ALA TechSource Logo
 
curve Home spacer Publications spacer Subscribe spacer Blog spacer About  
    

Digits are Mightier than the Sword, and the Buck

Submitted by Tom Peters on August 28, 2008 - 11:41am

The last half of August is a transition period.  For many people it is the end of summer as a human experience, regardless of how summer is defined in national holidays, meteorological averages or the wobbling of the earth on its axis.  It's time to get back to school and buckle down--time to work.

I've found that a transition period can be a good time for reflection.  During much of the year we are caught up in the "sturm und drang" of programs, policies, procedures, personnel, and pecunia, but occasionally a few days crop up when you can think about larger issues, trends and opportunities.
 
During these last days of summer, as I have been strolling down the straight and narrow lane (it truly is straight and narrow) that leads to my house, I keep coming back to the same thought:  Ultimately, inevitably, digits are mightier than the sword and the buck. 
 
 
I’m convinced that the digital revolution has resulted in a quantum leap in the accessibility of information. Over the past 30 years, worldwide access to information objects of all types – text, audio, still images, and video – has increased at an astounding pace and in ways never before thought possible.
 
Still, the digital revolution is not complete. All digital information is not yet available worldwide, nor do most information systems foster or encourage digital copying. I don’t know if information “wants” to be free, but when information is distributed worldwide and making copies of digital information is easy, affordableand simple, humans who create and use information will be in a much more desireable position than we are today.
 
Yey many balk at the idea of a complete implementation of a “free to copy, with worldwide distribution” model for all digital information. We are all subtle saboteurs of this vision, throwing clogs into the cogs of networked information systems.
 
The main sources of our reticence seem to be our notion of intellectual property rights, the needs of the current information economy, and to a lesser extent, the desire of some (okay, all) governments to control access to information. The primary way to protect intellectual property is to protect and control making copies of information that conveys that intellectual property. Copy prevention made sense when the technology needed to create copies was rare and expensive. In the current age where making copies is both simple and integral to networked digital information systems, we need to find a better way to foster and protect intellectual property, assuming that we continue to agree that fostering and protecting intellectual property is something we need to do.
 
Whenever information objects are treated as a commodity an information economy emerges. Individuals and organizations make money trafficking in information. I make money trafficking in information, as does Elsevier, although on different scales. The needs and interests of the stakeholders in the current global information economy take a dim view of a future scenario where all digital information is offered via a free to copy, with worldwide distribution model. If suddenly, miraculously, all citizens and organizations in the world decided to liberate all information, the current information economy would topple faster than the Berlin Wall. 
 
 
Now don’t get me wrong--I’m not claiming that the fact that digits are mightier than the sword and the buck is an unqualified good thing. It just seems inevitable to me that sooner or later all digital information will be free to copy, with worldwide distribution. The resulting human condition will not be some utopia, nirvana, or even the summer of 1968. There are many potenially serious problems that could arise in this situation.
 
First, we know that fast, easy, inexpensive access to lots of digital information can have a destabilizing effect on our social fabric. During this final fortnight of August I have begun reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s provocative book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Based on my reading of the first few chapters, I must report that this book is as unsettling to my professional pride as a librarian as was David Weinberger’s book, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. 
 
Taleb defines a Black Swan as an event that lies beyond the realm of regular expectations, has a major impact on the human condition, and is retrospectively predictable. Taleb notes that free global information and communication systems often create "unpredictable planet-wide winner-take-all effects." He states that  "We live in an environment where information flows too rapidly, accelerating such epidemics.” Lives awash in free-to-copy global information systems may be enriched immeasurably, but such a situation also may create harrowing problems for humanity.
 
Another potential problem has been explored for at least 15 years by Vernor Vinge in both scholarly articles and science fiction novels. What happens, Vinge ponders, if the digital information revolution results in the emergence of a new type of superintelligence? Not necessarily human intelligence, but intelligence in the computer network itself. When this type of “singularity” event occurs the effects will be disruptive. Plain old human intelligence may not be able to make sense of – or perhaps even be aware of – this new, faster, more powerful superintelligence. And the superintelligent computer network may show little interest in human intelligence, in much the same way that we treat the intelligence of ants as a minor wonder, or how some animals seem capable of sensing oncoming storms or tsunami long before they actually arrive.

Although an information environment where all information objects are free to copy with worldwide distribution may not be all cakes and ale, as librarians I think we need to become and remain staunch advocates for this vision.  It seems to be an inevitable outcome sooner or later, despite all the DRM schemes, ranting, ravings, and saber rattling that humanity throws at it.