We all do it. If you are reading this now, you are doing it. I’ve done it several times today myself.
What is “it”?
“It” is having communicated electronically. E-communicated as it were via email, Facebook, Twitter, Xanga, commenting on individual blogs, reading electronic newspapers or sent a text message. I haven’t picked up a print newspaper in over a year – I have them delivered to my iPad. I use Facebook and Skype to talk to my kids – even my Panama City, Florida phone number rings in Edinburgh, Scotland thanks to an Internet VOIP company called Vonage.
You name it, we have e-done it.
In the relatively short span of roughly 40 years, the rank and file of the world has changed the way that they communicate, share their lives, offer opinions and read and report hard news. Teenagers have developed a whole new abbreviated language as a result of text messaging and even as I write this post, this very simple, nondescript blog is nearing 1,000,000 views, illustrating the power that the Internet has brought to communication. I would wager to say that even though I have been published a few times in local newspapers, there is simply no way that I would have been able to reach a million people in the short span of approximately 14 months. This blog also pulls in readers from all over the world, from the US to Australia – there is no possibility that any one of us on a personal level would have that much reach in such a short span of time.
No doubt that electronic/alternative media has opened up a new front in the war for (and of) information. The political right and citizen journalists, bloggers and pundits have found it an effective tool to counter the institutional bias present in the majority of the national media outlets. It gives the average Joe or Julianne a chance to get their message out. Political campaigns are now designed around this modern water cooler.
The Internet is the greatest advance in communication since the invention of the printing press. In our short intellectual evolution, we have gone from the spoken word to the written word, written to the printed word and now from physical ink and paper to the electronic word…and image.
But there are accompanying dangers to this evolution of information efficiency. As we have become more and more dependent on electronic communication, we have also ventured into areas where those communications are subject to a smaller and smaller number of transmission sources and subsequently we are narrowing the span of control of this information.
We are opening the door to censorship on a mass scale.
Individual vocal speech is difficult to censor. It requires silencing of the individual human being because what comes out of your mouth is controlled by you, no one else. When civilization moved to writing, it became a little easier until everybody learned to write. The printing press, the same – there was no way to stop this flow unless the press was destroyed and even then, humans could fall back on hand written notes or voice communication…and it took a physical action to accomplish – someone had to actually go to the location of the printing press and shut it down, as well as all the other presses in existence. Today; however, we are looking at a mass migration to a media that can be censored or blocked at the flip of a software switch or brought down by flipping a switch.
Every digital system has controls. Normally, the controls are so benign that we don’t even think about them. Normally, they go unnoticed as we plink away at our keyboards, mobile phones and iPads, but these controls can be used with devastating effect. When Egypt exploded in revolt, what two things were given credit for providing the organizational communication links for the uprising? It was Twitter and Facebook, both accessible via mobile phone networks? When the Egyptian military wanted to stop the association of people, what did they do? The blocked both. China routinely censors links to western webpages to prevent their population from getting news from any source except the government news agencies.
Can’t happen here in America? It already is.
I noticed this on Techcrunch this morning:
Today was just another Saturday morning in blog land when Robert Scoble, the well-known tech startup enthusiast, went to post a comment on a Facebook post written by Carnegie Mellon student (and TechCrunch commenter extraordinaire) Max Woolf about the nature of today’s tech blogging scene. Scoble’s comment itself was pretty par-for-the-course — generally agreeing with Woolf’s sentiments and adding in his own two cents.
But when Scoble went to click post, he received an odd error message:
“This comment seems irrelevant or inappropriate and can’t be posted. To avoid having comments blocked, please make sure they contribute to the post in a positive way.”
Now, Facebook makes no apologies for working to create a safe and clean environment on its corner of the web by shutting down abusive or harassing behavior, content such as pornography, or generally spamming of the system. This particular method policing “inappropriate” comments may be new, but it would fall within the same general realm.
But even so, this instance seems to be a very strange enactment of any kind of Facebook policy. Scoble posted his original comment in its entirety on his Google+ page, and it’s clear that it contains no profanity or even any obvious argumentative language.
Our government has made several runs at taking control of the Internet:
- The FCC has tried it through regulatory fiat.
- Congress has tried it through SOPA.
- The President has tried to get a “kill switch” for “emergencies” . God only knows what Obama would consider an “emergency”. He might consider losing an election an “emergency”.
I think we are entering a period where our First Amendment rights are as much in jeopardy as our Second Amendment rights. As we trade off control for speed, efficiency and convenience, we have to be cognizant that we are also losing control of our individual abilities to communicate.
At the risk of being called a hypocrite, I did use my ownership of this blog to block one commenter, @lovegrove, for violating the comment policy – but I couldn’t live with the thought of becoming what I hate, so less than 48 hours later, I unblocked him.
Think about it. How many of us store information in Google’s googledocs, Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. How many use internet backup systems like Dropbox, Carbonite or Mozy? As we become more an more dependent on services of these types, what happens if we are cut off from them? Cut off from electronic banking or commerce? Cut off from maps or directions? Just take a look at your reaction when your Internet provider has a temporary glitch – we have reached the point where having the Internet down for just an hour changes our behavior.
Just be aware. We have a marvelous tool, it would be a shame if anything happened to it. I can see the risk. We have reached a point where technology, politics and liberty intersect.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.