Lecture at the "Freedom of Speech and Censorship in a Global Perspective" symposium, Voksenåsen in Oslo on October 13, 1997.
When Everyone Becomes a Publisher ...
It is always interesting to study old predictions about the future, thoughts about a time which we perhaps have already seen.
In 1889, Jules Verne wrote a novel entitled, "An American Journalist's Day in the Year 2889". We have not reached that point yet, but the work is still appropriate for consideration. Another depiction about a future media world can be found in the 1878 Swedish novel "Oxygen and Aromasia" written by journalist Claes Lundin of the Swedish daily, Svenska Dagbladet.
For every prediction about the future the point of departure is usually the time in which it is written, projecting contemporary phenomena on the future with varying degrees of clumsiness and vision.
When people were as most intoxicated by mechanization and industrialism at the end of the 19th century, it was easy to envision a future newspaper operation that would involve more of everything that was known at the time. Bigger, better and more of everything.
Journalists have power, they are not just digging for dirt. One no longer writes with a pen, but with a scalpel, Verne says.
Both Verne and Lundin envisioned enormous newspaper factories where writers sat in large halls, like those of the old mechanized spinning mills, producing articles. In Verne's account, 1,500 journalists sat in a large hall "relaying by telephone to subscribers, all of the news that had come in from around the world during the night."
In Lundin's account, everything was supervised by 25 editors. Stockholm had hundreds of newspapers, and the largest one in central Scandinavia was called "News of the Hour". Lundin remarks that there are no longer any special sensation-seeking tabloids, since now all activity is based on sensationalism. In order to compete with "News of the Hour", somebody considers starting the "News of Tomorrow". "Why wait for something to happen? A really alert newspaper can tell about it in advance", says a writer in Claes Lundin's book.
Jules Verne thought that telephone journalism would be the model of the future. "Each morning the Earth Herald 'speaks' instead of being printed as before", writes Verne, "subscribers can find out about what interests them through an efficient telephone call with a journalist, a politician or a scientist. And as for single copy purchasers, they could be informed about the day's events through the countless phonograph kiosks." It is the expression "efficient telephone call" which sounds familiar even to today's media creators. And the thought of direct contact with a politician - with the help of the Internet - is an attractive idea for many today.
In Jules Verne's world, the newspaper barons had already begun to dominate, and Verne predicted that it would get worse:
"Francis Bennett, the king of journalists, could have been king over all of America if he had wished it. Ambassadors and cabinet ministers from all over the world crowded at his door to sell him their advice, in order to cull his favor and the support that his mighty newspaper could give."
There did not seem to be any sharp distinctions between the owners and those who conducted the journalistic work in Verne's book. And journalists have power, they are not just digging for dirt. "One no longer writes with a pen, but with a scalpel," Verne says.
I think that we are standing on the verge of the first true comprehensive change in the spread of information since Jules Verne and Claes Lundin wrote their prophecies - even taking into consideration radio and TV.
Of course TV changed quite a few habits: politicians were forced to become TV personalities, we became lazy couch potatoes, etc. But there were no other comprehensive changes in the overall production of journalism. The big breakthrough for TV in schools as a teaching tool never really took hold in the way that was predicted in the 50s and 60s when people were also envisioning personal, one-man helicopters, moving sidewalks and beef tablets.
If one compares Verne's and Lundin's visions with what has actually happened and what is currently taking place in the media realm, one is struck by what a top down perspective their predictions held. Nobody envisioned a new form of democracy - a voting machine was the most fantastic thing Verne could imagine. Although he was onto the idea of people achieving a sort of direct contact with their elected officials through the media, it was only for their own, informative benefit, not vice-versa.
Earth Herald is the name of the publication that monitors ambassadors and heads-of-state the world over, and it operates almost like a sort of world federation, something which was a common dream at the time and which culminated in the creation of the League of Nations after World War I. But it is still the lofty lives of politicians, high above their subjects, which are depicted, and it is still professional journalists who are responsible for the content of the media, even if there are 1,500 journalists and 25 editors per newspaper.
