The Department of Records – A True Piece of Internet History

Over the past several months I’ve taken a considerable interest in Copyright Reform, Fair Use, Free Culture, and the fight for Internet Freedom.  I purchased a copy of Prof. Lawrence Lessig’s cornerstone text, Free Culture and have been reading papers on the subject at every opportunity.

This returned my attention to one of the most prophetic and cautionary pieces ever written on collective freedom – John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.  Written during the infancy of the internet in 1996 by the co-founder of The Electronic Frontier Foundation, The Declaration warned readers to be ever-vigilant, warning that the governments of the industrial world would continuously work to erode and destroy the liberties afforded to us by the world wide web.  At the time of its drafting, Bill Clinton had just signed the Telecommunications Reform Act into law – an act which perpetuated the merging of the largest corporations in the communications industry  granting them even greater control of information than ever before.

Barlow has the distinction of being the only person to be inducted into both The Internet Hall of Fame and The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  And his short but incredibly relevant paper is a pivotal piece of internet history.  That’s why I am so honored to have claimed this latest addition to my library.

While poring over the EFF’s deep links, I came upon an article from December of 2014 describing a special limited release from The Department of Records.  DOR’s homepage describes its mission, “to preserve cultural artifacts for the collective memory in both the physical and digital worlds.”  And the first historical work for their catalog is a recording of John Perry Barlow reading his Declaration.

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This special vinyl edition was limited to just 500 copies worldwide and distributed directly by DOR.  The 180g album sports a smart minimalist black cover with the title of the work embossed at the center of the jacket.

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The gatefold sleeve contains a transcript of the original document and information about the three recordings on the album.

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Side A Track 1 features A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace as spoken by John Perry Barlow

Side B Track 1 is A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (ft. John Perry Barlow) by Dražen Bošnjak 

Side B Track 2 is an Instrumental version of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace by Dražen Bošnjak.

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DOR kindly offers the album’s contents free to all courtesy of The Internet Archive.

When I discovered that DOR still had copies remaining for sale, I purchased it for my own archive without a moment’s hesitation.  It instantly became the most significant artifact of my cultural custodianship.

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You can watch the recording session below.  Tune in for an incredible moment of our culture’s history.

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Are the Floodgates of Public’s Access to Information and of Global Communication Irreversibly Open?

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s writings on piracy culture, particularly The Anarchist in the Library, references numerous examples of the church and crown’s efforts to maintain a stranglehold on the flow of information to protect their power.  In a chapter discussing the history of control, there are clear parallels between the Catholic Church and those of the United States with the implementation of The Patriot Act.

In the 14th century, John Wycliffe was the first to produce a handwritten English manuscript of the 80 books of the Bible.  44 years after Wycliffe had died, the Pope declared him a heretic, banned his writings, and ordered a posthumous execution.  His bones were dug-up, crushed, burned, and scattered in a river.  Similarly in the 16th century, William Tyndale was the first to translate and print the New Testament into English.  As a result he was imprisoned for 500 days, strangled and burned at the stake.

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William Tyndale, before being strangled and burned at the stake, cries out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. woodcut from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563).

By the dawn of the 21st century, the freedom of information that came with the printing press experienced its most-recent incarnation with the world wide web and social media.  The Patriot Act was the government’s struggle for control over the anarchic freedom that was the internet and came in the form of mass-surveillance.

Edward Snowden became the latest in the line of dissidents who worked to empower the public by exposing the corruption of the government, just as Tyndale and Wycliffe before him.  And a curious web search for the terms “Spanish Inquisition” + “Patriot Act” instantly returns a piece by Walter Cronkite comparing and contrasting the two systems from 2003.

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger states in his article, Who Says We Know that “Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion.”  This same dissemination of distribution is what resulted in the music industry’s panic and frenzied struggle for control with crippling technologies like DRM and its continued anti-piracy campaign.  There is simply no longer a need for the monopolistic record labels that once commanded the industry.  Artists are empowered to distribute their content directly and can communicate with their fanbase without a commercial intermediary.  This artist-empowerment is expertly discussed by Amanda Palmer in her book, The Art of Asking (and in her TED Talk of the same name.)

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In each of these milestones in the history of information freedom, the acts have been irreversible.  Gutenberg’s printing press empowered the public good through democratization of information – making it inexpensive and readily-accessible.  The web has been much the same, only exponentially more potent.

Still, small but persistent communities continue to prepare for a dystopian world war over information.  They archive the Wikipedia daily and hypothesize alternate methods of mass-communication should the Web as we know it come under fire.  Is their fear valid?

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An eBook export of the Wikipedia

It is difficult to envision a scenario in which first-world governments could close the floodgates of the world-wide web without immediate and drastic reprisal from the public at large who have come to view the internet as a right and a public utility.  Furthermore, global commerce, banking, and the mechanics of industry could not likely stand to make such a sacrifice in the name of control.  Shutting down the web would thrust the global economy into an instantaneous dark age and entire systems of utility, government and finance would collapse.

What are your thoughts?  Is our access to information irreversibly free?  Need we take measures to stockpile and protect the information we have today in preparation for a darker tomorrow?