People have always lived with contradictory ideas. However, the gap between the elated notions literate citizens of Western democracies have of their freedom to think and write and the cowardice and prejudice that characterise the exercise of their freedom is now dizzying.
Officially, we are living in a golden age of information exchange. Everyone says that the internet has brought a revolution as great as that brought by the invention of the printing press. Breathtaking technological advance is, they say, moving us into a new democratic era, which in the words of the American media commentator Clay Shirky will ensure that "anyone in the developed world can publish anything anytime, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable". Just as Gutenberg deposed the monopoly of the medieval scribes who copied manuscripts by drastically lowering the cost of printing, so the internet is breaking the monopoly of book and newspaper publishers, which had used the high cost of production to confine publication to privileged professionals with hidden agendas. The defining polemical form of the new medium is "Fisking", named after Robert Fisk of the Independent whose articles on the Middle East and Afghanistan were taken apart by bloggers after 9/11. The ubiquity of line-by-line assaults the first Fiskers pioneered, not just on blogs but on newspaper comment pages which are merging into the blogosphere, brings with it the promise that the lies and evasions of cosy political clubs will be subject to merciless scrutiny as outsiders challenge easy assumptions and begged questions.
Meanwhile, we are promised that the ability of courts and governments to censor will vanish as prohibited material shoots away from their blue pencils to find a home on websites beyond their jurisdiction. In 1996, the Electronic Freedom Foundation encapsulated the libertarian enthusiasm the internet had generated when it responded with imperious disdain to an attempt by the US to control web porn. Its Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which tens of thousands of websites endorsed, roared, "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."
Before going any further, I should say that I do not dispute that the internet is revolutionary. Nor do I doubt that it has vastly expanded the amount of information available to casual and serious users, who would never have had the time to search it out before, or known where to look for it in the first place. If, as is possible, properly funded journalism collapses because media managers cannot find a way to make it profitable on the web, we may indeed look back on the first decade of the 21st century as a golden age. Never before had so much information been freely available and because of this, the quality inevitably declined. Finally, I happily concede that some of the most interesting British commentators around write for blogs. They don't just produce brilliant political and economic analysis but authentic accounts we would never have had before of what life is like as a police officer in a northern town or a target-battered doctor in the NHS. The internet, like book and newspaper publishing before it, has helped promote a few good writers, many bad ones and a range of writers of varying degrees of talent in between appealing to specialist audiences from friends reading blogs on their lives to fellow devotees of their hobby or specialism.
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