The “Marketplace of Ideas” is a metaphor that comes to us from John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty in 1859. To summarize, the idea is that in an open society, different ideas will be traded in free encounters. Wrong ideas can be challenged and the good ones will presumably win out.
This works when you have a range of views, and when people can get the evidence they need to evaluate the views. It tends to work well with discussions about topic like science where it’s easier to establish truth, and there are built-in processes around rigorous review of ideas, like peer review. It still works — but in a more tricky way – with ideas wrapped up in cultural beliefs, or politics.
The Marketplace Metaphor
In an idea marketplace, sellers are those who want to communicate ideas and buyers who are listening. The buyers are free to move among the stalls and select the best goods, or best ideas. This metaphor, or “useful myth” needs something very specific to work:
People must be able to evaluate their choices.
This comes in two parts: first, you need to have raw information about what’s being sold. If the prices in the marketplace are hidden, there is no reason to believe people will make good choices. Second, you have to be able to move about the marketplace to see what the competition is. If you come across one vegetable stall, even if you have all the facts, you can’t evaluate that vendor unless you can visit the other vegetable stalls to compare.
Marketplace of Ideas 2020
Because of that picture above, you might be thinking of a quaint little street market in a city, with a few dozen booths at most, shoppers casually strolling through, and it’s an alluring idea, but to make the “Marketplace of Ideas” metaphor work in 2020, we’re going to have to picture what the actual marketplace looks like.
This is a picture of the world’s largest weekend market in Bangkok. Only this still doesn’t capture what the actual Marketplace of Ideas looks like in 2020. This might be a small approximation of what one tiny neighborhood might look like. Imagine this marketplace as being the “neighborhood of ideas about Western Healthcare”.
The entire marketplace can’t even be visualized; if it were a real marketplace it would easily be bigger than an entire city. And just as markets might be organized into vegetables, clothing, and so on — this market too is grouped.
The Consumer’s Perspective
You could wander here for hours – much more time than you actually have, and still only see a small fraction of one neighborhood of the marketplace. This introduces the first troubling issue:
When marketplaces get too big, you cannot evaluate your alternatives.
Because spending time and evaluating your options itself has a cost, and you don’t have infinite resources. You can “shop for ideas” for a maximum of a few hours at a time, but what if finding the good ones may take more than 20 hours? You won’t find them, even applying honest effort.
The Producer’s Perspective
In most real marketplaces for tangible goods, it costs money to set up a booth. And it costs time to stock it, and to stand around for hours and haggle with the people who pass by. This creates a dynamic where you have to be serious about your wares to be there. In the Marketplace of Ideas 2020 – there is zero cost to set up a booth; social media and many blogging platforms are free. And you don’t have to man the booth. You can publish an opinion and leave that booth open 24/7 for years.
The main cost and difficulty is to try to establish presence in as many districts of the marketplace as possible: notice how every “brand” has a website, a twitter feed, a facebook page, an Instagram profile, etc. Most of these costs though have been automated away. As I’m writing this, I know that a Twitter update will automatically be triggered by my publish.
The Market Organizer’s Perspective
Markets always have organizers of some type, with varying levels of control of how much they can organize. In the 2020 Marketplace of Ideas, the organizers are the major social media platforms, major news outlets, and even blogging platforms like WordPress that I’m using now.
Organizers set the rules
Community standards on sites like Facebook state that beheading videos, pornography, and copyright violation are not allowed in the marketplace, but false political advertising is. These standards in all of their nuance and complexity, essentially gate who can show up.
Organizers divide the marketplace up into neighborhoods
Platforms generally have filter settings that control access to certain kinds of adult content, and that allow us to filter out certain kinds of bad information; they also group into categories (“People who liked this group may also like…”).
Organizers use algorithms to direct traffic into the marketplace
In the marketplace of ideas, recommendation algorithms act as market organizers. If you’re strolling through this virtual market, what’s next in your feed or the next recommended pick is the next booth in the row that you are browsing. If you enter for the first time, “Users also liked…” recommendations will immediately send you into a particular “district”.
