Hope and Technology
We think with our brains - now and then - but rarely about them. We should,
because the brain is a remarkable organ - the foundation of the entire human
race. The human brain is one example of a so-called Complex Adaptive System
(CAS). There are lots of CASs in nature, but we know of none more complex.
The human brain is unique also in the sense that it can itself produce
similar systems. Such systems are now part not only of nature, but also of
human culture, technology and economy.
The global economy is a CAS, as is the Internet, and I myself
believe that world literature can also be seen as one. It is a peculiar
mycelium that grows and is alive, mostly under ground, in people's
consciousness - and subconsciousness. World literature is evolving, but the
works are only its visible manifestation.
Library professionals, more than most, are in close contact with
the global web and with world literature. Both are part of the writing
culture, though the Internet, naturally, is also much more. After Gutenberg
the Internet is the most important turning point of this
culture. Its growth has been staggeringly wild. I believe it has been
faster than any previous technical innovation. The World Wide Web has been
available for only four years or so, but even now there is hardly any area
of society to which it has not spread.
Information and money are dimensions of power - and publicity. Both
the Internet and literature contain vast quantities of information.
Information, or intellectual property, is also capital - quite literally so:
from the head. But, come to think of it, from whose head?
The question has grown ever more complicated, and I will focus on
this complexity - or on some aspects of it at least - or changes in attitudes
to, and legislation of, copyright are revealing examples of the
far-reaching effects of new technology. There's more juice in this than
meets the eye, and it's not just for the lawyers. Our relationship with
intellectual capital is, I maintain, one of the most important challenges
facing today's information society.
Technology changes economy, legislation and social relationships.
Digitisation affects almost all society's infrastructures. Of course,
conditions for cultural works, and how to archive and distribute them, also
change. Unlike money and material things, intellectual capital is strange
in that it can be shared and, in the sharing, it grows. When gathered in
one place it is not taken away from another place, as is the case with
matter and Mammon. Gathering and increasing information deprives nobody
else of it, rather it improves their chances of getting more. This is the
great difference between information and money.
But ideas have their own economy. Copyright involves both finance
and democracy, both the value of intellectual capital and the rights of its
creator and its user. Equality of access to the sources of information is
one of the touchstones of democracy. That's why the issue of intellectual
capital is so vital to western culture and the concept of equality.
The present phase of technology, especially transferring data into
electronic form, has put the spotlight on these problems in quite a new
way. Digitising information should mean easier sharing of intellectual
capital and more effortless data transfer-greater equality. But there is a
fear that the Internet might increase inequality in this respect too.
The concept of copyright has changed radically in our information
age, and the low cost and high speed of new technology bring new risks.
Digitisation threatens copyright in many ways. It is easy and almost
costless to spread intellectual capital as electronic pirate copies. The
Internet does not yet, in its present form, offer full-scale audio and
video services, but surely that will soon come. A digital film, book or
piece of music can be e-mailed to millions in minutes.
We got used to paper as the medium for transfer of text and
pictures, vinyl for sound and celluloid for film. This is no longer so. The
differences are disappearing, and today the various media and modes of data
transfer converge, join and mix. Soon the medium will be the same for all
forms of communication.
Publication is becoming cheaper, individuals have opportunities to
publish and interaction is everywhere, so the whole concept of what is
public is changing. Legislation has not kept pace. It's doing its best, but
now seems at risk of overreacting. Herein also lies a real threat to
democracy and equality of information access. It is easy to monitor access
to information on the net, and so equally easy to charge for it.
Already it is possible to distinguish two clearly different or even
opposing camps: the anti-copyrightists and the copyrightists. The former
party opposes tightening the copyright legislation, and many of its
supporters can be found among library people and the reading public. They
are familiar with Stewart Brand's slogan "Information wants to be free."
But in its entirety Brand's sentence reads: "Information wants to
be free because it is now so easy to copy and distribute casually - and
information wants to be expensive because in an Information Age, nothing is
so valuable as the right information at the right time."
Copyright is increasingly seen as the key to prosperity. American
journalist Charles C. Mann, author of a long essay about copyright "Who
will own your next good idea?", concludes that the economic winners will be
those who own the bits - the zeros and ones - not those who produce the
hardware to transfer the bits.
