The Hacking of America

tags: politics, technology

Jill Lepore is a professor of American history at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” from which parts of this essay are adapted.

Every government is a machine, and every machine has its tinkerers — and its jams. From the start, machines have driven American democracy and, just as often, crippled it. The printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the television, the mainframe, cable TV, the internet: Each had wild-eyed boosters who promised that a machine could hold the republic together, or make it more efficient, or repair the damage caused by the last machine. Each time, this assertion would be both right and terribly wrong. But lately, it’s mainly wrong, chiefly because the rules that prevail on the internet were devised by people who fundamentally don’t believe in government.

The Constitution itself was understood by its framers as a machine, a precisely constructed instrument whose measures — its separation of powers, its checks and balances — were mechanical devices, as intricate as the gears of a clock, designed to thwart tyrants, mobs and demagogues, and to prevent the forming of factions. Once those factions began to appear, it became clear that other machines would be needed to establish stable parties. “The engine is the press,” Thomas Jefferson, an inveterate inventor, wrote in 1799.

The United States was founded as a political experiment; it seemed natural that it should advance and grow through technological experiment. Different technologies have offered different fixes. Equality was the promise of the penny press, newspapers so cheap that anyone could afford them. The New York Sun was first published in 1833. “It shines for all” was its common-man motto. Union was the promise of the telegraph. “The greatest revolution of modern times, and indeed of all time, for the amelioration of society, has been effected by the magnetic telegraph,” The Sun announced, proclaiming “the annihilation of space.”

Time was being annihilated too. As The New York Herald pointed out, the telegraph appeared to make it possible for “the whole nation” to have “the same idea at the same moment.” Frederick Douglass was convinced that the great machines of the age were ushering in an era of worldwide political revolution. “Thanks to steam navigation and electric wires,” he wrote, “a revolution cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart.” Henry David Thoreau raised an eyebrow: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Thoreau was as alone in his skepticism as he was in his cabin. “Doubt has been entertained by many patriotic minds how far the rapid, full and thorough intercommunication of thought and intelligence, so necessary to the people living under a common representative republic, could be expected to take place throughout such immense bounds,” a House member said in 1845, but “that doubt can no longer exist.” Less than 20 years later, a nation tied together by 50,000 miles of wire, 1,400 stations and 10,000 telegraph operators fell into civil war. ...

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