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Information is Power, But Do We Want Everyone to Have Power? February 2, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in InformationIssues.
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Sir Francis Bacon first said that, “knowledge is power”. And if knowledge can be equated with information then people have never had as much power as they have now. Information is everywhere and proliferating at an exponential rate. Information can be used for good or ill. It can be used to create a weapon, produce and disseminate illegal drugs, or unleash biological weapons. It can be used to learn about our environment, our bodies, and to help us understand how to live peacefully by not repeating history’s mistakes. These are ideas we have all grown up with. They are trite, but true. For thousands of years information was withheld from certain classes; it was the privilege of the rich to be educated and literate. Even libraries, for many years, were elitist clubs, the membership paid by its rich clientele. Nowadays we believe we have a right to information. We demand it both from our government (i.e. the Freedom of Information Act), our banks, our credit cards, even commercials whose disclaimers have grown to laughable lengths. We crave this access to information because we know it protects us. But what if this transparency has its downfalls? What if this transparency gives not only terrorists the power to fly commercial airliners but enables “a crippling attack on computer and telecommunications networks”, as the New York Times reports intelligence agents told lawmakers yesterday, stating that “an increasingly sophisticated group of enemies has ‘severely threatened’ the sometimes fragile systems undergirding the country’s information systems.” New Scientist, in mid-January published an article expounding the same fears. With its usual alarmist gusto, New Scientist asked, “Are we in danger of knowing too much?”, citing specific examples of public knowledge that could be used in catastrophically fatal ways, such as the publishing of a virus’s genome.

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While the New York Times and New Scientist ask these seemingly novel questions, these are the exact questions we have been asked to mull over and debate in library school. I particularly remember one class where the professor asked us if a public library should carry “The Anarchist Cookbook.” Being the militant liberals we are, we mostly agreed that the it was the duty of the public library to carry such a book and furthermore, that librarians should not question those who borrow it.  Perhaps you don’t agree with my argument and that of Francis Bacon. Perhaps you think books are innocuous. Then why then did the Patriot Act “expand[ed] the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement to gain access to… library records, including stored electronic data and communications” (ala.org). And why have most libraries, since the inception of the act, changed their databases to automatically erase the records of their patrons? Who are we? Potential terrorist sympathizers or the militant guardians of free and equal access to information? In the world of 2010 are we the enemies or the last bastions of intellectual freedom? What do you think?

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1. dataduchess - February 3, 2010

It’s a great question – and I’m fascinated by the way you posed it… I feel like an answer in defense of freedom of information is an answer in support of terrorism and anarchy. Perhaps, because, carried all the way out, that is the reality. If anyone has access to any information, there is no limit to what can be accomplished, for either good or evil. But how is a librarian supposed to distinguish among who should have access to what knowledge? How are we supposed to know where to draw the line at what resources might be used for illicit purposes? What do we do when the resources are in the gray area, and not clearly used to induce harm? As you said, these debates consume many class periods in library school, and there is no easy answer. I don’t think it should be the librarian’s responsibility to ensure that terrorists do not learn to fly planes or make bombs, but whose responsibility is it? Do we want to leave that responsibility to the government? I don’t know about that. Do we want ordinary citizens taking up arms and patrolling the streets? I definitely would not go that far. But should we all as individuals take a greater interest in the restrictions on some information? I think so. I’m all for Freedom of Information, and I believe in the importance of transparency in government. But I also think we, librarians and liberals included, need to take a step back, and perhaps admit there may be things that should stay secret.


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