Organizers get paid by how much time you spend in the market
It’s just a numbers and time game: the more time you spend in the marketplace, the more you will end up buying. Whether it’s real goods or ideas, this approach is the same. Remember that if you’re a market organizer, your goal is generally to maximize time spent at the market, which is not the same thing as making sure you go home with the right goods.
Neighborhoods and Ghettos
Just like real spaces, when the space gets vast, it organizes into smaller units. In the marketplace of ideas there are nice neighborhoods and there are ghettos. Both are self-perpetuating: groups of people who spend time in one neighborhood develop a distinct culture. Newcomers get trained into that culture and to some extent outsiders are resisted. There are “good neighborhoods” like music and poetry exchanges. And there are ghettos of bad ideas, like flat earth theories, holocaust denial, and so on.
Big Picture: Poorly Functioning Market
Take all of this together, and remember: people must be able to evaluate their choices in order for the marketplace of ideas to work.
Fundamentally, people cannot evaluate their choices of information in 2020. Their ability to do so is compromised by many factors:
- It is possible to get trapped in the ghetto of holocaust denialism and wander there for days, and never even see everything that’s available to be seen in that one space.
- As a result, there is little effective competition in this market. In your local neighborhood, there may be no competition at all. Of course elsewhere there are opposing ideas, but if you can’t see them or get there, it doesn’t matter.
- There is no market map: meaning that if you’re in a ghetto, you may not know it, and there are no directions to the exit, much less to the neighborhood selling the alternative wares.
- Because the cost to produce is zero, the cost of vetting good ideas has been pushed from the producers to the consumers. It costs nothing to back and promulgate a bad idea, and so the task of vetting the good ones has become drastically harder, not just because of information volume, but because the “pre-vetting” previously done by producers, isn’t happening anymore.
Many would like to sweep these problems away with a general appeal to personal responsibility. “Caveat emptor“, they’ll say. The most dangerous sentiments are always the ones that are true, but over-extended. Buyers always have to stay on their toes and do their own evaluation, but there are limits to all things.
What’s different is the size and scope of the market, and the acquisition costs of good information. As the amount of information explodes, so does the acquisition and vetting cost.
“Buyer beware” rings hollow, as what was once a shared responsibility (vetting goods and information) is transferred entirely to the buyer, with buyer mistakes benefiting producers.
Filter bubbles: Algorithms direct people into comfortable neighborhoods where they spend all of their time. Wandering for hours, the truth is apparent to them: everyone in this neighborhood agrees on what the facts are, and what they mean. This view of the world is completely inconsistent with another neighborhood where people may be happier or healthier — but the customers here don’t know that, because they can’t even see the existence of the other neighborhood. This is what’s called a filter bubble.
Fake news and “Relative Truth”: it isn’t that all news is fake — it’s that lacking a map for the market, truth becomes relative and one can’t tell what’s fake and what’s not. We’re all sure there are some really bad ghettos out there in this marketplace, we only differ on who is in one. When you net that out (my truth is truth and you’re in a bad neighborhood) – the fake news concept falls out naturally.
Social division: people form into cultural groups according to which neighborhoods they spend the most time in, and start to make in-group and out-group identifications.
The market of the past is gone, and isn’t coming back. Plotting a course forward though can be done. I do not pretend to have a solution to a problem this complex, but there are a couple of principles that must be part of any solution that will be workable.
- Sellers must have skin in the game. It was a good thing for it to cost money to be present at the market, because it acted as a filter: producers must meet some minimum criteria to show up. This helps limit the overwhelm on the part of the customers, and makes both sides responsible for vetting information.
- A map. Customers lack context if they don’t know where they are and what other options they have. Any market of non-trivial size should provide a map of where you are and where you can go
- Regulation. This is not intended to be a political argument, but it is fact that all effective human markets have some over-arching regulation. You aren’t allowed to sell products full of glass shards in any sane marketplace; freedom and customer responsibility is not a suitable counter-argument. Regulation may be as much a problem as a solution, and it must be done wisely. And yes, we do not yet know what “wise” means in this context.