In the old days there was a professional group called artists. Now
they have almost disappeared. There are only "producers of contents", or - even
worse - "workers in the consciousness industry". Editors, publishers, big business
and contents-producers compete for the ownership of bits. Various interest
groups seek to supervise the distribution, and the price, of information.
Copyright owners may well object to their rights being restricted (as they
are now by library rights, for instance) in a digital environment. Some
demand cryptographic protection for all new information. This would be a
fatal blow both to public libraries and users of the Internet. Undoubtedly
it would bring some kind of security to authors, but it would also mean
loss of readers.
The relative balance between user rights and copyright is upset.
Even authors have landed in a new ambivalent situation. Without a reader
there is no author: every author needs a reading public, and every author
is also a reader. Writers need other books and libraries in order to
practise their profession.
For an author the issue of copyright deals directly with financial
interests, rights and opportunities to earn a living through one's own
work. If copyrights crumble - which is quite possible - authors will suffer
Finnish artists, unlike most Europeans, enjoy a brilliant system of
grants. But the grants are far from applying to everyone, they make nobody
rich nor even pay their mortgage. There is reason to be afraid of that this
system will be dismantled before long, or that it will at least be
weakened, as it is perhaps not in harmony with EU legislation. It seems we'll be
needing plenty of private sponsors who, at least until now, have shown not
the slightest interest in literature. The author must find new ways to earn
a living, perhaps as a stand-up performer.
But, as Charles Mann remarked: "If prosaists must earn their living
by public performances, J.D. Salinger would be penniless, and Salman
Rushdie would be dead."
According to many interest groups, licensing systems, digital
agreements and copyright-chips are inevitable if we are to secure the
financial interests of authors. But they have their shortcomings. Producers
and publishers of contents may not gain as much as they imagine. If the
illegal is generally socially accepted, there will always be ways of
evading the law.
And it isn't just a matter of economic benefits even for an author.
As a reader the writer too must gain access to information, and each
tightening of copyright directly limits this basic right. The thirst for
knowledge is a profound human urge; it is both personal and common to us
In Finland, the public right of access (which is mainly a right to
roam in nature) is a rare and valuable right, not a privilege for the few.
Though every piece of land is owned by somebody, anyone can harvest berries
and mushrooms from the forests. Almost no one has sought to question or
limit this right. In Finland we should be especially sensitive to the
objectives of the anti-copyright party. I too hold the view that people
should still be allowed to read without special licences. To ratify
copyright along the lines that WIPO (the World Intellectual Property
Organisation of the UN) suggested in 1996 would essentially hinder people
with less means from getting access to information, and thereby increase
inequality. (WIPO made additions to the Bern copyright agreement, which
would also apply to the digital environment. The aim was to consider all
digital copies to be separate entities, which would make spreading material
on the Internet very problematic.) Likewise, the most recent EU directive
of December 1997 threatens to scrap the exceptions from copyright that
cater for "fair use".
I myself have published many of my texts on the World Wide Web, and
all are freely available without charge. They include an entire small illustrated work,
which so far hasn't been readable anywhere else. I don't advocate this
solution for others, nor am I in any way accountable for it. The author has
a choice: publish free of charge on the web or don't publish there at all.
At least I don't know of a way for an individual author to charge those who
visit his or her pages.
My activity is not as generous as it seems. I don't feel I have
lost out financially, because for most of my texts I have already received
some sort of compensation. Either, I have first presented them as lectures
or talks, or I have published them in a journal or anthology. It is also
clear that I have gained lots of new readers this way, some of whom may
even one day buy one of my printed books.
I believe it was a big mistake to extend copyright protection to
seventy years. I think it would be more sensible to ensure access to
information for today's generations than to provide for the livelihood of
the author's offspring yet unborn. Descendants unto the forth and fifth
generation surely must make their own livings.
But there are further reforms and accompanying problems in store.
Electronic paper will, once more, revolutionise literary culture and the
copyright legislation. Until now consumption of paper - contrary to
predictions - has increased with the advent of computers. Electronic paper is
a step in a more ecologically sensible direction, and at the same time is
more economically profitable, of course.
There are already several prototypes of the digital book. They have
brand names such as SoftBook, RocketBook and EveryBook. One day the
electronic book will operate on mere light - or through the kinetic energy of
our own hand. Such a book is empty - but it is precisely its emptiness that
enables it to contain a library, or libraries. Slightly altering the Finnish poet
Mirkka Rekola's words: "Each day an empty page in front of me. I read it
and keep it open."
