Coronavirus: The issue for free speech

Hawke street, West Melbourne, night, by Dean Kyte.
The view from quarantine: Hawke, Curzon and Miller streets, West Melbourne, night.

You can download this free audio version of the article below here.

In my last post on The Melbourne Flâneur, I introduced you to the concept of infinite impact risks: extremely low-probability events which have the potential to inflict incalculably devastating impacts upon human civilization.

In that post, I alerted you to the fact that global pandemics such as the Coronavirus represent one such infinite impact risk: if we define a civilizational collapse in this context as a dramatic decrease in human population, the Coronavirus, which compounds itself exponentially by means of a power law, certainly has the potential to inflict an incalculably devastating impact upon human civilization.

But the problem, which I alerted you to in the previous post, is that the Coronavirus is merely one of two or three infinite impact risks which have been triggered by the contagion.

The Coronavirus may be considered a ‘first-order’ infinite impact problem in that it unleashes a set of consequential issues which are directly health-based.

But, as I discussed at length in my previous post, all the consequential issues which have their locus of origin in the Coronavirus are not directly health-based.

The Coronavirus has triggered a ‘second-order’ infinite impact risk—the potential for a global systems collapse.  In my previous post, I explored how a directly health-based problem has had indirect consequences in the global financial system, leading to a sudden contraction in confidence which will doubtless have an impact on human civilization at least equal to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

Not all civilizational collapses through the actualization of infinite impact risks may be defined as a dramatic decrease in human population—although extremely high mortality is usually attendant upon infinite impact conditions.

With the second-order threat of a global systems collapse, we must necessarily consider the strain that the first-order threat of a global pandemic places upon our health-care systems, which in turn has consequential impacts upon mortality rates.

However, with systems such as the global financial system, the definition of ‘civilizational collapse’ would be more accurately stated as a dramatic decrease in the complexity of global systems extended across an extremely long timeframe—decades, generations, even centuries.

But there is at least a third order of infinite impact risks which may be triggered in the event of a second Great Recession—or even a second Great Depression.

In my previous post, I stated that much of the civil unrest we have seen growing and metastasizing in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies during the last decade has a significant locus of origin in the response (or lack thereof) of one complex system—the politico-regulatory—which largely abrogated its duty to reform another complex system—the financial—which was manifestly ailing.

Both systems, it ought to be stated, were—and are—in such dire need of reform that it is perhaps impossible to expect one terminally ill system to have the capacity to fix another.

But the net result of institutional inertia on the part of the politico-regulatory system which, in wealthy, developed, democratic western societies, is charged with representing ‘the people’ and the interests of ‘the people’, has been an obvious breakdown in trust of those mechanisms which, in a civilized society, underwrite the mutual exchange of value: intangible civility, politeness, and discourse, and tangible currency.

With regards to the financial system, if, under a policy of economic extraction of common wealth which leaves the majority of a nation’s population vulnerable to the predation of a well-heeled few, the people cannot depend upon the political system and the representatives it elects to defend them against such predations, it is reasonable to predict that trust in the system (which has already been significantly eroded over decades) will decline dramatically, and that other non-legal mechanisms of maintaining social order and cohesion in the populace (such as civility, politeness, and the intercourse of ideas through language) will similarly deteriorate.

The third-order ramifications which are implicit in the Coronavirus situation, therefore, are that not only is there the potential for a catastrophic loss of human life, due in part to the failure of global health-care systems, nor even that entangled global financial markets of value exchange will be completely shattered by the turbulence, but that civil societies, which are teetering in the most wealthy, developed and democratic nations, will become ‘ungovernable’, breaking down into widespread civil disorder—which in turn, as an indirect consequence, will compound the mortality unleashed by the virus.

If this extrapolation strikes you, dear readers, as rather far-fetched thinking, I beg you to return to the initial premiss: the Coronavirus is an extremely low-probability event, operating on an exponential curve, which has in fact actualized itself, and is compounding itself every few days.

We are now very much in train to experience first-order consequences of the Coronavirus—indeed, we are experiencing them—and we are even beginning to see, in the health-care, financial and political systems, second-order consequences which will themselves accelerate on an exponential curve if not checked early on.

Having laid out this preparatory line of reasoning, I now turn to the substance of my post.

As a writer, I have observed with obvious professional concern the escalating struggle over the issue of ‘free speech’ in our wealthy, developed, democratic western societies in the last few years.

Free speech has become one of the major eminences to be taken back—or bombed to oblivion—in the escalating skirmishes of anxiety which have possessed western people whose trust in the mechanisms of civil society were undermined completely by the Global Financial Crisis.

