An interesting piece in the Atlantic entitled ‘Should Teens Have Access to Disappearing Messages?’ highlights a curious trend that has recently been taking hold throughout the United States and abroad: both parents and individuals are increasingly outsourcing education and the cultivation of virtue to government and businesses.
As highlighted in Caroline Mimbs Nyce’s piece, confronted with an increasing number of opioid deaths resulting from drugs laced with fentanyl, Snapchat faces lawsuits surrounding the design of its disappearing message platform which makes this possible. The same week this article was published, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, announced a ban on disposable vapes which have quickly taken a hold over Britain’s youth.
Two big problems stand out here. In the case of the former, it is undoubtedly true that Snapchat’s privacy features, including disappearing messages, make possible the widespread exchange of illicit substances and activity. A parallel also exists in the United Kingdom, where in response to concerns over illicit sexual abuse material proliferating on online platforms, its response was to introduce, through the Online Safety Bill, measures that would severely undermine internet encryption in an attempt to crack down on this activity. Privacy is a double-edged sword: I have no doubts that as a result of strict privacy protocols, including end-to-end encryption, some unimaginably obscene content is indeed able to circulate in a way that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to. The same is true for Snapchat: the platform’s disappearing messages function is without a doubt a large reason as to why it is so appealing to those wishing to make illicit transactions. Yet one must recognise that the loss of encryption and these privacy features could result in an even worse situation, whereby nobody is able to freely communicate their thoughts or ideas. In eliminating privacy for all in the name of safety, a key check on power and authoritarianism disappears, leading to an even larger potential loss of safety. It is also doubtful whether taking aim at these kinds of privacy features will have any impact at all: those intent on committing criminal activity will simply move elsewhere to even less-regulated platforms. The result is a loss of privacy for all citizens, with very little upside in terms of a reduction in the type of activity one is wishing to eliminate. The argument that ‘privacy made this possible so privacy shouldn’t be allowed’ is a very dangerous line to follow.
Whilst the United Kingdom may have narrowly avoided some of the worst proposed consequences of this law, a larger, perhaps more pertinent issue is at stake: parents and individuals are increasingly outsourcing (perhaps even abdicating) the responsibility of virtue to the state. Developing lasting, healthy habits, in one’s own life as in the life of one’s children, is and has never been an easy feat. It is much easier to hire a lawyer and go after Snapchat, or to email one’s MP / Senator urging them to ban Tiktok, than to explain and inculcate virtue in one’s own life as in the life of one’s children. The former brings an instant sense of getting something done. The latter is far more uncertain, and the results only become evident after years, if not decades. Faced with a realisation of the difficulty of dealing with these problems (these problems which are indeed very difficult to surmount), we have relinquished our responsibility to government and big tech in a way that does nothing to solve the underlying issue.
‘So what?’ one may ask. I can identify a couple of serious problems resulting from this. Firstly, abdicating personal responsibility for virtue to the state (or other large bureaucracies like companies) and expecting that they will tell us how to best live our lives, is a highly dangerous precedent. One must habituate oneself towards living well and practice developing good habits in their own life. Furthermore, actually tackling any perceived problem (if indeed vaping or snapchat are as bad as their opponents claim), is something that must come from the inside. Virtue must be chosen and cannot enforced from the outside. Attempts to do this will merely result in these behaviours being substituted by other, equally pejorative, behaviours. Most importantly, every individual is unique, and calculations over risk and benefits cannot be uniformly applied across entire societies. It cannot be right that because some individuals abuse something, no-one should be allowed to make use of that thing.
I therefore conclude that over-and-above the immediate concerns of lawsuits and legislation, one must consider the greater principle at stake. Our future, and that of future generations, heavily depends on it.