Neil Oliver: Even after all this time no one seems to like the Online Safety Bill very much

Our brains are neither digital, nor analogue, but something in between.

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The online safety bill, years in the drafting and re-drafting, has begun its journey through parliament on the way to being made law. Even after all this time – five years or so of discussions and tweakings – no one seems to like it very much. It is the already unwanted and disowned child of many parents. Plenty of commentators are saying the bill provides yet more tools for stifling free speech, giving our already over-mighty overlords more muscles for yet more censorship and control over our everyday lives. The powers that be are fond of buzz words like misinformation and disinformation – and so to save us from wrong-think, and from ourselves, they must always have control of the delete button.

When the idea of the online world was conjured into being in the 1960s, it was supposed to be a free and open place – owned by no one, controlled by no one. It didn’t work out that way, of course, because Utopia – which means no place – literally doesn’t exist, not even online. Given that the original funding for the Internet came from the US military – who really just wanted a way to keep their computers up and running and their lines of communication open in the event of a nuclear war – maybe that’s not much of a surprise. The soldiers gave money to the hippies at MIT, and the result was a child born to parents who really should have got to know each other better before making a baby.

For a long time, the motto of Facebook was, “Move fast and break stuff”. The idea was sold as throwing off the shackles of the old ways and promising a whole new world, a new way of relating to one another, working and doing things. A lot of stuff got broken, right enough.

As it turns out, move fast and break stuff played right into the hands of the big corporations with a mind to getting a whole lot bigger. While ordinary people had been invited to think the tech revolution would make their working lives easier and more productive, in the end it just replaced permanently employed people – protected by outmoded notions like rights – with the gig, zero-hours-contract economy where rights are among the rubble of other stuff that got broken.

Moving faster and faster, from the 1970s onwards, the online culture enabled the tiny, ideologically driven elite that created it to win and take all. The online safety bill now making its way through parliament feels a whole lot like yet another move from a playbook that is well worn by now – make us, the little folk, feel we’re in danger from something we cannot see, and promise to make us feel safe by assuming yet more control over our lives.

The technocrats moved fast and they broke stuff. They broke the national boundaries that stopped them making more money in every part of the world. All the same stuff – made for the lowest price at the expense of human beings – is, increasingly, available everywhere, so that it is harder and harder even to know where you are. Rather than setting us free, the online world is, more and more, about uniformity and conformity. Much more of this and it won’t matter where you are anyway.

This is not just about the online safety bill – obviously it’s not. That piece of legislation is just another brick in the wall. During the past two years, we have been swiftly and efficiently herded to the opening of a whole new era. Most people did what they were told, in hopes of feeling safe.

And yet let’s stop for a minute and look at where we are, right now, on account of what we were told to do for the best: a cost of living crisis of the sort few alive today have ever seen and no credible ideas about how most might cope with the hits that are coming; spiking inflation; energy prices rising in a way that is out of control; restated commitment to carbon Net-Zero and, now, a land war in Europe that could go in any direction at the drop of a hat. This is where and what we’ve been brought to by those that insisted, with the full weight and force of the law behind them, they would keep us safe, safe from ourselves. In fact, while a handful of billionaires doubled their wealth, the world is apparently more dangerous than ever before.

In recent years, faster and faster every day, the technocrats, corporations and the governments with whom they enjoyed a relationship you might describe as friends with benefits, saw to the breaking or the setting aside of the institutions, long in the building, that really had kept us safe and allowed us freedom to transact with one another, in all manner of fruitful ways: education, bodily autonomy, parliament, employment rights, journalism, even the privately owned businesses on the High Street.

The authorities told the churches to close their doors on their congregations during Covid and most, shamefully, complied. Even the past itself was vilified and dismissed as corrupt, malign, only to be ashamed of. So much of what had grown over centuries, even millennia, to give us real shelter and protection, meaning in our lives, has been methodically steamrollered flat and replaced with the thinking and morals of so-called and self-proclaimed progressives who looked around at all that had been and merely sneered. Most recently, even the biological difference between men and women has been discarded – so that much of the foundation of medical science and also feminism, has been dismissed as mere bigotry. To declare that there are two sexes, and that those sexes matter, is hate-speak.

Across the board we have replaced discussion and debate with a new game where the only acceptable move is to take turns repeating and so validating the narrow world view of those progressives who have so efficiently exploited the technological revolution to create a world shaped in their own image and designed to benefit them and them only.

But of course, every one of you still awake already knows all of what I have just said, anyway. We have this understanding in common and, if nothing else, it has kept us connected and sane in an increasingly insane world that has been deliberately manipulated to make every last one of us feel alone. They shut the pubs, the schools, the churches and made us stay in our homes so that our only means of communication was via the online world they controlled.

Here’s the thing: I don’t know about you, but I have had about as much doom and gloom as I can take, these two years past, and I am a naturally miserable person, I will be the first to admit it! From now on, and as much as possible, I propose to look for the light and the fresh air of promise and potential.

What I feel, more strongly every day, is that there is a way to fix this. Or if not to fix it exactly – because some things are beyond fixing – at least to resist its effects and to offer other ways. Ways for those of like mind to turn away from what is being broadcast at us every moment of every day by every means available – and to try something different.

Fixing something – or, if fixing is not possible, starting to build something new – starts with seeing that the thing in question is broken.

I don’t accept, far less believe, that most people – here in Great Britain or anywhere else – are natural ideologues fixated on forcing one world view on their neighbours. Most of us, I think, simply want to live in a free country, go to a decent job where we are respected and paid enough to raise a family and keep a home, and have enough money – actual money, mind you, and not the food stamps of central bank digital currency – left over for a few adventures on the side.

In a brilliant essay about all of this last year, American writer Alana Newhouse, raged against the machine made by and of technocrats, ideologues and vast, faceless corporations. She said we should dedicate ourselves to breaking free of the machinery that lulls us into a false sense of community made of illusory thousands of friends online and the instant gratification of stuff ordered up from far away with clicks of buttons – in favour of generating,

“… love and attention from three people you actually know instead of hundreds you don’t.”

She pointed out that her fellow Americans, in the face of overweening attempts from progressives to dictate their choices, often voted with their feet, even now:

“When HBO removed Gone with the Wind from its on-demand library … it became the number one bestselling movie on Amazon. Meanwhile, endless numbers of Hollywood right-think movies and supposed literary masterworks about oppression are dismal failures for studios and publishing houses that would rather sink into debt than face a social-justice firing squad on Twitter.”

For those of us that care to do so, now is a time of opportunity – like the time of green shoots after a forest fire. The destruction has already happened, in large part at least. Turn away from those that would tell you there is only one way to live and to think. All that we had and valued is still there, inside the heads of those that care to remember. Our brains are neither digital, nor analogue, but something in between. That’s the unique, human space where we can conceive and so have in the real world once again, spaces and institutions made to benefit not governments, or corporations or their machines, but us.

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