Information Flow, Freedom and Responsibility

As I drove to my office on June 4, 2014, I was reminded that this date is the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. My mind filled with memories of that 1989 event as I heard the news announcer say, “…of course, the internet didn’t exist back then, so…”  What?! With that verbal nudge, I recalled sitting in my office in the springtime of 1989 at my Apollo DN3000 Workstation computer, reading reports sent by a Chinese participant in the demonstrations about his experiences and perceptions of the protests and government reactions.

The internet was in its embryonic form back then but it existed, sort of.

In the software world at that time, engineers were excited to be able to send messages to each other by bouncing them from machine to machine across intermittently connected networks. I was proud to say that I could get a message from Portland, Oregon to my buddy Steve in Boston within 2 hours time by using the proper sequence of hops. We called those messages “email”, a new term that wasn’t widely known yet but soon would become ubiquitous. And we had access to a broad range of “bulletin boards” where those with access and know-how could exchange information and ideas with anyone connected to “the net.”

In the spring of 1989, Steve pointed me at a bulletin board that contained messages supposedly posted by a young man in China about a demonstration that had spontaneously formed somewhere in Beijing. What an amazing thing these electronic bulletin boards were! They brought us news that wasn’t accessible anywhere else, from sources that the news channels didn’t access. We had a new source of information flow at our fingertips. Those were heady times for anyone interested in the flow of information.

The protests that I followed in the spring of 1989 were in part about the free flow of information – what those Chinese demonstrators identified as “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech.” Sitting in my office in Oregon, I was excited to be experiencing exactly what the protestors were agitating for in China. Here was an example not only of information flow, but information about protests about freedom of information flow. By reading that young Chinese man’s words I was participating in the flow of information and the “freedom of speech” that those thousands were demanding from their government.

I was excited about that in 1989 and I’m still excited now.

It seems like those concerns about the free flow of information are just as relevant today as they were back in 1989. Our information concerns today are about Net Neutrality, NSA data collection and surveillance, and an active and free press. Will the balance tip toward freedom or restriction? Or perhaps some unhappy compromise of both?

In his 2000 book “Nonzero” Robert Wright argues that capitalism requires information flow in order to thrive, and that once established, capitalism puts pressure on societies to maintain and enrich the flow of information. In Wright’s words, “Capitalism makes the world safe for itself.” (p. 148) and “The power of this information metatechnology would time and again prove irresistible.” (p. 151)

If Robert Wright is “right” about the relationship between capitalism and information, then perhaps our capitalist economic system will ensure that we’ll continue to reap the benefit of information flow. Maybe any restriction in information flow (like, Net Non-Neutrality) will right itself due to the pressures of capitalism. If so, I’d like that. As much as capitalism is blamed for problems, I’d also like to focus on its benefits.

Back when information traveled at the speed of horses and sailing ships, Thomas Jefferson had a lot to say about the necessity of providing information to the people. In a 1786 letter to Dr. James Currie, Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Jefferson seems to have had strong feelings about information and freedom since he’s quoted discussing information and freedom in correspondence over the next several decades.  In an 1816 letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, Jefferson wrote, “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

And in 1823, Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de la Fayette , “But the only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

These quote from Jefferson’s letters are from “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson” edited by  Albert Ellery Bergh and Andrew Adgate Lipscomb (1903), which I was able to access from several sources via internet  – the Kindle Store, Project Gutenberg, memory.loc.gov, Google eBooks, my public library and constitution.org.  Robert Wright’s claims about capitalism pressuring for information flow seem to be bearing out nicely in this case. The diverse range of these sources – some scholarly while others are collaborations by “the people,” bears out Wrights point about information flow.

Back to China and 1989. After June 4, the bulletin board feed from China went silent. On broadcast news I saw the images and video and heard onsite reporting about China’s violent reaction to the protests. I watched the infamous “tank man” video. Hundreds of software nerds who had been reading the news  thread posted by the young man from Beijing were left fearing for his fate. Several weeks passed before we got word from a Silicon Valley source that the young man was safe. I breathed a perplexed sigh of relief. Perplexed, because I couldn’t help but wonder – was the new information credible? Did it flow freely and without bias? I wish now that I had archived that thread of news from China in 1989.

The 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre reminds me that I’m interested in the role that information plays in the exercise of freedom. In exercising freedom, I want to inform myself about options, about issues that need to be considered or confronted, about limitations and responsibilities. I do this so that I can make decisions that accord with my sense of moral responsibility to myself, my family or to the world. That kind of informing process depends on access to accurate and complete information. As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, global and complex, having accurate and complete information is essential to exercising freedom in a responsible and optimal way. For an illustration, consider the effect that biased and tainted information has had on the politicization of climate change during the past 25 years. How morally responsible has our resulting inaction been?

So today I’m reminded to honor the protestors at Tiananmen, the whistle-blowers who keep governments honest and the public informed, and others who work in outstanding ways to keep me informed about things that are important. I’m grateful for all that you do.

 

References:

Constitution Society. (1853). The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Retrieved from http://www.constitution.org/tj

Frontline. (2014, May 13 & May 20). The United States of Secrets. Retrieved June 4, 2014, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/united-states-of-secrets/

Library of Congress American Memory. Thomas Jefferson Papers. Retrieved June 4, 2014, from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjquote.html

Lipscomb, Andrew A., & Bergh, Albert Ellery. (1903). The Writings of Thomas Jefferson [Kindle Version]. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association.

Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 4, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989

Wright, Robert. (2000). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny [Kindle Version]. New York, NY: Pantheon.

By Stephen Shostek, Portland Therapist
www.stephenshostek.com

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