Tag Archives: Free speech

The infinite city, cont’d: Terry Jones versus the Beatles

Documentary filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture a moment of hate — and love — in a city big enough to contain both:

I love this town.

(via The New York Times)

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Humanism and secularism, defined

So what’s humanism? I had a go at this question way back when I started this blog, but this video by the British Humanist Association offers a much clearer introduction:

And from the always-lucid British YouTube user QualiaSoup, here’s a very clear presentation on secularism and its views on church/state separation, gay marriage, and education — as relevant (or perhaps even more so) in the US as it is in the UK:

(via Tim Minchin)

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Books are made of win, cont’d: Information needs hard copies

Jonathan Franzen makes the case for books over e-books:

My problem with e-book readers is that one minute I’m reading some trashy website, the next minute I’m reading Jane Austen — on the same screen. I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change. Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That things can be ‘whatever’, depending on the moment. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.


“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of [my novel] Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing. […]

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing — that’s reassuring.

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

Of course, an eBook is likely to have a longer virtual shelf-life than a physical book that will eventually decay or fall apart. Hanging out in some iCloud somewhere, the eBook will be eternal. And also more accessible to readers. There will be no more “out of print”. You won’t have to look for hours in a second hand bookstore to find that obscure tome you really wanted to read (not that that isn’t one of life’s great pleasures – but it’s not Borders, is it?) The very old can be brand new again.

I have to side with Franzen here. Just because information exists in digital form doesn’t mean it’s permanent — in fact, quite the opposite, as many of Sullivan’s own readers point out. One brings up Orwell’s 1984 and Winston Smith’s job revising history to suit the politics of the day; if people relied exclusively on easily-altered digital information that resides somewhere in the virtual Cloud, Winston’s work would have been that much easier. Another makes the crucial point that, with e-books, you don’t actually own what you buy:

Many eBook formats, and e-reader platforms, are designed to permit publishers and vendors to exercise post-transaction control over content. Buy a Kindle and purchase ebooks from Amazon, and guess what? At a later date, Amazon (or the publisher of the material) might withdraw the book — and poof, it disappears from your device. Many of these devices also permit publishers to automatically update previously-sold works. And quite a few of these devices are designed to prevent you, the reader, from ever having effective possession of the underlying file. You can read it on the device, or even on many devices via cloud storage, but you are prevented from getting your hands on a copy of the file that you may archive and secure from subsequent revision or retraction. (And this goes beyond book publishing; Apple, for instance, is well-known for both refusing to publish apps for the iPhone/iPad/iPod ecosystem that offend its editorial sensibilities or are contrary to its own business goals, and revoking previously-published apps, effectively deleting them from customers’ devices).

Ursula K. Le Guin makes a similar argument:

As an author sharing responsibility for the state of my art, I fear control of availability (and of course content) by the corporations. Amazon’s offering only Amazon-owned books for their Kindle reader was an example. Books are not commodities, and readers are not consumers, but the corporations, cultureless, with no ethical guidelines, nothing but their own profit growth in view, will treat them as such so long as they are allowed to. A public kept in ignorance isn’t likely to even notice.

This, a thousand times this. And this ties into my argument — here and here — about the dangers of conducting the activities of the public square on privately-owned platforms. True, the contents of a book may be determined by the author and the publisher, and the dissemination of that content may be controlled by bookstores. But once you buy a book, it’s yours, to lend and copy and share as you please; and the information it contains will never change. Not so with an e-book, where information can be revised and removed for whatever reason, even after purchase.

This is dangerous. It’s true that digital media has made information much more easily accessible; but in some ways, and contrary to appearances, it has also left the user in less control of that information than ever before. Twitter has just shown that it can self-censor as the cost of doing business in multiple countries; moreover, it is perfectly within its rights to do so, and it’s under no constitutional obligation whatsoever to protect free speech, if it chooses not to. And what’s true for Twitter is ultimately true for all the electronic platforms on which we exchange and store information: FaceBook, YouTube, the Cloud, GoogleDocs.

