The old, enfeebled institutions of the public sphere have grown dependent on the big technology companies for financial survival. And with this dependence, the values of big tech have become the values of the public sphere. Big tech has made a fetish of efficiency, of data, of the wisdom of the market. These are the underlying principles that explain why Google returns such terrible responses to the God query. Google is merely giving us what’s popular, what’s most clicked upon, not what’s worthy. You can hurl every insult at the old public sphere, but it never exhibited such frank indifference to the content it disseminated.
This assault on the public sphere is an assault on free expression. In the West, free expression is a transcendent right only in theory—in practice its survival is contingent and tenuous. We’re witnessing the way in which public conversation is subverted by name-calling and harassment. We can convince ourselves that these are fringe characteristics of social media, but social media has implanted such tendencies at the core of the culture. They are in fact practiced by mainstream journalists, mobs of the well meaning, and the president of the United States. The toxicity of the environment shreds the quality of conversation and deters meaningful participation in it. In such an environment, it becomes harder and harder to cling to the idea of the rational individual, formulating opinions on the basis of conscience. And as we lose faith in that principle, the public will lose faith in the necessity of preserving the protections of free speech.