Neither Verne nor Lundin came up with the idea that more people would be drawn into the production of information and nobody foresaw the mixture of bilateral and multilateral communication that we experience today with computer networks like the Internet. At the same time, this is somewhat typical even of our own time. Many of the publishers, companies and municipalities who have a presence on the Internet seem to be well versed in Verne and his "more and bigger" perspective, which focuses on a quantitative rather than a qualitative development. "Did you say it was 50 million or a 100 million people out there on the Internet? In that case, we must of course go there", is how many think, but few are using the medium for something new. The other day, for example, I saw that one of our most popular brands of coffee had started a web site. It was almost touching to see how they tried to motivate their Net presence. Of course they couldn't send a cup of coffee to people over the telephone lines, so instead they offer a rather corny game about coffee, a little information about the history of coffee, etc. Those companies who can most directly present their core business will be the most successful, I think. That is where newspapers and other mass media - and also the public sector - have a natural affinity, since they are already dealing with information, which, as we all know, is perfect for distribution over telephone wires.
Neither Verne nor Lundin could free themselves from the concept of a "bigger and bigger" kind of industrialism. To even come close to what is happening in our time, one must adapt a micro-perspective on everything, an ever increasing level of fragmentation, and analysis foregoing the synthesis of something new. The movable type that Gutenberg used was a form of fragmentation that could only forebode the arrival of industrialism with its modular construction, prefabricated houses, etc. Serial production, assembly lines, and linear thinking were all realized through this technology.
If one makes the analysis more atomic it then becomes possible to synthesize something new and to transport things in a fragmented form. This is the digital world with all of its new possibilities, everything from word processing to musical synthesizers to e-mail, hypertext and AI.
One of the great shortcomings of many sci-fi stories, especially from Verne's and Lundin's time, is that they were fixated on gadgets without giving much speculation as to what happened to the mentality of people, to their morals and so forth. The shortsightedness and tendency to project is probably even bigger here than when it comes to external phenomena. Writers imagined that human mentality was given, and this mentality created machines through which its capacities could be utilized and strengthened. It was not as common to speculate that machines, work and communication processes could also affect mentality. National economy was probably the foremost field where such speculation could take place, but that was in regards to the entire means of production. Marx saw the means of production as being decisive for people's way of thinking. He looked primarily at owner relationships, however, and according to him everything was turned into commodities. In the McLuhan tainted world we live in today, it is distribution rather than the ownership which has become the focal point. According to Marx, everything in society was turned into commodities, items to be bought and sold; according to McLuhan, everything is made into information. But information itself has been made into a product, so both of these analyses can, perhaps, be combined, at least on that point.
Otherwise, it seems as though Marx was wrong on many things including the impoverishment of the working class, the necessity for the masses to organize, and a revolution for the redistribution of power. Much has been achieved peacefully, after all, and now with modern information technology we are perhaps standing, if not in the face of a 180 degree shift in power, then at least at a radical inroad of grass-roots and relatively unempowered people into this arena, which till now has been reserved for wealthy publicists, publishers and institutions.
The very fact that everyone who has the tools to read an electronic publication also has the tools to become publishers themselves is, in truth, a revolution. It is also remarkable that distribution is solved from the outset. Of course we have always been able to publish ourselves through small co-operatives and similar establishments for self-publishing, but distribution has always been the overshadowing problem.
Production, itself, also seems to be taking on new forms. Not only the idea of telecommuting as opposed to working in a central office but, above all, the concept of temporary constellations of work teams that can be spread out all over the world. When we have an economy that deals, to such a large extent, with immaterial values which are processed in production, it's not surprising that even socio-economic conditions can be changed by new ways of distributing information. This is what lies behind McLuhan's familiar theory that the medium is the message. He doesn't mean, for example, that it is cool to appear on MTV, while radio or theater is for nerds. It's the fact that new forms of human production, automation within industry for example, give rise to new forms of work which have considerable social consequences, regardless of whether Cadillacs or Cornflakes are being produced, to use McLuhan's own example.
Who will read all this information? Others who would also rather write than read?
Make note of the fact that everything I have mentioned so far were actually things that were printed on paper. Until now, the flood of information has mostly been printed. So far, more text drops into my physical mailbox than my electronic one. And I get some fifty e-mail messages a day.
But certainly, the rush of the digital flood is getting louder, increasingly deafening. The flood of information has not, however, gotten as big as one might think it has, it is mostly the access to information which has increased. Large amounts of information have for ages been stored in libraries all over the world, but we have not had all of that available on our desktops. That is the reason why we must handle this information beast in a more discriminating fashion.
The ability of the network to provide endless hyperlinks is something that should give us context, relationships, reference points and, above all, an experience which more closely approximates the human method of jumping between thoughts. At the same time, this aimless changing of tracks - this kind of zapping, that is euphemistically called surfing - often leads to increased fragmentation instead. One could say much about this. About how we are living in the very age of fragmentation, about the esthetics of eclecticism and sampling etc. One can briefly summarize by saying that many of the ingredients which we equate with congeniality of thought - hyperlinks, interactivity, multimedia trying to conquer some or all of our senses - are still untamed powers, in some cases beneficial, but too often only contributing to increased noise and greater confusion.
