvenient, or indiscreet.
No course of action could be worse for our nation and people in the long term than licensing thought and banning speech.
We are strengthened by the stress of encountering ideas that might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Americans are smart enough to distinguish the sensible from the stupid, and denying us the opportunity to hear the full spectrum of opinions will set us on a road to ruin rather than save us. We must resist the siren calls of the scolds and the censors and be willing to listen to occasional foolishness as we search for wisdom.
Ideas and opinions—even those which are obviously offensive or stupid—need to be heard and evaluated. We will survive mendacity; we will ignore morons. A free market in ideas—rather than the tyranny of regulations on thought and speech—is our best path forward as we continue to explore the many possibilities advanced communications and information technology provide in the decades stretching ahead of us.
All hail that phone, tablet, or computer that gladdens and saddens us in equal measure! These may be the most important tools of personal liberty since the muskets of Lexington and Concord fired the first shots of the American Revolution, and we should respect, cherish—and protect—the power we now have right in our hands to change and improve our nation.