Really Scary Stuff!
New technologies unleash changes that turn societies on their heads.
These dislocations can be very disorienting.
Even though the printing press was invented in 1452, its full impact was not really felt until the mid 18th Century. Newspapers started to develop around that time, and in France, a nobleman named Denis Diderot decided to publish the world’s first Encyclopedia.
It would contain all the knowledge in the world, and be written in the vernacular so that anyone could read it.
Diderot received permission from the government in 1750 and embarked upon the project. But the plan almost immediately met massive resistance from the nobility. What was Diderot thinking? they asked. What would happen when any peasant could read the Encyclopedia and learn how to build a waterwheel or drill a well or refine iron? They would abandon their serf jobs and start their own small businesses! Who would till the fields? Who would be the servants? The nobles immediately moved to suppress.
The project was actually suspended by the French courts in 1752 and in 1759 the Encyclopedia was formally suppressed. It was not published until 1770, twenty years after Diderot began his work.
The notion of a Free Press was a long and tortured road, and along the way it met constant resistance from those whose lives the new technology was about to overturn.
Our own Constitution, drafted in 1798, not so long after the Encyclopedia, guaranteed a free press. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law abridging a free press”. It was a very radical idea – and not too popular. The first free press newspapers in this country elicited the Alien and Sedition Acts which tried to suppress the Free Press that had just been guaranteed.
I am reminded of this when I read today about a ‘warning’ of the cost of “Citizen Journalism” posted on b-roll.net, the website for professional videographers – a class deeply threatened by the new technology. The ‘Warning”, entitled, “Costly Citizen Journalism”, gives a reference to an article in the Tampa Bay Online paper. The article points out that there have been “100 judgements against bloggers, totaling $17 million in the past 3 years”
The b-roll folks fall over themselves trying to figure out ways to ‘control’ the bloggers.
Not quite as scary as the French court’s suppression of the Encyclopedia, but pretty much from the same source.
Let’s put this in perspective. 100 suits against bloggers. According to Technorati, there are more than 70 million bloggers in the world. 70 million. 100 suits. That means that (ready?) the odds on getting sued are .0000000129. These numbers are so miniscule as to be virtually non existant. The odds on getting killed in a terrorist attack are vastly higher.
What we are seeing here is pure fear mongering.
But it is a fear that is very well placed.
Jobs will be lost.
Careers that once seemed secure are looking far less so.
The world is being turned upside down.
And the peasantry is being unleashed.
Scary? You bet.
The First Amendment was and remains an incredibly powerful yet radical law. The very concept simply does not exist in most countries, and before 1798, never before in the world. The notion of a truly free and untrammeled press is an institutionalized and perpetual revolution in the making. Most people, given the choice today in the US, would probably vote against it as ‘too dangerous’.
So we are fortunate to have it, but it has to be continually protected.
It is, I think, the very basis of our freedom.