Who owns you?

Posted 1/7/11

To whom do you belong? There was a time in European history when almost everyone belonged to the Catholic church. Then came a disruptive technology: …

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Who owns you?


To whom do you belong?

There was a time in European history when almost everyone belonged to the Catholic church. Then came a disruptive technology: the printing press. Within the space of a couple generations (which is about how long it takes for a big technology shift to happen) literacy swept the continent.

Almost all of the first books to be printed in this time were Bibles. The Word was held in veneration, and people could imagine no greater accomplishment than to read it for themselves.

But when that happened, people couldn't help but notice that the Bible didn't always square with what their priest told them. They started to question things they hadn't questioned before. Literacy resulted in a fundamental challenge to the hegemony of the church.

The church did what many prevailing power structures do when threatened. It overreacted. We know it today as the Inquisition.

But the challenges continued, leading to Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses and the establishment of the Protestant movement. The result? While the Catholic Church is still strong around the world, it isn't the secular power it once was.

Let's move forward in time to 1843, to the invention of another technology: the fax machine. After a series of improvements, it moved into military use in the 1950s, and common business use in the 1980s.

On June 4, 1989, came the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing at least 400 people, and perhaps more than twice that.

News didn't travel easily from China is those days. (It doesn't travel easily today.) The only reason we know about those events was through technology: an unattended fax machine. Later, the video of "tank man" — one student facing down a tank — was smuggled out.

Now let's move forward again: 2010. Last November, Wikileaks, a nonprofit organization dedicated to publishing "secret" documents from a variety of sources, released a flood of information from U.S. diplomatic cables.

According to some, there wasn't anything especially new, although there was much that was embarrassing. Wikileaks, and its key spokesman, Julian Assange, came under attack from many quarters. The leaks were branded treasonous (although Assange is not American, but Australian). They were called dangerous, exposing many individual names that might have been redacted by traditional media.

Then the American government, concerned about the release of classified and sensitive information, started applying pressure to various websites who hosted the site. They applied pressure to financial institutions that made Wikileaks possible. And of course, Assange was eventually arrested on unrelated charges.

Meanwhile, we saw one of the first examples of cyber-terrorism: attacks against the electronic infrastructure of those institutions who were seem as anti-Wikileaks through the withdrawal of their support.

The Internet, a global communications network, completely bypasses the control of a national government. It also bypasses traditional media controls. The priests of modern power are being challenged.

Once, many people believed themselves in thrall to the church, and left it. Many people now define themselves, primarily, as citizens of a particular country.

How will today's nations, from China to the United States, respond to an explosion of a new kind of literacy, of direct access to information that used to be a privilege of power?

And once average citizens open that door to unmediated knowledge, will their national allegiance survive?

Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue's Views are his own.


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