In the metastasis of popular thought, the debate over the relevance of free speech in civilized societies has been framed as really a debate over ‘kindness’: we ought to restrain ourselves, consider the effect of our words upon others before speaking, and certainly not say anything that is wilfully, maliciously unkind.

This is an admirable principle, and it is certainly a good rule of thumb to observe in the practical application of free speech.  Many of the objections which the advocates of ‘fair’ speech have to ‘free’ speech may in fact be resolved by the acknowledgment that speaking with wilful malice and not exercising as much discretion as possible (under the fluid circumstances of conversation) in tailoring one’s communication to the intended recipient is not, in fact, a legitimate exercise of free speech, but an abuse of the privilege which civil society generously affords us.

Understood in those terms, the in-principle objections to free speech which have lately arisen miss the mark of why we have the mechanism of free speech in civil societies in the first place.

The issue of ‘kindness’, of speaking ‘fairly’ rather than ‘freely’ to others, is only relevant as an operational courtesy—a kind of ‘Robert’s rule’ we all agree on as a procedural condition of entering into free discourse with one another.

There would be no incentive for you to speak freely with me if you knew I wasn’t going to make my absolute best effort to tailor my message fairly to you and to your personal circumstances, so as to achieve maximal comprehension on your side of the idea I am attempting to communicate to you.

And certainly we see communications between human beings regularly break down precisely because one or both parties choose to unsheathe the sword of unkindness which, previously, it had been taken as a unwritten rule that neither party would take out of their respective scabbards in discussing a given issue or topic.

The argument that has taken hold of the popular consciousness in western societies, viz.—that free speech is no longer ‘relevant’, that it is a mechanism and privilege—only patchily guaranteed by law in many western nations—which has largely been superseded by the mutual obligation to speak fairly and kindly to one another, has been predicated on examples which do not pose an existential threat to human life and civilization at scale.

The Coronavirus, as just such an existential risk with the potential for infinite impact, is an example of why free speech is, as a principle and mechanism of discourse, more important to human beings now than it has ever been.

And the escalation of the Coronavirus to the exponential level of a global pandemic which threatens at least three consequential orders of infinite impact upon human life and civilization is directly attributable to the repression of free speech.

The doctors in China who initially identified the novel virus utilized the mechanism of free speech to pool knowledge and share relevant information in the decentralized, distributed forum of a WeChat group.

This self-organizing collective intelligence was, in its vestigial form, what cybernetician Stafford Beer, in his book The Brain of the Firm (1972), describes as a ‘multinode’: a self-organizing neural network developed to solve a problem of considerable complexity which involves the inverse exponential reduction of that complexity until an actionable solution is reached;—in other words, until a vaccine for Coronavirus is developed.

But as we now know, the Chinese doctors who initially discovered Coronavirus, and who used their limited free speech to pool cognitive resources in the development of a solution to the problem, were stymied by the local and central government of China from communicating with each other.

Not only that, but they were prevented from doing their duty and communicating to the world the real and present danger of the virus at an early stage when it might have been contained on its exponential trajectory.

The WeChat multinode was banned, and the doctors were not merely disciplined by their institutions for communicating with each other, but they were arrested by the police for this exercise of free speech.

‘The police will investigate and punish with zero tolerance those illegal acts that fabricate and spread rumours and disrupt social order,’ a statement by the Chinese police read.

It is easy, therefore, to see in this non-abstract example which has had practical and material consequences for us all, what the ‘cost’ is for human life and civilization when we repress free speech.

The reason we have free speech as a mechanism of civil discourse is not, fundamentally, so that everyone can express his or her opinion.  The expression of opinion is a function of free speech.

The fundamental purpose of the mechanism is to pool cognitive resources by means of the most effective vector human beings have for the communication of complex ideas to one another: human language.

When we limit the ability of human beings to express their contingent intuitions—call them ‘opinions’, if you will—about the state of complex existential situations which are changing exponentially, we limit our ability to think collectively and develop solutions which may narrowly avert the rising certainty of infinite impact risks.

Obviously, extended the privilege to express what he knows and sees, an obligation is upon each individual in the multinode network to state his perceptions to the collective in as clear and mindful a way as possible, tailoring his speech in as far as he can to his listeners so that the greatest number of recipients of his message can accurately share his vision of events.  This is the unwritten responsibility of ‘fair speech’ which is attached to the right of ‘free speech’.

And I hope, as a writer, that you begin to intuit from the foregoing the concerns I perceive for us all in the diminishment of this fundamental value as exponential curves of existential crisis now begin to sharply rise.

I said in my last post that leadership in this situation will come from individuals who are experts in their respective disciplines giving their fullest gift of value to the collective, making an earnest effort in their relations to recouple the value they ask of others with the actual value they provide to them.

In other words, they will attempt, in peer-to-peer relationships, to reinstitute the fundamental value of ‘trust’ which institutions had gradually eroded prior to 2008, and have completely undermined since.

