Every government is a machine, and every machine has its tinkerers — and its jams. From the start, machines have driven American democracy and, just as often, crippled it. The printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, the mainframe, cable TV, the internet: Each had wild-eyed boosters who promised that a machine could hold the republic together, or make it more efficient, or repair the damage caused by the last machine. Each time, this assertion would be both right and terribly wrong. But lately, it’s mainly wrong, chiefly because the rules that prevail on the internet were devised by people who fundamentally don’t believe in government.
The Constitution itself was understood by its framers as a machine, a precisely constructed instrument whose measures — its separation of powers, its checks and balances — were mechanical devices, as intricate as the gears of a clock, designed to thwart tyrants, mobs and demagogues, and to prevent the forming of factions. Once those factions began to appear, it became clear that other machines would be needed to establish stable parties. “The engine is the press,” Thomas Jefferson, an inveterate inventor, wrote in 1799.
The United States was founded as a political experiment; it seemed natural that it should advance and grow through technological experiment. Different technologies have offered different fixes. Equality was the promise of the penny press, newspapers so cheap that anyone could afford them. The New York Sun was first published in 1833. “It shines for all” was its common-man motto. Union was the promise of the telegraph. “The greatest revolution of modern times, and indeed of all time, for the amelioration of society, has been effected by the magnetic telegraph,” The Sun announced, proclaiming “the annihilation of space.”
Time was being annihilated too. As The New York Herald pointed out, the telegraph appeared to make it possible for “the whole nation” to have “the same idea at the same moment.” Frederick Douglass was convinced that the great machines of the age were ushering in an era of worldwide political revolution. “Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires,” he wrote, “a revolution cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence but flashes with lightning speed from heart-to-heart.” Henry David Thoreau raised an eyebrow: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Thoreau was as alone in his skepticism as he was in his cabin. “Doubt has been entertained by many patriotic minds how far the rapid, full and thorough intercommunication of thought and intelligence, so necessary to the people living under a common representative republic, could be expected to take place throughout such immense bounds,” a House member said in 1845, but “that doubt can no longer exist.” Less than 20 years later, a nation tied together by 50,000 miles of wire, 1,400 stations and 10,000 telegraph operators fell into civil war.
Even that savage war didn’t diminish Americans’ faith that technology could solve the problem of political division. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce, rightly anticipated that radio, the nation’s next great mechanical experiment, would make it possible for political candidates and officeholders to speak to voters without the bother and expense of traveling to meet them. NBC began radio broadcasting in 1926, CBS in 1928. By the end of the decade, nearly every household would have a wireless. Hoover promised that radio would make Americans “literally one people.”
That radio fulfilled this promise for as long as it did is the result of decisions made by Mr. Hoover, a Republican who believed that the government had a role to play in overseeing the airwaves by issuing licenses for frequencies to broadcasting companies and regulating their use. “The ether is a public medium,” he insisted, “and its use must be for the public benefit.” He pressed for passage of the Radio Act of 1927, one of the most consequential and underappreciated acts of Progressive reform — insisting that programmers had to answer to the public interest. That commitment was extended to television in 1949 when the Federal Communications Commission, the successor to the Federal Radio Commission, established the Fairness Doctrine, a standard for television news that required a “reasonably balanced presentation” of different political views.
Radio, though, was also a tool of tyrants. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, had a device installed in his office that allowed him to pre-empt national programming. He also hoped to sow division in the United States, partly through a shortwave radio system, the ministry’s “long-range propaganda artillery.” It spread lies about a “Communist Jewish conspiracy” that sounded like news reports, which the newspapers at the time referred to as “fake news.”
In 1938, Orson Welles tried to raise the alarm about fake news with his notorious radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” Fifteen minutes into the program, listeners began to call the station in terror, believing that the earth was really being invaded by Martians. A station supervisor asked Welles to halt the broadcast; Welles refused. Dorothy Thompson was grateful to him, writing in her column in The New York Herald-Tribune that Welles had “made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism, and all the other terrorism of our times, more than will all the words about them that have been written.”
After the war, computers that had been built by the military split the electorate into so many atoms. Univac, one of the first commercial computers, was completed in 1951 for the Census Bureau, to count and sort its data. The next year, CBS used the Univac on election night. “A Univac is a fabulous electronic machine, which we have borrowed to help us predict this election from the basis of early returns as they come in,” Charles Collingwood told his audience as the evening’s coverage began. Walter Cronkite read the early, East Coast returns; Edward R. Murrow provided the commentary. Around 9:30 p.m., when the Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, was ahead in the popular vote and the Democrat, Adlai E. Stevenson, was winning the electoral vote, Cronkite said, “And now to find out perhaps what this all means, at least in the electronic age, let’s turn to that electronic miracle, the electronic brain, Univac.”
