Techno-Utopians Part I: Information

The defenders of online piracy (the polite ones anyway) often paint a vision of a future that, on paper, sounds very attractive indeed.  This, from one commenter on my blog, is a good representation of a sensibility we encounter all the time:

“Imagine a world where you have access to all the world’s books, movies, music, the entirety of the world’s published knowledge and culture at your fingertips instantly, with no limitations. This is an incredible level of enrichment. You have everything and the freedom to learn, watch, or entertain you with anything you can dream of. The entire world is accessible to you, in a way never before possible in the history of humanity. Along with millions of other people, just like yourself.”

My piece In Defense of a Little Elitism that drew the ire of my dear friends at Techdirt was a toe in the water on this subject, but quotes like the one above inspire a more practical examination of what I call a techno-utopian vision of the future.

Take the premise that the people should have access to all the world’s knowledge and culture, and answer three questions honestly:  1) Do the people want all the world’s knowledge and culture? 2) How much can one person consume in a practical and enriching manner? 3) Is cost (what some call artificial scarcity) really a barrier?  As a general statement, anti-copyright, techno-utopians chant the refrain “culture existed before copyright,” to which my equally general response is, “and information existed before the Internet.”  But let’s look deeper at both, beginning with information.

We’ll define information as things like news, non-fiction works, documentaries, research data, opinion pieces, first-hand accounts of events, etc. and culture as entertainment media — filmed entertainment, fiction writing, music, etc.  Information, in most forms, is already available for free at a volume that no one person could absorb in a lifetime.  Every news organization has a website; just about every major journalist has a blog or other online archive of his work; research and policy organizations make their articles and papers available for free; many documentary films can be viewed for free or very cheaply; and then there are thousands of independent sources ranging from excellent to WTF.  The truly interested consumer has ample opportunity to compare and contrast a wealth of competing data on just about any subject he chooses, but is this what most people are really doing with information?

Free access to knowledge has unquestionably increased since the early 1990s, but this hasn’t necessarily slowed our tendency to apply practiced stupidity here in wealthy, developed America; so I have my doubts about the global enlightenment envisioned by my friend quoted above. While one can get access to quality sources, one can also find supporting “evidence” for any preposterous or even dangerous belief we can name.  According to this recent article on AlterNet (a site I find hit or miss), Americans who dispute evolution is up 2% since 1989 to a full 46% of the total population.  What this article does well is describe some of the potential hazards of fostering anti-science attitudes that go well beyond feelings about religion and Darwin.

How stifling to innovation is it to assert creationism over paleontology and evolutionary biology?  How much farther along might we be in renewable energy technology were it not so easy to convince millions that climate change is bad science or a liberal conspiracy?  These are just two examples of raw, unenlightened thinking in one highly developed nation; and I want to ask my techno-utopian friends, how has the Internet helped?  I’ll guess one answer myself:  the Internet has been a boon to science and technology by changing the way people share and learn from one another’s research, experiments, and data.  This is absolutely true — among the scientists, doctors, and technologists.  Conversely, many of the people (a full 46% of us it seems) are moving in exactly the opposite direction.

My point is not to reject the clear and specific benefits of the Web, only to temper notions of all the world’s information being available to all the people.  At best, I’d argue that the Web itself is just a dumb pipeline that simultaneously can carry the insights of a Stephen Hawking or the effluent of a Fred Phelps. There’s really no controlling from which well the proverbial horse will choose to drink.

But let’s set aside cynicism and the data that implies people don’t necessarily want information and look at people who do want it.  Are there real barriers for these people?  Is there artificial scarcity for the average citizen who wants to learn more?  I can buy a used copy of Dr. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time from B&N online for less than two bucks or check a copy out of my library for free.  “But,” says the techno-utopian, “you could and should have it all at your fingertips!”  Why?  Exactly how fast can the average citizen read and comprehend A Brief History of Time before he’s ready to move on to something by Dr. Greene or Dr. Tyson?  Why is it valuable to have “it all at your fingertips” 24-7 and for free?  Are there really that many budding astrophysicists who simply cannot feed their insatiable curiosity due to some corporate controlled scarcity?  And call me snobbish, but I’m going to bet that (in the developed world anyway) a guy who has both the time and the interest to learn about astrophysics as a hobby is also very likely to have the money to pay for his media.

Just as a mundane example, if I were to read 50% of the articles posted by my friends on Facebook, I wouldn’t get my own work done; if I were to read 100%, I’d have to give up basic tasks like bathing, eating, and tying my kids’ shoes.  The point is that scarcity, with regard to any media consumption is inherent in our mortal bonds to linear time.  We simply cannot consume it all, and according to some sound advice from Clay Johnson in The Information Diet, we really shouldn’t try.  The idea that online piracy is heralding some new enlightenment is, I believe, a very pretty mask hiding a very ugly face.

In Part II, We’ll look at Techno-Utopianism and Culture.

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