Perfect Days
August 2008

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

The last day of July saw an interesting sequence of events reminiscent of last September in Myanmar when the military junta shut down the Internet, disallowing information to flow through cyberspace. Soon, because the government itself needed the Internet to function, it opened it back up again. This time in China, a temporary shutdown was not because of a military junta, crisis or for security reasons during chaos.

The International Herald Tribune reported the Chinese government announced all information flowing to and from the Olympic Village press center would be censored, including access to information about Tibet, Taiwanese independence, incidents in Tiananmen Square and other sites with information of political discourse to which the Chinese are sensitive. Within hours, a bulletin announced reversal of the decision. Censorship would be lifted, although it was not obvious to what degree, with further reports contradicting the reversal. Apparently, to the dismay of freethinkers, the idea of preemptive security measures is something that has caught on. Here is a clip from the South China Morning Post about the opening of Olympic Village on July 27.

Conversation on an NPPA message board produced a comment by one member that newspapers are not only dying of their own Darwinian devolution, but that they are being killed. Elsewhere, it was widely reported in blogs that a New York Times story changed while someone was reading it. As the reader proceeded to page two, the article evaporated and was replaced by another saying an entirely different thing.

This brings us to ponder an interesting point. Real newspapers printed in ink on paper cannot change their stories as initially published. Editors in print media subsequently publish corrections, but the original content is on the record, indelible, and cannot disappear. Un-cached, missing cyber material cannot be disputed in the same way that is possible with the physical evidence of printed material.

However, publishing online is a different story altogether. The good part is that news, information and history are miraculously available at our fingertips for all time. No need for tedious, time-consuming searches through libraries to find old, arcane or rare documents. Information is easily accessible; it persists, and depends only on the good graces of uploading and available space to live forever. We all know that cyberspace is infinite, so the potential for storing all information ever published previously, now, and forever hence is unlimited. So is there a problem?

Maybe not, but maybe so, because information not in physical form can be revised, rewritten or even disappear in the blink of an eye. Think e-mails. What would be the implication of evaporating information? We have only to look at history for the answer. Civilizations have time and again been changed or lost forever, their accumulated knowledge down the memory hole. Even today, what we know about some of them from analysis of ruins and artifacts is at best a guessing game among archeologists and historians. We are seeing a struggle, aren't we, between access and transparency, between history and the future, between truth and fiction, and between continuity and the control of reality itself.

In the relatively brief historical tradition of disseminated news, editors allow or disallow information whether the journalists like it or not. Whoever controls information controls reality, and in the case of the Chinese, for instance, attempts to control info surrounding an event like the Olympics seems curiously misplaced. However, they know open access to cyberspace is exactly that: a door to freedom that is open to everything whether they like it or not. The door to information opens onto a garden to some and is a terrifying exposure to others. Indeed we live in the Information Age, where a hole in a story makes all the difference. Speaking of holes and disappearing things, take a look at these remarkable photographs that arrived in typical E-Bits fashion, in a widely-circulated e-mail.

I have a friend who worked as an English teacher for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. He said the Saudi government would not allow Internet access in the Kingdom until 1990 because of fear that things would get out of control and run amuck. When access was provided with attempts to control it, agents tediously following every link were soon so overwhelmed by trying to censor every single move that they gave up.

No such problem exists for the technologically advanced. We all know the ability exists to monitor and censor absolutely everything should those in control so choose. Hence, we see the outcry and legal battles over wiretapping, surveillance, strictures in the Freedom of Information Act, secrecy, FISA, culpability, compliance by Internet providers and phone companies. Round and round and round it goes. Where it stops, nobody knows. I don't mean to be flip, but some serious issues are on the table.

There are books written about this, notably Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control," which says that for every attempt to censor, there will be a backlash resulting in even more release and freedom of easy-flowing information. We often hear of fear alluding to a New Dark Age, where enlightenment simply recedes into inaccessibility or disappears altogether. It couldn't happen, could it, with the prolific and open nature of the Internet? No way!

