David Heinemeier Hansson

January 31, 2022

There are no all-knowing, all-seeing oracles

Moderating content on the basis of "truth" is an impossible task at all but the dullest edges of discourse. Because the vanguard of truth is always in dispute. Out there on the edge, truth is a process, and it emerges faster when opposing inquiries are pursued simultaneously. This is the bedrock of science.

Rarely has this principle been proven more emphatically true than over the past few years. Our truth, their truth, your truth has been sent fumbling in the dark. Trying its way through the maze of reality, finding dead ends at every turn.

This doesn't mean all forms of content moderation are impossible. Forbidding direct threats of violence or doxxing is doable, for example. But mixing these prohibitions together with those against "misinformation" or "disinformation" is a rhetorical sleight of hand, used to taint the latter as though it's just another form of the former. It's not.

Accepting this means giving up on the utopian notion that the platform authorities at Facebook, Twitter, Spotify can ever be all-knowing, all-seeing oracles capable of just policing of The Truth. How could they? Even our best and brightest can't call it consistently (and those asked to make the calls at these platforms are rarely our best or our brightest).

The notion of authoritarianism has been bandied about to exhaustion, but rarely does it apply more clearly than to this: A gang of private social media companies endowed with the ultimate authority to sift truth from trash. At least in the olden days, we had the cover that our priests and saints had a direct line to the almighty, and thus their divinities were justified.

History is written by the victors, and truth is throttled by whoever controls the machinery of censorship. But while history has some measure of stability, the machinery of censorship easily changes hands.

That used to be blatantly clear to all sides: Don't build censorship regimes that you wouldn't want your worst political enemy to control. Hence the codification of freedom of speech laws in any constitution worth its parchment.

Today's calls for censorship aren't generally calling for arresting the heretics by the state (although that happens too!), but for flogging them in and then banishing them from the public squares. That's scant comfort, and it's still censorship. Here's how the ACLU of yesteryear succinctly puts it (somehow this is still up on their site, calls to ban books not withstanding):

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are "offensive," happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

Note the difference between "I think this is wrong, and you shouldn't listen to it" and "I think this is wrong, AND NOBODY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO HEAR IT". I'm on board with the former, but repulsed by the latter. Partly because the definition of "wrong" is so fluid. What's "wrong" today might well be "right" tomorrow.

You'd think the fluidity of the truth over these past few years would have given everyone pause from demanding the intervention of platform authorities. That the more times we see "our side" get something wrong, the more hesitant we'd be to prosecute the other side for their wrongs. But depressingly, it seems like the opposite has happened.

That doesn't mean we're stuck on this path of escalation. Fighting over the power to censor in service of The Truth. This struggle hasn't gripped societies equally around the world. It's not a given. We can turn around from this authoritarian dead end, and return to the wisdom of "speak and let be spoken".

It's not a crime to be wrong. You're wrong all the time about all sorts of things. Some times you'll know right away that you were wrong, other times you won't find out until much later. But you're still wrong. Your tribe is wrong. We're all wrong.

This is normal. This is how it's always going to be. There's no amount of subservient tribute we can pay to the authorities of today to change this. They will never become all-knowing, all-seeing oracles that we can entrust with the final arbitration of the truth. Thank god.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.