The fuss over the SOPA/PIPA legislation last week is the marker of a generational shift in our understanding of the media: we’re at the transition point between 20th century media models, which rely on centralized, profit-driven control over production and consumption, and 21st century media models, which are all about open access and the free circulation of ideas.
While I’m generally a strong supporter of the open-access model, I do see some dangers to it.
For one thing, when we operate on a distributed intelligence model, information is so widely available that none of us really has to feel responsible about knowing anything. We can just look it up, after all.
But when we rely so much on others to be the keepers of our collective intelligence, we become vulnerable on at least two crucial levels:
- Vulnerable to being manipulated by the producers of that knowledge—think Fox News, for example, with its so-called “fair and balanced” reporting. As long as we are aware that Fox News is reporting from a distinctly biased point of view, we can take their information under advisement, and balance it ourselves with other sources. As long as there are other sources. And as long as we have the education to be able to sift through it all and form our own informed opinions.
- Vulnerable to loss of access—as in the one-day blackout on Wikipedia last week. It’s like kids who rely so completely on the calculator that they never learn their multiplication tables. All well and good, until the day when they don’t have a machine available to make the calculations, and they’re left helpless.
Our society has become so totally tuned in to media that we would be lost without it. And that kind of dependency is dangerous.
I think about the big push now to digitize libraries. Of course, I love the idea of being able to carry 4,000 volumes around with me on one slim little e-reader. It’s awesome! But on the other hand, a little voice in the back of my head worries: what would happen if we lost ready access to electricity? What would happen if there were shortages, so only the elites were able to power up their notebooks and Kindles? Where would our libraries be then?
We’re already living in a society where social class, access to the Web and social influence form a tight, circular web. Privileged kids today are growing up totally plugged in and able to make the best use of the amazing collective intelligence of the Web, while kids from poor backgrounds, worldwide, are growing up on the other side of the digital tracks, out there with the garbage and the weeds.
As the big media companies work ever more aggressively to stake their claim in the wild west of the Web, fencing off bigger and bigger areas of the digital commons, we need to become more vigilant about guarding our freedom of speech and our free access to the Web, and making sure that more and more of us really do have that access and the knowledge needed to make good use of it.
WordPress blogging platforms like the one I’m writing on are like little free information lanes alongside what are becoming ever more hulking, fenced and patrolled toll highways. The fact that anyone can start up a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page for free and get their voice out to the public immediately, with no censors, is a 21st century version of a time-tested Constitutional right that we need to make sure we defend.
Corporations don’t like the free circulation of “media content” because it escapes their profit-driven model. That’s what they were trying to accomplish with their anti-piracy legislation—a way to shut down any website that did not pay its toll.
Looking into the brave new future that awaits us, I see increasing conflict over these basic issues of access to and control over the media. I also see that unless we are successful in making the shift to renewable energy sources, it is conceivable that basic access to electricity, which we in the West now take for granted, may become less easily obtained.
As a blogger who relies on platforms and hardware that I could not possibly produce myself, I feel my vulnerability keenly. I need Apple and WordPress to get me going, and the electric company to power me up, or I’d be dead in the water.
If I ever woke up and found the power out and my web browser blank, well…I could always go back to zining! But I would miss the incredible distribution powers of the World Wide Web.
Last week some 7 million webizens barraged Congress with protests of the proposed SOPA/PIPA legislation, and we won the battle! We have to maintain our stations though. As with the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s going to be a long siege.