Siva Vaidhyanathan’s writings on piracy culture, particularly The Anarchist in the Library, reference numerous examples of the church and crown’s efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the flow of information to protect their power. In a chapter discussing the history of control, there are clear parallels between the Catholic Church and the United States with the implementation of The Patriot Act.
In the 14th century, John Wycliffe was the first to produce a handwritten English manuscript of the 80 books of the Bible. 44 years after Wycliffe had died, the Pope declared him a heretic, banned his writings, and ordered a posthumous execution. His bones were dug-up, crushed, burned, and scattered in a river. Similarly in the 16th century, William Tyndale was the first to translate and print the New Testament into English. As a result he was imprisoned for 500 days, strangled and burned at the stake.
By the dawn of the 21st century, the freedom of information that came with the printing press experienced its most-recent incarnation with the world wide web and social media. The Patriot Act was the government’s struggle for control over the anarchic freedom that was the internet, and came in the form of mass-surveillance.
Edward Snowden became the latest in the line of dissidents who worked to empower the public by exposing the corruption of the government, just as Tyndale and Wycliffe before him. And a curious web search for the terms “Spanish Inquisition” + “Patriot Act” instantly returns a piece by Walter Cronkite comparing and contrasting the two systems from 2003.
Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger states in his article, Who Says We Know that “Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion." This same dissemination of distribution is what resulted in the music industry’s panic and frenzied struggle for control with crippling technologies like DRM and its continued anti-piracy campaign. There is simply no longer a need for the monopolistic record labels that once commanded the industry. Artists are empowered to distribute their content directly and can communicate with their fan base without a commercial intermediary. This artist-empowerment is expertly discussed by Amanda Palmer in her book, The Art of Asking (and in her TED Talk of the same name.)
In each of these milestones in the history of information freedom, the acts have been irreversible. Gutenberg’s printing press empowered the public good through democratization of information – making it inexpensive and readily-accessible. The web has been much the same, only exponentially more potent.
Still, small but persistent communities continue to prepare for a dystopian world war over information. They archive the Wikipedia daily and hypothesize alternate methods of mass-communication should the Web as we know it come under fire. Is their fear valid?
It is difficult to envision a scenario in which first-world governments could close the floodgates of the world-wide web without immediate and drastic reprisal from the public at large who have come to view the internet as a right and a public utility. Furthermore, global commerce, banking, and the mechanics of industry could not likely stand to make such a sacrifice in the name of control. Shutting down the web would thrust the global economy into an instantaneous dark age and entire systems of utility, government and finance would collapse.
What are your thoughts? Is our access to information irreversibly free? Need we take measures to stockpile and protect the information we have today in preparation for a darker tomorrow?