"Weird ideas are tolerable as long as they remain weird ideas. Once they start actually challenging the world, there's smoke in the air & blood on the floor...it's cultural, political and legal struggle...and extending the public right-to -know into cyberspace...will have to be won all over again, megabyte by megabyte." - Bruce Sterling

The last few weeks has made the imminent war over information fairly obvious, with Napster and now FreeNet taking up some serious verbiage in the Business Sections of the Global media. In all this, there is familiarity, given the War over Knowledge has never actually ceased since it started, just gone underground from time to time.

A quick rundown of the lead up

For the first 3000 years of recorded history, all information (access or skills) beyond oral culture was severely restricted. In Babylon and Egypt, c. 3000 BC onward, scribes and priests held what Harold Innis called a monopoly of knowledge and writing was considered the magic by which the leaders of men exercised power. Only they knew when the floods will come, the eclipses and comets appear, where the grain should be planted, and so forth; and they were held in awe for it. There are even some indication scribes from Egypt made their symbols deliberately menacing and arcane, in order to maintain their exclusive grip on writing).

What was so great about knowing when to plant and harvest, or when the tides were going to rise? Three main developments arise from that set of circumstances: a) Urban society would never have developed without those administrative skills; b) Most folk see Nature being understood by the priests, even swayed by them, which made them semi-divine, and; c) Most significantly, with 99% of the population illiterate, no one even knew what 'information' or 'history' were objectively speaking. Meaning both terms are meaningless without the detachment from experience offered by writing (tough for us, as a literate culture, to imagine). Without writing, there's no self-consciousness or self reflexivity, there's no abstraction and hence no information, only recollection.

All that changed very slowly over the 1500 years that followed. Oral culture hit an apogee in pre-Socratic Greece (c. 600 BC), then literacy took off as education spread, until libraries and book stores became fairly common in under Roman Rule (c.200 AD). Even the relatively brief period in antiquity where a book culture flourishes didn't last, and the elite and The Church soon had gained monopoly power again over knowledge, and held on this time for the next 1000 years (a.k.a. The Dark Ages). This monopoly of knowledge only crumbled when a technically-sweet new information technology made copying and trading knowledge comparatively fuss-free (movable type as opposed to working with animal skins and ink) and accessible (the cost of a printed versus manuscript Bible, for example, dropped by 5/6ths).

It requires little immersion in history to guess how the establishment and authorities treated this new technology. Those with power react the same way to all new modes of knowledge. In other words, they freaked. Printers in England worked under threat of death often enough (Caxton was jailed for years), The French monarchy sent soldiers into the press rooms with sledgehammers and torches, the Vatican began its vast lists of heretical works and banned books. But try as they might, the forces of control failed, and the Renaissance and Enlightenment went ahead regardless.

How might this be relevant now, one wonders ?

Contrast the following :

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. ~ Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights1)


Gnutella represents the greatest threat to the free market since socialism collapsed. Gnutella doesn't undermine property rights by the by; it does so as its main goal. And there isn't a trace of hypocrisy in the geeks who write the software. These are people you can respect, even if you hate what they are doing. And that makes them a bit unnerving, in a way that Napster never was. Napster pretends to be a threat to the way we live now. Gnutella actually is. ~ “Napster lawsuit reveals politics of the Web”. Bloomberg News (Aug. 8, 2000)

It seems enormous media conglomerates and telcos are the new authorities, and just like with the printing press, the FreeNet and OpenSource movements have them suitably spooked, because while they started the whole disintermediation craze, and planned to make a killing from automating information flows, what they didn't realize was that the same process that allowed them to lay off millions of so-called knowledge workers in the 1980s and 90s, has now come full circle. Software let them automate knowledge, now software is going to push them completely out of the picture.

In the end, copyright is a legal construction about 300 years old and has only been tried and seriously embraced by courts in the last 150 years. It made sense when it was easily enforceable and book piracy was difficult, but IT and networking have put the all the tools of information distribution (instant copying, editing, printing and mass duplication) in the hands of hundreds of millions of people. Linux and the open source movement are just two examples of how powerful the spread of ideas could become if we let these notions go.

I work in a library, so I give away information everyday; it's my job. And we did just fine as a civilization without 'intellectual property' lawyers, before information was commidified. Half the planet's population is still waiting to make their first telephone call, where literacy rates make questions about internet access about as relevant to people's lives as frappucino access. Yet clearly the huge data, communication, news and entertainment corporations want to maintain a “you are a web serf, so we web provide” paradigm, just like the Catholic Church and the European monarchs pushed.

1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948. http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

I'm with the zeroes. DEATH TO THE BINARY 1'S!

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