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LIVING IN A DIGITAL WORLD 26 May 2016 PDF  | Print |  E-mail


26 May 2016


Our subject today is the digital liberty.  I know I’ve discussed this before, but it’s weighing on my mind. 

This week I watched one of my favorite movies and picked up on one aspect of the plot that had escaped my notice.  It was in the original version of Rollerball.  Late in the movie the main character, Jonathan E, travels to Geneva, Switzerland to learn the truth of a few things that had been plaguing his thoughts.   He knew there was an unseen structure making decisions that affected the planet, but didn’t know how major decisions were made or by whom.  In Geneva he met with the custodian of Zero.  Zero was a liquid computer, named Zero because it was the master of all computers in the world.  Zero supposedly had all human knowledge and history contained within it.  In the first scene of this film segment the custodian appears to be fretting because Zero had somehow lost all records pertaining to the 13th Century.  They had just vanished.  The custodian couldn’t figure out how to retrieve the files, and Zero apparently was no help.  The custodian summed up the dilemma thusly, “Poor 13th Century.  I guess we’ll just have to do without it from now on.  A pity!”

Science fiction is full of projections of a future without books.  In Rollerball the world has no printed matter.  People access computer terminals to find out whatever they need to know.  The problem is presented in one other statement made by Zero’s custodian, “You want to ask Zero about the past?  Which past?  They may have already changed it.”  You see the dilemma?

The theme is not new.  Ray Bradbury projected the same problem in his 1953 masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451, when computer technology was still in its infancy.  The same dilemma was a major subplot of the movie Soylent Green.   Printed material is replaced by digital representations.  The printed material is destroyed.  It’s no longer necessary or even relevant.  Sometime later the digital files are altered.  Images are changed. Words are changed.  Dates are changed.  History is rewritten.  True history is forgotten within a generation.  The past is no longer.  Knowledge becomes false.  The world is run by tyrants who maintain the population in whatever state of ignorance serves their needs, facilitated by altered digital media.

Today the federal government has several grants available to libraries to support digitization efforts.  If you look on the Library of Congress website you can find the list of grants and the criteria used to qualify a project for a grant.  On the surface those projects appear to be worthy.   Harvard’s library is busy now, digitizing their entire rare book, photograph, and sheet music collections.   One good aspect of that undertaking is that no one in the future can steal or damage a rare item.  Instead of access to the Real McCoy you will be able to access the digital representation on-line and use it however you need.  Another benefit is many, many more researchers can access the same item, in the same timeframe.  Even if a book is the sole remaining copy in existence, it will be available for study by an almost infinite number of people who want it; just not in its actual, tangible form.  Yes, those are great benefits.

Shift your thoughts to something more local.  The federal government has been subsidizing the installation of broadband fiber optic networks throughout the country.  The intent for the future is to make broadband communications available to any and all.   In the near future all public schools will have broadband access, and all students will use computer interfaces instead of books, pencils, and paper.  If that doesn’t make you stop and think, it should.  Once the kids are exposed to a purely digital culture they’ll accept it as the norm.  They won’t question it, nor will they question what appears on their screens.  The government will take the minds of the children and do with them what they will.  Parents will have no say, no control, and no recourse.  What will the children know of truth?

I’m sure we’re all on the same page on this.  Digitization is a great advance for all mankind.  But, where are safeguards for the future?  What will stop the alteration of digital files?  What will prevent a future tyrant-to-be from ordering the deletion of specific files?  What will prevent us from losing the 13th Century?  What will ensure the history we know and experienced is preserved and not revised?  What is there that informs us what we already have in digital form is a true representation of the original?

If you think this issue and concern is minor you don’t understand the essence of freedom or liberty.  If we accept the ancient pearl of wisdom from Thomas Hobbes, “Knowledge is power,” as truth, then it is necessarily also true that those who possess actual knowledge instead of counterfeit knowledge have an automatic advantage in power.  If our future rulers determine it in their best interest to “adjust” truth to fit their perceived needs or some political reality of the day, we cannot then claim to be free citizens.  Instead we become hostages to tyrants whose lies cannot be challenged.  After all, if we were to refer to authority on any question at hand, we would have no assurance that authority is unchanged or not.  All will become suspect, and truth will effectively cease to exist.

One of our greatest problems with these dire scenarios is our legislators.  Many of them are rather aged, and most of those who aren’t have computer skills more primitive than my own.  They rely on others to tell them what’s good and bad in the cyber world.  They don’t know.  The lobbyists know.  Their staff knows.  Their grandkids know.  But, they don’t.   How can we expect to see truly useful and protective legislation come out of Washington D.C. with such a cabal of the ignorant in charge?   By the time we see legislators of sufficient knowledge ascend to positions of power the essence of the problem will have changed and that Congress will be trying to solve problems of yesterday.  They have little hope of ever understanding today.  The pace of technological evolution is just too fast.  Playing catchup won’t work.   By the time our legislators start to figure it all out the horses will have left the barn and the barn will have burned to the ground.

It’s my hope each of you thinks about this note very deeply.  We may or may not be able to prevent the worst scenario from happening.  I admit that I’m not very hopeful.  I only wish I were.  Our hope lies in making sufficient numbers of our fellow citizens aware of the danger that lies immediately ahead.  Awareness and communication are our only means to deal with this question.  But, we need to act fast.  History is already being changed, even as we speak.  I’d bet my life on that.


In Liberty,