For a writer whose vocation and avocation is the vector along which free thought travels to other minds, the vector of human language, the existential seriousness of the situation we collectively face demands that I no longer keep my own counsel but say what I have been perceiving in the world for a very long time.

A careful, artful articulation of where the exponential trends in our human systems seem to be heading—and where they could go much faster under the infinite impact risk posed by Coronavirus alone—needs to be respectfully tendered for the consideration of the collective.

Free speech is the ‘checksum’ of human reasoning: just as you might submit mathematical calculations you have made to another person in order to check that you haven’t dropped a carry-over somewhere, we submit carefully articulated perceptions of what really appears to be going on to our peers via free speech in order to see if there is some communal agreement about the accuracy of the perceptions.

And if a critical mass of thinkers who are able to extrapolate far enough along the line all agree that something is awry in the global organization of systems and infrastructure we all depend upon for a civilized life, something which makes us existentially vulnerable to the threat posed by Coronavirus, it is time for the multinodal network to utilize the mechanism of free speech to fast-track solutions to these complex problems.

But the complexity of this ‘complex of problems’ is itself problematic in the rapid development of workable solutions.  The ‘simplicity’ of a visceral, existential crisis to a population of people appears to me to be proportionate to the ability of that population to co-operatively respond in an action which circumvents it.

It has been my observation that where a problem is simple, concrete, definable and defined, where sensual perceptions of what the problem actually ‘is’ can be effectively verified by a collective population via the checksum of free speech, then concerted, co-operative, collaborative action can rapidly be taken en masse.

The ability to perceive the event with one’s physical senses—and to perceive it with a degree of accuracy—is checked against communal, peer-to-peer perceptions, and where individual perceptions of the nature of the event are communally validated, then effective action to combat the existential crisis tends to rapidly occur.

Conversely, where, as in this instance, the problem is complex and abstract; where at least three orders of existential risk are involved; where the exponential has not yet grown to the perilous point where it is viscerally inescapable to all our senses; and where consensual meaning of the nature of the existential crisis cannot easily be arrived at, the ability for us to fast-track global solutions which might contain the existential problem before its exponential path makes it manifestly visible to us is difficult.

There’s a reason why we use viruses so frequently as a metaphor for the exponential way that information travels around the globe in our current way of life.

It is because viruses are symptomatic of the vulnerabilities endemic in this new, ‘network-centric’ mode of life—particularly as it operates under the fragile, ailing dynamics of our inherited, hierarchical global legacy systems.

The exponential nature of the virus is itself not merely symptomatic of, but eminently symbolic of the exponential nature of all of our declining Faustian systems, based on infinite derivatives of finite resources.

In 2008, we saw how purely imaginary ‘derivatives’, numbers completely decoupled from redeemable material currency, brought us to the edge of an abyss where total social breakdown and civilizational collapse may have rapidly ensued.  Our highly entangled network of global finance, being managed on a linear, hierarchical model, proved itself eminently vulnerable to the cascading effects of virality.

If free speech is currently a contested ground, it is because we are not ‘inoculated’ in this new, network-centric environment to the slings and arrows of poor ratiocination and wilfully malicious comment which can be hurled at us with exponential speed and exponential growth by people on the other side of the world whom we have never heard of.

These are the ‘externalities’ of social media discourse which arise from the same infinite derivative approach to the finite resources of human beings—their intelligence and capabilities for goodwill and good faith in each other.  Just as, in the environmental context, extractive actors have displaced and deferred externalities to the commons, actors who abuse the privilege of free speech on the Internet displace and defer intellectual and emotional externalities into the collective intelligence ecology, poisoning collective sensemaking by their ‘unkindness’.

But that is no reason to get rid of the mechanism of free speech.  On the contrary, the same exponential power laws which are currently driving a crisis in meaning that have imminent mortal and existential consequences for human civilization are the same exponential power laws which can be leveraged to pool our collective intelligence in a distributed, decentralized global systems network capable of finding consensual meaning to our common challenges.

So I’m submitting my reasoning to you, dear readers.  I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  That’s what comments at the bottom of blog posts are for—nice substantive exchanges of perspective.  In case you haven’t recognized the fact, blogs are multinodal networks of collective sensemaking too which are premised on an assumption of free speech, and if my concern seems out of order to you, I’d like to hear an alternative argument from you.

On the other hand, if you think the reasoning I’ve taken care to set forth in this article is sound, I invite you to share it with others in your multinodal networks who you believe will find value in these articulations.

I am also making the audio version of this article freely available via my Bandcamp profile, so if you know someone who would prefer to hear these thoughts expressed rather than read these words, I invite you to download it here and share it with your network.

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