On Contact: The fight to free knowledge
On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses censorship and new digital media with Peter B. Kaufman, author and program manager at MIT Learning Center.
The rise of new digital technologies that are rapidly supplanting print have conspired not to make knowledge and information more accessible, but harder and harder to obtain. The ability of a handful of global digital media platforms such as Google, Apple, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to decide what information is widely distributed, and increasingly what information is censored, presages an Orwellian world of approved speech and thought. These digital monopolies are opaque and unaccountable to the public. They know everything about us. We know nothing about them. They lack any moral compass or sense of social responsibility. They are driven solely by the twin desires for profit and unrivaled power over information systems. They are bonded with national security agencies, making us the most watched, monitored, spied upon, and photographed population in human history, eviscerating privacy. Are these digital behemoths ushering in a new dark age, one that will replicate the tyrannies of the past? And what can we do to protect the freedom of information and thought?
Peter B. Kaufman is author of the new book, ‘The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss censorship with the rise of new digital media with Peter Kaufman.
Peter B. Kaufman: The world is, you know, like springtime in a year, really gambling across the internet, and, you know, you can search for anything, and you can publish anything, and, you know, you have, um, tremendous power just on the telephone in your--in your pocket. And that is true, but it’s kind of the half of it, you know. The other half of it is that the places where we go and the things that we do are tracked, controlled, and monitored in much more subtle ways. Ways that, you know, have at their root some kind of combination of corporate interest and state interest. The church doesn’t play too much of a role, you know, 600 years later in this, but who knows? You can never predict anything.
CH: The rise of new digital technologies that are rapidly supplanting print have conspired not to make knowledge and information more accessible, but harder and harder to obtain. The ability by a handful of global digital media platforms such as Google, Apple, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to decide what information is widely distributed, and increasingly what information is censored, presages an Orwellian world of approved speech and thought. These digital monopolies are opaque and unaccountable to the public. They know everything about us. We know nothing about them. They lack any moral compass or sense of social responsibility. They are driven solely by the twin desires for profit and unrivaled power over information systems. They are bonded with national security agencies, making us the most watched, monitored, spied upon and photographed population in human history, eviscerating our privacy. Are these digital behemoths ushering in a new Dark Age, one that will replicate the tyrannies of the past? And what can we do to protect the freedom of information and thought? Joining me to discuss the new information economy is Peter Kaufman, who works at MIT, in the Office of Open Learning, and is the author of “The New Enlightenment.” So Peter, at the beginning of the book, you--and I think it’s--you’re quite right, you go back to that period of iron control of information by the church, that thousand-year period in human history. And you talked about Tyndale, who translated the Bible into the vernacular, and his war with the church. And you liken it to what has happened between the security state and figures like Aaron Swartz and Julian Assange. But let’s go back in history, because I think you make a very important point that power acts in the same way with new tools.
PK: Well, thank you, and thank you for the opportunity, I’m a huge admirer of your writing and your work, and I know you’re also a scholar and knows something or two about the Bible and the history of religion, so it’s a pleasure to talk with you about these topics. Tyndale, you know, in the 1500s, had one thing in mind, sort of one overarching objective. And it was to translate the Bible, and the whole Bible, you know, from Genesis to Revelation, all the way, into English. So that it could be in the hands of every man, every person, not only in the hands, but, you know, if you get into it a bit, in the ears. Because a lot of people couldn’t read, and the way they would hear the--the way they would experience the scripture was through by hearing it. So, he tried to do this, and he did make friends, he ended badly, you know. His death was forced upon him by the church and the state together. They tracked him down. He knew seven languages, and he devoted his entire life to these projects. When he was arrested and put in jail in--outside of Antwerp, Belgium, he was so devout that he converted his jailer, his jailer’s daughter and the whole family. But he was put to death by, you know, they lit him on fire, and they strangled him. They’re actually at chains of this. They did both at the same time, you know, as one does in 16th century Europe. And the reason is because the act of translating the Bible was a heretical act, and a civil transgression of the highest magnitude because church and king did not want the Bible in the hands of the people or in their heads. And also, you know, the way he translated it, and I go through some examples in the book, rendered the things that were being read at Sunday’s sermon to people completely false, because those who were preaching from, you know, whatever version of the Bible they were using at the time, were actually lying to the people.
CH: It’s important to note that the church--the Bible was read in Latin, the church--the clergy, of course, knew Latin and it was almost a secret code, that they were the ones who interpreted the message of the Bible because they have a knowledge of Latin, and because most people didn’t. And that gave them tremendous amounts of power. And you very quickly likened to what has happened--you talk about Aaron Swartz, I’ll let you talk about him and Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden. And I thought that was a fascinating and important parallel. Explain what that parallel is.
