The fight over the Internet is a fight over the Power of Narrative, just like with the printing press
The fight over the Internet has happened before, almost step by step, with the fight over the printing press 550 years ago. As the Catholic Church lost its power to interpret reality, it attacked any usage of the new copying technology, up to and including the death penalty. What it is, is a fight over the power to tell the narrative – the ability to tell others what reality looks like, and powerful institutions of today are fighting for their survival as they’re losing this ability and becoming irrelevant and obsolete.
VPNs, Tor, encryption, surveillance – it’s all part of a much bigger picture about a fight over the Power of Narrative.
I sometimes ask people to imagine how they would act if they could write all the world’s news for a week, and all of it would be unquestionably accepted as true. This is the Power of Narrative, the ability to sort true from false for other people. If they could change people’s perception of themselves in any way imaginable and never have it questioned, what would they write?
Most people think in terms of making themselves attractive, successful, or rich. While a Power of Narrative allows that, it’s not anywhere near its potential.
If you controlled what other people knew about you, you wouldn’t need money ever again. You could be a walking god among men – literally, as far as other people were concerned. (North Korea is practicing a variant of this concept.) If you can control what other people perceive as true and false, you can have nobody ever act against you, and have them think they’re acting in their own interest. It’s the greatest conceivable power in a society.
This is the Power of Narrative. And this power used to reside with a couple of big institutions that are Really Really Annoyed at everything about the Internet, because it breaks their power to portray themselves as equally Really Really Important. When people can circumvent their storytelling and egos, the painted façade breaks down quickly.
This is exactly what happened with the printing press. The Catholic Church, being the only manufacturer of new books through their monasteries, had held a complete Power of Narrative, augmented by the fact that all books were in Latin, and that only the clergy could read Latin and interpret it to the masses.
It’s not hard to see where a few people would exploit that advantage. That’s also exactly what happened.
To raise funds, the Catholic Church came up with the idea of selling salvation, which had no basis whatsoever in any of the guiding books. But as those books were in Latin, nobody knew except the clergy. One of them did protest, a priest named Martin Luther. On the surface, he attacked the corruption within the Church that enabled the practice of raising money by selling salvation. Digging a little deeper, he attacked the gatekeeper position the Church held over knowledge, a gatekeeper position that allowed them to deliberately misconstruct such a message in the first place.
One of the consequences of Luther’s objections was the Luther Bible, which was printed using the relatively new technology of the printing press. Bibles started appearing by the cartload – but in German and French instead of in Latin. Practically overnight, the Catholic Church had lost its Power of Narrative, as people were able to read the bible themselves, in their own language; they no longer relied on the clergy to interpret it for them.
This led to 100+ years of civil war across the entire known world at the time – triggered by publishing a particular book in large quantities using a new technology in a language that people could read directly, instead of relying on a gatekeeper of knowledge to interpret it for them. Over a century of war. That’s how much power there is in the gatekeeper position of knowledge.
In response to this publication, the Catholic Church attacked the technology of the printing press mercilessly. As the Church and Crown were generally in a symbiosis in most European countries at the time, with the Crown getting the legitimacy of its power through validation of the Church, the Church had a far-reaching ability to lobby for new laws when it perceived an existential threat.
And so, the printing press was gradually criminalized, and penalties gradually ratcheted up, until on January 13, 1535 in France, the penalties arrived at the death penalty for any use of a printing press. The official justification for the law was “to prevent the spread and dissemination of dangerous ideas”.
Now, let’s recap here: Powerful institutions are so scared of unauthorized copying that circumvent their Power of Narrative, that they push for harsher and harsher penalties for using the technology that enables circumventing them. Does any of this sound… familiar?
All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. That’s a quote from Battlestar Galactica, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Privacy remains your own responsibility.