Soon we'll be able to load it with any work we want from the
net-bookshop. Readers can use a light-pen to underline and make their own
comments in the margins. That kind of book can be read in bed - a crucial
factor for many readers, I've noticed.
We've had repeated assurances that the digital and Gutenbergian
technologies will continue in peaceful coexistence far into the future. Me,
I'm not so sure. In the 19th century a machine was something quite
different from what it is today, and I'm sure the concept of what a book is
will also change. It will not mean the same thing to the next generation as
it still does to us.
The Finnish President recently got a brand new official
residence-purpose designed to the last nail. But the interior designers
were so far ahead of the times that they didn't include one single
The significance of the printed book as a source of information and
pleasure will decrease - has already done so. Before long the Gutenbergian
book will be a rarity, an object desired by collectors. We will have to say
goodbye to the paper book as an everyday thing, and the farewell will be
melancholy. The old joke: "I already have a book" will be no joke. What
then will happen to libraries, to bookshops, publishers and printers - God
only knows. Who will pay whom and how much also remains to be seen.
I lived my childhood in a world that was very different from the
Finland of today. Still mainly an agricultural society, it didn't have
technology, just industry which was heavy, polluting and labour-intense.
Then satellites, sci-fi and comics made us children fantasise about a
future that would be so different from our then everyday life. We thought
that by the year 2000 we'd have colonies on the moon, maybe on other
planets too, and we'd all be flying around and eating little energy pills
instead of normal food.
That hasn't happened, but our daily routines really have changed.
Because we have all this new technology, we also have quite a new kind of
civilisation and democracy. Not even scientists or authors had the faintest
idea what direction change would take; they couldn't envisage PCs or the
progress of telecommunication. Today's reality was but fairy-tales and
magic in the 50s and 60s.
Our image of the world has changed radically since then. Industry,
in the old sense of the word, has given way to new technology. The
scientific paradigm has switched, and our relationship with work has been
transformed. The crucial force of change has been the machine, the computer
or, actually, the concept of it.
The computer is no more a mass of metal, silicon and plastic, but part of a gigantic
network of consciousnesses. Networking is one of the key concepts of this
millennial change. No longer can we isolate different disciplines of science from
each other; the compartmentalisation of sciences is coming to an end, so even
humanistic research and the natural sciences have to get to know each
Computer-aided research fields such as artificial intelligence and
artificial life are continuing the same revolution as the theories of
relativity, quanta and chaos. They each break further the classic and
mechanistic view of solid and separate objects, of the universe of cause
and effect. We begin to understand that the same complex laws are in force
in all systems: biological, atomic, economic, sociological and cultural.
Digital and virtual have radically changed our perception of
reality, of life and of consciousness. We are moving to a phase where
simulation is increasingly difficult to distinguish from reality. This
issue already raises its head concerning copyright, but it extends far, far
wider. Questions about what is natural and what artificial, what is
original and what imitation will arise in quite a new way.
New technology has not happened by chance and is more than mere
technical innovation. It is a logical consequence of a changing media
concept. The Internet has developed alongside our economic and intellectual
development. We need the global web for political, social and moral
reasons. Nothing less will do when the problems are global. Governments,
parties, nations and trading alliances cannot even begin to solve them
independently and regardless of each other. We are forced to establish even
more diverse, massive and flexible connections in an attempt to avert some
of the catastrophies that lie in wait for us.
We have no idea how the global economy will survive its present
crisis. Will it expand even more? Markets have been based, fatally, on
inaccurate and irrational expectations, on a massive illusion: that mankind
can live on money.
Wishes can be fruitless and frustrating, but hope springs eternal.
It would be naïve to assume that the Internet will solve our problems. Our
own will, not even the most effective technical invention, decides the
future. Indeed the global web can increase the complexity of our
problems - the example of copyright legislation already shows that. We know
too that the web spreads disinformation, and offers channels for all kinds
of criminal activity. But it does also offer possibilities for citizen
activities on a global scale, for debate transcending political and ethnic
divides. In my view, this interaction is not illusory. It is really
happening, and it is this - rather than technological evolution - that proves
we are still hoping.
translation: Britt & Philip Gaut