Gutenberg Burning: Information may want to be free, but that’s not the whole story

On Tuesday, Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, died at the age of 64. Project Gutenberg was my first exposure to ebooks, a fantastic resource making thousands of out-of-copyright texts freely available to anyone with internet access and a nice argument for the theory that information wants to be free.

However, just because all this information is out there, doesn’t mean we’re heading towards a techno-utopian society where the total knowledge of humanity is available on a smartphone and where we’re all enlightened and informed about, well, everything. Sure, we’ve got access to more information than ever before, but let’s be brutally honest – we don’t know what to do with it.

So yesterday the Republican presidential candidates held a debate where climate change sceptics get lionised as heirs to Galileo. A comic book espousing 9-11 conspiracy theories has been published by respected players in the medium. And, of course, there are the modern conspiracy classics achieving traction within the mainstream: Obama’s not really an American. We never went to the moon. Vaccines cause autism.

And I’m aware that, by dismissing these theories, I sound like a closed-minded reactionary. The evidence is stacked against those ideas, the data doesn’t support them, the information renders them urban myths and dogmatic paranoia, but none of that matters nowadays because, while information may or may not want to be free, stories, narratives and memes always have been; the wild is their natural home and we’ve just made it easier for them to spread.

Back in the day, storytellers used to control our narratives – bards, skalds, griots. Somewhere along the line, that control shifted from these outsiders towards power structures – governments, churches, institutions. They were all aware of the power of stories, the way in which information and data and history and people can be woven together to create narratives that inform and define our societies and communities.

The internet has changed all that, and that’s something to be grateful for – it’s great that bloggers, musicians and other creators can get their work out there without having to go through the byzantine structures of the publishing or music industries. At their best, Wikileaks are releasing some hugely important data that deserves to have consequences for those who’d rather keep it quiet.

But there’s a dark side to this. A public spat between Wikileaks and the Guardian has lead to the release of information that may threaten the safety of innocent people, activists and whistleblowers who should have had their names redacted but who may now be endangered because a small-p political narrative replaced a more moral storyline. Conspiracy theories take hold, demonising illegal immigrants, gay people, liberals, anyone existing outside the competing narratives warring for our attention. And we know this, we know these stories are often unsupported by evidence, but still they take hold – contradictory information exists, is freely available, but it doesn’t stick. Why would it? Anyone can edit Wikipedia. Anyone can write a blog. And who cares if something’s been peer reviewed, why should we trust the peers doing all that reviewing? Easier to assume the Enemy is wrong than go to the effort of reconstructing our narratives.

Of course, we did train and employ a whole bunch of professionals to help us find, sort and curate all this information we have at our fingertips. We called them librarians, but then we decided they were unnecessary and could be replaced by volunteers (if we were gracious enough to accept that we needed a library in the first place). And this is happening in the UK, in America, in Canada, in…

I don’t know where we go from here. I’d like to say we were heading for a more informed political discourse but it seems to be getting worse. Maybe the issue isn’t really about information wanting to be free anymore; after all, a lot of it already is. Maybe the real issue is the story we tell with that information, how we use it and communicate it. Like the people peddling lies and half-truths, it’s time to stop seeing information as the be all and end all; it’s the paintbrush, not the painting. And if we don’t grasp hold of that idea the pictures we paint may have disasterous consequences, for ourselves, our world and our communities.

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