Why murder is evil

Originally posted on Quora, since deleted, and now re-posted here with a few edits. The Quora question was, "Who might you find in the lowest circles of hell?"

If there were a hell, then murderers, particularly mass murderers, would have to occupy the very lowest circle. I think many people do not understand what a horrific crime murder is. This is a shame. So let me explain it.

Frankly, the crime of murder makes all others pale in comparison. The trouble in understanding this is that murder is more "metaphysical" and so its evil, more difficult to comprehend. When a person is dead, nothing else happens to him qua person. Thus the crime of murder seems to have a short shelf life. It takes ten minutes to sharpen the knife, a minute to confront the victim and do the deed, a few hours for the body to be discovered, a year or two for the survivors to grieve, and then life goes on. Some educated idiots even seem committed to the view that, since life is a vale of tears, murderers are doing their victims a favor. For many murder victims, the terror and pain last only for moments; is it really so bad?

But, no. That's not how it is. If you think this way, you probably also don't understand the economic concept of opportunity cost. The evil of murder lies not in the pain of dying and grieving, but in the enormousness of what it deliberately prevents: an entire life.

If you (wrongheadedly) think of life materialistically, as collecting stuff, then consider that murder involves not only robbing a person of all of his current possessions, it also involves robbing him of all possessions he would ever earn and enjoy in the future. The murderer as it were leaves you utterly naked for eternity. He's stolen your money, your house, your car, your jewelry, your computer, your devices, your toys, your clothes--and everything you would have had in the future, too. That's a lot of stuff!

If you think of a life as a series of experiences, many of which are worthwhile in themselves--"peak experiences" and all--then consider that murder involves robbing a person of all the experiences he would have in the future. The murderer as it were locks you in a plain, windowless room forever. All chance at experiencing books, movies, relationships, food, etc., all gone.

If you think of a life as "love," as a collection of meaningful relationships, then consider that murder involves abruptly breaking every single one of those relationships, between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife. All of them, all at once, never to return. The murderer as it were restrains you from all future dates, outings, time with children and parents, all of it. He has stolen your power to enjoy your parents, your husband or wife, your children, your friends--everyone you know, everyone you will know, everyone you might otherwise have brought into the world. That is truly an incredible loss.

If you think of life as service, as helping others, then consider that murder involves preventing you from helping anyone else, ever again, in any way whatsoever. The poor, sick, ignorant, and powerless, whoever you might have helped, will not be helped, at least not by you. The murderer as it were ties your hands and makes you watch helplessly as others try to shift for themselves even when they can't or don't know how.

If you think of life as the pursuit of meaningful goals, then consider that murder permanently and irrevocably removes a person's ability to achieve anything whatsoever. The murderer as it were chains you to a wall with everything you might want to do far out of reach. The murderer makes every one of your dreams permanently, irrevocably impossible. Imagine how outrageous it would be for someone to come to your dream job and then physically restrain you for five minutes from doing that job. Then imagine someone doing that for the rest of your life. That's what murder does.

There are, of course, some other truly horrific crimes, such as abuse and torture. But murder is worse than abuse. Many abused people go on to live good lives and give life to others. In the end, they would rather have been abused than murdered. Murder is also worse than torture. Think of the war heroes who were tortured even for years, who later went on to have happy families and achieve great things. In the end, they would rather have been tortured than murdered.

The most deadly institution in human history is government; certain heads of state would be at the very bottom. If sheer numbers are what matter, then Stalin, being responsible for more deaths than any single individual in history, would have to be at the very bottom. Mao would be next. Hitler would be third.

Just try to think of everything that these monsters robbed from the world. It's inconceivable.

We should think quite a bit harder about the political, social, and psychological factors that made it possible for such monsters to rise to power.


Toward a social contract for social media

Last week, I led a "strike," or boycott, associated with the hashtag #SocialMediaStrike, directed at the giant, centralized social media services. Though throttled by Twitter and no doubt by others, the brief campaign led to massive use of the hashtag, many people carrying out the strike, as well as dozens of news stories from around the world.

Here I will tell the story of what happened, make some observations about what we might do next, and then make a rather specific proposal, what we might call a "social contract" for social media companies.

What happened

Let me tell the story briefly, from the beginning.

I joined Facebook around 2006 and Twitter in 2008; I never felt quite right about them, and my objections piled up over the years. After I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I abandoned as much of social media as possible. Facebook was a challenge, but I permanently deleted my account, and haven't looked back. It wasn't hard to leave Quora, Medium, and Instagram. But I was still on Twitter for career reasons, and it bothered me that I had abandoned my Facebook friends. I thought, "There's got to be a way to get my friends to join me on some alternative social media network." But how? Then it occurred to me that if somebody made a browser plugin for my friends, that would insert my posts on Minds (for example) into their feeds on Facebook, and which would enable them to reply to me, that would go some way to making different social media networks interoperable. This idea got a lot of play on Twitter.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that the lessons I had learned as part of a blockchain company since September 2017 (Everipedia) were applicable to social media as a whole: the whole social media system needs to be decentralized. What does that mean, exactly, though? There are several ways to think about it:

  • We should own (ultimately control the distribution of) our own data. Nobody should be able to shut us down, just as nobody can shut down our blogs.
  • We should have total control over our own feeds, i.e., our user experience as we use social media apps. This includes the sorting algorithms
  • Social media apps should not be "silos." They should share data; they should be interoperable; if you post on one, your data should be available on all the others (that do not specifically block you or your post).
  • More than just sharing data, the data they use should be entirely independent of the apps that contain them. That means social media apps become, essentially, social media readers analogous to blog/news readers.
  • To continue the analogy, just as blogs and blog readers exchange data via the common (practically universal) RSS standard, so social media readers should exchange data via a common social media standard.

My employer (Everipedia) kindly supported me as I spent some time developing this idea in speeches and a Wired article. In writing the latter article I hit upon the idea of using social media to organize—ironically, sure, why not?—a social media strike, and to write the Declaration. Whoever I talked to about it loved it. It resonated for people with both left politics and right. That's interesting and perhaps unexpected, because it is an idea that ultimate concerns Internet politics itself. It turns out that when it comes to Internet politics, almost everyone is still essentially "liberal": we all want to be free to publish and to be in control of our own experience. (Matters, of course, are different when we consider whether we want other people to be free to publish and to be in control of their experience. But when it comes to our own, we want to be in control.)

That was last March. I had several months to organize something bigger and more formally, by reaching out to a lot of influencers and get them on board as early signatories of a Declaration of Digital Independence, but whenever I started to make cursory movements in that direction, I frankly lost heart. The reason, as I eventually realized, was that the only way I was going to do this is by reaching out to regular people through normal channels, out in the open—you know, real grassroots organizing. Everything else felt (and might actually have been) philosophically inconsistent. So a little over a week before July 4, I got to work.

I cleaned up the various documents and started pushing them out on various channels, but especially on Twitter.

