Never has so much money been spent on education; never have parents had recourse to such a plethora of advice about how to bring up their children. Never has the internet-served world seen such crass lowering of standards of honesty, truth and politeness. Never has free speech been so appallingly misused. Questions are beginning to be asked about the social media. At last Facebook, as the symbol of internet personal connectivity, is coming under scrutiny for the part it is playing in “educating” society in how to behave. ‘Is it lowering standards of personal behaviour?’ we ask. Now we must provide an answer.
Sean Parker, Vice-President of ‘Facebook Growth’ until 2011, told Stanford Business School “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” One man’s view is not conclusive even when so apparently honest but it does open the Pandora’s box of what is Free Speech and how, if at all, it should be regulated.
Control of Free Speech is, of course, an oxymoron. But our seemingly inexorable march to total control is regrettable. Banking used to be a handshake business, as did investing. Now they, like many other aspects of life, have a regulator. Soon our behaviour towards other people will find itself regulated even more than the law already does so. Some regulation is vital but once we start to rely on regulations to determine how we should behave in any situation we will breed a cohort of crooks devoted to getting round the rules. The internet has already done so.
Where regulation applies to technology or techniques it is generally helpful. The road regulations, including seat belts, alcohol and lane behaviour, have made roads much safer. The disciplines of air travel and aircraft maintenance have produce vastly improved flying safety records. Rules about food and drink hygiene and about medical standards have reduced illness. Inevitably, these rules extend beyond the technical and intrude on personal behaviour. By and large they involve hard skills. When we get to the soft skills including personal standards we have a more difficult issue altogether.
For a start, one of the joys of life is to know that you are doing the right thing. If the right thing is totally – and successfully – regulated there is no satisfaction in doing it. Indeed, it may be a challenge to disobey. In a competitive world doing the right thing means beating the competition. But it also involves helping to make other people’s lives tolerable. So competition, we understand, has to be tempered.
And this is the heart of the matter – excess is abuse and it leads to rules.
Latest in the arena of personal behaviour to be threatened with regulation is behaviour implying sexual interest by one person in another. It has come about because the license to mildly flirt when both parties agree to do so and that is generally regarded as permissible has been greatly and painfully exceeded. In the absence of controls it seems to have moved further and further towards rape of the mind as well as of the body. Will regulation of this area of communication between people make for a better world?
Every rule and regulation is an admission of mankind’s failure. We have succeeded in some areas of human development and failed in others. No development is evidence of supreme triumph, no failure is proof of everlasting disaster. But to remove more and more elements of personal standards from the individual and turn them into quasi-legal requirements is to invite a race of robots to replace our unique personalities.
When we do we will fulfil our lives more successfully than in any other way.