Ever since I discovered Wikipedia, the site has been on my Favourites list. For all some like to criticise it for it accuracy issues or its ability to be edited by anyone, including those with agendas or with vandalism on their mind, I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource. Sure it’s not the be all and end all of human knowledge, but it’s a pretty good place to start looking. Anyone who only uses Wikipedia to research something is being lazy, but it offers initial overviews of most subjects, and there is such a thing as cutting your nose off to spite your face.
So the news that Wikipedia is going to black itself out for 24 hours tomorrow came as a bit of a shock. What am I going to do?! It’ll be like cold turkey for information junkies. It’s the curse of the internet – we’re so used to information being freely and readily available that it’s almost scary when it’s not.
Of course, that’s pretty much the point of the black-out.
Those keeping an eye on internet freedom have been spurred into action in recent months thanks to a couple of controversial pieces of US legislation, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act). Their supporters argue that they’re necessary to protect copyright; opponents point to their impact on freedom of speech, where an infringement by one user could, technically, bring down an entire domain. Worst case scenario – the internet as we know it mutates into something else, something less capable of changing the world.
(This is alongside things like the NDAA and moves for the Department of Homeland Security to spy on journalists – including bloggers. This is part of a wider, worrying trend.)
So Wikipedia and other sites shutting down for the day may be something of a nuclear option, but it’s may be something that ends up happening more often and for less voluntary reasons. The question then becomes “What’s the back-up?”
I’m not talking about increased digital storage or the Cloud or whatever. We’re now structured around an information rich society, so what do we do when that information becomes scarce? A crippled internet would be devastating, but it has wider impact too.
I got thinking about this thanks to a church meeting we held last night. Most churches nowadays have electronic facilities to aid worship – song words projected onto a screen from a lyrics database, Powerpoint to enhance a sermon, that sort of thing. The question arises, however, what happens if the power goes out? Or if the one or two people with the skills to operate all this kit happen to be sick or on holiday? Now, the almost-so-simple-it’s-facetious answer is that the back-up is, well, hymnbooks, but that raises two follow-up issues:
- There’s a digital divide when it comes to accessing data. We think it’s easy, but that’s because someone has built a website or database and made it accessible for the public. I may be able to cook, but that doesn’t mean I can start a fire without matches (the wider implications for this is why it’s good that the UK government are going to scrap their ICT curriculum to put a greater emphasis on programming rather).
- The digital divide is enough of a problem on its own, but it can have real knock-on effects – if a community is set up around the assumption that access to information and technology is always going to be available, then that community is in something of a mess when that ceases to be available.
I’ve been thinking about this in terms of churches and their demographics, but it’s the same problem that faces society as a whole. There’s a digital divide within society – it’ll be interesting to see how Apple’s rumoured revolution in school textbooks will play into that – and our ‘back-ups’ are being eroded. Internet freedom is a back-up for when the news is censored or under-reported – well, now citizen journalists can be spied upon by the Department of Homeland Security. Need access to information when the internet is down? Use a library – oh wait.
I don’t want to suggest that bookstores and libraries are just back-up for online data sources, of course, because they have their own beauty and eccentricities, and the encapsulate the skills necessary to curate the vast about of information made public by the internet. But when internet freedom is one of the western world’s push-button issues, it’s hard not to worry when you can see all our informational eggs being put in one big online basket. If Wikipedia’s online black-out makes this point, then great. The flipside is that online companies providing access to a lot of data become increasingly powerful – what’s stopping them holding it for ransom?
Access to information has become a guiding principle of the 21st Century, but maybe we’ve become blind to just how vulnerable this is – Not everyone in power has the same views on Net freedom as, say, Anonymous. The internet isn’t indestructible. Data isn’t just digital. And the world may change once more – just not necessarily in a good way.