At first it looked like it was all going to be a dud. Then, slowly but surely, different "blue check marks" and then news outlets started showing interest. When the BBC and Fox News' Tucker Carlson took an early interest last Monday (July 1), that really opened the floodgates. Here's a list of coverage a colleague collected:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK6BHGu9SD4 (Tucker Carlson interview)
  2. https://twitter.com/questCNN/status/1147240877892481031 (CNN interview)
  3. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-larry-sanger-slams-facebook-twitter-social-media.html (widely distributed and discussed)
  4. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/wikipedia-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-to-protest-power-of-giants-like-facebook-184501284.html
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-48825410 (ditto; first major coverage)
  6. https://www.newsweek.com/reddit-technology-social-media-strike-larry-sanger-facebook-twitter-1447549 (ditto)
  7. https://nypost.com/2019/07/02/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-over-privacy-issues (ditto)
  8. https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-06-29/wikipedia-co-founder-unveils-declaration-digital-independence (first coverage by anyone, I believe)
  9. https://thenextweb.com/tech/2019/07/04/reddits-r-technology-goes-dark-as-part-of-socialmediastrike (/r/technology's blackout in support was widely reported)
  10. https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/larry-sanger-wikipedia-mitgruender-ruft-zu-social-media-streik-auf-a-1275236.html
  11. https://www.elpais.com.uy/vida-actual/motivos-cofundador-wikipedia-llama-huelga-redes-sociales.html
  12. https://www.repubblica.it/tecnologia/social-network/2019/07/01/news/wikipedia_lancia_sciopero_social_stop_il_4-5_luglio_per_un_sistema_piu_libero_-230074747
  13. https://thehill.com/homenews/451471-wikipedia-co-founder-wants-two-day-social-media-strike-to-highlight-privacy-issues
  14. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/07/01/wikipedia_founder_calls_for_social_media_strike
  15. https://observer.com/2019/07/wikipedia-founder-larry-sanger-july-4-social-media-strike
  16. https://www.salon.com/2019/07/03/wikepedia-co-founder-plans-social-media-strike-will-it-work
  17. https://www.marketwatch.com/amp/story/guid/D29FC838-9D0E-11E9-956A-E9AF1A718551
  18. https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2019/july/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-july-4-5
  19. https://siecledigital.fr/2019/07/01/le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-invite-a-la-greve-des-reseaux-sociaux
  20. https://www.rp.pl/Spoleczenstwo/190709913-Tworca-Wikipedii-wzywa-do-strajku-w-mediach-spolecznosciowych.html
  21. https://fossbytes.com/wikipedia-co-founder-social-media-strike
  22. https://twitter.com/BBCTech/status/1145654230558134274
  23. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1205730/greve-facebook-twitter-larry-sanger
  24. https://twitter.com/JeanneCBC/status/1145723863210352641
  25. https://twitter.com/GarethM/status/1145712804118351874
  26. https://pawoo.net/@masterq/102365444906120134
  27. https://gizmodo.com/wikipedia-co-founder-picks-a-nice-day-to-log-off-1836017140
  28. https://www.presse-citron.net/quand-le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-appelle-a-la-greve-des-reseaux-sociaux
  29. https://libertysentinel.org/wikipedia-co-founder-boycott-social-media
  30. https://themerkle.com/can-a-social-media-strike-be-pulled-off-in-2019
  31. https://samnytt.se/social-media-strejk-utropat-den-den-4-och-5-juli
  32. https://www.reddit.com/r/technology/comments/c7g36c/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by
  33. http://mugayir.com/wikipedia-ceosundan-sosyal-medya-boykotu-icin-cagri
  34. https://actualidad.rt.com/actualidad/320005-cofundador-wikipedia-convocar-huelga-redes-sociales
  35. https://elpais.com/tecnologia/2019/07/03/actualidad/1562153010_528990.html
  36. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/07/01/demanding-users-fight-data-and-privacy-protections-wikipedia-co-founder-calls
  37. https://www.observalgerie.com/style-de-vie-et-loisirs/hitech/cofondateur-wikipedia-appelle-greve-reseaux-sociaux-4-5-juillet
  38. https://www.reddit.com/r/tech/comments/c7ipl7/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by
  39. https://twitter.com/thehill/status/1146384654578196481
  40. https://wnd.com/2019/07/wikipedia-co-founder-urges-social-media-strike
  41. https://www.numerama.com/politique/530423-le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-vous-invite-a-faire-greve-avec-lui-contre-facebook-twitter-et-youtube.html
  42. https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/c8s87d/im_larry_sanger_wikipedia_cofounder_everipedia/
  43. https://www.newsmax.com/newsfront/wikipedia-social-media-data-privacy/2019/07/03/id/923114/
  44. https://www.verdict.co.uk/decentralised-social-media
  45. https://twitter.com/PrisonPlanet/status/1147122675917185024
  46. https://summit.news/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-slams-zuckerberg-big-tech-for-appalling-internet
  47. https://twitter.com/bitchute/status/1147336649883283456
  48. https://reclaimthenet.org/larry-sanger-twitter-facebook
  49. https://reclaimthenet.org/larry-sanger-declaration-of-digital-independence
  50. https://twitter.com/svbizjournal/status/1147558662950592519
  51. https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2019/07/05/larry-sanger-wikipedia-social-media-strike-fb-twtr.html
  52. https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/social-media-strike-larry-snager-internet-dark-a4183046.html
  53. https://www.cnet.com/news/reddits-rtechnology-goes-offline-for-july-4-social-media-strike
  54. https://www.curvearro.com/blog/why-social-media-is-ready-to-go-on-strike
  55. https://tribetica.com/can-a-social-media-strike-be-pulled-off-in-2019
  56. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/social-media-strike-why-favourite-083241784.html
  57. https://world.einnews.com/article/489949068/7umkU6G_w9ukLXsk
  58. https://inside.com/campaigns/inside-social-2019-07-05-1568KII3/sections/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-121855

There was probably more. Despite this amount of coverage, I don't think the story ever trended on Twitter or Google News.

That the effort was throttled by Twitter is obvious. Tweets were placed behind "sensitive content" warnings—never with any explanation, but often with high irony—even when I merely shared one of Twitter's own memes with the #SocialMediaStrike hashtag. There also seemed to be games going on with the hashtag itself.

What inroads did the effort make? There were a few notable "blue checkmark" supporters, but on the whole the result was a creature of grassroots efforts and direct reporting on those efforts. No major politician supported it; no A-list conservative or libertarian YouTube star or pundits supported it; no high-ranking lefty, rightly complaining about "surveillance capitalism," joined; none of the leading Silicon Valley darlings, often critical of social media, joined; etc. In short, the Establishment pretty much uniformly took a pass—except, oddly, for the massive amount of news reporting as I said, and despite that reporting.

The lack of Establishment up-take I chalk up to the fact that it was started as a grass-roots effort and thus was beneath their notice; presumably, their support would need to be courted in advance. But as I said, I specifically decided not to court their support in advance. I'm not particularly sorry I didn't, even though clearly it would have been a bigger deal if I had. It would have been bigger, yes, but the rank and file would be wondering much less about the genuineness of the movement. Besides, I'd have to worry about movement politics and personalities. What we've demonstrated is that this movement has legs without any A-list endorsements. And I don't count myself in that group. I'm a B-lister at best. Heck, I've only got 6,000 followers and Twitter gave me my own blue checkmark only a couple months ago. My interest will continue to be that of a disgruntled social media user who also happens to be a casual Internet theorist.

Next steps: some notes

After announcing that they were back from the strike, many people asked what the next steps were. Some suggested we do another, longer strike; I'm not opposed to that. Many suggested that we start new social media networks; I think some of these people really didn't realize that there were plenty under development. Representatives of several alternative social media networks reached out to me, including CEOs of two or three well-known ones. It's all been quite confusing and so you'll have to give me time to get it sorted out, especially since I'd like to be doing other work too, of course. Helping to organize this effort is at best a temporary sideline for me.

First, then, let me make a few observations about future strikes:

  • We still haven't shown the whole world that there is a massive latent demand for decentralized social media and data self-ownership.
  • Simply doing another strike (perhaps a longer one) might be more effective than last week's strike.
  • But a similar strike anytime soon would almost certainly be ignored by the press and many potential participants. It would be better to plan any follow-up strike for some time months from now—even next year on the same days.
  • There doesn't have to be a centrally organized strike. You can declare yourself to be on strike on any social network you like, and maybe repeat the message daily or weekly, and then don't interact except to promote your strike.
  • Here's the thing. If there's going to be another big organized strike, I'm not going to be the one to organize it. I'm a reluctant organizer of this sort of thing, to be honest. As I said, I'm not a specialist or working full-time on this stuff. So someone else, or some other organization, would have to organize it. I might well participate, though, if someone else organizes it.
  • Another proposal I saw is to have regular planned strikes, like once a month. This strikes me as unlikely to make big inroads, but of course it all depends on execution.
  • There's a whole aspect of any such effort toward data ownership, privacy, and decentralization that might need special attention, I think: teaching the ignorant. A common reaction to the strike was, "Wait, why should we care about privacy again?" I explained that before, even why we should be hardcore about privacy, but much more needs to be done on this. Similarly with free speech. So many people, especially younger people, have never learned why free speech is so important.

