Open source began a cultural movement back towards the commons that for the first time established a form of solidarity within technology. At its heart, the open source movement argues that the computer code behind software ought to be publicly available, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. But open source isn't enough. What we may need to complete this transition is open data.
The recent news that Elon Musk's bid to takeover Twitter is back on the table has created the usual stir. The new left, committed to a censorship it deems entirely necessary, is up in arms about how this will allow the right back onto Twitter, which is apparently a disastrous proposition. But the suggestion that censorship is 'necessary for democracy' is laughable if all this means is "I don't want to have to listen to what my political opponents have to say". Democracy requires the free exchange of ideas, and the moment one faction is given the power to decide what speech is or isn't permitted, we are deep into the territory that Orwell's 1984 warned about.
This sudden zealotry for censorship has collapsed scientific discourse in the last two years, not because research has ceased to function, but because dissemination has faltered. It has been surreal to find open scientific discourse driven underground where, oddly, it thrives, although while it is trapped there practitioners have to interact with folks holding fringe beliefs who I imagine have been excluded from polite society for quite some time. Meanwhile, it seems far too many people (including and especially doctors) trust the media to accurately inform them, which reporters have shamefully ceased to do, preferring one-sided phantasmal narratives over authentic investigation. Alas, if the behaviour of the Vatican in the Middle Ages didn't sufficiently warn of the dangers of allowing institutions to control thought, then the surreality of these past two years will presumably also fail to teach us the lesson we neglected to learn from history. The substitution of enforced consensus for scientific discourse is not a path to truth, it is the utter denial of it.
When Musk declared that Twitter was the "de facto public square", I believe he was absolutely right. Don't let the smaller number of users deceive you - Facebook has many more people sharing cat photos, but the political snowball effect that led to censorship and thus enormous global harm originated on Twitter, where a grim consensus formed over speculative health care interventions that was pure fabulism, having no basis in the existing scientific data or practices. Our first step to restoring democracy must be the restoration of civic discourse. Thus when Musk revealed his intentions for Twitter, I could not help but feel a glimmer of hope that a 'third accord' to replace the fallen Old Republic of human rights (and the Rights of Man that preceded it) might yet be achievable. This third accord may not even need the actions of the nation states to bring it about.
It is fascinating to dig through the private messages that Musk disclosed for the lawsuit between him and Twitter. Two exchanges leap out at me in particular. Firstly, one with former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who suggested on 26th March 2022:
I believe it must be an open source protocol, funded by a foundation of sorts that doesn't own the protocol, only advanced it. A bit like what Signal has done. It can't have an advertising model. Otherwise you have surface area that governments and advertisers will try to influence and control. If it has a centralized entity behind it, it will be attacked. This isn't complicated work, it just has to be done right so it's resilient to what has happened to twitter.
And secondly, on 9th April 2022, an exchange with Musk's brother, Kimball:
I have an idea for a blockchain social media system that does both payments and short text messages/links like twitter. You have to pay a tiny amount to register your message on the chain, which will cut out the vast majority of spam and bots. There is no throat to choke, so free speech is guaranteed.
This is not just open source we are talking about here, it is open data. Right now, social media messages belong to the company that provides the tools - who are then both tempted and empowered to censor, as both Facebook and Twitter did to reckless degrees in recent years. This alternate path would see these messages shared as part of a public protocol. You could choose who you want to curate messages for you, because anyone could mount a tool on top of the protocol. Musk also appears to be considering a "marketplace of algorithms" (suggested to him by Matthias Dopfner in an exchange on 6th April 2022), such that those who require personalised censorship for the benefit of their delicate sensibilities might indulge in it without cutting of public conversation at its roots.
It is well worth pondering the case of Alex Berenson, a former journalist for the New York Times who was banned from Twitter in August 2021 for posting alleged 'misinformation'. In fact, Berenson had not posted anything that was not factual, and it was apparent to anyone who had kept their ear to the research literature that Berenson was both in the know and in the right. So convinced was Berenson of the justice of his cause that he took Twitter to court - and won. On 6th July 2022, Twitter was forced to reinstate him. (Although they banned him again on the 8th October 2022...) However, Twitter clearly knew they had no legitimate basis to ban him, as this internal discussion inside Twitter shows:
As Berenson makes clear, this legal ruling against Twitter was technical and concerned violation of terms of service (the court did not, as far as I can tell, explore any of the specifics of the claims Berenson was making). What's especially interesting about the Berenson case, however, is what the legal disclosure revealed. The Biden administration leaned on Twitter to silence Berenson, because he was challenging (with legitimate cause) the behaviour of the CDC and the FDA, and by extension undermining the authority of the White House. In this regard, Twitter was behaving as a 'state actor', and therefore violated the First Amendment. This is yet another huge and explosive story that is not permitted to be told, but in my view this approaches the Watergate scandal in its despicable audacity.
