Digital Alexandria, Part 1

While there are countless benefits to digitizing information–ease of access, duplicability, shareability, networks of dissemination, among many others–this all relies on the stability of the network that holds these data.

Now of course there’s probably not that much to worry about in practical terms, at least for the near future: we have a huge, decentralized network for information-sharing called the Internet.

Decentralization may have started more as a feature of the Internet as it was originally constructed, but it has the advantage of protecting information that may not all be controlled by one central server.

In this case, if anything were to happen to a node of the server, at least some of the data would in principle be protected.

Nevertheless, there exist two frightening potential cases that could have dire possibilities for the future of information in our world as more and more of our information storage and distribution relies on the cloud.

First, we need to consider information-hoarding. At the moment, the greatest information-collecting systems are private “siren servers,” a term from Jaron Lanier, such as the Big Three companies whose stock-in-trade is information, pure and simple.

This argument is quite simple: such siren servers create walled gardens that protect information within their walls. We are of course allowed to use these gardens with whatever restrictions the companies behind them allow us. These companies are generally good and mean well, of course, and they have Mission Statements to prove it.

Sometimes we’re even lucky enough to use these systems for free, although the companies do of course have access to any data that we choose to put into their servers. However, conversely, we have no access to what information these companies collect (except of course what we willingly provide).

We face a system of monopoly unprecedented in the modern world that three companies, each with ever-contentious relationships with one another, control so much information. The way things are going, it’s not inconceivable that these companies could control nearly all Internet real estate at some point in the not-too-distant future.

This of course works against the decentralized Internet that we have long been used to. The more centralized information becomes, the more fragile it becomes. Any number of disaster scenarios can come out of this: feuds between the companies, politics coming down hard on one or another among the Three, strained relationships in particular international markets, or many more potential problems.

It’s important to remember one of the key things that, historically and until the modern day, has made the Internet the most revolutionary technology since the printing press: as a decentralized information network, it gives unprecedented freedom to the individual. It would be irresponsible for us to sit idly by while such freedom is reduced to virtually nothing, but even worse to think that we are in many ways willingly ceding it to others.

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