We will need increased guidance and filtering on the Net. Alta Vista and digital search agents and push technology are not enough. We will need digital librarians to help guide us through cyberspace. Journalists will be required to discern consequences and explain causal connections, even if we are able to read entire governmental bills and investigations on the Net ourselves. Brand names will undergo a renaissance, for even if there are a few enthusiasts who start up their own information sources about Mahler's symphonies, for example, we will perhaps be more trusting of what it says about Mahler in the well known Encyclopedia Britannica. We might rely more on news about the Balkans as filtered through CNNs website than that which comes directly to us from some unknown person who has started their own web page. We need both, however.
For my part, I think that one of the great advantages of the Internet is that all types of information can coexist, commercial and non-commercial, information presented according to editorial or bibliographical conventions along with more unstructured, unconfirmed information. These forms complement each other. I have often gathered information on obscure subjects from enthusiastic amateurs, information that simply was not available from traditional sources. This is both an advantage and a shortcoming, of course, and the need for criticism of sources is growing all the time.
At the same time, I get the feeling that the message about being critical is starting to sink in rather well, more quickly than I had dared hope. People learned early to be skeptical towards analog media, that one shouldn't believe everything that is printed, etc. And today, many are skeptical of digitally transmitted information, they themselves have seen how it is possible to toy with computers, manipulating texts as well as images and music. Fortunately, I believe that a sort of skepticism is starting to grow out of the medium, almost as an integral part. To retrieve something from the Net is like hearing it from an acquaintance, one must continually assess its reliability. Is the source a person who likes to tell stories, and who usually improves on them, or is it a reliable and truthful person who does not usually comment on things which he or she knows nothing about? Is this a first person source or is it what a friend's cousin said that they heard someone say that they had read somewhere? Is the person speaking as a professional or as an individual with only a general interest in the matter?
One perhaps wonders what all of this has to do with freedom of speech and democracy? Everything!
Information is the raw material of knowledge. And as is well known, knowledge is power. I would like to assert that since the IT revolution is about new and incredibly efficient distribution and redistribution of information - or knowledge if we are lucky - the IT era will probably very soon also question the distribution of power in society, not only grass-roots versus the establishment, but also the establishment's internal relationships and how they are regulated through our constitutional laws, for example. Even the investigative governmental committee system, which was recently criticized by Olof Ruin, could eventually change given new opportunities to distribute knowledge and facts.
And, of course, whether information is true or not is enormously important in this context. Disinformation has always been the kind of "knowledge" that oppressors bestow upon us.
The world is basically chaos. If there is order, then it exists on another level then humans may perceive. Order is something that develops in the human brain through our conception of the world; our models of reality, e.g. societal models or molecular models or a perspective of the universe as saddle shaped and endless. Cyberspace seems to be similar. The sheer volume of information itself is chaos, order is created locally with the help of filters, search engines and other aids. As far as censorship goes, I think the only possibility is for such selections to be made at the local level. For example, a family can program a filter in the computer to sort out inappropriate material that one does not want children to access. I do not think that this is possible on a national or international level. Another question is the prosecution of people who have broken certain local laws of other nations. The Internet is not a zone where a sort of diplomatic immunity exists, it is only a transport mechanism between different legislative climates.
This does not mean that legislators are not busy working on a national level.
Thoughts of de-internationalizing the Internet have been floated. A dream for some legislators seems to be to isolate national top domains from each other, making them controllable with the help of national law. Internet service providers, server operators, etc. would be made responsible for the content.
That very thought was an early mistake (which apparently lives on in the aftermath of the Swedish investigative committee on BBS's), which built on the analogy many make that the Internet is a kind of radio broadcaster or something like it, which the Media Committee in Sweden recently claimed in their investigation, "Constitutional law protection for new media." Others believe that it is more like mail and the traditional postal distribution system. They make the analogy that it would be absurd to require the local post office to make sure that nothing illegal was being sent - i.e. child pornography or bomb making manuals - through the mail. It is just as absurd to demand that service providers on the Internet be required to monitor the thousands of megabytes that pass through their machines daily.
(I remember my first mobile telephone from 1989-90. Just seven years ago. In the instructions it said that one should remember that this medium was based on radio waves and that one was, in principle, involved in radio transmission and therefore the radio laws applied. In other words, one was not allowed to use whatever obscenities one wanted to over the mobile telephone. One pales at the thought. Could someone really be prosecuted for having said something obscene over a mobile phone?)
