Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
The Information Genie
September 4, 1998
When son John was in Junior High School he came home one day and
announced that he was going to write an essay on "The Universe." That
seemed a bit grandiose, but nothing is too big to think about when you
are that young. Some years later in law school he wrote a paper for
his International Law Seminar titled, "The International Law of Space:
or, Who owns the moon?" That was in 1964, just four years before Neil
Armstrong took "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
I suspect we're not too sure yet who owns it.
I think I'll encourage him do another paper on, "The Internet; or, Who
owns all that space out there and who controls the information that's in
it?" Answer: a. we don't know, and b. nobody.
Information is like water - it likes to be free and it goes wherever it
can and to anybody who wants it, in spite of all our efforts to contain
Once upon a time humans needed only enough information to get away
from the sabre-toothed tiger and to survive. By now the tiger has
disappeared, the amount of information flowing around us keeps
Ever since the invention of the printing press people have been trying
to control the flow of information. Before that it was no problem. In
the middle-ages only the monks and a few scholars could read, and the
few books that existed were extremely valuable and kept chained to the
walls. The church and the state had a vested interested in keeping
"information" isolated, away from the common people.
With the invention of movable type in the 15th century it all began to
change. When Martin Luther and William Tyndale translated the Latin
Bible into the vernacular, the information genie was out of the bottle,
never to be stuffed back in. Literacy increased, Luther started a new
religion, and the powers that be started yearning for the good old days
when they had control.
The information explosion had just begun. Remember the early days of
radio? Most of you don't, but I do and my parents were quite worried
that I would be unduly influenced by the jazz age coming right into our
house on the little crystal set my dad built out of an oatmeal box and a
lot of copper wire.
Some people "knew" that television would be the destruction of
civilization as we know it. There are those who still think so, but
television is a part of our lives and is certainly a major source of
Now we have the Internet. Possibly the most profound change in the
intellectual landscape in centuries is the advent of the World Wide
Web. Suddenly we have at our fingertips a library that multiplies the
dissemination of information as much as the Gutenberg printing press did
five centuries ago. The world is at our fingertips. Of course a lot of
the information we didn't ever want to know anyway, and certainly not
all of it is intellectually uplifting. But the extent to which useful
information is available is mind boggling.
And as always, there are those who think they alone can handle all that
information while the rest of us can't. Censorship has been with us
for at least five centuries. Congress tried to get into the act and in
the name of protecting our children passed the Communications Decency
Act, which would have threatened nearly everyone who writes on or reads
material on the Internet.. Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously
declared it unconstitutional. Efforts are being made to limit access
to the Internet in schools and libraries, but as Todd Lapin wrote, "The
Internet is not like TV on steroids. You don't have to just sit there
passively while things are shown to you. You have control."
There are Internet filters and increasing demands for censorship, but as
Brock Meeks wrote on that same Internet, "The Internet is an untamed
resource, full of the good and the bad and the ugly -- just like
schools, the streets, the 7-11 and the shopping mall." The
responsibility for what we read on it, and what our children read on it,
rests on us. Discrimination is not merely desirable, but essential.
Information seeks to be free. It's out there. We have to learn to
live with it.