IThis is no longer possible, ”lamented John Dewey in his 1939 book. Freedom and Culture, “Having the simple faith of the Enlightenment which ensured the advance of science will produce free institutions by dispelling ignorance and superstition”, these “traditional sources of human servitude and the pillars of oppressive government”. While dispensing truth and freedom, science has also given despots tools to control public opinion not by suppressing ideas but by promulgating ideas that bolster their repressive regimes. Thus, “for practically the first time in the history of humanity, there are totalitarian states which claim to be based on the active consent of the governed”. Tyranny is not new, but tyrants who can count on the popular support of the brainwashed or intimidated masses are a product of modern technology, an unintended result of the Scientific Enlightenment.
Dewey’s lament isolates a continuing challenge to modern politics: the strained relationship between “liberalism” and “democracy.” Like Matthew B. Crawford observes, the two have never been “completely comfortable with each other”. Democracy is ruled by the majority, but the majority does not always cherish the unlimited freedom advocated by the liberals. Ur-liberal John Stuart Mill, Crawford points out, fought the moralizing campaigns of the Victorian evangelicals, even though these campaigns had wide popular appeal. The elites need space to conduct “life experiences,” Mill explained, but they will be frustrated unless British government and culture are freed from their religious shackles.
Dewey believed that education could bridge the gap between democracy and properly enlightened liberal attitudes. Not everyone can be a scientist, he conceded, but schools can instill a scientific “new morality” by cultivating new desires and goals consistent with the scientific mind. Free citizenship must be trained in the scientific virtues: patience to wait until evidence is available, willingness to follow facts rather than interests, ability to loosely hold assumptions until they are. tested, opening up to “new fields of inquiry” and “new problems.” “Today’s Deweyens are skipping the issue of formal education and naively placing their hope in the mere dissemination of data. Americans are decent people, so senator Obama told a Google audience in 2007, but they are “misinformed” or “too busy” to get the facts they need. Our “biased” politics can be cured if “the American people trust the information they get.” When a president proclaims “good information” from his chair as a tyrant, Americans “will make good decisions.”
Yet the gulf between democracy and liberalism remains, and information is as much a problem as it is a solution. Obama can spread “reason, facts, evidence and science” as much as he wants, but as long as the internet remains a wild west, evidence to the contrary and alternative reasoning can still go viral. As Obama told his Google audience, “we constantly have a competition where facts don’t matter, and I want to restore that feeling of fact-based decisions in the White House.” He ended with an altar call: “I think a lot of you can help me, so I want you to get involved. Information can make democracy liberal, as long as it is the right kind of information.
It’s hard to resist a summons to save democracy, and not tech companies. They assumed the mantle that Dewey bestowed on educational institutions. Their control over the flow of information was most evident during the pandemic, when Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook checked the facts and removed “misinformation” (which they defined as anything in conflict with official policy. public health). But the Obama administration has already enjoyed a warm relationship with Google. Intercept journalist David Dayen reported in 2016 that Google employees attended 427 meetings at the Obama White House between January 2009 and October 2015, and that there was still a revolving door between Google and the government.
As Crawford says, Google has a unique power to “guide thought” and it aspires to do even more. The perfect search engine wouldn’t answer our questions; that would tell us what questions we should be asking and, as Google’s Eric Schmidt said in an interview, tell us what to do next. But who tells us? To users, Google appears content neutral. It just points, leaving it to its algorithms to determine which information is pointed. But humans formulated the algorithm in the first place, it’s constantly revised, and Google admits that humans replace the search engine when deemed necessary. This allows Google to maintain a delicate balance. Like Adam J. White saysGoogle strives to ensure that “we make choices based only on what they consider to be the right kinds of facts – while denying that there would be any values or policies built into the effort.”
Politicians naturally want to harness research and social media for their own purposes, but there is more at stake than the outcome of any particular election. The digital-government complex is driven by a utopian dream. Google wants to change the world, which means to change people. Shaping the informational context is the fate of Google, because it pushes the recalcitrant demos, research by research, towards that blessed and elusive Deweyan moment where, finally, liberalism and democracy embrace.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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