I. The Philosophies of Nature and the State
Society, social contract theorists argue, breeds security. By establishing a government, one injects some rigidity into the civic landscape. In the untamed wilds of anarchic space, man is free to transgress man with impunity. Strength is the only moral precept: those with a monopoly on power rule; those without are ruled. And those who rule are limited in their excess only by their natural capacities: by the strength of their back and the whispers of their conscience. Law, in such a space, is morality. Both are an outgrowth of the individual whose physical being embodies formal power. Government lives, quite literally, if in the intangible form of a will that is changeable and ever-shifting.
Introduce a commonwealth, in which all members voluntarily cede their rights to a body that purports to represent their interests, and objectivity supposedly becomes the byword of civic action. Law no longer makes moral judgments; the state’s condemnation of one actor’s aggressions against another is a statement on that action alone; it is not a condemnation of that aggressor’s entire being. Morality falls to the edges of the public purview, which is a positive for inhabitants of the civic state, for they gain the ability to define right and wrong for themselves and to orient their actions accordingly.
Paradoxically, then, man gains freedom by ceding it to some degree: if fear of reprisal cows the natural tendencies towards violence that whisper sweet inducements into the mind of man, the very presence of state power is a deterrent to actions injurious to others. Rights are fundamental to man, as is his sovereignty. But truncating the natural power man possesses and giving it over to a neutral authoritative body, which shows favor to none, secures rights. Absent government, rights exist largely in theory. A government built on the precepts of the social contract theory makes of rights tangible, exercisable, almost material things, for an individual can sue for their loss as he can any other piece of his property.
Introducing civic structure, however, also bifurcates society. If government is to be an effective securer of rights, it must obey the same constraints as the people it rules. This means there is an entire area of life beyond its regulatory purview: the private sphere. This has dueling implications for the ability of individuals to freely exercise rights. If government too aggressively injects itself into the private interactions individuals undertake, it risks truncating rights and replicating the barbarous morality of the state of nature, wherein humanity’s freedoms are held in thrall by the discretionary powers of those who hold the monopoly on authority. A government that seeks to define the way rights are held and the legitimate actions which may be taken in pursuance of them makes itself arbiter of freedom and strips for individuals their sovereignty, a state of which freedom is the outgrowth.
But the public-private distinction also might seem to replicate the barbarous morality of the natural state, wherein the strong are free to prey on the weak. Fortunately, private action has a natural governor: self-interest. The reasoning man, whose livelihood relies on the patronage of his neighbors, does not antagonize those neighbors. He recognizes doing so would undercut his own position and jeopardize his own well-being. The private sphere is not a threat to rights; it is the only space in which they can flourish.
Property is fundamental to freedom: it presupposes the concept of rights. If an individual does not own his rights, he can own nothing else. And property begins with sovereignty of the self. It extends to all those things an individual can, relying only on his own resources, hold and mold in accordance with his desires.
The privacy implicit to personal ownership of property is necessary to the free exercise of rights. Each individual has the space, free of the scrutiny of others, to pursue his desired ends and order his affairs as he sees fit. He is like the point marking the epicenter of a sphere. The space between the individual at its center and the lines of its circumference in which man has the power of unitary rule. When the circumference of his circle intersects another’s, individuals must collaborate towards a mutually-agreed-upon end. If one presents a project the other does not think provides him with enough value to justify the undertaking, the two walk away, taking their respective properties out of each other’s spheres of influence. This becomes a matter of public censure when one fails to respect the boundaries of the other’s circle and attempts to invade and claim it as his own.
II. Technology and the Return to Nature?
Civil society makes privacy possible. It creates a state wherein men’s affairs are their own private business and not subject to the whims of a despotic ruler. Privacy makes man responsible for his own success, creating an incentive structure that rewards tolerance: one does not bite the hand that feeds one. The private sphere is a complex web of interpersonal relationships. These empower the freedom of the individual by providing numerous opportunities for man to better his material and spiritual being. But these relationships also bind him to a community that, while welcoming of his contributions, will be quick to repudiate him should he violate their trust. It is in his own interest to be circumspect. And, should he prove irrational, the state exists as a fail-safe.
