The age of the cyber romantics is coming to an end


Onora O’Neill, professor emeritus of philosophy at Cambridge University and a member of the British House of Lords, has been selected for the 2017 $1 million Berggruen Prize.

London — Near the conclusion of the Brexit referendum campaign last year, Michael Gove, then the British justice secretary, infamously said that “people in this country have had enough of experts…” If you watch the video of the interview, Gove had begun to say something more specific but was interrupted by a particularly hectoring interviewer. He has since clarified that he had intended to say that the public has had enough of economists.

We can all giggle about that now, but it is the literal and uncharitable reading of Gove’s remark that still makes headlines and comes up in discussions of the idea that we live in a post-fact or post-truth era. Suspicion of experts and professionals is not new. Claims that experts were engaged in some sort of conspiracy against the public or the public interest were widely voiced during the 1980s, and accusations of “professional coziness” were cited as reasons for shifting from professional to regulatory discipline of experts. But the current suspicion of experts is more troubling and cannot be addressed by regulatory remedies — they would be promptly tarred with the same brush.

Is this heightened suspicion of experts an inevitable effect of digital communications technologies? I suspect that the problem may lie not with the technologies themselves but with the disruption to practices and standards for communication that have followed their chaotic introduction. These technologies enable voluminous, remote and anonymous dissemination of content whose trustworthiness — or lack of trustworthiness — is hard to judge. While the ethics of communication is about the standards that speech acts should meet, new technologies make it hard to identify which acts are being undertaken, let alone to judge whether they are trustworthy.

This is not the first time that new technologies have disrupted established communicative practices and standards. Plato tells us that Socrates was so worried by the written word’s disruption of communication that he relied entirely on the spoken word. Luckily Plato did write, or we would know nothing about Socrates’ misgivings. Socrates worried his words would go fatherless into the world, reaching sundry readers with nobody present to explain what was meant or to clear up misunderstandings.

The problem with writing, however, was not that texts can be separated from their authors and cannot explain themselves, but that the practices of attribution, validation, authorization and commentary, on which writing and publishing now depend, had not been developed in ancient Greece. Now that those practices and standards are in place, we often think of the written word as a particularly robust and reliable way of communicating content accurately and responsibly.

A second wave of difficulties arose with the development of printing. Once again, the difficulties were not due to the technology but to the disruption caused by innovation. Laws had to be enacted and practices developed in order to define the respective roles and responsibilities of authors, printers and publishers. New laws had to provide remedies for the wrongs that can be inflicted by distributing printed material, ranging from defamation to breach of copyright, from fraud to breach of privacy, and from misleading advertising to breaches of commercial and professional confidentiality. It took a long time and a lot of struggle to reshape legal requirements and social and cultural practices to ensure that they both protected free speech and prevented and limited wrongs that can be done by widely distributed printed communication.

The situation is similar with online communication. Legal and cultural measures needed to secure ethical standards in communication have been massively disrupted, leaving us less able to judge whether others’ claims are honest, competent and reliable. Seemingly direct, unmediated, even intimate online communication sometimes turns out to emanate from or to have been shared with unknown others. Seemingly professional and expert claims sometimes misrepresent or falsify. Seemingly original material sometimes turns out to have been plagiarized. Yet the ethical standards and the epistemic norms that matter for trustworthy communication, and that underpin the possibility of checking and challenging what others communicate, matter every bit as much for online as for offline communication.

As one might expect, the new technologies have charm and advantages, and there is great reluctance to recognize how much needs to be done to reconstruct ethically adequate standards for communication. We are still in a period of gestures and platitudes. Cyber romantics still suggest that any restriction of online communication would be wrong; they forget that free speech is only one of the many standards that matter for the ethics of communication.

Well-meaning discussions suggest that improving digital literacy might be useful, so that those on the receiving end of communication are less likely to be deceived. But while improving digital literacy is surely a good idea, we can hardly expect it to remedy the serious wrongs that can be done by some online communication. At present, we have not even developed a clear distinction between online platforms and online publishers, so we have no account of their respective responsibilities. There is a long way to go.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.