Information Doesn't Really Want to Be Free

0 0 748

In the early years of the Internet, one of the most commonly heard slogans of the time was, "information wants to be free."  This ringing affirmation of the uninhibited flow of speech, knowledge, and news was one of the grounding values of that heady era when the Net was known as the "electronic frontier," and was regarded as an unfenced "information superhighway."  Those were the days when the web log (better known in its shorthand form as the "blog") was born, and the opportunities for virtually unfettered communication opened up in ways that the world had never experienced before.


That was twenty and more years ago now, and while a superficial glance at things would seem to indicate that nothing has really changed, a closer look reveals quite something else; deep down, the Internet has been fenced, and the superhighway is becoming a toll road.


 To see how, we can consider the history of the blog itself.  Yes, blogs still exist, but they have often morphed into what were in the past called "editorials," as online newspapers slap the label onto the writings of pundits and even those of news feature writers.  What you are reading right now is called a "blog," though it is really a semi-formal essay devoted to professional musings and advice, rather than being some sort of online diary or journal.  The blogs that still hew to the original line of being personal and unrestricted communiques to the world still exist, of course, on easy-to-use platforms like WordPress, but most have been abandoned, with their last posts being dated years ago. 


Where has everybody gone?  Well, to places like Facebook, of course, or Instagram, or Reddit, or whatever's hot at the moment.  But this is not a mere migration from one lane of the information superhighway to another; it is an exit to a toll booth, beyond which some of us cannot go, not because we cannot afford the cost (the toll is not paid in dollars), but because we are unwilling to make ourselves the commodity that "monetizes" what now should be called the "electronic data mine."


Thus, I have seen personal blogs that I used to follow because I was interested in what I learned about their writers, fall fallow because they had moved on to Facebook.  For a long time, some such pages could be accessed by the likes of me if their authors chose to make them public, but they have now all been privatized by Facebook itself.  When I try to visit even the pages of public organizations, a moving barrier fills my screen, ordering me to open an account.  A free account, of course: all I have to do is sell whatever last shred of privacy I have left in order to sign on.


Yes, I know that Google is following me, even if I am not using its search engine: it gets me when I visit a site.  But signing on to Facebook (Google too, of course) involves an even deeper surrender of privacy.  This is demonstrated by the fact that Facebook feels that it cannot get enough data on me simply by noting that I have visited one of its subscriber's pages.  And I am not willing to let Facebook have whatever that extra information on me it wants.


I realize that I may sound here like someone who is demanding something for free.  I don't mean to sound like that: I realize that the Internet, like commercial television, has to be paid for somehow.  But I'd rather watch an advertisement (indeed, the ads are often better than the programs) to pay for my access than present to corporations like Facebook private information that it will sell to anyone who is willing to pay for it.  And I mean anyone, as one of the new readings in the just-completed 9th edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. (with a publish date of November 2017) reveals: Ronald J. Deibert's "Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet."


Not that I am missing much, I think.  The thoughtful blogs that folks used to write have vanished into Facebook personal news bulletins—more like tweets and Instagrams than developed conversations.  It is not unlike what has happened to email, which I gather, is very uncool these days.  Much better to text—a non-discursive form of shorthand which, paradoxically, one does have to pay for in hard cash.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.