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Talking about the internet – The free software column

The internet and the digital tools that allow us to interact over the wires or the airwaves have radically changed the way we communicate, and the way we live

Before the invention of the printing press and the upheavals of the industrial revolution, human society depended almost exclusively on oral communication. In the last 120 years, an array of inventions – from electric lighting to home refrigerators and TV – have transformed the way we live, but the digital revolution of the last 20-30 years is just as transformative. The new technologies are redefining the possibilities for information exchange and the dissemination of ideas, and how we respond to them. The promise of the digital revolution is that knowledge and ideas become a universal resource for all, that the internet might give us ways to find a new vision and understanding of how ideas are owned and shared, without the interference of government or corporations.

Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. The web, which is a universal access point for all, is also a magnet for commercial interests and those who want to control us. And some of the effects are negative. Paradoxically, the net both increases and decreases the choices we have before us. David Byrne of Talking Heads argues that “The internet will suck all creative content out of the world.” Amazon makes it easy to buy a book, but its cumulative effect is to reduce the range of books available to us as independent book and record publishers and shops are driven out of business.

A few years ago the slow death of these marginal businesses – and their gargantuan relatives, the record and media companies – was blamed exclusively on users and ‘piracy’. But change was inevitable. The internet and globalisation are radically transforming our societies and our lives, our ways of working, and our income and tax distribution. Globalisation is unsticking some of the glue that holds our lives together.

One manifestation of this phenomenon has been the revelation of the scope of surveillance of our citizenry by GCHQ and the NSA, and how the internet has made it easy for them. This revelation has been greeted by massive debate in Europe and the US about democratic oversight and the limits of internet security.

In contrast, the issues have met with a relatively muted response in Britain, where newspapers such as The Times and Daily Mail, both owned by companies based outside the UK, have argued that The Guardian was wrong “to publish material leaked by Edward Snowden on the specific grounds that journalists cannot be trusted to judge what may damage national security.” The former Conservative MP, Louise Mensch, has even argued, in the pages of The Sun, that the editors of The Guardian should be prosecuted for treason; and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, wants a parliamentary committee to investigate not GCHQ, but The Guardian. This would seem to be the extent of parliamentary discussion on the real issues of security and privacy. Others, such as Herald columnist Iain Macwhirter, have suggested that the constant surveillance by intelligence agencies (and the corporate outlets we use) is very close to the the world of Orwell’s 1984.

“Winston Smith could still go off-line,” he noted, “at least for short periods. But today, Big Brother would know exactly where he was thanks to ubiquitous CCTV cameras and global positioning software on mobile phones. Then there is all that Orwellian-sounding ‘metadata’ that can be and is mined from the net, allowing access to our very unconscious minds through algorithms that analyse what we watch, buy and read; whom we meet and where we go. As for Facebook: Orwell would never have believed it. Millions of people putting their private thoughts onto a public record that can never be erased.”

Of course, a wider reality is that all the UK’s newspapers are finding it increasingly difficult to survive as economic entities, unable to compete with the net. The Guardian is already speculating that its print editions may cease publication within the next few years, and is looking for ways to secure its future as a web-based newspaper.

The internet is far from being the source of all our problems, however, and its faults are a manifestation and reflection of a rapidly changing world. But there is remarkably little creative discussion of how these changes affect the socio-economic realities of our existence. For instance, once upon a time we were promised that technology would be our liberator and free us from the drudgery of work, but remarkably, the discussion of work and its pros and cons is stuck in time, or travelling backwards. Work is ‘good’. Those who don’t work are ‘bad’. And yet the distribution of both time and money throughout our society becomes more unequal. All this is affected by the movement of trade onto the internet, accompanied by suspect employment practices and ‘creative’ tax avoidance. In a world where industry has been sent offshore, work for most of our fellow citizens is temporary or low paid.

Yet, two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin predicted that the technological advances of the late 1700s would lead to the four-hour working week. A century later, George Bernard Shaw confidently predicted that by the year 2000 we would be working a two-hour day. Robots would do the washing up, go down the mines, man the factories and vacuum the floors. Technology would be our liberator, and free us for more creative pursuits. In the GNU manifesto, Richard Stallman postulated optimistically that:

“In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counselling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting. There will be no need to be able to make a living from programming.”

Nobody is expecting working conditions to suddenly improve, or the UK parliament or mainstream press (other than The Guardian) to seriously question the activities of GCHQ or the issues of security and invasion of privacy on the internet. But it would be a positive development if these things were to be seriously debated in the wider forums they deserve.