On the other hand, as libraries load the pages of their books onto the Internet, warehouse entire archives and go exclusively online—as everything goes online—it is not altogether science fiction that it could all disappear. And it could happen in the blink of an eye, to couch it in apocalyptic language. This would be like another burning of the books. Remember what happened to the library in Alexandria, the destruction of Mayan codices by Spanish Conquistadors and Nazi book burning? It couldn't happen in the modern world, could it? Unthinkable. The cyberspace version of this would be "The Great Deleting," though my philosopher friend suggests that if Big Brother's finger pushes the delete button, our world will be saved by some 15-year-old hacker who caches it all. Just like in the movies.

On July 23, Salon published an article suggesting Orwell's greatest dystopian nightmare of absolute and total surveillance is coming true in real life. Writer Tim Shorrock refers to an ultra mega database called Main Core, which can collect and analyze every bit of information in existence and assess possible threats to national security. Forget terrorists 'over there.' According to author Christopher Ketcham in Radar magazine, there are reportedly 8 million Americans on the threat list, which is about four times as many as are currently being held in U.S. jails for criminal activity and nearly 3% of the population. I would assume the analysts are machines, wouldn't you? And if they are, do you think they could get it wrong? Watch Amy Goodman interview Shorrock about Main Core, or amuse yourself with this clip from Headzup, extracted from a comedy recap of weekly news that is both sublime and ridiculous. Click on the camera.

Such news of Big Brother growing bigger and bigger made me remember a book published in 1970 entitled "This Perfect Day" by author Ira Levin, author of the preceding "Rosemary's Baby" and the subsequent "Stepford Wives." "This Perfect Day" was popular enough to be a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, but the book has since been largely dismissed from dystopian discourse. When I gave my copy away, I looked for almost 20 years for another. I thought it was every bit as powerful as "1984" or "Brave New World."

Levin envisioned a future world perhaps even more insidious than Orwell or Huxley imagined or as portrayed by the 1926 film "Metropolis" or in Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." Levin's society a century and a half after a grand unification of nations is controlled by UniComp, a central computer that tracks all movement and information everywhere on earth all of the time. Citizens, whose mandatory lifespan is 62, eat "totalcakes" and drink Cokes, and can't go more than one block without holding a permanent wristband up to a scanning device hooked into UniComp which then clears them, or not, to continue. Society is controlled by machines and inaccessible, anonymous long-lived human handlers called programmers, who live lavishly underground and adhere to the philosophy of the legendary Wei Li Chun, a 207-year-old person who originally took control of society but never really died—he just has his head surgically attached to a new body every so often. My observation is that real life started imitating science fiction a while ago—and vice versa.

We are currently living in times of incredible opportunity for creating a new world. There is enormous potential for improvement, enlightenment, and elevation of culture and society, not the least of which will be catalyzed by advances in science. For example, there was an announcement from MIT this week of development of technology that can harness and store the massive energy of the sun on a scale not possible in the past. The relatively simple technology would revolutionize the energy industry and free us from dependence on fossil fuels. According to MIT scientists, the method will be available to implement in 10 years tops. This one item from one day is only one instance of the potential of innovation and discovery that may benefit all life on Earth.

I have several tech-oriented friends who follow advances in science as I do, and with whom I share accumulating data about the evolution of the news/information/journalism industry. Together we form a sort of festival of ideas, hopes and fears, which are all part of the mix for any sentient being these days.

So, what do you think humankind is going to do with the cornucopia of possibility? Are we coming to a perfect day? And what will it be like? Will it be a collective effort or will there be control by a few? Will the world become enlightened, and whose interest will knowledge serve? At least one real-life, non-fictional character actually hoped a perfect day would come in the future when his cryogenically frozen head could be reattached to a donor body. That was Timothy Leary, who had the rest of his cremains launched into space in a Pegasus rocket.

Back on Earth, freedom really is 'on the march' and so are countervailing forces, but I think the whole thing is much more complex than anyone can imagine. It will be interesting, at the very least, to see how it all shakes out. Silly to say, maybe, but it's easy to see what all the fuss is about.

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© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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