One of the most amazing things about the Internet is how it provides a level playing field for everyone: this post that you are reading was written by a single person, and it is just as accessible as an article written by the New York Times, or a proclamation issued by the President of the United States.
It used to be that media organizations had a big advantage by virtue of owning printing presses and delivery trucks, or broadcast licenses; celebrities and politicians would have their proclamations carried across those same mediums by virtue of their popularity or power. The same advantages applied to other areas of the economy like retail and consumer packaged goods: building physical stores is a big barrier of entry if you want to be the former, and having a large and popular set of products gave big companies access to those retail channels.
What is common to both examples was the importance of controlling physical space, but that control came with inherent limitations: a paper newspaper could not be delivered everywhere, and TV broadcasts were limited by the signal strength of broadcast towers. Stores had to be built, and packaged goods had to be stocked on shelves.
The Internet changes all of that: now articles and videos are simply digital bits, easily created and easily transmitted anywhere on the globe, effectively for free. Physical goods still need to be made, but they can be sold to anyone by anyone, and shelf space has been replaced by the commoditized cardboard box.
This first order reality, though, has had a multitude of second order effects. Newspapers, for example, were amongst the first online sites, and it seemed like a massive boon: now an article that was only accessible by those within a limited geographic area delineated by the reach of delivery trucks could be read by anyone in the world. The problem is that that same reach was available to everyone; back in 2014 I wrote in Economic Power in the Age of Abundance:1
One of the great paradoxes for newspapers today is that their financial prospects are inversely correlated to their addressable market. Even as advertising revenues have fallen off a cliff — adjusted for inflation, ad revenues are at the same level as the 1950s — newspapers are able to reach audiences not just in their hometowns but literally all over the world.
The problem for publishers, though, is that the free distribution provided by the Internet is not an exclusive. It’s available to every other newspaper as well. Moreover, it’s also available to publishers of any type, even bloggers like myself.
To be clear, this is absolutely a boon, particularly for readers, but also for any writer looking to have a broad impact. For your typical newspaper, though, the competitive environment is diametrically opposed to what they are used to: instead of there being a scarce amount of published material, there is an overwhelming abundance. More importantly, this shift in the competitive environment has fundamentally changed just who has economic power.
That article was one of the first articulations of the concepts undergirding Aggregation Theory, which is downstream from the shift from geographic-driven scarcity to Internet-driven abundance: now the most valuable companies in the world were those that helped users navigate abundance, whether that be via search (Google), contacts (Facebook), or retail (Amazon).
The Current Thing Meme
Most of my discussion of Aggregation Theory has been about economics and concepts like zero marginal costs; just as it doesn’t cost anything to publish, it doesn’t cost Google anything (on a marginal basis) to help every person in the world find the specific piece of content they are looking for. This, by extension, motivates publishers to work well with Google, motivates users to use Google more, and gives Google the best possible opportunity to show ads, attracting more and more advertising.
In other words, centralization is a second order effect of decentralization: when all constraints on content are removed, more power than ever accrues to the entity that is the preferred choice for navigating that content; moreover, that power compounds on itself in a virtuous feedback loop.
This dynamic, though, goes beyond economics; consider the meme that inspired the title of this Article:
This meme has, for rather obvious reasons, made a fair number of people upset, particularly to the extent it suggests that support for a country fighting for its existence in the face of a brutal invasion is somehow inauthentic. I think, though, that interpretation is too literal; after all, the meme can be extended in lots of different ways:
What I think is captured here is orthogonal to the actual issue at hand (in the case of Musk’s version, Ukraine); the entire point of the generic labeling (“The Current Thing”) is that there is a dynamic that exists independent of the issue being critiqued, and my contention in this Article is that said dynamic is Aggregation Theory for ideas.
Go back to the point about the explosion of content on the Internet: the first order implication is that there is an explosion of ideas; after all, anyone can publish anything. Presumably this means that there are far more categories of thought than ever before! And, if you dig deep enough into the Internet, this is true.
Most people, though, don’t dig that deep, just as they don’t dig that deep for content or contacts or commerce: it’s just far easier and more convenient to rely on Google or Facebook or Amazon. Why wouldn’t this same dynamic apply to ideas? Being informed about everything happening in the world is hard if not impossible: humans evolved to care intensely about what happened in their local environment; however, first mass media, and then the Internet, brought news from everywhere to our immediate attention.
Given that, it seems entirely reasonable — expected even — that we all outsource our intuition for what events matter, and what our position on those events should be, to the most convenient option, especially if that option has obvious moral valence. Police brutality against people of color is obviously bad; people dying from COVID is obviously bad; Russia invading Ukraine is obviously bad; why wouldn’t each of us snap into opposition to obviously bad things?
