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Elon Musk can’t save us

Conservatives need to think beyond the free speech issue

Associated Press/Photo by Gregory Bull (file)

Elon Musk can’t save us

The polarized reaction to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter reveals the limitations of our current political imagination. For liberals, the often cartoonish “woe is us” chorus seems to vindicate what critics of mainstream liberalism such as Freddie DeBoer have said for years—that the contemporary left is a performative collection driven by in-group shibboleths and journalistic peerage, where clickableness covers a politically stagnant condition. In other words, liberal anger and anxiety over Twitter make sense in a world where Twitter is what liberals tend to care about. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus, “they have their reward” (Matthew 6:2).

But the conservative response to Musk is likewise revealing. Is the buyout really “a monstrous win for free speech”? Perhaps it is, but the truly relevant question is whether such a win really means much at all. Clearly, a large and influential section of American conservatism views free speech as the ultimate issue when it comes to social media and the online information economy. But there are very good reasons to question whether this is so.

The dominant narrative about public discourse and the internet says that Silicon Valley’s ideological hegemony is downstream from higher education. This explains why online liberalism—in its journalistic, activist, or celebrity forms—is so powerful and widespread on our feeds. Just as the typical university campus tends to reflect the most leftward slice of American intelligentsia rather than the middle class, so too does the leadership of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple. In that light, the conservative path toward a better digital future seems clear: Break up Big Tech through legislation, throw money at a conservative-owned rival product, and enthusiastically pray for someone like Elon Musk.

But conservatives need to consider an alternative narrative. What if the liberal dominance within our online discourse spaces is not merely a conscious act of political efficiency or monopoly? What if the very nature of the internet tends to privilege a progressive worldview? What if the medium is the message?

A one-note emphasis on free speech will betray the conservative movement by playing right into the technological utopianism that undergirds liberalism in the first place.

As Nicholas Carr pointed out in his revelatory 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the kind of thinking and reasoning humans do online is computer-shaped. Digital technology suppresses our capacities for sustained, careful trains of thought, for memory and non-intuitive response, because such things are anathema to the efficiency of the machine. Hypertext transforms the reader’s relationship to the written word. At the same time, the web’s endless novelties, pop-ups, and algorithmic “recommendations” train us in the habits of skimming and multitasking rather than reflection.

Carr’s systemic deconstruction of online technology’s epistemological effects offers conservatives a much more compelling understanding of the digital public square. Why have spaces like Tumblr and YouTube been ground zero for the transgender revolution? Why do social media posts about abusive authority go much more viral than stories about expressive individualism run amok? The answer is that technologies that contain within themselves the logic of transhuman liberation now mediate our public discourse. A world controlled by screens is a world that claims endless human mastery. It is precisely the attempt to impose human will on objective reality that lies at the heart of progressive ideology.

Given this, conservatives’ focus on “fairness” in digital spaces is perhaps necessary but woefully insufficient. A more transformative approach would be cultivating a social stigma on these technologies, especially the smartphone. It is now impossible to ignore social media’s harmful effects on adolescents. Limitless access to the open web and the judgment of peers has not resulted in a more compassionate, curious society but an epidemic of depression, loneliness, and despair among emerging adults. This is a clear opportunity for conservatives to make a tangible move in defense of teen well-being and strike a blow against the kind of ideology that depends on the internet’s impressionistic logic.

The open exchange of ideas is important, and Musk does have an opportunity to rebalance Twitter after a long period of open hypocrisy. A one-note emphasis on free speech, however, will betray the conservative movement by playing right into the technological utopianism that undergirds liberalism in the first place.  Conservatism’s future is tied to the future of human beings who can think clearly, form connections, and build a culture that a block button cannot take away. This makes “saving Twitter” far less important than saving the world beyond our screens.

Samuel D. James

Samuel serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife, Emily, live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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