Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Road to 1984

People--especially those of a libertarian bent like me--see it all the time in government laws and policies, in the growth of multinationals, and elsewhere, that fabled and dreaded road to the totalitarian future envisioned by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's a future wherein governments engage in mind-control and phony, eternal wars with each other, where Big Brother is an omnipresent reality and rules over even the thoughts of the population.

And it's no wonder that we see increased government meddling and control of daily life as leading to this end. The criminalization of thought--via things like hate crimes--and the potential expansion of government into things like healthcare worry some of us to no end.

Similarly, multinational corporations--with resources greater than most nations--bend governments to their will, even those of a democratic nature, and wield greater influence than most political leaders. Their growth oftentimes seems unstoppable, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before the world is controlled by a handful of corporate boards.

But really, that's still a far cry from thought control, from being able to decree--at will--what is truth, from being able to change history on a day to basis. And even as we worry over these encroachments, we praise the free and open flow of information that modern technology has given us. Of course, technology has its costs.

Looking back, the invention of the movable type and the printing press first unleashed access to knowledge on a massive scale. Books--once a luxury of only the rich--became steadily more accessible for the average person. Quickly, bookselling became an industry unto itself, giving rise to publishing houses, printers, various book shops, and--of course--public libraries.

The last became institutions throughout much of the world. Those of us alive today grew up in a world where the compiled knowledge, ideas, and literary works from all of history were freely accessible with just a short walk or drive.

Now, the digital age is upon us. Traditional booksellers are struggling and failing, as electronic books gain in popularity. Online retailers like Amazon have quickly embraced the new technology, as have publishing houses that wish to survive. Meanwhile, brick and mortar libraries are seeing phenomenal growth in their rental programs for e-books. But right now, they can't keep up with the demand. As this story from the Washington Post notes,  the waiting lists for e-books can easily go into the hundreds:
Want to take out the new John Grisham? Get in line. As of Friday morning, 288 people were ahead of you in the Fairfax County Public Library system, waiting for one of 43 copies. You’d be the 268th person waiting for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” with 47 copies.
And not all publishers are thrilled about this kind of business model. Some--like Simon and Schuster--don't make their digital titles available to public libraries, at all.

They cite concerns about piracy in this regard, but quite obviously they could also be worried about losing business, particularly if libraries figure out a way to solve their waiting list problems. After all, who would buy a book--in print format or e-book format--when their e-book reader can simply access it for free at a public library?

But step back and imagine that theoretical future, where all books--and magazines and papers--are freely accessible to all. Forgetting about the issue of new content (who would provide it, if there was no potential compensation?), consider the potential for abuse. Who is guaranteeing the accuracy of the stored and accessed data? A bureaucrat? At the Ministry of Truth.

Of course, that theoretical reality will likely never arrive. But a lesser one--meaning one with even more knowledge freely accessible than now--probably will, with the same sort of potential for misuse and abuse.

And that's a paradox, of sorts: the greater the access to storehouse of knoweldge and the more dependent the population becomes on the form, the easier it is for it to be twisted, for the public to be duped, one way or the other. The road ahead is not always easy to see.

Cheers, all.


  1. Ahhh. And there you have it. If it is freely accessible to all, and the writers have to get paid, guess who is paying them -- Uncle Sam. That's what we need. Another set of issues to discuss at political debates before we elect someone into office.

    But then little independent newspapers and magazines would pop up to offer opposing opinions and commentary. And the truth, or at least opinions that vary from what Uncle Sam says we need to know, might be relegated to the shadows, popping up here and there, bobbing and weaving like pirate radio stations. This week, printed in someone's basement. Next week, in someone's cabin in the middle of Nowhere, Montana.

    It's a bit unsettling to imagine the possibilities sometimes, but I think Americans, at least some Americans, will always fight against being told what to think.

  2. Well you know Carole, that's the history of "broadsides," in a way.

    And of course, we hope there will always be some fight in us...