This dynamic is exactly what the meme highlights: sure, the Internet makes possible a wide range of viewpoints — you can absolutely find critics of Black Lives Matter, COVID policies, or pro-Ukraine policies — but the Internet, thanks to its lack of friction and instant feedback loops, also makes nearly every position but the dominant one untenable. If everyone believes one thing, the costs of believing something else increase dramatically, making the consensus opinion the only viable option; this is the same dynamic in which publishers become dependent on Google or Facebook, or retailers on Amazon, just because that is where money can be made.
Again, to be very clear, that does not mean the opinion is wrong; as I noted, I think the resonance of this meme is orthogonal to the rightness of the position it is critiquing, and is instead concerned with the sense that there is something unique about the depth of sentiment surrounding issues that don’t necessarily apply in any real-life way to the people feeling said sentiment.
Righteousness and Dissent
Here I think it is useful to go back to economics. The more that an entity becomes dependent on an Aggregator, the more perilous the economic outlook for said entity. If you depend on Google or Facebook for traffic, or Amazon for sales, the more liable you are to have your margin consumed by said entities. A truly sustainable business model depends on being able to connect to your customers on your own terms, not an Aggregator’s.
A similar critique can be made of ideas; I thought this tweet was very well-stated:
Putin's array of yes men convincing him his military was far more capable than it actually was and Xi's propaganda campaign against Western mRNA vaccines forcing him to rely on COVID Zero are powerful reminders that, as messy as it can be, an open democratic discourse is superior
— Armand Domalewski (@ArmandDoma) March 16, 2022
It is very counter-intuitive to see how “bad” ideas are in fact extremely valuable: not only do they highlight why the good ideas are better, but they also sometimes show that the “good” ideas are in fact wrong. Arguing that the earth was not the center of the universe was once a “bad” idea; it was also correct. At the same time, to think that the Catholic church of 500 years ago was the only time where the dominant mode of thinking clearly missed the mark seems exceptionally arrogant; we rightly believe that allowing room for dissidents was, in the past, a good thing. It seems clear to me that doing the same today is likely to prove more valuable than not.
Here is the problem: it turns out it was much easier to believe in the value of dissidents in a world of meaningful marginal costs for the propagation of ideas. Most people never encountered contrary opinions when spreading said opinions entailed publishing them on paper and spreading them in the physical world; on the Internet, on the other hand, bad ideas are only a search away. Moreover, the means by which to suppress those opinions are far more obvious: instead of having to shut down a printing press, one only needs to pressure those same centralized Aggregators that arose for economic reasons to suppress “wrong” speech.
The end result is a world where the ability for anyone to post any idea has, paradoxically, meant far greater mass adoption of popular ideas and far more effective suppression of “bad” ideas. That is invigorating when one feels the dominant idea is righteous; it seems reasonable to worry about the potential of said sense of righteousness overwhelming the consideration of whether particular courses of action are actually good or bad.
In 2019 I wrote an Article entitled A Framework for Moderation, which argued for a finely-tuned examination of the Internet stack as a driver of moderation decisions:
It makes sense to think about these positions of the stack very differently: the top of the stack is about broadcasting — reaching as many people as possible — and while you may have the right to say anything you want, there is no right to be heard. Internet service providers, though, are about access — having the opportunity to speak or hear in the first place. In other words, the further down the stack, the more legality should be the sole criteria for moderation; the further up the more discretion and even responsibility there should be for content:
Note the implications for Facebook and YouTube in particular: their moderation decisions should not be viewed in the context of free speech, but rather as discretionary decisions made by managers seeking to attract the broadest customer base; the appropriate regulatory response, if one is appropriate, should be to push for more competition so that those dissatisfied with Facebook or Google’s moderation policies can go elsewhere.
In this view the decision of Cogent and Lumen to cut-off backbone capacity to Russia feels like a mistake. Both companies are the very definition of infrastructure, with no user-facing presence; it follows that they should not be making any decisions based on political considerations (with Carl von Clausewitz’s observation that “war is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means” in mind).
And yet they have cut off Russia all the same, along with a whole host of Western companies. To be very clear, I get it: what Russia is doing to Ukraine is wrong, above and beyond the significant economic challenges in serving a country hit with the most comprehensive set of sanctions in history.
At the same time, I can’t help but worry about a world where every level of the Internet stack feels empowered to act based on political considerations, and it makes me think that my Framework for Moderation was wrong. In a world of idea aggregation the push to go along with the current thing is irresistible, making any sort of sober consideration of one’s position in the stack irrelevant. The only effective counter is a blanket policy of not censoring or cutting off service under any circumstance: it’s easier to appeal to consistency than it is to make a nuanced decision that runs counter to the current thing.
That’s the thing about aggregation: one can understand how it works, and yet be powerless to resist its incentives. It seems foolhardy to think that this might be true for economics and not true for ideas, even — especially! — if we are sure they are correct.