One thing that has been occupying me recently is the question of what speech is for. In some senses this is a heretical question – many would probably argue that speech is an inalienable right, and so it really does not have to be for anything at all. I find that unconvincing, especially in a reality where we need to balance speech against a number of other rights. I also find it helpful to think through different mental models of speech in order to really figure out how they come into conflict with each-other.
Let me offer two examples of such models and what function they have speech serving – they are, admittedly, simplified, but they tell an interesting story that can be used to understand and explore part of the pressure that free expression and speech is under right now.
The first model is one in which the primary purpose of speech is discovery. It is through speech we find and develop different ideas in everything from art to science and politics. The mental model I have in mind here is a model of “the marketplace of ideas”. Here the discovery and competition between ideas is the key function of speech.
The second model is one in which speech is the means through which we deliberate in a democracy. It is how we solve problems, rather than how we discover new ideas. The mental model I have in mind here is Habermas’ public sphere. Here speech is collaborative and seeks solutions from commonly agreed facts.
So we end up with, in a broad strokes, coarse grained kind of way, these two different functions: discovery and deliberation.
Now, as we turn to the Internet and ask how it changes things, we can see that it really increases discovery by an order of magnitude – but that it so far seems to have done little (outside of the IETF) to increase our ability to deliberate. If we now generalise a little bit and argue that Europeans think of speech as deliberative and Americans think of speech as discovery, we see a major fault line open up between those different perspectives.
This is not a new insight. One of the most interesting renditions of this is something we have touched on before – Simone Weil’s notion of two spheres of speech. In the first sphere anything would allowed and absolutely no limitations allowed. In the second sphere you would be held accountable for the opinions you really intended to advance as your own. Weil argued that there was a clear, and meaningful, difference between what one says and what one means.
The challenge we have is that while technology has augmented our ability to say things, it has not augmented our ability to mean them. The information landscape is still surprisingly flat, and no particular rugged landscapes seem to be available for those who would welcome a difference between the two modes of speech. But that should not be impossible to overcome – in fact, one surprising option that this line of argument seems to suggest is that we should look to technical innovation to see how we can create much more rugged information landscapes, with clear distinctions between what you say and what you mean.
The other mental model that is interesting to examine more closely is the atomic model of speech, in which speech is considered mostly as a set of individual propositions or statements. The question of how to delineate the rights of speech then becomes a question of adjudicating different statements and determine which ones should be deemed legal and which ones should be deemed illegal, or with a more fine-grained resolution – which ones should be legal, which ones should be removed out of moral concerns and which ones can remain.
The atom of speech in this model is the statement or the individual piece of speech. This propositional model of speech has, historically, been the logical way to approach speech, but with the Internet there seems to be an alternative and complimentary model of speech that is based on patterns of speech rather than individual pieces. We have seen this emerge as a core individual concern in a few cases, and then mostly to identify speakers who through a pattern of speech have ended up being undesirable on a platform or in a medium. But patterns of speech should concern us even more than they do today.
Historically we have only been concerned with patterns of speech when we have studied propaganda. Propaganda is a broad-based pattern of speech where all speech is controlled by a single actor, and the resulting pattern is deeply corrosive, even if individual pieces of speech may still be fine and legitimate. In propaganda we care also about that which is being suppressed as well as what is being fabricated. And, in addition to that, we care about the dominating narratives that are being told because they create background against which all other statements are interpreted. Propaganda, Jacques Ellul teaches us, always comes from a single center.
But the net provides a challenge here. The Internet makes possible a weird kind of poly-centric propaganda that originates in many different places, and this in itself lends the pattern credibility and power. The most obvious example of this is the pattern of doubt that increasingly is eroding our common baseline of facts. This pattern is problematic because it contains no single statement that is violative, but ity opens up our common shared baseline of facts to completely costless doubt. That doubt has become both cheap to produce and distribute is a key problem that precedes that of misinformation.
The models we find standing against each-other here can be called the propositional model of speech and the pattern model of speech. Both ask hard questions, but in the second model the question is less about which statements should be judged to be legal or moral, and more about what effects we need to look out for in order to be able to understand the sum total effect of the way speech affects us.
Maybe one reason we focus on the first model is that it is simpler; it is easier to debate and discuss if something should be taken down based on qualities inherent in that piece of content, than to debate if there are patterns of speech that we need to worry about and counter act.
Now, again, coming back to the price of doubt I think we can say that the price of doubt is cheap, because we operate in an entirely flat information landscape where doubt is equally cheap for all statements. There is no one imposing a cost on you for doubting that we have been to the moon, that vaccines work or any other thing that used to be fairly well established.
You are not even censured by your peers for this behaviour anymore, because we have, oddly, come to think of doubt as a virtue in the guise of “openness”. Now, what I am saying is not that doubt is dangerous or wrong (cue the accusations about a medieval view of knowledge), but that when the pendulum swings the other way and everything is open to costless doubt, we lose something important that binds us together.
Patterns of speech – perhaps even a weaker version, such as tone of voice, – remain interesting and open areas to look at more closely as we try to assess the functions of speech in society.
One last model is worthwhile looking closer at, and that is the model of speech as a monologic activity. When we speak about speech we rarely speak about listeners. There are several different possibilities here to think carefully about the dialogic nature of speech, as this makes speech into a n-person game, rather than a monologic act of speaking.
As we do that we find that different pieces of speech may impact and benefit different groups differently. If we conceive of speech as an n-person game we can, for example, see that anti-terrorist researchers benefit from pieces of speech that let the study terrorist groups closer, that vulnerable people who have been radicalised in different ways may suffer from exposure to that same piece of speech and that politicians may gain in stature and importance from opposing that same piece off speech.
The pieces of speech we study become more like moves on a chess board with several different players. A certain speech act may threaten one player, weaken another and benefit a third. If we include counter speech in our model, we find that we are sketching out the early stages of speech as a game that can be played.
This opens up for interesting ideas, such as can we find an optimisation criterion for speech and perhaps build a joint game with recommendation algorithms, moderator functions and different consumer software speech and play that game a million times to find strategies for moderating and recommending content that fulfil that optimisation criterion?
Now, then, what would that criterion be? If we wanted to let an AI play the Game of Speech – what would we ask that it optimise? How would we keep score? That is an intriguing question, and it is easy to see that there are different options: we could optimise for variance in the resulting speech our for agreement or for solving any specific class of problems or for learning (as measured by accruing new topics and discussing new things?).
Speech as Game is an intriguing model that would take some flushing out to be more than an interesting speculative thought experiment – but it could be worth a try.