There is no other way to say this, so I’ll just go right ahead and indulge myself.
We are well into the age of the New Gutenberg Press. I was around when there was an internet, at university in fact, at a time when the internet was only text. Unix was the OS and C was the language. Computer Science was still a “fringe” subject at the Sandstone University I was enrolled at: or at least those who did Computer Science were the nerdiest of the nerds and the geekiest of the geeks. Real students studied maths, physics, chemistry, arts, law. Which is amusing because that’s exactly what computer science encompasses now, more than two decades later.
While I was there, I witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web. No longer were we restricted to text, or packets of data that couldn’t be viewed in situ. And being the nerdiest geeks we could not imagine the political ramifications this subtle change with the use of the web would allow.
A tad over 20 years later, and we are now seeing governments trying, and failing, to control both the web and the net on which it resides. Governments don’t like this: they are used to being in control. They like us to have “free speech” but on their terms. The Criminal Code Act Compilation Act 1913 (Western Australia) still has sedition as a crime, that is in broad terms to criticise the Sovereign (Chapter VII section 44) (The Commonwealth of Australia has a similar offence listed.) I particularly find offence in Chap VII s44(e) “To promote feelings of ill-will between different classes of Her Majesty’s subjects… is a seditious intention…” To begin with I don’t believe in her god, that her god exists, and therefore she has some divine right to enslave me as a “subject”. Secondly this law is more about protecting the position of the Government. Further, what is this “different classes” notion? I want the society to which I belong to be classless, even though I understand that in practice this hasn’t happened: to whit the plight of indigenous Australians, and the incredible stupidity of the WA Police to charge an Aboriginal child with receiving stolen goods. A chocolate worth AUD$0.70. No non-Aboriginal child would have ever been charged with such a serious offence for a trivial item. Even the owners of the 70 cents of chocolate didn’t want to press charges. Finally after the outrage of sensible citizens and journalists overwhelmed the “bring back the stockade and flog them” shock jocks’ points-of-view so that the Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan withdrew the charges.
Now let’s make this point perfectly clear. This child has never been convicted of any crime during his 12 year life. More than that, various legislation means that imprisonment either before a trial, during or after a hearing is a matter of last resort, and in particularly with children imprisonment is the very last resort and then only after a conviction due to a serious crime. Yet this child was locked in a prison cell for a few hours while the charges were being typed up.
Some may think “that will teach him a lesson”, but a lesson in what? That being Aboriginal mean he has less rights before the law than anyone else?
So what this seemingly minor incident have to with the web? Everything. It is true connectivity and immediacy and intimacy. That someone like myself can tell part of the story, that someone can google it or subscribe, that they can find out more because no matter how much any government tries, they cannot control the content I aggregate and publish, nor the thoughts I write down, nor who reads it. I am part of a mass of millions of digital Martin Lutherers, nailing my list of aggrievences to the Church’s door, and by mysterious mechanism it becomes available to be viewed over and over again, cheaply, and in a way that is impossible to control. I know how this much idea irritates Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. and I don’t care.
Well, perhaps not. If governments so wished, they could burn every single New Gutenberg Press they find. Except now governments themselves have a problem: how to cheaply and reliably disseminate public information. Perhaps governments could licence every New Gutenberg Press: an army of inspectors would check every piece of information that it publishes. Don’t discount this: governments have a habit of creating absurd laws to deal with absurd situations they themselves have created.
I was lucky to be there at the birth of this silent revolution, and thus in a fairly élite group of people that have seen the rise of the digital culture and of social media. By no means am I an expert, however by knowing how life really was before, during and after this new social order, I know I can survive if somehow the plug is pulled. Which is more comforting than you may think.