Friday, April 16, 2010

[Information] Power to the People!


Science fiction/speculative fiction writers often write about how they think science and/or technology will affect the human condition. Their expectations have run from overly-optimistic Utopias to the more currently-fashionable variations of 'and we're all gonna die.'

Generally, writers seem to realize that when technology changes, society changes. Sometimes it changes a lot.

We're going through a period where information technology is upsetting the status quo I've been familiar with. Personally, I like that - for reasons you'll probably see as you read this post.

If you read this post. It's a whole lot easier to go somewhere else on the Internet, than it was to find another article in a magazine.

Like I said, things are changing.
I've discussed the effect of technology - particularly information technology - on culture and society fairly often in another blog. Let's remember that "information technology" can, in principle, include quite a few data storage-and-retrieval methods:
"...I think there may have been something to the notion that people who live in small towns are, well, clueless commoners. In England, it would have been folks who didn't live within walking distance of London - were isolated, ignorant villiens, with an awareness that extended as far as the village church and manor house and no farther.

"Then Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg introduced that dangerous, divisive technology we call movable type: and the world changed. Documents could be mass-produced and distributed as fast as a mounted courier could travel. Reading changed from a professional specialty to a basic skill. And those villiens had a source of information about the rest of the world.
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (April 12, 2010))
Quite a few printing technologies had been in use before Gutenberg put movable type on the map. What set the new technology apart was the speed and (relative) ease with which written information could be taken from a manuscript, mass-produced, and distributed.

And, intellectual property laws being what they were then (practically non-existent), if one copy of a printed work arrived in a town with a printer - and the printer thought people would buy more copies - there would soon be as many copies of that work as there were people willing to pay the printer.

'Going viral' is a new phrase - but documents have been 'going viral' for centuries.

Technology and Freedom

"...America is a free country. When I was growing up, I learned that individual freedom was important. Since then, I've learned that one of the remarkable freedoms that Americans enjoy is the right to own and operate dangerous technologies and substances. These include
  • Guns
  • Substances like
    • LP gas
    • Ammonium nitrate1
    • Anhydrous ammonia1
  • Printing presses
  • Fax machines
  • Computers
What all these have in common is that they give whoever possesses them, and knows how to use them, considerable individual power....

Computers, Dangerous?

I put the printing press and the fax machine in my list, because they are, in their own way, at least as dangerous as any gun.
Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but the Printing Press is Deadly
Martin Luther's 95 Theses might have have been discussed in Wittenberg, and maybe surrounding towns, and stopped there: if some incendiarist hadn't gotten his hands on them, printed copies, and distributed the things. The wars that followed would probably have happened anyway....
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (June 27, 2008))

Technology, Freedom and Economics

There was an economic side to movable type, too. Before Gutenberg and company, every book was a hand-crafted item, made by specialized craftsmen and skilled professionals. Last year I made some wildly optimistic estimates about how fast a scribe could work, together with some other information, and made the educated guess that the value of a pre-Gutenberg Bible in Europe would have been around $3,725 USD. (A Catholic Citizen in America (January 27, 2009))

Feudal Europe didn't have American dollars, of course: but that's the sort of material and labor that would have been involved. These days, the sort of Bible I use sells for around $9.00 USD. ($8.20, plus shipping and handling).

That's around 0.25% of $3,725, by the way.

Technology, Freedom, Economics and Culture

Maybe you've heard about how 'those people' locked up Bibles - to keep people from reading them, of course. Actually, there was security around almost any book: those things were as expensive as computers are now.

And less accessible. A few specialists knew how to read and write, but most folks were illiterate - because they needed to know how to read about as much as most people today need to know how to use ZPL.

After movable type made written material available to people who weren't major landholders, an increasing number of people learned to read.

By now, the ability to read and write is pretty close to being a basic and necessary a skill in many parts of the world. Maybe 'most parts of the world.'

Which means that people - all over - are much more likely to know about what's going on in other parts of the world.

Upsetting the Applecart

Change can be hard on people who don't like it - or don't understand it. Particularly if they won't learn to adjust.

I think part of what we're seeing in American culture now is vaguely parallel to what happened in Europe a few centuries back.

Around the end of Europe's feudal period, landholders had gotten used to a politico-economic system that depended on a network of personal obligations. Feudalism had worked for centuries. We might have a sort of 'feudalism 2.0' now, if the knights, barons, and kings had understood this newfangled idea called "money" a bit better.

Oversimplifying - a lot - the old landholders of Europe failed to get involved with new, money-based, commercial enterprises. It took generations, and several major revolutions, but eventually the aristocracy of Europe changed from a driving force in European civilization to a colorful tourist attraction.

Remember, I said that's an oversimplification.

That was then. This is now.

America doesn't have barons or knights - it's illegal, or was up until a few years ago. We do, however, have traditional information gatekeepers.
"Information Gatekeepers?" What's That?
The way I use the term, "an 'information gatekeeper' is someone who controls access to information." (Another War-on-Terror Blog (August 14, 2009))

Pretty obvious, huh?

America's traditional information gatekeepers include:
  • Newspaper editors
  • Teachers and organizations of teachers
  • Leaders of colleges and universities
  • Entertainment industry executives
  • Publishers of books and magazines
That's a 'short list,' of course.

Those folks were in a relatively comfortable position for much of the 20th century.

Although schools and colleges were spread across America, the 'important' ones like Harvard and Yale were in the northeast. Not far from many of America's more prestigious publishing houses and the city where America's 'newspaper of record' had its home.

The entertainment industry was a bit less centralized. New York City retained its position as the premier center for stage productions, but Los Angeles emerged as a center for newer media like motion pictures and television.

The result, I think, was that back in the days where ABC, CBS, NBC, and - a bit later - PBS were it as far as television was concerned, a relatively small number of people had a great deal of control over what the rest of us saw, heard and read. I don't think it was planned, exactly. And that's definitely another topic.

Then along came cable television. That was terribly 'divisive,' we were warned. Americans wouldn't all be watching shows from the same manageable selection of networks.

Then along came the Internet. And the Web. And blogs, like the one you're reading.

By now, published authors aren't limited to those persons deemed worthy by America's 'better' sort.

Just about any crazy son of an Irishman can get published.

Like me.

Can't say that I'm sorry about that.

Vaguely-related posts:

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