a blog of data, dystopia and despair

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  • What are the limits on information freedom?

    The battlecry of digital speech advocates – which is pretty much anyone who understands the value of the data revolution – is “information wants to be free.”

    It’s also considered the core of the hackers ethos (however apocryphal it’s origins might be1), a philosophical justification for the actions of hackers, hacktivsts, whistleblowers and others who have spilled private and/or secret information into the public sphere.

    As a journalist, it certainly drives my default outlook as well, with built-in caveats for any information that may inflict unnecessary harm on someone. I’ll fight long, drawn out and exhausting battles with government agencies over obtaining the data hidden away in their dungeons, if for no other reason than it belongs to the citizenry, not subterranean bureaucrats.

    Many have risked their lives and freedom to liberate information for the public good, from Daniel Ellsberg2 to Aaron Swartz3 to Edward Snowden4 or any of the other flood of leakers that have emerged in Washington this year.

    It seems that freeing information, more often than not, results in a more informed public. And the expression ‘information wants to be free’ goes hand-in-hand with another common phrase: the truth always comes out.

    Like rivers seeking their lowest point, information doesn’t like to be kept secret, regardless of how hard one might try to repress it. You can only run from it so far, for so long.

    But a lot of information isn’t free, and maybe not all of it should be?

    For-profit journalistic institutions charge for access to much of their information, even while essentially giving away the most important and timely bits. Journalism is difficult, full-time work and funding it somehow is imperative (something I’ve believed long before becoming one of them). New ways to subsidize news reporting may emerge in the future, but for now, there is a fee to entry in the form of subscriptions and digital paywalls and that’s unlikely changing anytime soon.

    More controversally, there are still repositories of publicly-funded scientific and medical research that ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers5. It’s been long argued all research that receives taxpayer dollars should be open to the public.

    Of course, there’s the vast ocean of secret, classified information held by world governments that’s kept sequestered away in the name of national security – whether all of it should be or not.

    And because some information can be extremely damaging to private individuals or society as a whole, one could argue that even if it eventually gets out, there should be efforts undertaken to minimize its impact for as long as possible.

    Even if one prescribes to a worldview involving radical transparency, there are limits on freedom of speech and information. Reasonable people can argue over where those lines should be drawn. I’ll always err on the side of more flexible rules and greater transparency, particularly from powerful institions like governments, corporations and academia.

    But at the end of the day, quality information takes time, money and other resources to produce and sometimes has far-reaching implications. So it’s a reasonable conclusion that even if information wants to be free – if it even wants anything at all6 – not all of it can be free all the time.

    1. Levy, Steven. “The Definitive Story of ‘Information Wants to be Free’” Backchannel. November 14, 2014. Link 

    2. “Wikipedia: Daniel Ellsberg” Link 

    3. “Wikipedia: Aaron Swartz” Link 

    4. “Wikipedia: Edward Snowden” Link 

    5. Hargarten, Jeff. “Publisher draws researcher boycott” Minnesota Daily. March 29, 2012. Link 

    6. Hayhow, Thomas. “Does information want to be free? Should it be?” Permaculture Research Institute. November 8, 2016. Link 


  • Vague Prediction #3: Digital Graveyards

    Benjamin Franklin said: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”

    Or, just upload everything you’ve ever done and every bit of data associated you to the cloud. And those clouds aren’t fluffy with harp players sitting on them. Instead of Heaven, this afterlife is more akin to Hell since your final resting place will be cold, dark and subterranean.

    We’ve seen digital immortality represented in science fiction many times. Some recent examples (mostly on Black Mirror) include:

    a.) In the Battlestar Galactica spinoff Caprica1, one of the main characters is essentially replicated by her father using all of her social media activity. This digital avatar is a nearly perfect simulation of a dead person.

    b.) In the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You2, most people have digital recording devices installed into their brains – their eyes acting as camera lenses – that chronicle everything they ever do and see. This information can be stored, played back and even enhanced both internally and externally on TV screens. These chronological.

    c.) In another Black Mirror episode, San Junipero3, people’s brains are uploaded into a virtual reality server where they get to live in any decade of time they want, long past the deaths of their physical bodies.

    d.) Yet another Black Mirror episode, Be Right Back4 depicts a widow who uses a service to collect her dead husband’s data and upload it into an android replica.

    Questions abound about what to do with people’s data after they die. What else is there to be done with it?

    We’re already tracking everything with Fitbits, social media profiles and every other app conceived. Digital giants like Google and Facebook have amassed every byte of information about us that they can.

    I still get birthday notifications on Facebook for the accounts of dead people. Plus there was the time Facebook declared a bunch of living people were already dead5.

    Then there’s “grieving technology”6 that can allow loved ones to chat with simulations of the deceased

    Note that none of this actually grants the dead longer lifespans. It’s for the benefit of the living. One could argue more effort could be spent prolonging life – and not in the insane ways Silicon Valley moguls are attempting7.

    But it’s pretty much inevitable that our cemeteries will eventually be upgraded to include digital components. Whether it’s a digital mosoleum, a very convicing AI chatbot trained on the personality of the departed or massive databanks full of hard drives containing the virtual souls of the death, a natural extention of the Information Age will be forms of immortality beyond what Ben Franklin pondered.

    1. “Wikipedia: Caprica” Wikipedia. Link 

    2. “Wikipedia: The Entire History of You” Wikipedia. Link 

    3. “Wikipedia: San Junipero” Wikipedia. Link 

    4. “Wikipedia: Be Right Back” Wikipedia. Link 

    5. Kumparak, Greg. “Facebook suddenly says a bunch of its users are dead. Don’t panic.” TechCrunch. November 11, 2016. Link 

    6. Matei, Andrienne. “New technology is forcing us to confront the ethics of bringing people back from the dead” QZ. January 27, 2017. Link 

    7. Dreyfuxx, Emily. “Silicon Valley would rather cure death than make life worth living” Quartz. March 3, 2017. Link 


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