But does technology sever the ties that bind men together?
The criticisms that can be made of social contract theory are many, but the most serious is perhaps the simple historical fact that no society ever arose from the conditions its evangelists describe. It is, effectively, a creation myth for the liberal order. And one that, like many creation myths, casts natural man in a decidedly unkind light. How any creature so given to hedonism and intellectually inert as certain contract theorists describe could walk away from the war of all-against-all and enter into diplomatic relations with those against whom he was pitted in an existential battle, only to conclude society lacked a substantive body of overseers (populated by men as fallible as himself, no less) that could harness and direct the general will, for the betterment of all interested parties, is a puzzle that defies any rational conclusion.
But the rise of the digital age holds the greatest hope advocates of social contract theory have of seeing this political fantasy played out.
The keepers of the public morals are doing an increasing amount of despondent hand-wringing over the rising incivility in public discourse. Social media, once the great hope of proponents of freedom the world over, has proven not to be the platform that frees man once and for all from the temporal and geographic boundaries that tie him to a community, but has become an aid of the tribalistic tendencies many hoped it would erode.
If identity is a reflection of one’s community, then cultural morays, as all the best science fiction shows have assured us, ought to be eroded by the broadening of one’s horizons. Give a resident of rural Midwest America an Internet connection and he can become a digital global citizen, able to access knowledge about Indian religious ceremonies, Chinese cooking and the organization of Bedouin society. This familiarity with aspects of cultures utterly foreign to his way of being create a sense of kinship: reading travel articles and watching cultural documentaries certainly does not impute understanding of the many interrelated elements that comprise culture, but it does humanize people who, by simple fact of their differences, one might consider “other.”
By heightening awareness of different ways of thinking and being and giving to disparate people groups around the world a platform on which many — even the marginalized and disenfranchised — can make their perspective known, the digital world contributes to globalization. It does not do away with identity as a product of community and culture but empowers individuals to seek out philosophies and lifestyles they otherwise might not have access too. It is another step towards privatization: allowing individuals to cast of the hegemony of local authorities who promote the morals and standards of behavior they think are to the benefit of the public welfare and instead handpick the ideas and standards that govern their lives.
But digital space is intangible. It, like the state of nature, is physically boundless. Its character is determined by the actions taken by its users, leading to a structure that is ever-growing and ever-shifting. As there is no central governing authority, power is whatever the strongest make of it and all others are held in thrall to the whims of the loudest voices. Social media lynch mobs — who report users spouting things with which they do not agree — function in alarming parallel to the despotic rulers of the state of nature. They create a heckler’s veto. But, somewhat paradoxically, the loudest voices in digital space need not have any actual heft behind them. Strength is not a representation of any actual physical capacity because the digital world is one entirely ephemeral.
Whereas the state of nature requires one exert effort to cement oneself at the apex of the power structure — an act that requires not only effort but some skill, albeit nefarious — digital space removes the physical limitations of power. Even within a state of nature, those who would rule are limited by the inequities of the natural world. It is not enough to be physically strong; one must have some tool that allows the strong to leverage this force in a way that is intimidating to others. Then, physical intimidation also relies on immediacy: when the threat is not immediately present, the anxiety of would-be victims relaxes. Absent oversight, they are free to defy their controllers, to imagine ways to scheme against them and seek their revenge. This introduces another complication into the ruler-ruled dynamic: anyone who wishes to rule for longer than a moment is as enthralled as those whom he rules through terror. For security in rule comes from convincing your subjects that their lot, no matter how miserable, is an improvement upon a reality wherein they fend off the myriad and unknown dangers of the natural world alone.