But there are maybe more important issues aside from any strike:

  • I'm not aware of anything like an industry-wide agreement or commitment to interoperability and to settling on common standards. I'm interested in helping to broker that or to kick it off, although I probably wouldn't want to participate, as that is not my area.
  • I'm not interested in endorsing or joining any social media companies as an adviser. Though I am often asked, I am an adviser to almost no one. Thanks for asking.
  • In my Wired paper, I describe "mass try-outs," i.e., as many people as possible descends en masse on one particular social media alternative, then another one a week later (or whatever), for as long as necessary.
  • Here is a message for alternative social media CEOs: there is strength in numbers. If you fight each other for the giants' table scraps and leftovers, you'll get nowhere. If you join forces to make each other interoperable and to organize mass try-outs, you'll not only get a massive amount of publicity, you'll get a massive amount of new users. A rising tide lifts all boats. Please act on this observation.
  • I'm happy to try to bring you together for these purposes, if you're not already making satisfactory headway, but I don't want to be part of the organization. That's your business, not mine. I have no interest in being an interloper. This is not just because I don't like to be rude, it's because I don't know you or trust your organizations (yet), and I would like to stay independent of the fray.
  • I do have one piece of advice for such an organization: you can't include all alternative social media organizations in the biggest, most serious mass try-outs (I think), like every little Mastodon instance. Some will not make the cut, because they're not big enough.
  • That said, if you (social media companies wanting to organize mass try-outs) want massive grassroots support, the best way to organize which sites to follow is to use some objective and publicly-verifiable metrics of engagement, such as Alexa or Quantcast, number of social media mentions, or something else like that. Another option is to agree on a list of judges, and they democratically determine a list of n networks to do a "mass try-out" on.
  • Of course, the also-rans should also have their (perhaps briefer) day in the sun. But the main event will feature some of the unquestionably leading alternative social media networks and will have more days and more publicity, naturally.
  • That is, as long as they really are provably committed to decentralization, self-ownership of user data, and interoperability. But we would have to determine their bona fides.

So what should we do next?

Proposal: A social contract for social media

Here is a proposal that I would like your feedback on.

I'm thinking of trying to get the CEOs of alternative social media companies—and then, perhaps, the big ones—to agree to a set of principles.

Once agreed and signed, I would be happy to help broker an announcement that a deal, along these lines, had been reached.

And then we could do some "mass try-outs" of at least some signatories, in conjunction with a new social media strike. But I think the first step is to get the alternative networks on board.

What principles? I don't think the Principles of Decentralized Social Networks is specific enough. What we really need to do is to operationalize those very general principles. So, something like this:

  1. We, representatives of social media networks agree to work with each other to adopt, adapt, or create a single, commonly-used, commonly-developed, and mutually satisfactory set of standards and protocols for making our networks interoperable, regardless of what other and underlying technologies we may use.
  2. "Interoperable" networks are those in which, at a minimum, posts that appear on one network can appear on other networks of a similar kind. Thus if one network supports microposts only, then microposts that originate on other networks can appear there. Similarly with longer posts, images, videos, and so forth.
  3. We will make diligent efforts support what might be called personal social media accounts as soon as available, so that there is support for peer-to-peer social media that does not require any networks or instances at all. In other words, these would be user-owned social media accounts, made according to standards that enable a person to post a social media feed entirely independently of any social media network. We will work diligently toward offering full technical support for users to post directly from feeds they directly and individually control onto our networks.
  4. As we become more fully decentralized, we will make user data fully portable. In other words, when a fully decentralized and interoperable network comes online, we will enable users to export their data in a format that allows them to host the "ur-version" of their data elsewhere.
  5. There is no requirement that our networks must carry all types of social media content; we may restrict what we carry by medium. Some networks may focus on microposts, others on blogs, and still others on photos or video. The standards and protocols should cover all uses of all these media, sufficient to specify how they are used by the big social media networks. As distinct new kinds of social media are invented, these too should be specified as well.
  6. It is also to be expected that we will support all features supported by the standards and protocols. For example, while some networks might support a wide variety of "reaction" features, others might have just "like" or "dislike," and some might have none at all.
  7. We, the social media networks that are party to this public pledge, each retain the right to moderate all content that appears on our networks. Neither any central body nor any specially commissioned organization has the right to determine what may and may not appear on our networks. We may be as open, or as restricted, as we wish.
  8. We acknowledge that there are other serious problems associated with decentralized networks—such as, perhaps especially, spam and problems associated with real-world identities. We will work diligently to solve these problems in a way that does not create a potentially corruptible system, or an ideologically-driven system of viewpoint-based censorship.
  9. Whether or not our own projects will support a private messaging service, the standards and protocols we support will include end-to-end, strong encryption for individual private messaging as well as private group chats.
  10. The only requirements for a network to be join this decentralized system are neutral technical protocols; the only requirement for a person to create an account will be purely technical ones. There will be no application or vetting process, any more than there is for the registration of a new domain name, blog, or email provider or address.
  11. The standards and protocols we adopt will be open source, not proprietary.
  12. We will create or place our trust into, and continue to support, an open and democratic organization that manages these standards and protocols. We may and should be expected to object if we notice that biased or corrupt procedures, particularly those operating behind the scenes, are shaping the development of these standards and protocols.
  13. We will particularly resist incursions by governments and giant corporations that attempt to hijack the standards and protocols for purposes of censorship, surveillance, or profit-making opportunities not open equally to all.
  14. We are committed to ease of use—so that people can enjoy the full benefits of owning their own data and participating in a decentralized social media system without installing their own server or doing anything else that requires technical skill beyond that of the plain non-technical person.

Please read that over and let me know what you think.

I propose that social media CEOs negotiate with each other on some such set of principles, then all agree upon them. The benefits of doing so would be tremendous:

First, this should light a fire underneath all and create a mutual, shared understanding about the ultimate goals of the new social media architecture. It would constitute a "Manhattan Project" for redesigning the Internet (or, as one organization has it, "redecentralizing" the Internet).

Second, it should also give users enthusiasm about alternative social media, by giving them some assurance that networks they reward with their participation today will remain true to certain basic principles. This is, as Internet entrepreneurs can surely agree, very important.

Third and finally, this will also give journalists, commentators, and technical professionals commonly-agreed grounds for criticizing the big social media networks. Perhaps they will want to claim to be moving toward decentralization; but if they cannot satisfy the requirements of this agreement, we can deny that they actually are decentralized. If the public shows tremendous support for decentralization in the sense that is agreed to, this will make it ever harder for social media giants to resist moving toward a decentralized future.

I know I haven't come to grips with all the issues involved here, and I know there are real experts who have. So help me to edit (or completely rewrite) the above so that it is something that we should expect social media networks to accept—assuming they really do take decentralization seriously.

The above is a very rough first draft at best. How should these principles read? Please discuss below.


Thanks for striking

Let me express my extreme gratitude to everyone who signed the Declaration of Digital Independence and went on social media strike July 4 and/or 5. I'd also like to thank the many reporters who picked up this story.

I'm cognizant that this attention represented some trust of me, i.e., that I wouldn't hijack this movement for selfish and profit-making ends. I've been a heavy social media user since the late 2000s and I'm basically just a disgruntled customer. Since from my small platform I can help organize people online, I thought it was my duty to try to do so. Let me reiterate that I don't want to start or join an organization or represent any social media company, etc. My interests lie 100% with the users. It is now easy to see the massive latent user demand for decentralized social media, and I want to keep pushing into motion its mass adoption.

Tomorrow or the next day I'll have a couple new posts for you with a more detailed debriefing and suggestions for next steps. If you want to give me (and everyone reading) some advice, please feel free to use the discussion below for that purpose!


#SocialMediaStrike resources

Here I will try to maintain a complete page of links to the main #SocialMediaStrike resources. Includes media to share, below.