PK: Well, Tyndale was about not only translating the Bible, not only getting it into the hands and ears and eyes and, you know, heads of the people, but he was actually concretely involved in publishing and distributing it. The print medium in the 1500s was brand new, you know, a hundred years old, if that. And he was committed to the distribution of information as freely, widely as it was possible then. And the forces that arrayed against him to shut him down were colossal. They were monstrous. In fact, I go about using this term, the Monsterverse, to describe them, and all of the successor and, you know, frankly, there were institutions that preceded Tyndale to shut knowledge down as well. But, you know, the story in The New Enlightenment starts with him. And I think there are cognates, you know, in the work of people who were trying to free knowledge, break through untruths, especially systematic, you know, like your introduction you spoke of, kind of webs that have tightened almost into a fabric, like, out of a Marvel superhero. Like, between us and reality, between us and verifiable information, and Tyndale was really all about that. He was chased down. And in the book, I point out the fact that, you know, when you engage in these kinds of acts today, enlightened as we may be or not, you know, these forces of the Monsterverse will come after you. They will track you down, they will chase you, and to be fair, it’s not--it’s not just the Assanges, and it’s--I don’t mean just, by the way. It’s not the Assanges, it’s not the Swartzes who, you know, I go on about in the first chapter of the book, Aaron Swartz, but it’s also, you know, the Navalnys in other countries. It’s people everywhere. So, you know, it’s a global phenomenon, and it’s crippling, I guess, our march to the more progressive future.
CH: Let’s talk about Aaron Swartz, because he did, somewhat like Tyndale. He downloaded copies of academic--from your book, academic articles, four million, or 4.8 million, millions at any rate, with the objective of publishing them freely online, so that anyone could read them anywhere at any time, his target was just--or this is the digital library. And then what happened? Because he was driven to suicide.
PK: He was. He was--he was arrested and he was prosecuted, and he was threatened with, you know, a tremendous amount of jail time. And it was unclear, you know, at that moment, who would step up to his defense. It was a moment of failure, epic failure on the part of institutions and, you know, leaders who are committed to freedom of thought, freedom of expression. And there are, to be sure, there’s a network of extraordinary people, and, you know, organizations that are, you know, on the other side of the Monsterverse. But they did not speak loudly enough. And if you--the Internet Archive, you know, hosted a memorial service for him. And if you do nothing else, don’t even read my book, is what I would say to people. Watch videos and listen to those memorials, because he felt like he had no other way out, and, you know, this is my point about being driven into exile or, you know, as some of the other people we’ve been talking about, and they talk about further have been or driven into madness, or driven into--driven into much worse.
CH: Well, Neil Smelser calls--what the special repertoire and torture for the UN calls what’s happening to Julian Assange a torture. In the book, you write about what happened after the war in Czechoslovakia, the rise of the communist government, and how they seized control of information, the mechanisms they did to do that. And then I want to go through the steps, which aren’t any different from today. But just explain briefly what happened--what the communist government in Czechoslovakia did immediately after the war to get an iron grip on information.
PK: In the--in the East Bloc, as it emerged right after World War II, there was a totalitarian system of thought control. It basically got impressed upon people, like, really bad orthodontiture, you know, orthodonture but worse. They were shackles, in fact. And, you know, again, to be fair, this system had its avatars, I guess, in empires, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, you know, these weren’t--these weren’t exactly, you know, the most liberal free-thinking enterprises. And they too had systems of thought control in the imperial pre-Soviet. But the Soviets--the Soviets took it to a special new level, and in a country like Czechoslovakia or Poland, which I opened that chapter with, or, you know, many others in Romania, you could not--you could not have access, in essence, to the means of media production and distribution, just like Tyndale had to, you know, scramble for access to paper, to a typecase, to a printer, to a--to a binder, you know. In Romania, you couldn’t own a typewriter without having it registered, double registered, triple registered to the state. Carbon paper, mimeograph machines, forget about it back then. So…
CH: Peter, I’m going to--I’m going to stop you there. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with the author, Peter Kaufman, about threats to freedom of information and thought with the rise of new digital technologies. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about the rise of new digital technologies and censorship with the author, Peter Kaufman. So before the break, we were talking about the Communist Bloc, that they seized all of the mechanisms, the book publishing industry, the print--printers, all the entire root by which print information was disseminated throughout the society, and, of course, electronically, they controlled radio and then later television. And you say that there are, you know, where you list the kind of various steps including the control of the publisher’s access to outside information, the control of the distribution of printed material, the control--the access of national public--publishers to foreign readers, and of course hard currency. And then you say the most important was the control of every publishing houses, finances under the state. But we have an updated version of that system, I think you argue in the book, with the rise of these monopolies like Google, Twitter, Apple, and explain the continuity, how these new digital platforms are replicating the kind of iron control and censorship that we saw in a cruder form after World War II and the Communist Bloc.
PK: Well, you know, on the surface of things it seems like, the world is, you know, like springtime, and you’re really gambling across the internet. And, you know, you can search for anything, and you can publish anything. And, you know, you have tremendous power just on the telephone in your--in your pocket. And that is true, but it’s kind of the half of it, you know. The other half of it is that the places where we go, and the things that we do, are trapped, controlled, and monitored in much more subtle ways. Ways that, you know, have, at their root, some kind of combination of corporate interest and state interest. The church doesn’t play too much role, you know, 600 years later in this, but who knows? We can never predict anything. So, yeah, I think--I think there is, I mean, at a minimum, a way of tracing the impulses that exist to control the way we communicate. Direct the ways in which we use media for the benefit of--let’s just say not for the benefit of the people, not--it’s not public media the way public media was defined in which I go on about in the book in our country in the--in the 1960s. So it’s an issue and, you know, some of the--some of the remedies that I guess I nominate for collective action against these things hark back to the inspiration that can be found in totalitarian Central and Eastern Europe and indeed the former Soviet Union.
