Monopolies of knowledge

Professor Harold Innis, teacher of Marshall McLuhan

Beginning with painting on rocks and writing code for binary computers, the records of what we know have variously been kept. Between these two extremes are found language, hieroglyphics, cuneiform markings in clay, pictograms, alphabets, printing technology, the telegraph, radio and television; each served as dominant forms of preserving culture. These methods represent periodic monopolies of knowledge during which specialized classes, religious and secular, were privileged by having access to tools and technologies of information storage and retrieval and thereby were able to exert control over vast populations of people lacking such access.

Cultural theorists like Harold Innis (“The Bias of Communication”) and Lewis Mumford (“Technics and Human Development”) explored history from this perspective, attempting to understand why cultures veer towards destructive activities, like despoiling nature, and the slaughter of war. They concluded something about knowledge and access to it seems to be a root cause. Innis and Mumford died well before the 20th century ended; I suspect both would have been interested in how monopolies of knowledge continue to fuel both positive developments and terrible conflict.

In our times, the current monopoly of knowledge is digital. Prior to the development of the personal computer created by Jobs and Wozniak of Apple, the monopoly of digital knowledge was held by large corporations and governments. Mainframe computer technology was and remains a staple of military and industrial development, but the personal computer (and now smart phones and tablets) have brought the generalized benefits and power of digital computing to the masses.

However, only a small number of people have access to the massive databases of information now accumulating at the likes of Google and the NSA; the masses simply interact with technology. Moreover, the language of computer programming is tied to a monopoly of knowledge reaching its ultimate expression in encryption software written to insure the secrecy and security of information within a digital domain. As technology continues to evolve, so too will the encryption code conventions.

Monopolies of knowledge accompany accumulations of power in ever-enlarging spheres of space and time; the secrecy engendered seems to be endemic to the administrative functioning of mass society. This was as true for the Pyramid-building Egyptians and their papyrus-based communication technology as it is for modern America. Monopolies of knowledge concentrate power and authority to the few, often at expense to the many. Historically, the reach of such monopolies became over-extended and collapsed or stimulated opposition and revolt.

The revelations of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange represent a crack in the current monopoly of knowledge, just as the introduction of vowels into the written alphabet by the ancient Greeks cracked open a previous monopoly of orally-transmitted knowledge. By revealing content and methodology, if not the precise computer code employed of the products of America’s NSA security apparatus, Snowden and Assange have opened a window into the use and abuse of state power.

In every age examined we find technologies used in a monopoly of knowledge are superseded by more efficient ones, subverted by unauthorized use, or discarded as a result of social upheaval and chaos. Knowledge and secrecy keep poor company, and yet appear to be inseparable. Ultimately, the over-extension of power undermines its own monopoly of knowledge, despite all efforts to prevent it. Unless history comes to an end, our current age will prove to be no exception.

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