Social Media Strike! (larrysanger.org)
Basic info on the social media strike:

On July 4 and 5 (at least one day), people with serious grievances against social media—including you?—will go on strike. You could, but obviously don’t have to, announce that you are one of the signatories of the Declaration of Digital Independence. [more]


Declaration of Digital Independence (larrysanger.org)
Articulates our basic digital rights; explains how the social media giants have systematically violated them; proposes some Principles of Decentralized Social Networks, according to which social networks should be decentralized, with the data being owned by individual users rather than corporations:

Humanity has been contemptuously used by vast digital empires. Thus it is now necessary to replace these empires with decentralized networks of independent individuals, as in the first decades of the Internet. As our participation has been voluntary, no one doubts our right to take this step. But if we are to persuade as many people as possible to join together and make reformed networks possible, we should declare our reasons for wanting to replace the old. [more]


FAQ about the project to decentralize social media (larrysanger.org)
General background info in FAQ format; explains my motives among much else.

What is the Declaration of Digital Independence?

Here it is. It is not meant to be a general bill of digital rights. Rather, it has the very delimited purposes of (1) declaring that we have the digital rights to free speech, privacy, and security, (2) enumerating the ways in which Big Social Media has violated those rights, and (3) articulating some Principles of Decentralized Social Media Networks, which together define the requirements of a better system of social media.


Principles of Decentralized Social Networks (vuild.com)
A clever disappearing copy of just the above-mentioned Principles.

We free individuals should be able to publish our data freely, without having to answer to any corporation. [more]


Proposing a 'Declaration of Digital Independence' (wired.com, March 12, 2019)
Longer background document explaining the essential problem with social media—centralization—and how to achieve decentralization. This is where I first articulated the plan I'm pursuing now (the combination of the Declaration, a strike, and some later-planned mass try-outs of alternative social media networks that are more committed to decentralization).

THIS MESSAGE IS mainly for the leaders and enthusiasts of the broad-based movement toward decentralizing content, but especially social media. I’m not trying to start a new project or organization—after all, decentralization is what I am encouraging. I’m partly trying to start a conversation among individuals, to get them thinking and talking—but on a massive scale. But I’m also trying to inspire people to action, to come together and go the last mile to achieving robust and extremely widespread decentralization. [more]


How to decentralize social media, according to Wikipedia's co-founder (thenextweb.com, Feb. 20, 2019)
The first article I wrote on this idea is relatively short and to the point:

The problem about social media is that it is centralized. Centralization empowers massive corporations and governments to steal our privacy and restrict our speech and autonomy. [more]

Some of the first copies of the Declaration

Vuild.com (just the Principles) - ZeroHedge (complete) - ReclaimTheNet (summarized)

The Declaration is shareable under the CC-by-sa license. I'll make an effort to add your copy/version here if you'll let me know about it.

Media to share

I didn't make these...thanks to the awesome people who did.

Here's a fantastic short video to use on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/SEDart4/status/1146517273617850372

and elsewhere (Google Drive link).

See also this image that you can use for your profile pictures.

Essentials: Declaration of Digital Independence -- Social Media Strike! -- FAQ about the project to decentralize social media -- Resources


Declaration of Digital Independence

Version 1.3 (June 29, 2019; version history)

See also: Social Media Strike! -- FAQ about the project to decentralize social media -- Resources

Humanity has been contemptuously used by vast digital empires. Thus it is now necessary to replace these empires with decentralized networks of independent individuals, as in the first decades of the Internet. As our participation has been voluntary, no one doubts our right to take this step. But if we are to persuade as many people as possible to join together and make reformed networks possible, we should declare our reasons for wanting to replace the old.

We declare that we have unalienable digital rights, rights that define how information that we individually own may or may not be treated by others, and that among these rights are free speech, privacy, and security. Since the proprietary, centralized architecture of the Internet at present has induced most of us to abandon these rights, however reluctantly or cynically, we ought to demand a new system that respects them properly. The difficulty and divisiveness of wholesale reform means that this task is not to be undertaken lightly. For years we have approved of and even celebrated enterprise as it has profited from our communication and labor without compensation to us. But it has become abundantly clear more recently that a callous, secretive, controlling, and exploitative animus guides the centralized networks of the Internet and the corporations behind them.

The long train of abuses we have suffered makes it our right, even our duty, to replace the old networks. To show what train of abuses we have suffered at the hands of these giant corporations, let these facts be submitted to a candid world.


They have practiced in-house moderation in keeping with their executives’ notions of what will maximize profit, rather than allowing moderation to be performed more democratically and by random members of the community.

They have banned, shadow-banned, throttled, and demonetized both users and content based on political considerations, exercising their enormous corporate power to influence elections globally.

They have adopted algorithms for user feeds that highlight the most controversial content, making civic discussion more emotional and irrational and making it possible for foreign powers to exercise an unmerited influence on elections globally.

They have required agreement to terms of service that are impossible for ordinary users to understand, and which are objectionably vague in ways that permit them to legally defend their exploitative practices.

They have marketed private data to advertisers in ways that no one would specifically assent to.

They have failed to provide clear ways to opt out of such marketing schemes.

They have subjected users to such terms and surveillance even when users pay them for products and services.

They have data-mined user content and behavior in sophisticated and disturbing ways, learning sometimes more about their users than their users know about themselves; they have profited from this hidden but personal information.

They have avoided using strong, end-to-end encryption when users have a right to expect total privacy, in order to retain access to user data.

They have amassed stunning quantities of user data while failing to follow sound information security practices, such as encryption; they have inadvertently or deliberately opened that data to both illegal attacks and government surveillance.

They have unfairly blocked accounts, posts, and means of funding on political or religious grounds, preferring the loyalty of some users over others.

They have sometimes been too ready to cooperate with despotic governments that both control information and surveil their people.

They have failed to provide adequate and desirable options that users may use to guide their own experience of their services, preferring to manipulate users for profit.

They have failed to provide users adequate tools for searching their own content, forcing users rather to employ interfaces insultingly inadequate for the purpose.

They have exploited users and volunteers who freely contribute data to their sites, by making such data available to others only via paid application program interfaces and privacy-violating terms of service, failing to make such freely-contributed data free and open source, and disallowing users to anonymize their data and opt out easily.

They have failed to provide adequate tools, and sometimes any tools, to export user data in a common data standard.

They have created artificial silos for their own profit; they have failed to provide means to incorporate similar content, served from elsewhere, as part of their interface, forcing users to stay within their networks and cutting them off from family, friends, and associates who use other networks.

They have profited from the content and activity of users, often without sharing any of these profits with the users.

They have treated users arrogantly as a fungible resource to be exploited and controlled rather than being treated respectfully, as free, independent, and diverse partners.


We have begged and pleaded, complained, and resorted to the law. The executives of the corporations must be familiar with these common complaints; but they acknowledge them publicly only rarely and grudgingly. The ill treatment continues, showing that most of such executives are not fit stewards of the public trust.

The most reliable guarantee of our privacy, security, and free speech is not in the form of any enterprise, organization, or government, but instead in the free agreement among free individuals to use common standards and protocols. The vast power wielded by social networks of the early 21st century, putting our digital rights in serious jeopardy, demonstrates that we must engineer new—but old-fashioned—decentralized networks that make such clearly dangerous concentrations of power impossible.

Therefore, we declare our support of the following principles.


Principles of Decentralized Social Networks

  1. We free individuals should be able to publish our data freely, without having to answer to any corporation.
  2. We declare that we legally own our own data; we possess both legal and moral rights to control our own data.
  3. Posts that appear on social networks should be able to be served, like email and blogs, from many independent services that we individually control, rather than from databases that corporations exclusively control or from any central repository.
  4. Just as no one has the right to eavesdrop on private conversations in homes without extraordinarily good reasons, so also the privacy rights of users must be preserved against criminal, corporate, and governmental monitoring; therefore, for private content, the protocols must support strong, end-to-end encryption and other good privacy practices.
  5. As is the case with the Internet domain name system, lists of available user feeds should be restricted by technical standards and protocols only, never according to user identity or content.
  6. Social media applications should make available data input by the user, at the user’s sole discretion, to be distributed by all other publishers according to common, global standards and protocols, just as are email and blogs, with no publisher being privileged by the network above another. Applications with idiosyncratic standards violate their users’ digital rights.
  7. Accordingly, social media applications should aggregate posts from multiple, independent data sources as determined by the user, and in an order determined by the user’s preferences.
  8. No corporation, or small group of corporations, should control the standards and protocols of decentralized networks, nor should there be a single brand, owner, proprietary software, or Internet location associated with them, as that would constitute centralization.
  9. Users should expect to be able to participate in the new networks, and to enjoy the rights above enumerated, without special technical skills. They should have very easy-to-use control over privacy, both fine- and coarse-grained, with the most private messages encrypted automatically, and using tools for controlling feeds and search results that are easy for non-technical people to use.

