Wednesday, 28 March 2012

From the Shelf - The Revolution will be Digitised by Heather Brooke

I borrowed this book from the library, not entirely sure what I was in for, but feeling the need to get the low down on 'digital liberties' at the very least.  So out it was loaned, and I finally got round to reading it.

The Revolution will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War (the official website for the book can be viewed here) is written by Heather Brooke, the same journalist who helped expose the story of the politicians' expenses claims in 2009, and sparked a huge scandal in the UK.  This is her third book, and charts the progression of the Cablegate affair, through her own eyes, and those of the hackers, journalists and politicians involved - most notably her dealings with Julian Assange and other members of WikiLeaks.  The narrative is interspersed with discussions on the nature of the digital information age and what Brooke terms the 'information war' - the conflict between freedom of speech and its stifling in the name of national security.

I had mixed feelings towards this book.  That may be partly because activism tends to make me rather uneasy. That doesn't mean that I don't question my betters or the world around me.  It just means that I'm just one of those people who prefers to just get on with their lives, and to have the right to be 'let alone' (as Brooke quotes via Louis Brandeis in her book).  And consequently, I appreciate people like Brooke, whose mission in life is to give people like me the right to be 'let alone', and to have the power to question those betters should we feel the need to do so.

However, I wasn't too keen on the way the Cablegate sections were presented as a story-like narrative.  I can see the effect Brooke was going for, setting a suspenseful background for the unfolding events, and making the characters more 'human'; but to me, that was its flaw - it gave her book the edge of a thriller or conspiracy theory that I really felt detracted from what she had to say, and from the point of her story.  To her credit, however, she is even-handed and realistic in her portrayal of the people involved - particularly Assange, who has since become some of a cause célèbre in the information world.  On that score, Brooke cannot be faulted.

I found her discourses on the 'information war' itself much more interesting.  These centred on the difficulty in policing the internet, and how various governments are scrambling to set up some form of internet censorship in order to help preserve the status quo.  I think many people will find it intriguing, if not disturbing, to find out just how much of the internet is censored right here in good old Blighty.  Digitisation makes it far more easy to communicate and to exercise free speech, but it also makes it easier for information to just suddenly disappear.  Just hit the delete key and it's gone.  Whilst we may be on the cusp of an 'information democracy', we may just as much be facing an 'information totalitarian state'.  Brooke's point is that we're teetering on the precipice of both, and what happens in the next few years could choose which hole we fall down.

At least one question was answered for me in this book.  I had always wondered why it was that while the Internet Archive plugs away capturing and archiving the web willy-nilly, why is it that the UK Web Archive still has to go through the costly and time-intensive rigmarole of seeking a webmaster's permission before they can capture it?  The answer is in our different constitutions.  In the US the First Amendment prevents the government from copyrighting official information.  Here in the UK we have Crown Copyright, a proprietary system, meaning that the government can copyright a publication and thus suppress it.  We have to ask permission to use public data.  And that's probably the reason we're not allowed to use certain data sets for mashups in the Data Visualisation module.

But then, what do I know?

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

From the Shelf: Lost Languages by Andrew Robinson

I happen to have a thing about historical mysteries, and I also happen to have a thing about the history of writing.  These two interests of mine seem to have come together admirably in Andrew Robinson's Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts.

'Lost Languages' is a bit of a misnomer in this case.  'Lost Writing Systems' would've been a more accurate if less poetic title.  While lost languages often walk hand in hand with lost writing systems, that isn't always expressly the case, as Robinson makes clear.  For example, the famous case of the decipherment of Linear B showed that the Linear B tablets recorded a very archaic form of Greek.  Likewise, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs expressed a form of archaic Egyptian quite similar to Coptic, which was still a living (if only strictly liturgical) language.  This isn't a book about the lost languages, it's a book about lost writing systems (in the sense that their meaning is largely lost to us), and about attempts at decipherment.  What makes this book fascinating is how culture often seems to inform the decipherment of scripts.  As such, Robinson throws in a lot about the history of each culture, as well as the technical details of decipherment.  Robinson gives us a taste of the history of writing, bringing to life a human need that has spanned the ages.

This need is the need to organise, record and remember, and it is the single most fascinating thing about this book.  People say we now live in an 'Information Society'; but I believe that we always have, just in ways that have been limited by the available tools and infrastructure around us.  This desire to order and make sense of our world has led to the invention of many hundreds of different scripts, of varying degrees of complexity and efficiency (Robinson highlights the fact that Japanese is the most inefficient writing system in the world, yet Japan has one of the world's highest levels of literacy).  Throughout time, human ingenuity has been funnelled into the activity of writing and recording, even if it means re-inventing the wheel again and again.

The mysterious rongorongo script.
The most intriguing example of this is the rongorongo script of Easter Island, a relatively young script which died possibly within the space of 90 years.  No one knows exactly when it was invented or when it died out, what it was used for or what any of the beautifully cartoon-like characters mean.  But somehow, for some reason, someone on this isolated little island in the middle of nowhere felt the need to invent a complex script that flourished for a short time before its flame suddenly and dramatically died out with the coming of the slave trade and disease from the West.  And yet this writing system, constructed about the 18th-19th century, shares striking similarities with a totally unrelated system (The Indus Valley Script), which died out nearly 3 millennia before.

An Indus Valley seal.
What I found most enlightening about Robinson's book is the fact that nearly all the scripts he highlights were created not in order to create but to record.  There are no great epics or literary works to be found amongst the earliest records.  Nor are there mythologies, histories, or philosophies.  Most of the earliest writings deal with records, itineraries, calendars, and lists of people - slaves or kings.  What drove people to invent writing?  It was a need to record, enumerate and catalogue information.  To order our world, even to the most mundane degree.  That is what those first pioneers, the inventors of writing, bequeathed to us.  Their's was an information society as much as ours was, and Lost Languages gives an intriguing insight into the lost information societies of yesteryear.