By Augustine Low
It is no secret that the government has long considered the Internet a pain and a nuisance. The social media landscape, with its vast expanse and open participation, encourages disorder and unpredictability. The recent cyber attacks have given the government a chance to show its hand.
Last Friday, PM Lee Hsien Loong spoke at length about the shifting media landscape. This is the one line which sums up the government stance: “Our rules and norms have not caught up with this new reality.”
In other words, expect more rules, more control, more tightening to rein in the openness and unpredictability of online voices. It could mean more attempts to reshape reality, to turn the unknown into the known, the unpredictable into the predictable.
Cyber attacks and controversial surveillance programmes are a global phenomenon but developed countries have warned that cooler heads must prevail. Earlier this month, the head of the United States’ Department of Homeland Security, Rand Beers, said legislation must not end up violating civil liberties. His warning: ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Those who flout the law should be dealt with. But Singaporeans have reason to be concerned that overreaction to cyber attacks and cyber harassment may lead to a clampdown on social media. It would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Moments before I came across PM’s speech over the weekend, I had just put down a slim 112-page book The Bed of Procrustes. All of a sudden, the message in the book seemed prescient, prophetic even. It begins with the telling of a Greek mythology about Procrustes, the owner of a small estate in Attica. Procrustes provided travellers with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched (his name was said to be Damastes but he was nicknamed Procrustes, which means “the stretcher”).
The Book of Procrustes is written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, hailed as “the hottest thinker in the world” by The Sunday Times of London. His view is that humans, facing the limits of knowledge, the unseen and unknown, make the ill-advised move to squeeze life into the Procrustean bed of a crisp, known and reductive category. He calls it the “backward fitting” – much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly-fitting suit by surgically altering the limbs of their customers.
The author’s message resonates with the government’s unhappiness with the new reality. So long as cyberspace is viewed as a threat, the government will continue to blame it for not fitting the entrenched system and the status quo, and therefore seek ways to amputate views that stick out — the unknown and unfamiliar.
Taleb argues that more than ever, in the face of modern challenges, society needs people with the “triplet of erudition, elegance, and courage”.
Now, if we could go back to that story earlier about Procrustes, who made his visitors fit his bed to perfection by either stretching them or cutting their limbs. In the purest of poetic justice, Procrustes met his match in the fearless Theseus. After the customary dinner, Theseus made Procrustes lie in his own bed. Then, to make him fit in it to customary perfection, he decapitated him.
I do not wish for such a tragic ending.
The optimist in me hopes that our leaders, in times of challenge, rise above the fray to show erudition, elegance and courage.
Augustine Low is a communications strategist.