Re-reading George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) recently, I couldn't help but wonder how much easier Winston Smith's job might be if his employer, the Ministry of Truth, had computers. I doubt that many people would want Smith's job to be any easier, since it involves re-writing historical documents to reflect the current official view. But my engineering brain nonetheless realised that doing this would be so much cheaper and easier if the Ministry of Truth had only to change entries in a central database rather than destroy all of the existing physical copies of a document, then re-print new ones reflecting the new view.
I have no plans to build a system for the Ministry of Truth. In fact one might argue that I don't need to, because we already have tools that could be made to meet the Ministry's needs: Wikipedia and Google. Might Orwell's novel have uses other than as the go-to reference for fantasies of surveillance and totalitarianism?
There are important differences between the real Wikipedia and real Google and anything that the Ministry of Truth might like. For one, however well-known and influential they are, there are alternatives and there are people willing and able to point out their flaws. For another, Wikipedia's pages aren't controlled by a central authority, and there's a "view history" link on every page. So I'm not particularly worried by either.
Perhaps a better question to ask is: how often do people read the alternatives, or view the history of a page? How many people might instead be building filter bubbles ready for abuse by a twenty-first century Ministry of Truth?
Doing some research for an article this weekend, I was reminded of how frustrating searching the web for information can be. Not only are web pages frequently superficial and poorly maintained — Wikipedia included — but searching for information about a particular event or non-web document turns up a mountain of umpteenth-generation re-posts of information for which the original source is lost in time, or maybe just ranked very lowly by search engines. I can see the attractions of a Ministry of Truth.
Thanks to the efforts of teachers, librarians and others, perhaps people are more aware of the weaknesses of relying solely on Wikipedia and Google than they might have been a few years ago. Still, it takes a lot of effort to thoroughly research a topic — and, for casual purposes, you can get away with whatever Wikipedia and Google serve up. Let's just not get complacent.
The Conversation began a series on creativity this week with Dan Hunter complaining that copyright is a poor mechanism for encouraging creativity since awarding money for effort is known to reduce the intrinsic desire to make the same effort. Many of the commenters were not impressed, pointing out that this is easy to say for those in publicly-funded university positions; the grant system that Hunter seems to favour has its own problems; Hunter uses very selective examples to assert the supposed success of amateur creation; and, perhaps most importantly, that copyright has never been about encouraging creativity in itself anyway but about protecting artists from exploitation.
A simple experiment, similar to one I've previously proposed on this blog, might illuminate the last two points. Consider one of the many media users who complain that the cost of blockbuster film and television series is too high or unfair. How would such a user respond to being told to just watch YouTube etc. instead?
I doubt that many such users would find this a very satisfactory suggestion. If it was, surely they'd already be watching YouTube instead of Hollywood blockbusters. The point is that, for better or worse, copyright rewards not just any creativity, but only creativity that has value to people other than the artist.
If we leave copyright out of it, Hunter is probably correct to reason that many people enjoy creating for its own sake, and that lawmakers therefore don't need to provide any extrinsic incentive for such people to express themselves. Supporting the intrinsic desire to create is more about providing citizens with reasonable access to the time, materials and skills required to pursue their creative interests. Some of Hunter's suggestions seek to do more or less this, and, indeed, governments already have plenty of programmes seeking to do things of this sort.
Coming back to copyright, perhaps the real question is: how and to what degree should the law encourage artists to create works that are of interest to other people? Would society lose anything if art was only produced to satisfy the creative (and possibly exhibitionary) urges of artists?
Those who complain about lack of access to blockbusters presumably believe that society would lose something if for-profit art were to cease being provided, though I don't know if they would recognise it. Of course it is not easy to know how we'd fare if the kind of art supported by copyright did not exist at all, since we have no recent experience of such a world or any obvious way of simulating one. But, being important enough to warrant fifteen years of loud debate, nor is it an easy thing to dismiss.