“Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a big fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again”
Access to any kind of knowledge is something of a Pandora’s box. Once accessed, there’s no way it can be hidden away, short of destroying all references and obliterating our individual and collective memory of the event or idea. We need look no further than the former apartheid regime’s attempts to rewrite history to see this process in action. Even attempting to seal off the entire nation from external and corrupting influences was futile. Some way or another, the banned ideas would percolate into the national consciousness and would be passed on from one generation to the next in some form or another.
Many childrens’ folk tales such as Humpty Dumpty have an entirely different meaning than the one we know. In earlier times, any criticism of the ruling order was considered as sedition or treason and you were likely to lose your head as well as other parts of your anatomy if you voiced them. But this didn’t stop people from talking about and commenting on events, you just had to be careful how you voiced them. Hence the ‘kids’ songs, where the references to the ruling class’ policies of the day were encrypted into a language where everybody knew what the words really meant.
I wonder how King Charles II would have felt about the Internet? Not very differently from the way head of the Chinese Communist Party does or the Pope for that matter. But it is a fact, ideas are dangerous, regardless of whether they are generally accepted or not. Hence the Pope would rather every Catholic didn’t know that contraception exists. Failing suppression of the idea itself, you’ll burn in hell if you use a condom.
When I was a teenager, I knew a girl on my street who went to a Catholic high school. One day we got into a conversation about evolution. She was horrified by my views! They challenged everything she’d ever been taught. After the conversation I didn’t see her for ages, until one day we bumped into each other on the street and I asked her why she’d been so scarce to which she replied that she had raised some of the issues we’d discussed at school and had been told to avoid me like the plague! Thinking for oneself is dangerous!
The problem with ideas is that they often mean different things to different people. Hence the anti-pornography brigades, that probably have the largest collection of pornography in the world – all for research purposes of course – are somehow resistant to pornography’s ‘corrupting’ influences. Yet somehow, it manages to corrupt the rest of us if we are exposed to it? How come?
And the state’s monopoly on weapons follows the same logic. As we all know, they and they alone have the good sense to know how to use them responsibly. God forbid that they fall into the hands of ‘terrorists’ who, as we all know are motivated by irrational ideas, except of course if the irrational ideas happen to coincide with those of the government. Sound familiar?
‘Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me’. The Internet challenges virtually all our commonly-held assumptions about ideas, not because of the technology per se but because it can’t be controlled and hence the spread of ideas can’t be controlled. The Internet doesn’t know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas it just distributes them in a way that makes notions of censorship ridiculous, and in doing so, exposes all our assumptions and prejudices about what’s right and what’s wrong.
The Internet is international where there are no global laws controlling the flow of ideas. Something legal in the US is illegal in France. The French government bans access to certain Websites through controlling access to them from French-based Service Providers and the French simply access the same information through a third-party link provided by another Service provider in some other country. Ban that link and the link will pop up some other place.
Even more ‘dangerous’ is the arrival of cheap ‘always on’ communications lines which effectively make anybody with one a Service Provider! My PC can now act as Server and I can put any information I like on my PC and make it available to anyone. These already exist in the US in growing numbers and they may even challenge the hegemony of the big ISPs. Short of putting a ‘black box’ in everyone’s house, they are impossible to control or monitor.
But what is really being challenged here, is the idea that the State has some pre-ordained right to control what we read, see or listen to – all in our own interests of course – and that the free flow of information is somehow dangerous to us. Implicit in this view is that we are not able to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions about what is or isn’t ‘dangerous’. This is one of the rationale’s behind the modern, ‘security state’.
Inadvertantly, the arrival of the Internet has thrown into sharp relief what has always been so, that the state and its allies have maintained the status quo through legal and/or financial/technical means, something they are now unable to do. It’s no accident therefore that the state has found support from the most reactionary and backward segments of society in its pursuance of doing the thinking for us.
At the end of the day, the vehicles that historically have been used to distribute ideas were relatively easy to control, either through laws that regulated the distribution of ideas or because the media were nationally based or, through an alliance between the dominant economic forces which controlled the media and the state that guaranteed them a market – under controlled conditions. Step ‘outside’ the law and it was easy to suppress the idea. But this state of affairs is now dead and buried and not a moment too soon. We no longer need to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, we simply distribute him.
All content on this site is copyright © 1987-2003 William Bowles unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved. You have the right to reproduce content from this if it is not-for-profit, non-commercial use or for ‘fair use’. For commercial reproduction, please contact the copyright owner.