Those that are committed to supporting Biden because they have been polarised into one of the two major kinds of useful idiot will struggle to accept the evident wrong-doing entailed in this debacle. For such people I am delighted to report that what President Biden allowed to happen on his watch through apparent senility is matched in shamefulness by what President Trump permitted to happen on his watch through incompetence. Apparently distracted by someone in the audience metaphorically jangling some keys, Mr Trump allowed a positively jubilant Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci to throw away the right to free association that by legal precedent is also ascribed to the First Amendment. You are free to support whichever useful idiot you like, but please don't try to convince me that either of these Presidents has in any sense of the word been 'good'.
Open data would have prevented the White House from pressuring Twitter to silence Berenson, because his messages would have been irrevocably available for everyone to see - as they always should have been. The integrity of the public square matters greatly if we truly believe in free expression, in democracy, in free speech, or for that matter in the value of the sciences, which always rests upon the freedom to discuss all the possible interpretations of the evidence. Trust in 'The Science' is blind faith in magical science, and this is nothing but idolatry, a corruption of everything scientific investigation stands for. This graven image is one that far too many people have been fooled into worshipping by the New Empire, whose primary tool has become the silencing of those who break with doctrine. A shiny new oligarchical cyber-Vatican for the 21st century!
Nor should we think about open data as applying solely to our social media messages. An intriguing suggestion has been made repeatedly by 'El Gato Malo', a retired pharmaceuticals executive and well-known figure in the scientific underground. He was also banned from Twitter, in his case simply because President Trump shared one of his tweets (strange but apparently true!). I am far from convinced by everything the 'Bad Cat' says, and he is clearly politically to the right of anywhere I might choose to sit down. However, I am in complete agreement with him when he suggests that "public health must be made public", and proposes using open data to share anonymized health records publicly. Such an approach would remove, to name just one benefit, Pfizer's ability to hide their trial data and prevent third parties from adequately investigating its veracity, as British Medical Journal editor Peter Doshi has repeatedly called for as necessary. Open data would ensure adequate scrutiny on all public health claims, rather than permitting the tyranny of unelected agencies we have endured for the past two years. It would represent a radical step toward finally decolonising public health.
As I wrote in The Paradox of Conviction, we would rather be certain than know the truth, and this is the underlying psychology that drives sci-dolatry, self-righteous calls for censorship of contrary opinions, and a great many of our contemporary 'culture war' ills besides. If we want to recover the will to discover what might be true, we must be prepared to endure the collision of disagreements. Censorship, 'fact checkers', disinformation committees - these are not means to protect the truth, they are methods of preventing its discovery. Lies require such authoritarian mechanisms to sustain themselves, because they cannot withstand open discourse. The truth never requires us to silence those who have made mistakes, for the truth itself is strong enough to withstand whatever we might say about it.
It is this sensitivity to the dangers of allowing the institutions with power to control public discourse that Musk, and other like him, appear to share. If Musk is an unlikely ally against the New Empire, we can at least be grateful that anyone is still willing to take a principled stand in these dark and wretched times. When I argued at the beginning of the year against the colonial philanthropy of someone such as Bill Gates, whose institute has been a major player in exacerbating the disaster that was the last two years, I proposed that the only legitimate philanthropy was that which restores or expands the commons. Musk's takeover of Twitter certainly entails enormous commercial benefits for him, but then, Gates too has made extraordinary sums of money from his colonial philanthropy. Elites, it seems, do nothing for free. Yet in so much as Musk's motivation in this affair might also include principled goals, it leans towards a philanthropy of the only kind we should be willing to accept from wealthy power elites: that which restores the commons.
The public square is indeed a commons, one that forms the hub of political, cultural, and scientific discourse. The closing of this space through censorship lies at the heart of everything that has gone wrong in the past few years. We will struggle to get beyond the impasse, however, if we do not take the opportunity to reveal and confess all the myriad mistakes that contributed to the global catastrophe that was our response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. If the Republicans gain the advantage in the coming US midterm elections, we will likely get little more than recriminatory witch-hunts that will intensify the fractures. What we may need to restore both public and scientific discourse is something more like truth and reconciliation, and if I rather doubt we will get it, I remain hopeful there is still a path forward provided at least some of us remain committed to the inevitable ambiguity of truth.
Truth may be elusive, but it is not fragile: it survives the battle of disagreements that it attracts. Truths are like dark matter, exerting an inexorable gravitational pull that we can witness, even though the truth itself remains forever hidden. If we wish to recover our openness to unveiling these intangible truths, all we need is our willingness to talk to one another, to disagree, to debate. That alone has the power to restore scientific discourse, and perhaps to get us beyond this horrific disaster we have recklessly enacted together in a deadly convergence of cultivated fear and misguided ignorance. This restoration of the global public square requires open data, and with it the power to place all discourse beyond the reach of any individual, any corporation, or any government to silence.
The opening image is The Eclipse by Alma Thomas, which I found at the website for the Smithsonian, here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.