CH: Before we talk about the remedies, you quote Vaclav Havel, and I was in the Magic Lantern Theater with Havel every night during the Velvet Revolution. And he--and he--and he talks about what censorship does, that it’s not simply about censoring a piece of information, but it actually attacks the entire fabric of a society. Can you--I thought that was a very important point. Can you explain that?
PK: Thanks. Yeah. I mean, one of--one of the secrets that a friend of mine recently revealed in this book is if you--if you quote enough great writers at some length, you know, everybody thinks you’ve written a great book and one of the--one of the--one of the things that I do in this book is quote Havel who was a brilliant writer. A writer who, you know, put his pen in the service of his mission all the time, rose from being a distant to being president of Czechoslovakia at the time. And he understood media and information as part of the organism that is society. And he talks about the immense kind of health penalty that exists if you withdraw a single journal, or a single book, possibly, because of a censorial act. You’re removing, in essence, a vitamin, or a mineral from the nutritional balance of a society. And just as you might, you know, suffer from not having enough vitamin D, or enough potassium, or whatever else might be missing from your diet, that’s what could happen and did happen in that part of the world when an organ of the freethinking--freethinkers, in essence, was, you know, Havel talks about a journal about the theater, but anything was withdrawn or suppressed or forbidden. So Havel talked in particular of, you know, truth as the antidote. And he speaks of truth as, in today’s terms, it’s kind of relevant, a virus that can attack a system of misinformation, and begin to make it disintegrate. And each act--like conversely, each act of placing a verifiable piece of information out in front of the Monsterverse, as it existed in that part of the world at that time, is an act that, to use a term--to use a term of yours from one of the books that I so much enjoy, it’s an act of reconstitution. It’s reconstituting society, a free society. And so it really is a battle of freethinkers against the Monsterverse.
CH: You go, in the book, you talk about the samizdat. This is the Russian term “sam” is self, “izdat” is to publish, these underground publications which many of the great Soviet dissidents, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and others used to disseminate their information, and you’re calling for a return to that kind of system. Explain what your thinking is on that.
PK: Samizdat, as you--as you translated, probably not all RT viewers will require a translation, but some samizdat does mean to self-publish. And what does that exactly mean? It means not necessarily to rely on state organs or religious organs or, you know, mainstream media organs, but actually to organize into networks that, were at the time noncommercial based on, you know, collective action, freethinking, uncensored. And I think--I think it’s worth looking again at that impulse. What would samizdat mean today if we were to look at the internet and figure out where you and I could publish without necessarily depending on whoever funds the New York Times, or whoever funds Russia Today or whoever funds, you know, the websites on which I put so much stuff that, you know, I write. So that’s a challenge and a task and the process ahead of us I think. And it would be fruitful to dig in.
CH: Doesn’t it require smashing the monopolies of the big digital platforms?
PK: I think the big digital platforms need to be regulated in ways that, you know, many big trusts had been broken by regulation in the past. The challenge with that is, you know, the forces that we have established to regulate media are not what they once were, and they’ve been whittled away by these same corporate interests. It’s not an accident as I, you know, say and cite evidence of in the--in the--in the book that, you know, the largest lobbyist in Washington DC is Alphabet, you know, which owns Google. And Facebook isn’t far behind. So to rely on, for example, Congress to complete that regulate. So how to smash it judicially or legislatively, that’s a long-term process, that is a multi-generational process even though these companies have been built up so quickly within probably one generation. But I think it does require us looking to self-organize across the noncommercial web which is a fairly robust place, not as robust as it should be, and largely not as robust as it should be because we don’t look to ourselves for the power that we, you know, really have. And that’s what I talk about when I talk about the new enlightenment as opposed to, you know, the new Dark Age which you opened with. I think we have tremendous power, and we just don’t recognize it yet because we’re so close to it.
CH: Just to close in the last few seconds. Towards the end of the book, you talk about weaponized malevolence, violence is in the air, the same blood lust we saw centuries ago in Tyndale’s time and maybe even in the cave, and it isn’t so much that they have returned is that they never went away, just in the closing seconds. What do you mean by that?
PK: What I mean by that is, you know, look at January 6th. My book went to press on December 11th. That’s when I had to let it go. You know, no more touching it. And on January 6th, there’s--and it ends with a vision of possibly a new civil war owing to this epistemic disorder we live in where two sides are fighting against one another violently. And I think the people came to Washington, came there because of false information that they were fed and believed. We’d better stop that.
CH: Great. That was Peter Kaufman, author of “The New Enlightenment.” Great, thanks. PK: You bet. Thank you.