Abigail Schrier, famed for having her book on the impact of the fashion for Transgenderism on children, Irreversible Damage, banned by Amazon, recently delivered a brave and inspiring talk to the undergraduates at Priceton.
Every dating app pushes us toward the same few attractive mate choices; Spotify presses us to like the same music; Amazon pushes us to purchase specific books and away from others. If you’re under the impression that the books Amazon recommends to you are based solely on a content-neutral algorithm, I can disabuse you of that fiction right now. I once asked one of my sources at Amazon, who was concerned about the ways the search results were being manipulated, whether he’d ever seen a book deliberately boosted. Yes, he said. Becoming by Michelle Obama. When that book came out – he told me – virtually every search you did led to the recommendation to buy the former First Lady’s book. And the opposite is also true. There are books that are never recommended by the Amazon algorithm, irrespective of how well they’ve sold or how likely a specific shopper is to buy them. Or, at least, there’s one such book. I’ll let you try and guess what it is.
But the larger point is, your will is being toyed with, subverted, manipulated. And in a fairly insidious manner. None of you will be shocked to hear that Google promotes certain search results in order to lead us to a certain perspective. But did you know that, for contested entries, Wikipedia assigns editors, some of whom are ideologically committed activists, many of whom have very particular views they want you to walk away with.
If you form views based on those Wikipedia articles or reports by corrupt fact-checkers, if you act based on them, are you exercising freedom of will? Given that you’ve been spun and prodded along to a pre-determined conclusion by hidden persuaders, perhaps you aren’t. Perhaps you’re left in the same sorry state as the Moor of Venice: toyed with, subverted, manipulated. Acting out someone else’s plan, pointed in the direction that he wants you to walk.
We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years debating whether this kind of manipulation is at the root of our political divisions, but I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to an even more basic question: how it has interfered with freedom of conscience and ultimately free will.
When polled, nearly two out of three Americans (62%) say they are afraid to express an unpopular opinion. That doesn’t sound like a free people in a free country. We are, each day, force-fed falsehoods we are all expected to take seriously, on pain of forfeiting esteem and professional opportunity:
“Some men have periods and get pregnant.” “Hard work and objectivity are hallmarks of whiteness.” “Only a child knows her own true gender.” “Transwomen don’t have an unfair advantage when playing girls’ sports.”
I know why students keep their heads down. They are hoping for that Goldman or New York Times internship, which they don’t want to put in jeopardy. Well, any institution that takes our brightest, most capable young people—Princeton graduates!—and tells you can only work here if you think like we tell you to and keep your mouth shut, that isn’t really Goldman Sachs and it isn’t the paper of record. It’s the husk of a once-great institution, and it’s not worth grasping for. Talk to alums at these institutions: they sound like those living under communist regimes. That’s the America that awaits you if you will not speak up.
You who are studying at one of the greatest academic institutions in the country only to be told that after graduation, you must think as we tell you and recite from this script—why were you born? What’s the point of being alive? Computers are vastly better at number crunching. They’ll soon be better at all kinds of more complex tasks. What they cannot do is stand on principle. What a computer cannot do is refuse to lend credibility to a rigged competition—to refuse to strengthen its coercion—making it that much harder for the next female athlete to speak up. What the computer cannot know is the glorious exertion of the human will when it refuses to truckle in the face of lies and instead publicly speaks the truth.