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Banning 8chan Won't Work

by Steve Llano 2 years ago in opinion

The Bad Metaphor of Shutting down the Press

Very slow, need a lot of skill, easy to locate and destroy: The Gutenberg Press

Matthew Prince's blogpost justifying the termination of internet protections for the 8chan website is a fascinating argument. Prince argues that "lawlessness" is the primary reason that he has decided to terminate protections for the site, although he concedes immediately that they have not broken any laws in their posts. So what does he mean by "lawlessness?"

Connection to conventional modes of discussion, conversation, and argument are necessary for healthy exchange of ideas in society. Prince might be referring to those. But ideas are no longer shared in a centralized way, where thoughts are created and shared in a central point where they are crafted for distribution. In fact, it is now the opposite: there is no center place for ideas to congregate. Ideas intersect us as we intersect them, we are all publishers and all have presses. We are all creating content all the time, whether we know it or not (now is a good time to double check your do not track tick boxes).

Princes argument is one where the attitude of justice is the natural result of understanding 8chans motives. It is just to shut down the publisher of the horrific ideas, to eliminate their security system, to deny them an ink or paper service, or to smash the press itself. However Prince also comments that nobody should have the power to determine who is on the internet. These contradictions imply that our condensation of these issues around 8chan does not have a good metaphor. We cannot think of 8chan as a center that distributes ideas that are created there. We must reconfigure the metaphor of 8chan. And in doing so, we realize that banning or eliminating 8chan does not address the issues of mass shootings, violence, hate, racism, or nativism. What it does do is make us feel vindicated, that we are right, and that some flash of good has happened in the darkness.

Prince's (and our) metaphorical thinking is to still consider the world as one of a bunch of random ideas where only a few, or "the best" get access to the tool, the machine of distribution. The Gutenberg Press is quickly conflated into the machine that generates the ideas. These ideas are distributed easily and quickly (well, more quickly than speech) throughout the world. The press becomes the target of ire because it is a metonymy, a special kind of metaphor: the press stands in for the ideas and the distribution of ideas. We haven't moved very far away from this metaphor although our way of sharing ideas certainly has.

Presses quickly moved from human powered, to animal (mules and horses on conveyors ran early newspaper presses), to steam, to now electric. And the time it takes to publish ideas collapses. The presence of the ability to quickly make and distribute a newspaper or book creates a social norm that ideas should be distributed quickly. This social norm is invented by the presence of the electric press. In the Mexican-American war (1846), for example, the steam press allowed for there to be reporting from the front that was only three days old by the time newspapers hit the east coast. This collapse in speed was exponential. And the increase in speed increased desire for more content. Where that desire came from, who knows, but it was expected to have up to the minute information from those authorized to access the press. It's as fast as it can be.

The arrival of TV is somewhat parallel to the mass production of text. The internet altered things by smashing the access window. Now everyone has access to a press (including me!). This access means that we can no longer look to the machine metaphor as the root of the problem. Those who publish and chose what we and their machines are no longer the issue. Thinking of 8chan as a press and shutting it down to shut down the proliferation of ideas no longer makes sense, since there is no editorial staff curating the material that goes out. Everyone is their own editor and journalist in a world where less and less professional journalists are hired annually. They are no longer needed when everyone with a phone and social media can report on events however they'd like to spin them.

The physical location of publishing is now irrelevant to the creation of content. The printing press has been atomized; we are all creating publications, all the time, from the phone and the laptop and the tablet. The data center cannot be taken down. Those who work there do not know what is on the servers, only that it must be secured.

The shutdown of access to the servers for 8chan is a dangerous return to the days of smashing the printing press. This power should not be in the hands of a state let alone in the hands of a corporation that is motivated by profit.

8chan was not a place people came to with a neutral, open mind and then were persuaded to want to kill, destroy, and hate. It was a place that attracted those who already felt this way to share methods and ideas. Destroying the press no longer matters. The idea of a centralized location where information is created and distributed no longer holds. The data center is not the point of the creation of ideas. That is the intervention point, the point of thought. And only argument and rhetoric can alter what is being created.

The solution to this is engagement instead of ignorance. The model where we can "put out of business" a distasteful publisher no longer holds when those publishers are people walking around next to you every day. What the atomization of the press has done is make the metaphor of cutting off the bad publisher irrelevant.

To cut off the bad publisher, one must address the attitude and the motives that inspire publication. This requires a rhetorical rather than a material or economic engagement. When Matthew Prince says that 8chan is "lawless," he's making a material, structural argument: They are not in harmony with the law. He's wrong. What he should have said is that they are too atomized, they are "disconnected" from the rest of us. The norms of evaluating ideas as a community, and internalizing those norms has been lost when the circulation of ideas has been accelerated to the point of atom smashing on both the creation and production end. The question isn't what internet services should be granted or denied. The question is, how do we bring these people into the larger rhetorical exchange; how do we question their motives and get them to do the same with ours?


Steve Llano

Professor of Rhetoric in New York city, writing about rhetoric, politics, and culture.

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