The Marketplace of Ideas in the Age of Information

Both philosopher John Stuart Mill and cyber-activist John Perry Barlow would be disappointed as to the marketplace of ideas in the digital age: it has not been able to muster level playing fields for ideas, products or services on the internet, in general and on social platforms in particular.
The Marketplace of Ideas in the Age of Information
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The Marketplace of Ideas

The digital revolution was supposed to bring emancipation. In the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace from 1996, the American essayist and cyber-libertarian activist John Perry Barlow (1947−2018) declared the new digital reality, cyberspace, a brand new and independent world of freedom and equality that superseded the Old World Order with states, governments and their accompanying levers of control and repression. Barlow compares the digital revolution to the American Revolutionary War, and the digital pioneers to the heroes of the American Revolution. Cyberspace is freedom from suppression, freedom to move around freely and to think freely; on the internet we are free among and with each other’s exchanges, relationships, thoughts and ideas.

The highly resilient notion that a free and unfettered communication and exchange of ideas is an emancipatory and desirable act, is however, not new. The English philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), in his 1859 masterwork On Liberty, compared the freedom to express and develop ideas with the structure and dynamics of a free financial market. Here, consumers dictate the level of demand for any given product on the market while producers and retailers are in charge of supply. Given the preferences and limited resources of consumers, the law of supply and demand will sooner or later inadvertently determine the value of the goods on the market. The value of the item is determined by the degree with which it is accepted by the consumers. The free market is a system where the price of goods and services is self-regulated and determined by the right of buyers and sellers to freely negotiate in an open and unregulated market.

Similarly, Mill imagined a free and open market for opinions, thoughts and ideas. A free and transparent market for a public conversation plays out in parliamentary assemblies, courtrooms, the public speaker corner and in the media where all kinds of ideas are set into circulation in order to win support. The truth will thereby emerge triumphantly as that which is correct and able to win support over other competing ideas. In this process even the most imbecile and outrageous ideas are tolerated as truth will always survive in the end and falsities eventually weeded out in the liquid market of people exchanging views, opinions and ideas.

Digital Disappointment

The notion of a marketplace of ideas has often been advocated as a core argument for defending free speech, a free press and liberal democracy as such. However, it was not Mill who coined the term. The term “marketplace of ideas” was first introduced by United States supreme court justice William O. Douglas in his opinion in the United States vs. Rumely case of 1953. The case was about a publishers’ lobby and press activities, with Douglas deliberating that:

Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas.

While Barlow in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace insists on a marketplace of free ideas as a goal, in and of itself, Mill perceived it as a means to the truth. They were, however, both proponents of regulating markets as little as possible—thus avoiding censorship—so that all ideas, at least at their outset, share equal opportunity and that no thoughts are more privileged or able to enjoy preferential treatment by other means. In plain English we call this “a level playing field”, and it expresses a situation where all enjoy and have a fair and equal chance for success with their undertaking.

Both Mill and Barlow would probably be quite disappointed in the information market of the digital age: it has not been able to muster level playing fields for ideas, products or services on the internet, in general and on social platforms in particular. Over decades, a hopeful narrative was spun that the internet is a democratic construct, a means for everybody to access information and have a public voice e.g. through the profiles that we as citizens and users have on social platforms.

If the marketplace for ideas and information products were free and unregulated, everything would be fine and dandy, and the attention economy would find its natural equilibrium, at least theoretically. But there are no level playing fields. The information infrastructure is privatised and social platforms do not necessarily answer to truth and democracy, supply and demand, but instead to their own rules and regulations and narratives that provide companies with advertising possibilities and shareholders with dividends.

Online attention is not distributed in a way that musters level playing fields for all involved parties. In addition, it should be noted that it is private companies which, to a vast extent, singularly decide what type of information products are available on the marketplace and the accompanied pricing.

Arrived we have at the information age and the digital revolution. Until now we rode on the back of the Enlightenment, where knowledge and information were conceived as the main levers to liberate peoples and stimulate the emerging democracies around Europe and the United States. Information was seen as a boon not a bane. If the pioneers had been asked if public space should be allowed to be capitalised by private enterprise, their answer would have been a firm and resounding—NO! Everyone should have equal access and no one should be granted special privileges or interests in the marketplace of ideas, where democracy lives and strives on level playing fields among citizens. But that’s not how the marketplace of ideas came to evolve when society’s citizens became internet users—and the products of platforms in markets of attention, misinformation and manipulation.

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