The End of the Information GatekeeperOctober 23, 2011
This may be the age of the internet but you’d be forgiven for thinking that some parts of our global society really aren’t connected.
Take the world of the law. There’s a saying that for justice to be done it must be seen to be done. That’s why in most countries – democratic countries that respect the rule of law – court cases are conducted in public.
There are exceptions; occasionally cases with implications for national security are held in camera, so, in the UK, are family law cases. However the records of cases heard in open court are not always available – especially, it would seem, in England and Wales.
Here the transcripts of court cases are available only through private companies who have access to official recordings and who can, in effect, charge more or less what they like for them.
As the journalist Heather Brooke argues; “We have a justice system paid for by the common people but whose proceedings are available only to the rich, powerful, or privileged.”
There’s an irony in that because for most people in the West, those of us who use the internet, social networking sites, email, credit cards, supermarket points cards and so on, our lives are increasingly digitally transparent. Our likes, purchases, beliefs and connections are not just there for all to see, they’re analysed, packaged and resold by companies who are the informational equivalent of mosquitoes.
And when we talk about Google having indexed only 0.1% of the information stored in computers we are apt to forget that Google has indexed even less of the information that hasn’t even made it into digital form yet.
Of course there are worthy attempts, like Project Gutenberg and Google Books, to make available information held in non digital formats via the internet, yet those still don’t address the issue of all the information that’s held non-digitally and inaccessibly.
Access to that information allows the privileged few to act as gatekeepers, or more properly toll-gatekeepers and charge a fee for access.
It harks back too mediaeval times when craft or trades guilds would try to maintain a professional monopoly for their members by restricting access to knowledge and skills that would have allowed newcomers to set themselves up in business in competition to guild members.
There’s a strong argument that relates to government, justice, competition and regulation to be made freely available. After all, how can litigants properly represent themselves without access to transcripts of cases that have set precedents relating to their own affairs?
There’s also a good case for opening access to academic research that has been publicly funded. At present it’s available at an often considerable premium only through academic publishers, publishers who often get the material, ready written and edited for them, for free.
However greater freedom of information doesn’t have to mean that information is necessarily without charge. Let’s consider information in its various aspects.
Firstly there is information to which we have a right and which many would argue must be free.
Organisations like Wikileaks are spearheading a new wave of Freedom of Information campaigning to publish documents that they believe should be available in the public interest. If individuals are having to learn to live transparent lives, it may be that governments and corporations may have to learn the same lesson.
Then there is privately acquired information to which a limited number of people have access and which can be readily traded.
Lastly there is knowledge. Knowledge and information are quite distinct things. Information is like a lump of marble, knowledge is like the statue of David that Michelangelo carved from it. Knowledge is information crafted into something, and in that instance the possessor has indisputably added value. If information is a good then knowledge, one might argue, is a service.
Most market theories hold that if markets are operating properly then the true value of the goods traded will be more accurately reflected, a little like water finding its level. One of the reasons that the cost of tradable information has hitherto been so high is that there hasn’t been a properly effective market for it.
Proper information and knowledge markets, like Mancx, ought to bring down the cost of both – though by making it easier to reach more buyers it ought to offset the lower cost of information by facilitating a greater number of sales.
Which brings me back to Gutenberg, man from whom the project took its name – Johannes Gutenberg who, in around 1440 invented the printing press. In the early 1450s two events coincided; Gutenberg started work on typesetting and printing the Bible and (in 1453) Constantinople fell and with its fall thousands of scholars fled West, bringing with them their knowledge of the Classical Greek world.
With these two the Renaissance, which had been budding for a hundred years, flowered.
At every juncture significant leaps forward in the distribution of information have transformed human society – speech, writing, the emergence of languages, like Latin, that acted as a lingua franca, the printing press, newspapers, the telegraph, telephone, fax, internet…. and now, albeit perhaps in a modest way, knowledge markets.
The age of information gatekeepers, like academic and legal publishers, is drawing to a close. The age of knowledge distributors is just beginning.
This article originally appeared on the Mancx blog.