We hold that to embrace these principles is to return to the sounder and better practices of the earlier Internet and which were, after all, the foundation for the brilliant rise of the Internet. Anyone who opposes these principles opposes the Internet itself. Thus we pledge to code, design, and participate in newer and better networks that follow these principles, and to eschew the older, controlling, and soon to be outmoded networks.

We, therefore, the undersigned people of the Internet, do solemnly publish and declare that we will do all we can to create decentralized social networks; that as many of us as possible should distribute, discuss, and sign their names to this document; that we endorse the preceding statement of principles of decentralization; that we will judge social media companies by these principles; that we will demonstrate our solidarity to the cause by abandoning abusive networks if necessary; and that we, both users and developers, will advance the cause of a more decentralized Internet.


Please sign if you agree!

You can also sign on Change.org.

 

Signings

0

Goal

0

https://widget.civist.cloud/?api_url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.civist.cloud%2Ft%2F9caa1a6e-1152-4277-b5b4-2bd8cbb855e2%2F#/RW1iZWRkaW5nOmY0OTVkZjBiLTUxMjgtNDk0Mi1hM2UyLThlOTM2MjAyODg4MA==

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing...

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, Paris, January 30, 1787. Jefferson was the author of the original Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776.

Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's residence)
Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's residence)
(c) 2019 Larry Sanger


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Social Media Strike!

Short URL for this page: tiny.cc/july45

See also: Declaration of Digital Independence -- FAQ about the project to decentralize social media -- Resources

On July 4 and 5 (at least one day), people with serious grievances against social media—including you?—will go on strike. You could, but obviously don't have to, announce that you are one of the signatories of the Declaration of Digital Independence.

This means we will not use social media on those days, except to post notices that we are on strike. We’re going to make a lot of noise. Nobody will be able to ignore what’s happening. We’re going to flex our collective muscles and demand that giant, manipulative corporations give us back control over our data, privacy, and user experience.

Who: You. The more, the merrier! We’re urging you to go on strike with us. (“We” means nothing more than “all the rest of us who have serious grievances about social media—privacy, free speech, or something else.”)

What: A
collective pause in our use of social media, except to post notices
and memes that:

  1. Declare that we are on strike. Use hashtag #SocialMediaStrike.
  2. (Optional.) Point to a copy of the Declaration of Digital Independence (preferably, your own; see “How” below). Invite others to sign the Declaration.
  3. Urge others to join the strike. Ask your friends, family, and followers to sign and strike.

Hashtag:
#SocialMediaStrike

When:
July 4 and 5. At least one
day. Striking on both days
is likely to be more effective.

Why:
We, the strikers, urge the global developer community to perfect a
new system of decentralized
social media.
This
strike, if
successful,
will raise show
the world—Big Tech corporations, governments, developers, and
social media users—that there is a massive demand for a system in
which

  • Each
    of us individually owns our own data. Each of us individually
    controls it, just as we have control over our email, text messages,
    and blogs. It can be totally private, courtesy
    end-to-end encryption, or totally public; the choice is up to us.
  • Social
    media services stop acting as silos but become interoperable. If we
    make a post on one service, it can appear on another service.
  • Instead,
    social media services compete to create the best user
    experiences
    for a common pool of data.
  • Social
    media services agree
    upon and use a common, universal set of standards and protocols.
    This is how social media should have been developed from the
    beginning, rather than walled off in separate, competing networks.

In
this way, social media would
works the way websites, email, text messages, and blog hosting and
readers work: as neutral service providers.

What
we hope will happen:

  • Your
    followers will start seeing strike notices in their feeds on July 4.
  • Probably,
    most will
    ignore the
    first messages.
    But more and more notices will be appear. Strikers will start
    calling out scabs for posting when they should be striking.
  • With
    luck, by
    sometime on July 4, feeds will be absolutely flooded with strike
    notices.
  • When
    that happens, the
    news media at all levels will have to report on it.
  • Similarly,
    Big
    Social Media will have to issue statements responding to the
    Declaration and to any
    public
    criticisms from many quarters.
  • By
    the end, everyone will have learned how much support there is for
    decentralizing social media, taking the control out of the hands of
    Big Social Media, and returning ownership, control, and privacy to
    the ordinary user.

How:
It
should be fairly simple:

  1. Optional, for those signing the Declaration:
    1. Make your own copy of the Declaration: If you have time, energy, and ability, make your own copy of the Declaration. (It’s Creative Commons so this is 100% OK.) I would love for there to be a million copies of this document floating around. If you agree with everything except a few points, fine: make your own edits to your copy. Note: If you do make your own edits, please list them in a Proposed Changes section. If you copy somebody else’s text, clearly link to the version you’re copying.
    2. Sign the declaration. Please at least sign mine. But sign lots of copies (assuming you agree with their changes); I will.
    3. Encourage others to do the same.
  2. Set up a posting bot, if available. Hopefully, a programmer or several will create bots (browser plugins or apps) you can quickly and easily set up to post notices of the strike, links, memes, etc., for you on the appointed dates. Note: I’m not responsible for anything anyone else creates. Please check out any such service’s privacy policies before using it.
  3. Actually go on strike. Don’t post anything on your Big Social Media accounts on July 4 and/or 5 (preferably both days), except posts of the sort described under “What” above.
  4. Feel free to explore alternatives on those days. Those two days would be excellent days to check out the alternative social media sites of your choice, ones that are committed to privacy, security, and free speech; please give your full attention to sites/apps that support the Declaration.

What coders can
do to help:

Here
are some ideas:

  1. Write
    a strike bot. This would be a browser plugin or app that posts for
    users every hour (say) according to their specifications.
  2. Organize
    and participate in a conversation (I won’t be organizing it
    myself) to get all social media apps using the same standards.
    Critique code, in particular on APIs and implementations of existing
    standards. Help place geek pressure on social networks to adopt
    common standards.
  3. Help
    out with open source social media projects. Lots of them can use
    your help. We need to make them better
    than the Big Social Media offerings. Working together, FOSS
    developers can do it!

What
bloggers/webmasters of all sorts can do to help:

  1. Host your own copy of the
    Declaration.

  2. More
    generally, set up your own websites devoted to the Strike and
    decentralized social media. Host links to resources. Host memes
    and images people can share during the strike on social media.

I
want this effort to be entirely decentralized. I don’t want it to
be centered on larrysanger.org, which
I’m using just because it’s my own site and I don’t want to set
up a new one.
I want it to be decentralized—centerless.
So please, start something similar on your own blog.

More questions? Read the FAQ.

For a deep dive, see the list of resources.


FAQ about the project to decentralize social media

See also: Declaration of Digital Independence -- Social Media Strike! -- FAQ about the project to decentralize social media -- Resources

General questions

What is the Declaration of Digital Independence?

Here it is. It is not meant to be a general bill of digital rights. Rather, it has the very delimited purposes of (1) declaring that we have the digital rights to free speech, privacy, and security, (2) enumerating the ways in which Big Social Media has violated those rights, and (3) articulating some Principles of Decentralized Social Media Networks, which together define the requirements of a better system of social media.

Can you summarize the latter principles?

I'll try. Essentially, social media should be decentralized. Our data should be owned and served by ourselves, just as we own and host our own blogs: it's BYOD, or "Bring Your Own Data." Social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and their smaller alternatives and successors should aggregate the data from many different places, just as blog readers aggregate blogs. In short, they should be fully interoperable not just with each other but with their many smaller competitors.

