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.)

20141103.Amanda-Palmer_TheArtofAsking-635-2-thumb-620xauto-80148Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking

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?

How Music Got Free – Cover to Cover

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Thrilled to have received my copy of Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free in the post on its date of official publication, I made myself comfortable, put on a full pot of coffee, and eagerly dove into what I anticipated would be a fast-favorite addition to my library.

The book quickly settles into an exciting rhythm – its chapters circling around the activities of key figures in the story of the music industry and of music piracy in the last thirty years. It begins with the struggle of Karlheinz Brandenburg to develop his MP3 audio compression format over twelve years of fine-tuning and a constant battle for acknowledgment by a fiercely competitive industry.

The action then jumps to a few seemingly inconsequential men working at the PolyGram compact disc manufacturing plant in North Carolina – an unsuspecting locale for the most pivotal characters in the end of an industry.

A chapter later, we are privy to private exchanges between the newly-appointed CEO of Warner Music and his fellow overseers of the empire. As the story unfolds, we follow these figures through label acquisitions and purges, through major shifts in industrial policy, through aimless crackdowns on “pirates” including the elderly, the deceased, and a 12-year-old girl who’d downloaded the theme song to Family Matters.

As these individual stories progress, the reader develops an in-depth perspective of the tumultuous end of an era for recorded music. The author offers an astoundingly detailed account of the lives and conversations of core members of the Rabid Neurosis warez group and their suppliers. The storytelling is exciting, calculated, and fast-paced. In elegant Hollywood style, each chapter leaves one scene at a critical cliffhanger to pick up at a similar point of action from another of the sub-plots in the puzzle that was turn-of-the-century music.

I read How Music Got Free eyes wide from cover to cover, captured by every thrilling twist in the tale. What could have been a dry and drab account of compression algorithms and legalities is instead an action-packed saga of a dangerous underground organization where anonymity is critical and risk is always high.

The book also explores the advent of the iPod and the birth and death of numerous filesharing services like Kazaa, Grokster, Limewire, Bearshare, the rise and fall of TPB, and Oink, as well as a few contemporary players I’d never expected to see named in print.

The ending is incredibly satisfying, and even evokes a strong sense of emotion and empathy in the reader – yet another surprise I hadn’t anticipated from a text on piracy. Witt’s book is a fascinating read and adds a much-needed perspective to a story which is still being played out before our eyes. This is easily my favorite title of the year.

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Pirates to the Rescue: Giving the Listening Public What Commercial Services Will Not

Ladies and Gentleman – I’m proud to share my first published article as a music journalist for Queens Free Press in NYC! The article is live on their website and there are plans to feature it when the time comes for their first print edition.

The piece is titled, Pirates to the Rescue: Giving the Listening Public What Commercial Services Will Not.

Visit Queens Free Press and CHECK IT OUT!

By Jon Åslund [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jon Åslund [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Rally in Stockholm, Sweden, in support of file sharing and software piracy.

Published in: on February 22, 2015 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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