Speaking Freely

On the Oxymoron of Free Speech Platforms

3 translations 💜

I was speaking to a friend recently and the problem of free speech came up. I shouldn’t call it a problem, actually, as it is the solution to a problem. The problem is a perennial one, which is another way of saying a really really hard problem, one that we will continually face, for as long as we’re human.

The problem is this: what is the right problem to solve? It’s a problem about problems, which is of course a meta problem. We are, as homo sapiens, a thinking organism. Both collectively, as well as individually. Thinking is what defines us, but it isn’t just thinking for thinking’s sake; it is thinking to figure stuff out without having to get killed in the process all the time. A less violent form of evolution, if you will.

The Ancients placed a great deal of emphasis on attention. Attention is plagued by a meta-problem too, which is, of course, what to pay attention to? Answering this question requires paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, which is what separates a smart person from a wise one.

Which brings me to one of the things I’m currently worried about. Civilizationally speaking, we are very smart but not very wise. We are very bad at paying attention to what we’re paying attention to, at least right now. And I’m afraid that both the broken incentives that plague the internet, as well as our broken money, are to blame. At least in part.

Assumptions [n=0]

  • ∀i≤c1
  • P!=NP2
  • Life is worth living3
  • There’s no free lunch4
  • Free Speech is desirable5

The Logos [n=1]

There is a reason why The Logos is sacred. It is the same reason why the First Amendment is the first, which means primary.

Free speech is not optional; it is not optional because we need to be able to speak freely so that we might have a chance to think freely. There is no proper thinking without proper speaking just like there is no proper speaking without proper thinking. We must be allowed to say foolish things, just like we must be allowed to think foolish things.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

The line between genius and Madman is a thin one for a reason. What is foolish and what is genius is often very hard to differentiate. That’s why all progress depends on the Unreasonable Man.

How do we have any chance to find and be able to listen to the Unreasonable Man if we silence him? Even worse, how do we listen to the unreasonable/genius parts of ourselves, if we are afraid to speak out in public or in private?

DiaLogos [n=2]

Free and unencumbered dialogue is not optional either. We need to be able to discuss things so that others might tell us where we are stupid. And we’re all stupid. We might be stupid in our own peculiar ways, but nevertheless, we are all stupid. There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion, just like there is no such thing as a viewpoint without a blind spot. The best we can do is be aware of and try to counteract our biases and blind spots. But we can’t do it individually; we have to do it collectively, and more importantly: in a distributed fashion.6

Building a Tower of Babel is a bad idea.

Distributed Cognition [n=m]

Public discourse is not optional either. In today’s day and age, especially online, public discourse is problematic, to put it mildly. One of the problems is that we don’t have any public spaces, so we are forced to use private spaces as quasi-public ones.

The go-to method for saying something publicly online is to step on a platform and say what you have to say. The problem is, of course, that it is not your platform. It is someone else’s platform. That’s why you can be de-platformed.

The difference between all these platforms is one of degree not of kind. On some platforms, you might land in proverbial jail for sexual content. On other platforms, you might land in jail for political speech. Not even proverbially.7

Give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.

Cardinal Richelieu

If someone has the power to de-platform someone else, this power will inevitably be used and abused. A large enough scandal or controversy will be found or manufactured and *poof*, the “problematic” user is gone. Unpersoned, at the push of a button. No matter how powerful you are.8

That’s why Free Speech platforms cannot exist. Only Free Speech protocols can exist.

The difference is as subtle as it is important: when using a protocol, you’re not a user in the traditional sense. You are a speaker. You speak the same language as other people, and if someone else can hear and understand you, there is a connection. There is no facilitator in between. The language itself is the facilitator. Languages are protocols and protocols are languages. They don’t have users; they have speakers.

Language is inherently permissionless. You don’t need an English account to read these sentences. In the same vein, your computer doesn’t need an HTTP account to make sense of the zeros and ones that make up the bytes that in turn make up the characters of this sentence. You both speak the language, hence you can make sense of it.

Languages and protocols are network phenomena. No network, no language. No peers, no protocols.

That’s why language, like money, is not optional in a complex society. If you mess with either, society crumbles.

It’s (Up)On Us [n=i]

We are at a pivotal time in history. Never before was our civilization this connected, this global, and this unaware of its limitations and ignorance.

My hope is that sound money and free speech will revivify what made our society great in the first place. Cooperation and distributed cognition are what allowed us to leave the chaos of the jungle behind. It is what allowed us to move from an eye for an eye to seeing clearly, at least some of the time. It is what allowed us to move from scarcity to abundance. It is what allows us to move towards the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. It allows us to aspire. Onward and upward.

The Kairos of our time is a personal one—maybe all kairotic moments are.

You have to decide how to move forward. You have to decide what game you want to play; how much responsibility you are willing to shoulder. Do you want to stay stuck in the machine? A machine that uses and abuses you? A machine that feeds itself by extracting and devouring your time, attention, and value? Or do you have the courage to take control of your wealth, health, thoughts, and speech?

Nobody can make this decision for you. It starts and ends with you.

  1. No information can travel faster than the speed of light. Consequently, all information systems will run into physical constraints when it comes to synchronization and information propagation. 

  2. Cryptography works and will continue to work. “[…] somehow the universe smiles on encryption.” 

  3. Existence is Real and Good. Neither Nihilism nor Solipsism are desirable. “[…] and it was good.” 

  4. We can’t have something for nothing. Freedom requires responsibility; electronic cash requires time; time requires heat

  5. Freedom of speech is desirable because freedom is preferrable to tyranny, and the first step of any tyrant is to restrict speech, silence dissidents, and burn books. The second step is genocide. 

  6. It is great to see a proliferation of long-form dialog in the form of podcasts. However, the benefit of these conversations is lost if they are hosted by a central party, which is why an open podcast ecosystem is so important. 

  7. See cases in the UK, Saudi Arabia, etc. 

  8. Not even sitting US-presidents are safe from deplatforming. 


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