If you do happen to stick with Facebook or Twitter, your data should be able to be exported to and synced with an independent data repository they don't control. This would take the pressure off of conservative and libertarian calls to regulate the Social Media Giants: they could still censor whomever they like, but unlike at present, your followers would be able to find the unexpurgated versions of your feeds elsewhere, and you'd be able to follow them without joining censorious networks. If you wanted to use a freer social media reader that is plugged into a broader, more neutral, all-encompassing social network, you'd be able to do so.

In addition, social media readers would, to be competitive, have to give users much more control over their feeds and what they're capable of seeing (and what is hidden from them).

Where can I read more about the idea in general?

Aside from the Declaration itself, see this long Wired article I wrote and a blog post (which appeared on TNW) that sort of kicked off this effort.

Is this a new idea?

No, it isn't. People have been discussing how to "decentralize social media" (as I put it) since the 2000s and have proposed social media standards. Another term for it it is distributed social network, although my take might be a little different from older ideas.

What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?

Ultimately, all I personally am trying to do is to help usher in a new system of decentralized social media and, in general, a newly decentralized Internet. I'm basically a dissatisfied customer. I don't have any project I'm pushing. In my day job I'm working on an encyclopedia project.

In the short run, however, I have much more delimited goals:

  1. Get many signatures on the Declaration of Digital Independence. I want it to go massively viral. I want millions of signatures. I want everyone to become aware of decentralized social media as an option.
  2. Make the social media strike on July 4-5 a roaring success. Create a massive media event that forces the social media giants, as well as the commentariat, to start discussing this seriously. Nothing would do that better than flexing our collective muscle.
  3. Divert traffic to social media alternatives, especially ones that are committed to decentralized social media rather than building yet more silos. They need all the help they can get, and I want to see what they're like at scale.

My medium-term goal is to get all the social media players into one room, at least metaphorically speaking, under tremendous public pressure to adopt common, open, and fair standards so that the various networks become fully interoperable (and thus open to broader competition from smaller players).

What is the biggest problem standing in the way of decentralizing social media?

It's actually a problem that is at once technical and social: we must get all the players on the same page, not just using some open standards or other, but the same standards. You can't have blog readers without all those blogs publishing feeds using the RSS standard (another, lesser-known but common blog standard is Atom).

What reason is there to think that Twitter, for example, would choose to support a more decentralized system? Seems crazy!

Well, that's what I thought too, until I asked Jack Dorsey point-blank:

(1) Once the standards for microposts are properly settled on, will you, Jack, enable Twitter users to incorporate Twitter-style microposts that are hosted elsewhere inline in their Twitter feeds?

Jack answered:

Yes. If we want to serve the public conversation (our purpose) we need to be more expansive than just what’s on Twitter. There’s real work here of course.

I also asked:

(2) Will you create tools to let people export and sync their tweets with microposts from outside of Twitter? [Jack prompted me to clarify "sync" some more.] Since people might want to post using different services but to the same personal micropost feed, a syncing process would have to occur to avoid forking/conflicts. An important part of the request here is that the exporting is done not just via Twitter's API (already in place) but via a standard, like an RSS feed, or even perhaps to a separate data storage (e.g., maybe I'd prefer to serve my own data from my personal cloud).

Jack answered:

I don’t see why not. ... [And in response to the "syncing" clarification.] Ah yes. I can see that.

Finally, I asked:

(3) And will you give users a lot more control over their feeds?

Jack replied:

Yes. We took a tiny step with the switch at the top of the timeline. Realize it’s small. But points to direction.

Much to my surprise, Jack then reached out and we discussed some details of Twitter's plans, which (without giving anything away) sounded excellent to me. He liked my Wired article; the description he used over the phone was "spot-on." So we'll see.

Even Mark Zuckerberg, whom I don't trust as far as I could kick him, paid lip service to neutral technical protocols and touts encryption which he finds "decentralizing," even while he backs away from firm commitment to end-to-end encryption. Because we need to protect your safety, of course. He also pays lip service to "data portability." So who knows?

About me (and my nonexistent organizational motives)

Who are you?

I'm Larry Sanger, currently CIO of Everipedia, the blockchain encyclopedia startup, and in 2001 I co-founded Wikipedia. It was my idea to apply wiki tech to the problem of creating an encyclopedia. I named the project and led it and its predecessor for a couple of years. It wouldn't exist if I hadn't have shown the world how to use wikis to write encyclopedias. I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from Ohio State (2000) and have spent most of my career after academia starting or advising a variety of other reference and educational websites. I write and speak on a wide variety of themes about the Internet, philosophy, technology, education, etc. I've been steadily online since about 1992 or 93, although I first accessed the Internet via a dialup modem in the early 80s.

Are you trying to start a movement?

No. I am trying to call attention to one that already exists.

But you want to start decentralized social media networks, right? Or what is your angle, or your goal?

I don't want to start a new social media network. (I am not interested in quitting my job. I'm CIO of an encyclopedia network.) I'm also not affiliated with any social media company or project. I'm not angling to be. Finally, I'm not a member of organizations devoted to decentralizing social media; apart from my recent efforts, I don't think I'm particularly well-known to the people who are in such organizations. I'm also not angling to infiltrate or take them over.

But I'm a fan of what they're doing. I want them to be more successful so I can start using their excellent hard work more actively.

I'm deeply upset with Big Social Media, and that is ultimately why I posted the "Declaration of Digital Independence." I'm just a dissatisfied customer with a blog and a modest following.

A few months ago on this blog, I stumbled upon a common and obvious idea, i.e., that we should decentralize social media. I ran with that in a couple speeches and a Wired article, and here I am, executing something like the plan I set out there.

What sort of organization are you starting here?

I'm not starting an organization at all. I have no committee or inner circle (this bit is contrary to plan; I'll explain why I changed this strategy in a bit). It's just me. And you. I want this to be really grass-roots. And if it doesn't take off, too bad—I don't really want to join anything more formal.

Organizations devoted quite explicitly to social media decentralization, data self-ownership, and related causes already exist. I lack the time and energy to work within those organizations. Those who are more professionally and exclusively committed to the cause should seek out those organizations and join them.

Why not work within (or start) an organization?

I find organizations to be limiting. I want to drive forward not an organization but a pre-existing movement. The movement, after all, is to decentralize social media. That means there's no center. Or if there is one kinda-sorta, I'm not that interested in being part of it. I'm a cat who wants to be a cat herder.

But aren't you organizing people who support your effort?

Not really; I don't want that role. I don't have "an effort" beyond cheerleading for something we all seem to want. I have a day job. I hereby disavow any role as the leader of any organization. I just want lots of people to republish the Declaration, or if they don't like it, come up with their own. I just want to persuade developers and investors and nonprofits and yes, maybe even governments if they can not try to take things over, to usher in a new age of decentralized social media. I want to do whatever I can individually to start a grassroots movement to get coders working on, and to get users switching to, any networks that respect the "Principles of Decentralized Social Networks."

Maybe you don't want to call it an organization, but isn't there a lot going on behind the scenes here?

No, not really, not as of this writing, there isn't much that I haven't shared quite openly. I'm not pulling strings anywhere, and nobody is pulling my strings. What you see is what you get. That's how I like best to operate.

So-and-so claims to be part of your organization or to speak on behalf of the Declaration. Is that right?

No it isn't. I don't have an organization, therefore nobody is part of my organization.


Version history for "Declaration of Digital Independence"

1.3 (2019-06-29) Added CC-by-sa license (thought I had done this earlier but apparently not).

1.2 (2019-06-29) Added a quote from Thomas Jefferson, author of the original Declaration, and a picture of his Monticello.

1.12 (2019-06-26) Bolded the words "We, therefore, the undersigned people of the Internet".

1.11 (2019-06-25) In the preamble, to "centralized architecture of the Internet", add "at present"; also, changed "exploitative spirit" to "exploitative animus".

