Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Field Notes: Guttenburg, Tyler Clementi and Liu Xiaobo

While I was reading this week's assignment, I noticed strong similarities between the information explosions that printing and the internet caused, and society's reactions and assimilations to them. 

Each time a new technology has emerged that has allowed people access to more information faster, there have been similar patterns of public education, public obsession, and governmental regulation and/or attempt to control the technology.  

Both with printing and the internet, it took several decades for the public to be introduced to the new technology, and find ways to use it in their everyday lives.  With printing, people had to learn how to read, purchase or borrow books, figure out that putting up a notice would get you customers, or that one could actually sell a sheet printed with the latest news or your views on religion.  Similarly, the internet was around for several decades before the "World-wide Web" became a sensation; the public had to have access to computers, especially at home, and a modem, and be introduced to surfing the net and how to find things.  Businesses found out they could sell online, use spam to sell things and have websites for product information and public relations.  Similar events took place for both the telegraph and telephone.

Once the public learns about a new medium, and its integration becomes not only acceptable in our daily lives, but useful and generating income, there is this explosion where everyone is trying to use it so that they too can generate income or disseminate information.  From 1424 when Cambridge University had only 122 manuscript books in its library to 1502 when French printer Henri Estienne died with almost that many titles that he had published alone, one can see the sheer volume of books that were published.  And from my own high school graduation in 1979 when a website wasn't even known to the general public to the millions that now exist, one can see the similarities between these two explosions of use.

With use, comes abuse and social issues.  When does one person's marketing become an annoyance to another person, or a society?  It certainly does promote someone's product or cause to have broadsides plastered over every square inch along a public boulevard, or to send multiple emails every day for several weeks to people whose email addresses they've acquired.  Yet, to be on the receiving end of those emails, or to walk along that public boulevard, people may not see them as useful or necessary. Governments and the legal system have created laws to try to define the line between useful and annoying, and then had to enforce those laws.  Other issues may be what secrets are allowed to be kept by a country's government for national security issues, who has access to pornography or adult materials, what is free speech and what is defamation, and other privacy issues.  Certainly, the recent public broadcast of Tyler Clementi's tryst has raised a host of legal and moral issues for our latest technologies, but these issues have been raised before for print media and for most societies in general.

Government constriction of information and free speech is another issue that new media challenges.  From Martin Luther's excommunication and condemnation as an outlaw, to Liu Xiaobo's winning of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, the tradition of trying to silence those who challenge the current political, religious or moral regime has been going on since time began.  Each technology, with its ability to get information out to the public, is a threat to the status quo because more people can learn about and discuss what is going on, and then try to change it.  Martin Luther's 95 Theses was widely distributed and demonstrated the power of the printing press to get ideas out and also out quickly.  China's attempt to control of the internet has been widely criticized and publicized (outside of China), and one that will continue to be an issue for many years to come.

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