These are all transitional problems, of course, the inexperience of a new medium, especially media that can be seen as cross-overs or hybrids of old ones.
Both nations who wish to impose censorship and multinational conglomerates who are striving to control the market would seem to have the same technical problem. How can they really control the flow of information when it is so easy to circumvent?
Not just censorship and state intervention are being discussed, in terms of different kinds of limitations on the amount of information on the Internet. There is another kind of limitation which many consider a threat, the possibility of commercial interests getting so big that the small producers and the average person's possibilities of utilizing the Net as a real forum for common participation will be limited or completely snuffed out. But both nations who wish to impose censorship and multinational conglomerates who are striving to control the market would seem to have the same technical problem. How can they really control the flow of information in the most politically or commercially advantageous way when it is so easy to circumvent? Already today, one can move information freely between servers around the world, and in the future if someone would come up with the idea of controlling the telephone providers or the most strategic junctions of cable networks, then there is always satellite technology.
OK, so satellites are sent up by large companies or national research institutes. I still think that we have come to the point in technological development, and especially in our attitude towards technological development - i.e. for whom does it exist?, who has access to it?, etc. - that it is almost impossible to back down from something that so many have had a taste of.
It may sound naive, but I think that the time is past where nations and large companies could dictate the terms of who could have access to the technology. Already, with the Internet, a remarkable climate has arisen with a mixture of liberalism, freedom, libertarianism and anarchism where the common features can be summed up as follows:
"We can manage ourselves, we want to make our own judgements, we want access to information so we can evaluate it ourselves. Representatives are OK, but we want to be able to more directly control our representatives too, what they read and write. If somebody tries to limit this right, fine, then we will invent something new."
This has already happened. A couple years ago, when the Unisys corporation tried to ban the gif image format, which probably half of all images on the Internet are based upon, programmers developed a new format in just a few hours, which would continue to be used freely and which all of these images could easily be converted into. The whole Internet has this character of being a network of networks where connections can be redrawn, finding new routes, if the old ones are knocked out. The battle over the gif format is a good example of how even a more content oriented threat against the concept of the Internet can be thwarted. This idea of imperviousness, which was a main concept in the Internet's infancy, will live on, I think.
My prediction is that some form of network will continue to exist in the future, and it will continue to be rather anarchistic and, at a base level, consist of an unrefined mixture of official and unofficial material, both amateurish and professional, in the same way that telephones are not reserved for government officials or journalists, but rather anyone can subscribe. It is possible that international and supernational goals to create conventions for this and that will make it simpler to denounce legal violations in countries other than where they took place. That sort of agreement is necessary in an increasingly globalized world. It is possible that expansion of the Net will be significantly less extensive than one envisions today. Questions such as the adaptation of technology in the Third World remain open questions today. But I think that the overall concept will remain in some form, an enormous global forum which combines the refined and the trivial, and where everyone has a chance to participate.
The difficulty for many legislators, regarding their attitude towards the Internet and other new forms of electronic media, is that these media often represent a mixture of public and private sectors, producers and consumers, as well as local and global issues in a completely new way. When I was a child, I dreamt of how it would be to live in a world where everybody could communicate with each other via telepathy. In some respects, it is some of that which is starting to take place. From a purely psychological point of view, I think that many of us experience computer screens as our own private realms, if something comes up there it speaks to us in a very personal way, more direct than TV, which is more of a family medium. In addition, the various forms of communication on the Internet - besides all of the various styles of written language - are rather oral in character, with all of what that entails including spontaneity, fickleness, oral tradition and distortion, etc.
That is why it is so silly to hear people complain over the fact that there is so much junk on the Internet. The Internet is a reflection of the world. One could just as easily say that it is boring that the person sitting next to you on the bus thinks such idiotic thoughts. Everything that can be found in the rest of the world can be found here. Banks, libraries and bordellos can all inhabit the same block. But with mechanical assistants, in the form of search and sorting functions, as well as with our good old human intelligence, we should be able to take control of this new medium with both discrimination and discernment, both sound judgment and direction.
But here the rest of society comes in as well. Not just schools - who's job should not be to turn children into full-fledged multimedia producers by the age of 12 - but critically thinking individuals with sufficient basic knowledge to be able to get an overview of the contexts and evaluate the reliability of the information that all of us publishers - professionals and non-professionals - put out on the Internet.
Translated from Swedish by Henrik Nordström.