1.1 (2019-06-25) In the catalog of outrages, changed "privacy, security, and free speech" to "free speech, privacy, and security". Moved "They have practiced in-house moderation..." to the first place. Added in the second place this new point: "They have banned, shadow-banned, throttled, and demonetized both users and content based on political considerations, exercising their enormous corporate power to influence elections globally." Added in the third place this new point: "They have adopted algorithms for user feeds that highlight the most controversial content, making civic discussion more emotional and irrational and making it possible for foreign powers to exercise an unmerited influence on elections globally."

1.02 (2019-06-10) At the end of the preamble, expand "But it has become abundantly clear more recently that a callous, secretive, controlling, and exploitative spirit guides the centralized networks of the Internet" by appending "and the corporations behind them." This is to clarify the meaning of "they" in the catalog of outrages. This is also why in the next paragraph we add, to "To show what train of abuses we have suffered", the clause "at the hands of these giant corporations".

1.01 (2019-06-09) In "Principles of Decentralized Social Networks" 4, append to "Just as no one has the right to eavesdrop on private conversations in homes" the clause "without extraordinarily good reasons".

1.0 (2019-06-09) First posted version.


The Antivitist Trend in the West

Recent events have suggested that there is a trend afoot in the West: that life is overrated and that death is not so bad. Call it, for lack of a better term, antivitism (from Latin vita, life).

I'm not saying there's a "death cult." But there is evidence of a rather odd trend that seems to celebrates death or at least that greatly undervalues life. By the end of this post I'll have a fuller account of the attitude in hand. This attitude may be seen most often among certain young but world-weary activists. I don't mean just the young and activist, but one less often sees this view among older people, with healthy children, and the politically apathetic.

"All right, what are you on about, Sanger?" you ask.

Well, I'll tell you.

First let's consider euthanasia. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that euthanasia advocates are a "death cult." Insofar as euthanasia is strictly an end-of-life "palliative care" decision and it is passive euthanasia (i.e., the doctor doesn't actually flip the switch), this doesn't seem to valorize death or devalue life. It is euthanasia for depression—especially active euthanasia, and even more especially for the young—that would essentially encourage the most fragile among us to give up, to stop living, and to entertain the strange fantasy that dying is OK. Death is preferable, such people say, pretending that they are being sensitive (because all their views are driven by a desire to be sensitive) because it is merciful. Never mind that we're talking about killing; it's sensitive killing, and if you aren't on board, you just don't understand. The suggestion is that life couldn't improve, so killing yourself (even if you're quite young) can be preferable—if that's what you decide.

The appalling recent case of Noa Pothoven is illustrative. Noa, a 17-year-old victim of repeated sexual assault, killed herself slowly, by not eating or drinking, while her parents and doctors stood by idly. That this was allowed to happen might be written off as a weird Dutch excess. But while people around the world were wringing their hands about the horror, another surprisingly large or at least loud group of people, also quite international, complained bitterly that people were calling this "euthanasia," as if this label particularly mattered. This semantic dispute went proxy for the real issue: should minors be allowed to kill themselves just because they're depressed? The answer should be obvious, but for that strange coterie of "antivitists," death was a sad, tragic, but very welcome blessing for Noa. Her parents and doctors did, the antivitists affirm, just what they should have done: stand by idly while she killed herself.

Only a failure to properly value life and its possibilities, and by comparison to positively value death, could lead one to such a position.

So now perhaps you have an idea of what I mean. Some might immediately want to add abortion to the list of antivitist positions. I'm not so sure. Perhaps it isn't fair to call all abortion advocates "antivitists." The pro-life (or anti-abortion) argument here is that a newly-gestating life in the womb is a human life, though not a sentient one, and all human life has a right to live, and snuffing that life out is murder. The killing of a fetus for the convenience of the mother strikes some with great horror.

My view on this, which I don't hold to very strongly, is that abortion in the first few months is easier to dismiss because the fetus cannot even feel pain. However that might be, abortion after viability is very problematic for me, and for most people. After that point, you must twist yourself in logical knots if you wish the deny the obvious fact that there is a baby that with as much ease could be born into the world as killed (though at much greater expense afterward, if allowed to live). Such "late-term" or "third trimester" abortions shows considerable contempt for that little life, particularly when the mother's life is not at risk. Late-term abortions make up a very small percentage, just 1.3%, of all abortions in the U.S.; but if they should be considered murder, that would still be 35 murders per day in the U.S.

However that might be, I certainly think favoring genuine infanticide can qualify you as an antivitist. Even in this case there are exceptions: there are certain cases of babies born brain dead, who will never be sentient or who will never know anything but pain. Killing them is more uncontroversially a mercy when—though it is horribly tragic—there is nothing worth calling a human life that could have been preserved. Peter Singer highlights these sorts of cases. But on my view, obviously, not all birth defects qualify, and certainly the convenience of the mother does not qualify.

But has anyone maintained that outright infanticide of healthy infants, just because the mother doesn't want a baby, is acceptable? Well, it's 2019, so I suspect you won't be surprised when I tell you the answer is yes. It's not just campus dudebros who apparently think so. If you want to do a more serious search for answers to this question that don't take the form of Republicans trash-talking Democrats for favoring late-term abortion, don't call it "infanticide." Call it "neonaticide"; the Chicago Tribune reported that "a conservative estimate puts the incidence of neonaticide in the U.S. at 150 to 300 annually." It so happens that this crime was defended by two freshly-minted Ph.D. ethicists back in 2012; their term for it was the chillingly clinical-sounding "after-birth abortion," maintaining that newborns should be permitted to be killed if their mothers don't want them.

Fortunately, the view never really caught on—unless you wanted to count the aforementioned people who support the killing of viable babies who were extracted from the uterus in order to be killed (i.e., they would survive if they weren't killed). There would seem to be quite a few of such people, though such people disagree with the "infanticide" epithet.

Clearly, it seems to matter what you call the killing of babies.

Now, I am aware that I keep using a formulation that must sound uncharitable and paradoxical, if not absurd: that some positively prefer, celebrate, or valorize...death. Is that just rhetorical excess on my part? Maybe. But it certainly isn't excess in the case of the very best example of antivitists: antinatalists. As the Collins Dictionary has it, antinatalism is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." They really do dislike life, or at least new life. They think that to be born is to be harmed. Look at how philosopher David Benatar's book title has it: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence.

As interesting as this might be, I'm not going to discuss it in great depth, partly because it isn't really a massive movement and partly because I don't feel like debunking easily-debunked philosophical nonsense. The point is that there really is a small minority of people—mostly young and sad people (on Reddit, 80% are under 26 and 59% depressed or suicidal)—who take the position that life is simply a bad thing, and that death would be better, or as Benatar puts it, it would be better never to have been born. These people must really dislike It's a Wonderful Life (one of my very favorite movies). In it, the angel Clarence disabuses the hapless George of his belief that it would be better if he had never been born.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOXxKxwjogM

Along these lines, I would be remiss not to mention those who do not want to procreate; I refer to the childfree movement. Their Reddit group is much larger than the antinatalist one, though they are philosophically largely in alignment. In fairness, most of these people simply want society (especially their own parents) to stop bothering them with expectations to procreate. Of course they're not necessarily antivitists, let alone part of a "death cult."

But a sizeable number of people in the movement do believe it is positively wrong to procreate; and they take this seriously, going so far as to declare quite unashamedly that they hate children. This is the populist side of antinatalism. I imagine most people already know that this isn't some wild-eyed scare-mongering; The New Yorker saw fit to give a platform to the view (quoting Benatar, again, among others). These more passionate childfree antinatalists have dismissive epithets for those who do choose to have children: "breeders." These people value their own lives, presumably, if they aren't among the many miserable antinatalists, but not so much the lives of children, i.e., of new people on the face of the earth. Obviously, people who are angered by the addition of new human beings need not valorize death; but it seems fair to say that they do not place a premium on life per se, beyond their own lives and perhaps those of people who are already here (as long as they aren't children, I guess; one can only wonder at what age they stop being abhorrent).

So there are some views that strike me as being, prima facie, "antivitist" views.

