Saturday, March 6, 2010

Narrative Control in the Digital Age

“Can’t the Internet control us just as easily as it can liberate us?” asked Jonathan Zittrain Wednesday night as part of the Provost’s 2010 lecture series. Zittrain is a law professor and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University,

Zittrain explained that technology is changing the way we access and add to human knowledge. Our ever-increasing reliance on digital information can create difficult problems with regard to the historical record.

One major issue is that people, governments, organizations or corporations can justify revising the record for various reasons:
  • national security

  • privacy

  • copyright

  • fairness (jury taint, defamation, group insult)

Zittrain offered a few examples where publicly-available information was deemed harmful, and how the problem was dealt with.

Apparently, the EPA used to make “worst-case scenarios” available on the Internet: detailed information about what would have to be done, where, to cause the most damage to life and property. The intent was to let people know that ‘Hey, something really bad could happen. Just FYI.’ However, in the wrong hands, this information could practically be a step-by-step guide.

In response to the uproar that inevitably followed when the scenarios gained publicity, the government decided to establish government reading rooms, where interested parties could go in sans cameras or writing materials of any kind and read as much as their heart desired. According to Zittrain, “It’s quaint. It was totally well-meaning, but there is an element of comicalness to it.”

Another pitfall to recording history in the digital age is that information is increasingly consolidated. Imagine a future where Ebooks are used exclusively over their ink-and-paper counterparts. If for any reason an Ebook vendor changes the book (perhaps due to copyright or governmental regulation), digital rights management would allow the change to be reflected in every copy.

“This is how holes appear in the historical record in way they did not before,” Zittrain said. “It is terrifying!”

Distortions in the record can be just as significant, especially when they can’t be distinguished from truth. For example, sponsored editorials that are favorable of a particular policy or person. As Zittrain put it, “[the record] doesn’t say later ‘By the way, this was fake.’”

“So what do we do? This is not necessarily making for a more complete or accurate historical record.”

His solution: Don’t keep everything in the same place. Lots of copies keep stuff safe! Libraries can play a role by keeping copies to check against other available copies & the Google master copy (when Ebooks eventually predominate, as Zittrain believes).

Furthermore, compromises can be made. For example, if China objects to certain content being shown on YouTube, that content can be restricted to visitors from China without necessitating complete removal (and thus preserving the record).

We must protect the historical record, Zittrain argues, because our view of the past depends on who wrote the story.

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