Digital space contains none of these interactions for it inherently bifurcates individual identity. The physical self is totally divorced from the self that exists online. Increased globalization made possible through digital channels of information can be a net positive, allowing, for example, someone in Texas to access videos instructing him in the proper practices of Buddhism. That individual, however, puts that information to use in a way that affects his physical being: properly implementing Buddhism requires some kind of physical effort and some sort of mental discipline. The bounds of the natural world are still applicable.
But if this tie is severed — if digital self becomes a completely atomized self, free from any restraints or responsibilities — then a kind of anarchism descends. Those who use the digital space to bully others violate the rules of nature. Rights, it must be remembered, are inherent to the individual. The anarchy of nature does not create a state of license wherein the violation of rights can be rationalized. It simply creates conditions that do not guarantee an individual will receive redress for the wrongs done to them. Rights are, by nature, reciprocal. One ought to respect the rights of others out of a love for one’s own person. Self-love has two reasoned motivators. First, love for one’s being engenders a natural desire to see that being prolonged; this precludes the individual from endangering existence by antagonizing those who might do harm to the self. Second, sovereignty breeds a desire to see one’s choices respected; taking actions that infringe upon another’s sovereignty sets a precedent that encourages a culture where privacy is disregarded and others take the things to which they feel entitled, regardless of whether they have any right to them.
But because digital existence is artificial and intangible, this existentially-motivated reasoning is rendered null. A person risks nothing in the actions they take online; there is no penalty for misrepresenting their self and little backlash for aggressive behavior for others. As there is no physical element to the digital self, there is a cloak of anonymity drawn over all actions — even those that are honest — taken in digital space. Not only does this insulate online aggressors from the fear of facing any repercussions for their actions (as their victims have nothing but an online avatar to confront and little means to confirm whether the personal information provided represents an actual person) it also negates the fear for one’s well-being that is a limitation upon action in the physical world. The Aristotelian golden rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — does not apply. The digital world is simply speech, which is ephemeral, and can have little impact on one’s welfare in the physical world, a fact which removes nearly all the rational impediments for hedonistic behavior.
Also important is the fact that the digital world divorces the individual from their productive capacity. Survival hinges upon one’s ability to satisfy basic needs. The health of the soul depends upon the completion of endeavors that advance one’s values. All actions taken in pursuit of either of these ends require some tangible physical ability: the individual must produce food, if not by growing it then by doing some task for another in order to earn a value commensurate to his labor, which gives him the means to purchase food and other goods. His creative endeavors require the physical application of his talents towards an end he has deemed meritorious. He is limited in these pursuits by the reservoir of his strength, by the waning hours of the day and by his natural abilities. But digital space is not limited in this way, which means the physical limitations that are a natural governor of man and his behaviors are also removed.
In short, technology has made it possible for man to cast off many of the physical restraints that act as a limitation upon him. While this has positives for the disciplined individual, who uses the digital world to augment and improve his physical being, it also allows an individual to divorce his self from his physical being, thus replicating many of the aspects of the state of nature. Hedonism is made possible by the ability to ignore rationality and pursue actions without regard for their long-term effect on the self. The state of nature is governed by reason, but its loosely-federated people are also capable of ignoring this reason and seizing power over others to rule despotically in an ultimately vain attempt to insulate themselves from harm. The futility of such an approach to living comes from the simple fact that one cannot escape the nature of reality. Men are self-interested and will take steps to secure what is rightfully theirs. Knowledge of this fact and a love of his own being encourages man to behave rationally: to recognize the limitations of his own being and to respect the privacy of others. He does this in the hope that cooperative action, which benefits his being as much as that of his neighbors, is made possible. But once the limitations of the physical self are cast off, such reasoning no longer holds sway. It is for this reason dictators — who marry personal will to a monopoly on force — can rule so absolutely; their physical limitations are undone by the staying power of the state. It is also this fact that has caused the digital world to resemble the anarchic hedonism social contract theorists such as Hobbes attribute to the state of nature.