On 6 October 1536, in the prison yard of Vilvoorde castle near modern-day Brussels, a man named William Tyndale was strangled then burnt at the stake. His crime? To translate the Latin Bible into English, his native tongue. A priest and scholar, Tyndale was an information freedom-fighter, whose mission was to open up the scripture for ordinary men and women. ‘If God spare my life,’ he reportedly told a fellow priest, ‘I will cause the boy that drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you!’
Tyndale worked in the midst of an extraordinary new information era, ushered in by the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Prior to the press, there were just 30,000 books in all of Europe; some 50 years later, in 1500, there were more than 10 million. The Catholic Church had responded to these developments with alarm. It tried to retain a monopoly on biblical interpretation by declaring translations from Latin heretical. Their logic was simple: control the flow of information, and you control its power.
Like Tyndale, today’s citizens are living through another information revolution. While Gutenberg’s technology laid the groundwork for change, activists such as Tyndale were the real engines of transformation. The press was the mere means; without Tyndale’s democratic impulse, such tools could have been concentrated in the hands of powerful, used to produce more Latin bibles for priests to sermonise from on a Sunday. Tyndale set out to use the technology at his disposal to empower and liberate ordinary people, giving them the opportunity to understand, think and make decisions for themselves. Open information meant believing that people should be free to encounter and recombine ideas at will, without some grand designer dictating the appropriate ends.
Dazzled by the astonishing pace of change, we can start to see technical advances as solutions in and of themselves. But technology is not teleology. Too often observers focus on technology alone and forget the structures of law, ownership and power that determine how it is used. The medium is not the message – and the internet’s open architecture will not in itself guarantee a more democratic or open world.
Radio offers a cautionary tale. Commentary about radio in the 1920s sounds eerily similar to discussions of the internet today. The technology would revolutionise human communication, it was claimed, enabling a new and better democracy by creating a peer-to-peer world where everyone could broadcast. Yet radio delivered on its technological promise but not on its social one. Instead of a communication commons, citizens got a one-way medium dominated by the state and a few huge corporations – in large part because the rules and policies built around it protected these concentrations of power.
The internet’s low-cost transmission can just as easily create information empires and robber barons as it can digital democracy and information equality. The growing value of being able to mine and manipulate huge data-sets, to generate predictions about consumers’ behaviour and desires, creates a self-reinforcing spiral of network effects. Data begets more data, locked down behind each company’s walls where their proprietary algorithms can exploit it for profit.
But in an alternative, more open world, how would we pay to create information in the first place? After all, it costs real money and real resources to make new software, movies or drugs.
One answer could be to use the collective mechanisms we already have, especially in the form of the state. Just as citizens pay taxes for the provision of shared public goods such as national defence or parks, so we might use the same mechanisms for equitable, collective creation and distribution of information. Moreover, in contrast to the model of state-owned radio, it need not be a government committee deciding which authors get paid, or what software gets written. The fact that the state raises these funds does not mean that it must choose who gets funding. We can use traditional market mechanisms driven by demand to allocate all or part of the money collected.
Specifically, rather than getting a patent monopoly right as they do today, inventors might instead acquire a ‘remuneration right’. This could entitle them to payment from a central government fund according to the value of their contribution – based on how much their drugs improved health, for example, or how many times their song was played. Such decisions depend on profound and contestable questions of value, of course, that should be subjected to the heat of public scrutiny and debate.
And that takes us back to Tyndale. He took the possibility of the printing press and married it with openness. Today, the equivalent gesture might be to turn away from private monopolies to fund innovation and creativity. What matters is who owns information, not just the infrastructure by which it is distributed. Digital technology must be combined with concrete actions that protect openness across the spectrum, from maps to medicines, from software to schools. Better that we do it through public institutions, instead of relying on mavericks and martyrs.Support Aeon: make a one-off donation