Genies and Bottles

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” I said.

I don’t remember what prompted my remark, but Leah, my daughter, had an interesting reaction.

“Maybe you can. What do we know about genie-world?”

I laughed.

“Well, true, but it’s an expression…”

“I know, but why is it? What are the rules of genies? Who knows?”

She had a fair point. If I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s T.V. show that I loved when I was growing up, was any guide, genies went back into their bottles regularly. I remember the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. It was colorful and decadent with silk draped on the walls and velvet cushions. Not a bad place to hang out actually, though it seemed quite limited. Jeannie blinked, turned into purple smoke and went back in when directed by her ‘master’ or when she was angry at him and wanted to sulk. In hindsight it was a ridiculous show. I think I knew it was ridiculous at the time but couldn’t resist the romantic angle and attractive characters. But, I digress.

Sometimes when you stop and think about the expressions we use, you realize that they aren’t what they seem. In this case, the first known use of ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’ was in Tales of the Arabian Nights in 1706. We are familiar with the story of Aladdin, but there was actually another earlier one. The moral of that story, though, was the opposite of our use of the phrase today. In the original tale a quick-thinking fisherman outwitted the genie, convincing him to get back into his bottle, thus avoiding the mischief the genie might have wrought. How the message evolved to take on a different meaning, I don’t know. It is not the only example of the transformation of language or concepts over time.

The question posed by the genie and the bottle, or Pandora’s Box, is still relevant. Once an idea is out in the world, can you contain it? When I was growing up, we talked about this in the context of the threat of nuclear weapons. We wondered if the existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to their use. Thankfully it hasn’t, at least not yet. They remain a threat, but steps were taken, and treaties were signed, to reduce the risk.

Today I think about it in terms of social media. Is it out of our control? Sometimes it feels like it is. Disinformation takes on a life of its own.

But social media doesn’t have to be that way. Some will find this objectionable, but regulation would help. We all know free speech isn’t unfettered, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, there are limits to hate speech, etc. Some of the standards that are applied in that context should be applied to the Internet. It is a matter of having the will to do it and applying the resources to the task. It needs to be a cost of doing business for Facebook and Twitter. God knows they make enough money! Newspapers and magazines have fact checkers and editors. Wikipedia has found a way to deal with the need for facts – it isn’t perfect, but it does pretty well compared to the wild west of other of social media platforms.

I know that the devil is always in the details (another expression worth examining since I’ve also heard it said that God is in the details too). I’m not suggesting it will be easy to regulate but we need to start. The fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. The damage to our culture of the current hands-off approach, in sowing division and inspiring violence, is a real threat to our democracy and our society.

It is indeed time to put the genie back in the bottle and I believe we can.

7 thoughts on “Genies and Bottles

  1. I pretty much avoid the world of social media, even on Facebook (which I consider the most benign) due to the stomach acid that is produced. I don’t believe that censorship is the solution. Although you did not use the “c” word, purposefully I am sure, that is what you are advocating. The media, and social media which is the most recent form has been out of control For all of history. Although I hate to see wild falsehoods propagated via Twitter, etc. it pains me to say that I think I I am more frightened and repulsed by the warnings or corrections that they post. My feeling is that you should have all of the information you can about the source and each reader or listener should put comments in context for themselves. Caveat emptor. Of course if there is threatening speech, etc. that is different. Although we’d like to attribute this to the currently hypercharged political environment the problem is nothing new although the medium is. Society is smart enough to know the truth, although the process may be lengthy and messy!


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I see your point and agree that to some extent we have always had problems with disinformation. However, I think that the advent of social media, where things are posted and spread instantaneously worldwide, creates a substantive, qualitative difference from anything we have faced before and requires a response . I think there needs to be recourse for someone who believes they have been censored unfairly – an appeal process of some sort. Living in society requires balancing individual rights with communal ones. I think social media has thrown us too far out of balance. Again, thank you for taking the time to write.


  2. Provocative and timely. How to do it and keep freedom of speech, freedom to express different ideas and still keep misinformation from being shown would need more fact checkers. Maybe delay posts a few minutes ,not instantly. Very timely post


  3. I wish I was convinced that allowing unfettered free speech leads to the best ideas, the noblest ideas ultimately winning. That did not happen in Germany in the 1930’s. And there were consequences.
    While everything, certainly including censorship, is a potentially slippery slope, we are at a point at which so many people believe things that are not real, it becomes impossible for a society to function.
    We have challenges to meet; we are failing. People die; people fall into poverty and despair; democracy withers; we are at war with ourselves. Unfettered free speech becomes harder to defend.
    I’m with Linda.


  4. I think censorship is not the correct answer although as a former teacher I have real issues with social media and bullying. I actually thought the way Twitter dealt with our current President was appropriate in that they made notes that the information he was tweeting was probably not accurate. It’s a tough issue, and there are no ready answers.


    1. Thanks for your comment and I appreciate the concern about censorship. When I wrote this blog post I had not seen The Social Dilemma, the docudrama on Netflix, but now I have. And having seen it, I believe even more strongly that regulation is necessary. We are not looking at a free marketplace of ideas. The algorithmns and business model of social media are not allowing for equal competition – we are manipulated and fed information based on our preferences and the data they have collected on us – hence the echo chamber. So maybe it isn’t the ideas that need to be regulated, but the algorithmns. One way or another, something needs to change because the way social media is structured, it feeds the divide and provides fertile ground for misinformation. We need common facts and that isn’t possible in this environment. Anyway, I urge you to watch the program and see what you think. I believe in free speech and have always understood it to be a bedrock value of democracy, but social media is not actually supporting free speech as it is currently structured. Okay, rant over – sorry! Kathy, thanks for commenting.


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