Last week’s posting of a video to Youtube that resulted in violence and killings presents an interesting challenge for the open Internet. The whole incident illustrates that the design and capabilities of the Internet are fundamentally at odds with many existing social and cultural structures, such as the nation state and different religious sensibilities. This is not the first time though that we have encountered such a situation as print previously played a similar role.
In fact, it almost seems as if we are reliving a different period in history with simply the geographic scale “zoomed out.” What do I mean by that? When print arrived in Europe, the political and cultural landscape was incredibly fragmented as this map of 15th century Germany illustrates:
Print provided a way to transmit information across these many boundaries and the political, cultural and religious differences that they represented. Much of what was published was deemed undesirable by either the churches or the monarchs or both. Copyright in its original meaning, as the right to make copies, sprang up back then and was a mechanism for licensing printers in return for their agreement to be censored.
Looking at this historic precedent is both scary in the near term and encouraging in the long run. It is encouraging because today we have arrived at a Europe where cultural differences still exist but seem to pose relatively little threat. Cartoons in Germany about Greece and vice versa will still get people going, but a war between major European nations seems highly unlikely.
The historic precedent is scary though in the near term because much of the current state of affairs is the result of huge bloodshed across many wars, including two world wars. One of the early influential publications were Luther’s writings which led to the creation of Protestantism. Some 50 years later the conflict between Protestants and Catholics was what got the Thirty Years’ War going.
So what can be learned from this historical analogy? One key takeaway for myself is that we must be patient and can’t expect differences to disappear overnight. As long as these differences are as powerful as they are today we must show some level of restraint and invest time in education. It is for that reason that I support Google’s decision to stop making the video accessible in some countries. But because I am optimistic about the long term impact it also means that we must not let events like this result in undue governmental restrictions on the Internet.