And WordPress. They’re currently very nice people, with fair terms of service; but theoretically, there’s nothing preventing them from revising those terms to block posts or shut down sites that displease the powers that be. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into this blog, but I’m painfully aware that — if I didn’t have copies of all my posts saved on my hard drive — the words you’re reading now are ephemeral, and can easily be made to go away. By WordPress, or for that matter, by me — if I decide to edit or delete any posts, or shut down this blog entirely. You don’t own, and can’t keep, these words. There’s no guarantee that this post will stay exactly the same (or even exist at all) when you return to it tomorrow, or next month, or a decade from now. You’re reading these words at my whim, and at the whim of the company that lets me post them. Andrew Sullivan thinks this is permanent? Not a chance.

And I haven’t even really mentioned all the scenarios in which accidental loss of information can occur. If all your data resides online — or is otherwise in digital form — what happens when you spill water on your Kindle, or your Internet connection is shot, or the Cloud servers go down?

For ease of access, e-media is an undeniable boon (and one that’s obviously here to stay). But for permanence, for the preservation of history and of truth, and in order to ensure that control over data does not reside exclusively with corporations, information needs hard copies. That’s something we should never give up. And that’s why we should fight for books to survive.

Read the rest of Ursula K. Le Guin’s argument against e-books here. And more authors who feel the same way here.

(Image via VentureBeat)
1/31/13 Update: Did I mention that there’s no guarantee this post will stay exactly the same? Well, guess what — it’s not. I revisited it a few minutes ago only to discover that a video I’d linked to, showing Andrew Sullivan’s side of the argument, had inexplicably become — of all things — a compilation of scenes from zombie movies. I didn’t own that video content, and for whatever reason, it changed; I therefore removed the link, thus changing (and diminishing) the content of this post as well. So much for electronic content enduring for all eternity.

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Twitter chooses profits over free speech. In other news: water is wet, and 2+2=4.

You knew this was coming, didn’t you? In the victory against SOPA and PIPA, advocates for the free and open Internet successfully fended off censorship imposed by government; now we are reminded that there’s nothing preventing online social networks from censoring themselves as the cost of doing business. From the New York Times:

[T]his week, in a sort of coming-of-age moment, Twitter announced that upon request, it would block certain messages in countries where they were deemed illegal. The move immediately prompted outcry, argument and even calls for a boycott from some users.

Twitter in turn sought to explain that this was the best way to comply with the laws of different countries. And the whole episode, swiftly amplified worldwide through Twitter itself, offered a telling glimpse into what happens when a scrappy Internet start-up tries to become a multinational business.

“Thank you for the #censorship, #twitter, with love from the governments of #Syria, #Bahrain, #Iran, #Turkey, #China, #Saudi and friends,” wrote Björn Nillson, a user in Sweden. […]

The announcement signals the choice that a service like Twitter has to make about its own existence: Should it be more of a free-speech tool that can be used in defiance of governments, as happened during the Arab Spring protests, or a commercial venture that necessarily must obey the laws of the lands where it seeks to attract customers and eventually make money?

Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of “The Master Switch,” said the changes could undermine the usefulness of Twitter in authoritarian countries.

“I don’t fault them for wanting to run a normal business,” he said. “It does suggest someone or something else needs to take Twitter’s place as a political tool.”

Color me utterly unsurprised. As I wrote in an earlier post:

I’ve always found it ironic and a little disturbing that the democratic flowering of free speech that we see on Twitter and Facebook is taking place on a decidedly undemocratic, corporate platform. In a panel on the Internet and the Arab world, [Micah] Sifry and other panelists note this as well:

The role and responsibility of social networks was debated by the panelists, with Sifry saying, “I’m terrified that we’re relying on these corporate entities to enable this kind of activity. It’s very dangerous. There’s really no reason they have to be socially responsible at all. Their responsibility is to the bottom line. Twitter did not have to inform its users that the Justice Department was seeking all of their IP information in this WikiLeaks situation. They’re under no obligation to tell you. How do we get out of conducting vital public discourse, organizing, on a corporate foundation? […]

We’re all dancing on a rug owned by others, with no guarantee that the owners won’t someday pull it out from under us.

It seems as if that day is sooner than we think, if indeed it hasn’t come already.

So my question still stands: how do we avoid depending on corporations — like Twitter, and, for that matter, WordPress — for our free speech? How do we keep the people’s voices free?

(Update: Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing has much, much more.)

