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The free market of ideas is outdated

/ 04:08 AM September 24, 2019

Allow me to take a step back and ask: At a time when it is becoming ever clearer that the root of many of the conflicts that divide us is the fundamental, even inevitable, contest between capitalism and democracy, how do we test the truth of competing ideas?

I have raised this question before. In January last year, at a forum with the Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, I suggested that there was something worse than the coarsening of public language that President Duterte was responsible for. “Our own ideal space for dialogue, our pasture, is described as a market, the free market of ideas. I realize that some of the most stirring defenses of our own right to publish, our right to free speech, have used this image. But it is time to push back against the metaphor of the marketplace.”

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The following May, at the Philippine Journalism Research Conference, I returned to the idea, and my sense of discomfort. “I think we all make the easy assumption that, given ideal conditions, the competition among ideas will be resolved through an open test, or rather a test in the open market. The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote the classic formulation of this notion: ‘the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,’ or ‘the free trade in ideas.’”

Is it, though?

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“But let’s stop for a moment and review this assumption. In choosing the winning entries in [a] nationwide competition among campus journalists, or in choosing the scholars who will receive grants to study aspects of disinformation, or — to use a much more immediate example— in choosing the work that will be presented in this year’s PJRC, are we merely trading in the ‘open market?’”

At the earlier forum with Cardinal Tagle, I offered other examples. “When a family council is called, to discuss the details of a beloved parent’s funeral, can the discussion honestly and truthfully be likened to the transactions in a marketplace? When graduate students thresh out the implications of the latest research in a graduate seminar, can the exchange be fairly and accurately described as the free market of ideas?”

The need to look for a new metaphor to describe the exchange of ideas has been a constant theme in my head since then. I was driven again to think about it during an unexpectedly feisty panel discussion with the author Andrew Keen and Google News Lab’s Irene Jay Liu at last Saturday’s Social Good Summit, organized by Rappler and hosted by the De La Salle University.

When a good friend, Al Alegre, referred me to an interview with Shoshana Zuboff, the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” the need became acute.

Zuboff, in conversation with Catherine Tsalikis, offered a powerful, simplifying definition. “Historians of capitalism have long described its evolution as a process of claiming things that live outside the market dynamic and dragging them into the market dynamic, turning them into what we call commodities that can be sold and purchased.” She went on to summarize the thesis of her book: “I analyze many ways in which surveillance capitalism diverges from the history of market capitalism, but in this way, I would say it emulates that history—except with a dark and unexpected twist. The twist here is that what surveillance capitalism claims for the market dynamic is private human experience. It takes our experience whenever and wherever it chooses. It does so in ways that are designed to be hidden and undetectable, while claiming our experience as a free source of raw material for production and sales.”

(The edited transcript can be read on the website of the Center for International Governance Innovation.)

But it was her clarifying definition — so obvious it is hidden in plain sight — that provoked another round of metaphor anxiety. Because, in fact, the image of the free market of ideas is no mere metaphor; it is also a description of brute reality. It is, often without our conscious appreciation, a framework for thinking and acting.

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If we define attention as one of the new currencies of the social media age, sheer volume (in number of messages, in the loudness of the messenger) becomes the winning strategy in today’s marketplace of ideas. If we define actual capital or entrepreneurial derring-do as measures of success, then today’s marketplace will inevitably privilege the ideas of the moneyed, even of morally challenged billionaires. If we define “good grammar” or English fluency as hallmarks of insight, then today’s free trade in ideas will adapt to shut out those who are less (conventionally) educated.

I do not know what the alternative is; I only know that a framework that is based on the market dynamic will tend, again inevitably, to favor capitalism over democracy. But surely there is more to what we do than the buying and selling of ideas.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: competing ideas, free market of ideas, freedom of expression, john Nery, Newsstand
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