Here's a problem for my view. People who favor extreme abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle tend to be on the left or libertarian—and the left and libertarians alike are generally opposed to capital punishment. So a challenge to me would go, "Hey Sanger, you said these people favor death. [Well, maybe in the case of some post-viability abortion advocates and antinatalists.] If they were some kind of 'death cult,' wouldn't they be in favor of capital punishment? But they hate capital punishment! So there! These people care about quality of life, of course!"

I can't disagree. This suggests, then, that there is something more subtle at work than that they simply "celebrate death or greatly undervalue life." Clearly, we need to draw a distinction. It isn't a desire for death per se, I think, that characterizes antivitism; it is one's own death, or that of those one is responsible for, or would be responsible if one did not oppose creating new life. That seems more reasonable, if still rather deranged.

Also, let me concede something before I'm accused of a really gross error. Of course, you wouldn't have to accept a general principle that human life is not terribly valuable in itself, or that death or never having been born is preferable to life, in order to accept most of the above views. I mean, logic may be chopped in various ways, and I don't wish to imply that people are part of anything remotely resembling a "death cult" simply because they embrace one of the views described above. Of course that would be wrong.

So what am I saying?

In frank discussions of these topics, one does frequently comes across deeply pessimistic remarks: life is hell; the terminally depressed can't change; death would be a blessing; it would be better never to have been; new lives are little more than bloodsucking parasites; people who create new life are mere contemptible "breeders." All of these are, I maintain, undercurrents of ultra-sophisticated, world-weary nihilism that pop up in discussions of late-term abortion rights, euthanasia rights, antinatalism, and the childfree lifestyle. It seems that some wish to impose their own hatred of their own lives on the rest of the world, and that this manifests in support for the positions mentioned. That strikes me as coming from a profoundly misanthropic place, although that word strikes me as not quite right. After all these people don't just dislike other people, they positively deny the value of their lives. That's something much darker than old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy.

Another pessimistic modern sentiment, not discussed above—existentialism—falls under the same umbrella. Our lives are meaningless and absurd; there's no escape from the nausea induced by our radical freedom in a postmodern world. This isn't so much misanthropy, either, as more straightforward pessimism that is part and parcel of the rejection (as "false consciousness") of any religion-based or naturalistic values that might give life meaning.

If there is an antivitist trend, whether rooted in nasty misanthropy or nihilistic pessimism, and if it continues to grow as it has in recent decades, then I suppose the next things to expect would be:

Maybe I'm onto something. I'm not saying this post clinches the matter. But if I'm right, this would tend to explain why various kinds of morbid and deeply depressing entertainment have become so popular in recent decades.


Is letting a 17-year-old die morally equivalent to killing her?

A spate of news articles appeared yesterday, reporting that Dutch 17-year-old mental patient Noa Pothoven was euthanized. This formulation—she was euthanized—caused outrage in certain circles. This is factually incorrect, they say. She was not euthanized. She took her own life.

What are the facts of the case? She was sexually attacked and assaulted three times, beginning at age 11, which led to severe depression and anorexia. She wrote an autobiographical account of her troubles. At age 17, she decided she had had enough. With her parents' acquiescence, she refused food and drink, and last Sunday, she died.

So why do people like Politico correspondent Naomi O'Leary and Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown insist that she was not euthanized? Because Noa's problems, as the latter writer puts it, "did not come to an end with the state permitting a doctor to kill her." She chose to commit suicide, while her parents and doctors stood by and did nothing, respecting her wish to die. That's not euthanasia, O'Leary and Brown say. O'Leary found this to be infuriating "misinformation."

To this, many others respond: of course it's euthanasia. What else do you call it when a doctor stands by and allows a patient to starve herself to death—all the more tragic in this case because the patient is just 17 years old?

The question looks like an unresolvable semantic one. But logic-chopping ethicists come to the rescue with a distinction: Noa was subjected to passive, not active euthanasia. The difference, as the BBC explains, lies in the difference between killing and letting die. Nobody killed Noa (in fact, she asked for help, and was rightly refused); but they did let her die.

If you leave it at that, no one is the wiser, because the real questions, clearly, are: (1) Is there a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia in this case? And: (2) Did Noa's parents and doctors do right or wrong?

Given a case that sounds so outrageous to some, it is easy to glibly declare that there is no difference. But there are plenty of cases in which there certainly seems to be a difference between killing and letting die. Changing the case makes this rather clearer. Suppose a 50-year-old man like me is severely depressed and wants to die. Is there a difference between you shooting him through the head, and his doing the same thing while you stand by idly? (Let's assume it's you could easily take the gun away.) Clearly there is. But wherein lies the difference?

There are a couple, actually. First, in the case of active euthanasia, you are taking action. We can ask the question, "Why did you pull the trigger?" We can ask a similar question in the second case, "Why didn't you stop him?" but the questions are actually quite different.

Second, more to the point and more importantly, to permit active euthanasia requires that we adopt policies, moral and legal, that distinguish between murder and euthanasia. But there is no such requirement if we permit only passive euthanasia: here we need only adopt policies to distinguish between suicide and passive euthanasia. (For one thing, it's not passive euthanasia if nobody knows you're committing suicide.)

Active euthanasia is more morally fraught because it resembles murder, and murder is rightly regarded as one of the very worst crimes it is possible to commit. But allowing someone to commit suicide looks very different indeed from murder, because the motives are deeply different. If you stand by while your 50-year-old friend commits suicide, you might very well feel guilty later, and people might well blame you for doing something wrong (or rather, for not doing what you should have done); but nobody can sensibly accuse you of murder.

Ultimately—as is the case with most ethical questions—it is ultimately about the policies, the rules, the principles. Do we want to be a society that approves of people committing suicide? Should that be regarded as a real possibility for people? Should it figure into their calculations as an option, sometimes? And then, if so—do we want to take the morally fraught step of helping people to carry out this dreadful choice?

Let's briefly consider both sides here.

The more conservative approach points to the impact that the choice has on others, that the policy has on society at large, and whether we even have the right to throw away a gift given to us by the divine. No man is an island, and the official approval of suicide causes trauma far beyond that experienced by a person suffering in bodily pain or depression. The trauma is compounded when others participate in carrying out the decision. In the case of Noa, consider the lifelong trauma her dramatic act will have on her parents, family, friends—and now also the broader society in which other 17-year-olds might be tempted to solve their problems this way.

The reason that liberals and libertarians are typically in favor of euthanasia (passive at least, and often active as well) is that this respects the choice of the individual. Whether to go on living is a deeply personal decision, they say. Hence society's rules should permit a negative outcome if that is our choice. If this encourages others (or rather, alerts them to the possibility) to do the same, perhaps that's for the best. Why should people be forced to live if they don't want to? Even if there are some awful consequences, this is the price we pay for freedom.

This is not an easy question, and you're frankly an idiot if you pretend that it is. But there's a complicating factor in Noa's case. She was young, just a few years older than my son. I can't imagine "permitting" him to commit suicide as I stood by. The idea fills me with horror.

The admitted fact is that she lacked a mature mental capacity. Moreover, while I don't really approve of the clinical language, one might say she was ill in addition to being young. Now, typically, as in the case of the 50-year-old, we might credit the person's choice as being mature and considered, and therefore free and worthy of the respect of a person with dignity. Do we owe a mentally ill young person the duty to dignify her choice as also one that is free? I'm not so sure. She was unformed, and she was not thinking straight. Had she been my daughter, I would have had her committed to an asylum that would help her get better. I would not have respected her choice, being one made by an immature and ill person.

I pity Noa's parents and doctors. But I also accuse them of doing something very wrong indeed—by not taking action when they clearly should have.

By the way, it's not lost on me that one might argue that anybody, regardless of age, with severe depression might be thought to be sufficiently impaired that we should not credit his decision to end his life as being free, and hence we should always work against it and instead institutionalize the person. But I'm not making that argument, as it raises further, hard questions. Noa's case strikes me as being rather clearer. The combination of her youth and her mental incapacity mean that her caregivers had absolutely no obligation to credit her choice.