But when the camera turned to Collingwood, he could get no answer from Univac. Murrow ventured that perhaps the computer was cautious. At 10:30 p.m., Cronkite turned again to Collingwood. Univac was having “a little bit of trouble,” Collingwood said. Murrow called the election for Eisenhower. Fifteen minutes later, Univac made the same call. Cronkite smiled and said, “I might note that Univac is running a few moments behind Ed Murrow.” The next day, Murrow, speaking on CBS Radio, celebrated the triumph of man over machine: “We are in a measure released from the petty tyranny of those who assert that they can tell us what we think, what we believe, what we will do, what we hope and what we fear, without consulting us — all of us.”
That release proved short-lived. By 1959, a team of Democratic strategists was developing a secret plan known as Project Macroscope. They wanted to build a machine that could predict voter responses to any conceivable issue or candidate, a Univac for politics. Newton Minow, an Adlai Stevenson campaign adviser who would soon become chairman of the F.C.C., wrote to the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “My own opinion is that such a thing (a) cannot work, (b) is immoral, (c) should be declared illegal.” Project Macroscope went ahead anyway. We live, each minute of every day, within its clockwork, and under its giant, all-seeing eye.
All of this history was forgotten or ignored by the people who wrote the rules of the internet and who peer out upon the world from their offices in Silicon Valley and boast of their disdain for the past. But the building of a new machinery of communications began even before the opening of the internet. In the 1980s, conservatives campaigned to end the Fairness Doctrine in favor of a public-interest-based rule for broadcasters, a market-based rule: If people liked it, broadcasters could broadcast it.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan finally succeeded in repealing the Fairness Doctrine — and he also vetoed a congressional effort to block the repeal. The repeal, which relieved licensed broadcasters of a public-interest obligation to represent opposing points of view, made possible a new kind of partisan talk radio. In 1987, there were some 240 talk radio stations in the country; by 1992, there were 900. Partisan cable television followed, as the repeal led also to the rise of MSNBC and Fox News in 1996.
Meanwhile, a new generation of knowledge-worker-not-auto-worker Democrats abandoned the working class for the microchip. Known in the 1980s as Atari Democrats, they were soon reinvented as the New Democrats. “Thanks to the near-miraculous capabilities of microelectronics, we are vanquishing scarcity,” a New Democrat manifesto announced in 1995, damning “those who cannot and will not participate in the knowledge economy” as “losers.” The New Democrats’ technological utopianism blinded them to the consequences of abandoning public-interest-minded Progressive-era regulation, at a time when co-founder of Wired, Louis Rossetto, a libertarian and former anarchist, was celebrating the arrival of a freewheeling New Media. In the magazine’s inaugural issue in 1993, Mr. Rossetto predicted that the internet would bring about “social changes so profound their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.” The internet would create a new world order, except it wouldn’t be an order; it would be an open market, free of all government interference, a frontier, a Wild West — lawless and unaccountable.
Wired began publishing the same year that the Newt Gingrich-affiliated Progress and Freedom Foundation was founded. Its key thinker was the irrepressible George Gilder, who in the 1970s had achieved celebrity as an anti-feminist and in the 1980s as a supply-sider. At a 1994 Progress and Freedom Foundation meeting in Aspen, Colo., Mr. Gilder, along with the futurists Alvin Toffler, Esther Dyson and George Keyworth, wrote a “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age,” which called for “removing barriers to competition and massively deregulating the fast-growing telecommunications and computing industries.”
The cyber Magna Carta served as the blueprint for the Telecommunications Act. The libertarians’ objective, which went much further than the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, was to ensure that the internet would lie beyond the realm of government control. On Feb. 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton, New Democrat, signed the bill in the reading room of the Library of Congress, on paper, and then, electronically, with a digital pen, the first piece of legislation signed in cyberspace. The act deregulated the communications industry, lifting virtually all of its New Deal antimonopoly provisions, allowing for the subsequent consolidation of media companies and largely prohibiting regulation of the internet. Still, that the United States government would even presume to legislate the internet — even if only to promise not to regulate it — alarmed the libertarians.
On the day Mr. Clinton signed the bill, John Perry Barlow, a bearded mystic who had written lyrics for the Grateful Dead and had helped found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an ex-hippie who had become the darling of the Davos set, wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. “Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of mind,” Mr. Barlow wrote, in a statement that he posted on the web, where it became one of the very first posts to spread, as was said, like a virus. “On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone,” he said. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”
In the spring of 2000, an article in Wired announced that the internet had already healed a divided America: “We are, as a nation, better educated, more tolerant, and more connected because of — not in spite of — the convergence of the internet and public life. Partisanship, religion, geography, race, gender, and other traditional political divisions are giving way to a new standard — wiredness — as an organizing principle for political and social attitudes.” Of all the dizzying technological boosterism in American history, from the penny press to the telegraph to the radio, no pronouncement was battier. In the years since, partisan divisions have become fully automated functions, those wires so many fetters.
The machine is no longer precisely constructed, its every action no longer measured. The machine is fix upon fix, hack after hack, its safety mechanisms sawed off. It has no brake, no fail-safe, no checks, no balances. It clatters. It thunders. It crushes the Constitution in its gears. The smell of smoke wafts out of the engine room. The machine is on fire.
Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” from which parts of this essay are adapted.