The Hacking of America

Jill Lepore at the New York Times: “Every government is a machine, and every machine has its tinkerers — and its jams. From the start, machines have driven American democracy and, just as often, crippled it. The printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, the mainframe, cable TV, the internet: Each had wild-eyed boosters who promised that a machine could hold the republic together, or make it more efficient, or repair the damage caused by the last machine. Each time, this assertion would be both right and terribly wrong. But lately, it’s mainly wrong, chiefly because the rules that prevail on the internet were devised by people who fundamentally don’t believe in government.

The Constitution itself was understood by its framers as a machine, a precisely constructed instrument whose measures — its separation of powers, its checks and balances — were mechanical devices, as intricate as the gears of a clock, designed to thwart tyrants, mobs and demagogues, and to prevent the forming of factions. Once those factions began to appear, it became clear that other machines would be needed to establish stable parties. “The engine is the press,” Thomas Jefferson, an inveterate inventor, wrote in 1799.

The United States was founded as a political experiment; it seemed natural that it should advance and grow through technological experiment. Different technologies have offered different fixes. Equality was the promise of the penny press, newspapers so cheap that anyone could afford them. The New York Sun was first published in 1833. “It shines for all” was its common-man motto. Union was the promise of the telegraph. “The greatest revolution of modern times, and indeed of all time, for the amelioration of society, has been effected by the magnetic telegraph,” The Sun announced, proclaiming “the annihilation of space.”
Time was being annihilated too. As The New York Herald pointed out, the telegraph appeared to make it possible for “the whole nation” to have “the same idea at the same moment.” Frederick Douglass was convinced that the great machines of the age were ushering in an era of worldwide political revolution. “Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires,” he wrote, “a revolution cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart.” Henry David Thoreau raised an eyebrow: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Even that savage war didn’t diminish Americans’ faith that technology could solve the problem of political division. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce, rightly anticipated that radio, the nation’s next great mechanical experiment, would make it possible for political candidates and officeholders to speak to voters without the bother and expense of traveling to meet them. NBC began radio broadcasting in 1926, CBS in 1928. By the end of the decade, nearly every household would have a wireless. Hoover promised that radio would make Americans “literally one people.”

That radio fulfilled this promise for as long as it did is the result of decisions made by Mr. Hoover, a Republican who believed that the government had a role to play in overseeing the airwaves by issuing licenses for frequencies to broadcasting companies and regulating their use. “The ether is a public medium,” he insisted, “and its use must be for the public benefit.” He pressed for passage of the Radio Act of 1927, one of the most consequential and underappreciated acts of Progressive reform — insisting that programmers had to answer to the public interest. That commitment was extended to television in 1949 when the Federal Communications Commission, the successor to the Federal Radio Commission, established the Fairness Doctrine, a standard for television news that required a “reasonably balanced presentation” of different political views….

All of this history was forgotten or ignored by the people who wrote the rules of the internet and who peer out upon the world from their offices in Silicon Valley and boast of their disdain for the past. But the building of a new machinery of communications began even before the opening of the internet. In the 1980s, conservatives campaigned to end the Fairness Doctrine in favor of a public-interest-based rule for broadcasters, a market-based rule: If people liked it, broadcasters could broadcast it….(More)”