Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Time for a Change? New Technology Demands New Tactics from Free Speech Campaigners, Writes Becky Hogge

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Time for a Change? New Technology Demands New Tactics from Free Speech Campaigners, Writes Becky Hogge

Article excerpt

In the second edition of The Road Ahead (the first edition of his book famously ignores the internet almost completely), Bill Gates predicted that the interactive world would change human culture as dramatically as Johannes Gutenberg's press had done in the Middle Ages. The comparison has been drawn ever since--though it is usually made with little thought. The spread of printed materials led to secularism, individualism, rationalism. These are all good things, so the logic usually goes, so we can expect good things from the information superhighway, too.

But, as Ithiel de Sola Pool wrote in his 1983 work Technologies of Freedom, "Repression is in fact most likely not before a technology of liberation comes along, but only afterward, when the powers that be are challenged by the beginnings of change." And so, if you look a little closer, you will see that today's norms of free expression were established during the intellectual and political struggle for the freedom of Gutenberg's printing press. This is a struggle that lasted for centuries: modern ideas of "prior restraint", for example, date from Areopagitica, John Milton's 1644 polemic protesting to parliament about censorship laws.

Should those who battle for rights to freedom of expression in the offline world be worried? Perhaps. As networked communications develop, they are likely to spur similar attempts at repression, and could even lead to the regression of free-expression norms. …

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