(Image via PC Mag)

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Miscellany: Blume, Hitchens, Lamarr, Tyson; The West Wing as science fiction; groupthink and solitude; what e-books can’t do; and the end of SOPA (for now)

Time for another grab-bag of links that caught my eye:

1) An NPR interview with the incomparable Judy Blume, who talks about censorship, how to inspire kids to read (and how not to), the folly of labeling authors and books according to “audience age,” and how perseverance determines a writer’s success more than talent. (Note to self: time to get to work. Again.)

2) An interview with Richard Rhodes on the scientific career of actress Hedy Lamarr, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Fascinating stuff, and one I’ve touched on before, in a post on stereotypes and women scientists.

3) A compilation of articles written for The Nation by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, spanning 28 years (1978-2006).

4) Over the past few months my wife and I have avidly watched all seven seasons of The West Wing. Graham Sleight explains why the show is, at its heart, science fiction in spirit and impulse: “I want to argue […] that it’s SF in a more profound sense […] It makes an argument, as SF does, about possibility, about what can be done, and it does so by presenting us with a world already showing a change from our own.” Highly worth reading if you’re a West Wing fan.

5) A provocative New York Times essay by Susan Cain on “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” about the folly of insisting on constant collaboration and “teamwork” at the expense of creative solitude. This is happening in schools as well, as Cain points out, a fact that I personally find a bit worrying. Learning to work with others is great, but are we failing to appreciate the virtues of aloneness, of introspection?

6) Why books are made of win: the Abe Books blog, via Matador, offers a list of things you can’t do with an e-book. Including leaving it on a beach towel, throwing it across the room, and using it to press flowers and fallen leaves.

7) Carl Zimmer’s excellent profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

8) And finally — victory! Talking Points Memo analyzes how Netizens killed SOPA and PIPA. No doubt the advocates of censorship will try again; but those who stand for freedom of speech will be ready and waiting.

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Fight this bill, cont’d: SOPA and PIPA will hurt content creators, too

Neil Gaiman, Adam Savage, Trent Reznor, the band OK Go, and many other artists have written an open letter to Washington:

As creative professionals, we experience copyright infringement on a very personal level. Commercial piracy is deeply unfair and pervasive leaks of unreleased films and music regularly interfere with the integrity of our creations. We are grateful for the measures policymakers have enacted to protect our works.

We, along with the rest of society, have benefited immensely from a free and open Internet. It allows us to connect with our fans and reach new audiences. Using social media services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, we can communicate directly with millions of fans and interact with them in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

We fear that the broad new enforcement powers provided under SOPA and PIPA could be easily abused against legitimate services like those upon which we depend. These bills would allow entire websites to be blocked without due process, causing collateral damage to the legitimate users of the same services – artists and creators like us who would be censored as a result.

We are deeply concerned that PIPA and SOPA’s impact on piracy will be negligible compared to the potential damage that would be caused to legitimate Internet services. Online piracy is harmful and it needs to be addressed, but not at the expense of censoring creativity, stifling innovation or preventing the creation of new, lawful digital distribution methods.

We urge Congress to exercise extreme caution and ensure that the free and open Internet, upon which so many artists rely to promote and distribute their work, does not become collateral damage in the process.

See the entire letter and the full list of signees here.

More on these Internet-killing bills here and here.

Contact your representatives and make your voice heard.

(via Neil Gaiman; image via Nerd Bastards)

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Fight this bill, cont’d: What the Internet-killing bills will do, and why you should care

This one is important, and I highly urge you to watch. Clay Shirky brilliantly explains what damage the SOPA and PIPA bills will do, puts them into historical context, and — most importantly — links the issue to the larger picture of civil rights, due process, and the principle of being presumed innocent until proven guilty:

More reasons to fight SOPA and PIPA here.

Ultimately, as Shirky shows, this is an issue that’s larger than the Net; it’s about our right to create and share, our right to the free exchange of views and information — and it’s a right that Big Media will continue to challenge on whatever technological platform, whether on the Web or beyond. They don’t want us to be creators and remixers and sharers of content; they want us to be passive consumers, full stop.

Please contact your representatives and demand that they stand up for free expression, and against censorship. This is an issue that affects all of us. And it’s a fight we have to win.

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