Is the replication of information a form of activism, and can it even be so?

I am assuming that most of you are aware of the current flap over the posting, printing, displaying, and reproduction of the 16-byte hexadecimal number that is one of the cryptographic keys that—with some more knowledge; the number is not in itself magical—can unlock the encryption of HD and Blu-Ray DVDs and, thus, allow for the copying of them. [See Wikipedia article.]

Some of my friends have even participated by posting the number on their blogs, perhaps even ordering a t-shirt.

I would like to ask you to read this [i d e a n t: "Rebellion by Numbers"] before finishing this post. It is not required but it is what shifted my thoughts in this direction. It is also more elegant that I can be, and links to several other writers.

Prime caveat: I do not mean to criticize those who have publicly reproduced this number. In fact, in some way, I applaud you. I, too, do not believe that numbers should be generally ownable property. But it is far more complex than that.

Having worked on a nuclear missile site in my earlier days I do not even want to think about this kind of “activism” getting hold of the PAL keys and spreading them around because someone thinks the military should not “own” these numbers. Now, while I don’t think they would actually claim to own these numbers, that delicacy would not prevent your swift removal to a detention camp or, perhaps even, your execution as a traitor to your country.

“Ownership” is only a small part of the issue here. Nonetheless, that is not my concern.

My concern centers around the last several and, in particular, on the last paragraph of Mejias’ post.

When activism is defined solely in terms of the exchange of information, we are reducing the options available for acting. That is how an encryption key (information in its purest form) was easily converted into a “subversive message” whose replication and dissemination was seen as a revolutionary act. As long as we’ve had media —and I’m afraid emerging “social” media don’t pose a significant alternative— we’ve seen this dynamic: the replication of information has itself come to define what it means to act, has become the source of meaning. The individual goes from being a social actor to an intersection of information flows. She possesses more information than ever before (about global warming, about genocidal poverty, about the false pretenses under which wars are started), but all she can do is replicate and pass on this information. The purer the information (09 F9 …), the more efficient the activism.

I feel that this may be one of the biggest [sets of] questions for our age and, particularly, for librarianship.

When is the replication of information activism?

Can it even be activisim?

If so, is it efficient?

It seems that the replication of information may [or should be] be a necessary condition for activism, but it does not seem to be sufficient to me. Perhaps there are some (small?) sets of circumstances where the simple act of replication of information constitutes activism; perhaps this current case is even one of them. But it seems to me that further action [of certain sorts] would clearly magnify the efficacy of the activism. Perhaps actual letters to your elected representatives, letters to your local newspapers to attempt to bring the issue to the attention of more of the citizenry, …?

Is this form of cyber-movement primarily a way to make people feel good about themselves? “I did something. I participated.”

Please. I do not mean to point fingers. I include myself in this—or even a lesser “active” group—as I have done nothing.

But truly—as Mejias and others ask—what other causes are there? What other issues of importance? Perhaps even of far more importance? In some ways this is a “free speech” issue, among others. But what about active police suppression of peaceful protesters for the last several years? Poverty, hunger, lack of medical care, wars of aggression in the name of democracy? All of these seem far more important to me than some DVD encryption key.

I’m not sure I’m even up to the task of engaging in this question; certainly not as well as I’d like. Someone like Rory Litwin or Jessamyn West are far better qualified than me. Nonetheless, I believe that these are some of the fundamental questions of our age, and that as librarians we have a responsibility to honestly and seriously—in a nuanced and critical way—ask, “Is the replication of information a form of activism?”, along with its associated questions.

6 thoughts on “Is the replication of information a form of activism, and can it even be so?

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m not sure you can say you’re not up to the task of engaging with the issues, though, I think you’ve done a very good job of asking very important questions!

  2. I appreciate the comment and the confidence, CW.

    The reason I consider myself (somewhat) inadequate to the task is based on experience and not on capacity to ask questions or think.

    I spent over 20 years in the Army; not exactly a lot of activism there. Now, truthfully, there are a lot of reasons I stayed so long. But one of the main ones I told myself–and to which the oath of enlistment is actually sworn–is to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign AND domestic.

    I gave up many of my own liberties and even those of my family for many years so that others could have the right to protest and challenge the government of my country. And I hoped that they would do so! There was quite a lot that my government did (and DOES) that I did/do not agree with and I wanted it challenged.

    Educationally, I am very weak in any sort of political theory/science, activist politics, whatever.

    After I “retired”–such a stupid word and, in fact, my government owns me for another 17 years–I struggled to find myself and my voice, ideals, values, etc. I had given up 20 years of my life to only awaken and find my country in worse shape regarding the things I thought I was defending.

    Then they sent my first-born off to fight a war in which I most certainly did not believe.

    I am still trying to figure many of these things out. My government, in effect, owns me and they have possession of my son. I am more than willing to go to jail and even to die for the things in which I believe. Perhaps even for the larger issues surrounding this one. But I am not going to jail over some stupid DVD encryption key.

    Perhaps that provides some insight into why I suggested folks like Rory or Jessamyn would be better suited to facilitate such a conversation.

  3. The day after they retired the Chief, I read an editorial in the DI to this effect. All those kids who rallied to save or get rid of the Chief–it was such a pointless cause. Why not use their wits for something more important and lasting? It’s sad.

  4. Every now and again I toss out the phrase “information is power”. In my own mind, I expand that to mean that information gives us the power to act rightly. Sadly, what you’re pointing out is that we’ve come to see the more simplistic side of that — information, itself, is our means and our end, rather than being the tool by which we propel ourselves to useful action.

    Which is pretty depressing. And also reminds me that I signed up for the Amnesty International Urgent Action Network emails, but haven’t yet written a single. damned. letter in support of better worldwide human rights, though I meant to.

    Action. Information is only power if you act on it.

  5. Jenn, I do remember that editorial and I remember feeling somewhat ambivalent about it as I do this.

    They’re not exactly meaningless issues, but they are more surface issues while the deeper and more dangerous underlying issues are (generally) ignored.

    Getting rid of the Chief was important for several reasons, but there were certainly more important things the individuals involved could have been doing with their time and energy, and certainly more important things the University could have been doing with the money expended on the issue over the years.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, Jenica. And I truly do not mean to make anyone feel bad about what they do or do not do. As I said, I perhaps do even less, at least on some issues.

    I just feel that these are critical questions as the technologies make it easier to “act” in ways that really do not require much action and certainly little to no sacrifice.

    “Information gives us the power to act rightly.” Well said.

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