It has been said that the advent of the Internet democratized the world, or at least the parts of the world wealthy and free enough to enjoy such a creation. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite but also a hypocrite (for the Internet is D&T’s transmitter/receiver), I submit that the far superior invention was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. One will never catch me reading a book existing within the glowing firmament of an LCD screen (unless to reference a book presently not in my possession), let alone enjoying its fragrance.
To be sure, WikiLeaks, Twitter, Facebook, Tor and IRC rooms certainly helped ignite the Arab Spring, which rippled thence through Europe and the UK before landing in New York City and transmogrifying into Occupy Wall Street. However, as many have observed about the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks—including by Julian Assange himself—they were only doing what had been done nearly forty years before when Daniel Ellsberg leaked military documents that The New York Times edited and published as “The Pentagon Papers.” Then, of course, we are back again at the feet of Gutenberg’s printing press.
And the fact is that if not for Gutenberg’s wondrous invention, human beings would still be mucking about in the dirt, dazzled by superstition, ignorant of reason, subject to kings and clergy (misers of intelligence), who willfully kept human understanding contained so as to better control and fool the masses into accepting the status quo as God’s will.
Perhaps times haven’t changed too much. In place of mass ignorance of the beauty of poetry, science, mathematics, philosophy and other human knowledge, maybe we’ve entered a realm where ignorance is now created in the hocus-pocus of the Internet’s mass information. We now have access to too much information and too fast, such that we cannot properly decode or reduce it to something cognitively manageable. In a very real Borgesian sense, we are lost in a labyrinth of data.
At least with the printed word and with a library there is a sense of order—a belief that one can systematically proceed through vast vaults of knowledge, even if a library has the sense of the infinite contained in its corridors both outside and inside the pages. Not so with the internet: it is a full-on assault of the senses.
But, I’m diverging from the topic at hand, which is the idea of a free and open internet and the question of privacy controls.
Over the last year, Google, alongside various other tech companies like Facebook, Wikipedia and Yahoo!, fought tooth and nail against the twin bills Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA). Much of the inertia that derailed these bills is owed to other websites, independent media, blogs and social media, however. Google may have lobbied well, coming to play with a war chest of $4 million, but it was watchdog groups like EFF and Public Knowledge, along with concerned individuals, who helped spread awareness of the bill. The Wikipedia-led blackout certainly helped, but it was very much a team effort.
And how does Google spend the currency of this good will? By announcing that the privacy policies of 60 of its web services will be consolidated into one source—an information exchange, so to speak. Granted, Google’s stated reason is that privacy would be simplified (like nature, the Internet loves simplicity); and while Google admits that this consolidation will allow its web services to more efficiently exchange user data, Google is predictably not admitting what effects this very complex, labyrinthine portrait of user data will have on its users.
It mirrors Facebook in scope and ambition. And both companies, as well as their defenders, will state, “We pay nothing for their services—they must deliver revenue to stockholders!” Indeed, but the real price cannot be found in the form of revenue schemes or stock options, but in the degree of privacy afforded to Google or Facebook’s users.
In a very real sense, we are seeing an arms race between Google and Facebook to amass the greatest amount of user data, to effectively create digital simulacra of us all, in order to enrich their employees and stockholders. (Google+ is another aspect of this arms race.)
One almost feels sympathy for the MPAA and RIAA following the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement, for at least they are up front about their desire for profit, not speaking in platitudes about better user experiences or convenience.
Fuck convenience and user experience—no one’s data should be for sale. The new kings and clerics are the government and companies like Google and Facebook. And like the kings and clerics of old, the status quo is only preserved through collaboration.