i jinxed it

"I'm optimistic about this year" was how I ended last week's email.


Anyway everything went downhill almost as soon as I hit send and the United States finally and conclusively entered the period historians refer to as The Cool Zone.

Soldiers sleeping in the Capitol building to protect legislators? Representatives bypassing the metal detectors set up to make sure they don't shoot other representatives? waves arms all of this? Definite Cool Zone behaviour.

Yet despite all that, there's a release that has happened in the last week that still leaves me, despite it all… optimistic. Going in to 2021, my biggest fear about US politics wasn't that Trump would succeed in his attempts to keep power, but that he wouldn't fail hard enough.

It seemed – and, frankly, still seems – terrifyingly plausible that the outcome of the Trump era could be the Republican Party learning the lesson that you can attack every democratic norm going, and so long as you aren't also so inept at politics that you turn down the opportunity to send everyone in the country $2000 with your name on it in the month before the election, you get re-elected.

The fact that Trump finally, unambiguously crossed a line, and has already been rebuked – by civil society, if not by the rest of his party – has me wondering whether America might be able to pull itself back from the brink after all.

the bans

It's helped, of course, to see a bunch of platforms take action they should have taken three years ago. Not just banning trump himself, but also – in fact, primarily – banning the antidemocratic movements he has headed and encouraged.

I have a bit of a weird view on this, though. I'm uncomfortable watching leftists – mainly American leftists – counter complaints about the bans by arguing that throwing 70,000 Qanon believers off Twitter hasn't hurt their free speech. I think Americans have a warped view of the nature of free speech by virtue of… well, being Americans in America, but specifically by the fact that the first amendment to the US constitution defines the entire conversation about free speech in that country, and is unambiguously about government action. ("Congress shall make no law…") 

That means that when American conservatives complain that Twitter throwing them off its service for sending death threats to democratic legislators "violates the first amendment", they are unambiguously wrong. And if you view "violates the first amendment" and "violates my free speech" as synonymous, it's easy to reject the latter too.

But I think it's wrong. Free speech is not a binary quality. It comes in gradients. Someone who fears no consequences of anything they say, and has the ability to say it to an audience unconstrained by outside actors, has the freest possible speech. Probably too free! People should fear some consequences of some speech! If your speech is so unfettered that you feel comfortable using it to recruit and co-ordinate for a violent attempt to overthrow the results of a democratic election, your speech should probably be less free.

That for me is the real takeaway of the bans: not that free speech wasn't infringed, but that it was good that free speech was infringed. Rights are always in tension, and, particularly amongst Silicon Valley social networks, free speech has won near every conflict going for a decade plus. And so we now live in a world where people have got so used to being able to attack the very underpinnings of liberal democracy that they can corral tens of thousands of likeminded friends, fly to Washington DC, and do the same thing in a physical fashion.

All I'm really doing here is reiterating, with a more tech-focused lens, Popper's line on the error of tolerating intolerance. When you remove free speech from a fascist, you don't pretend that you're doing them a favour: you own the fact that they don't get to attack the rights they're using to attack rights.

More broadly, of course, I'm interested in pushing this idea because I am deeply uncomfortable with giving ground on the notion that Facebook, Twitter and – heck, Peloton – can make decisions that are ruinous to freedom of speech. If we tell Qanon that their free speech hasn't been infringed when they are thrown off Facebook, then what do we say about our free speech when Mark Zuckerberg bans all posts criticising his plan to physically encapsulate the Bay Area in a perspex dome and rechristen it "Bergtopia"? Do we really say "well it's his private business and he can do what he wants," right after spending a decade meticulously detailing how a warped conversation on Facebook leads to a warped world off Facebook?

Seems bad, imo.

I like this rug

It's the binary of iTunes, encoded visually and woven into a rug. Cool. I have a thing for anything digital becoming physical, or the reverse, I think. It's why I bought my Ganksy print, or Charlotte Geater's zine of poems written with GPT2. Sadly I don't think I have much space in my house for this, right now.

The creator sent me the link to another rug of theirs, which encodes the genome of Sars-nCoV-2, after I decided to tweet the whole thing on Wednesday.

No I don't know why either, but I find it awesome (?) to think of all that destruction wrapped up in something that I could conceivably write out in longhand if I had earned a particularly long detention at school. And I like the way it ends with a long drawn-out aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, as so much does right now.