Monday 29 July 2013

Big Brother Brin

Dau.II is getting her life together.  She left home for Dublin a couple of months ago and at the end of the Summer is going to seek her fortune in Cork.  With commendable forward planning, she went down there a week ago to sort out her accommodation before all the cheap dodgy places to live fill up with students.  She found a suitable place with a spare room rather quickly; before she'd sorted out a bank account indeed, so she called me to ask if I could  do a bank transfer for the holding deposit sharpish and she'd pay me back.  After a bit of a harrrumph about being an adult now, I asked her to send me the account details of the payee.

An hour later an e-mail came with naively explicit detail:
Name: Paddy Rackrent
Account number : 87654321
Sort Code: 90-87-56
IBAN: 9087 5687 6543 21
The first thing I noticed was that the first two identifications were wholly redundant to the third.  The second was that the Marginal Ads ,which Gmail so helpfully attaches to each message you open, were all about mortgages, loans, currency exchange rates and money transfer.  It's clear that they read your mail just like in wartime Britain.  But I didn't worry too much about it because I'd seen Sergei Brin give a "courageous, inspiring, funny" TED talk a few years ago and absorbed their mission statement "Do No Evil".  As a researcher, I have always felt a sense of empathy with/for a company that was started to find things out efficiently.  The next 'thought' was that I wouldn't feel so happy to have my comms read by a company that started out as a vehicle to demean and objectify women.

Yesterday I mentioned this anecdote to a friend who is also in the process of launching a daughter and she came back with "But what do you actually know about Zuckerberg, that you're calling him a total ass?"  The answer was that I'd seen the first part of the film The Social Network before I'd drifted off to read a book elsewhere in the house.  But that didn't stop me developing and sharing a damning character assassination of the accidental billionaire.   tsk tsk red face but we all do it all the time - especially on the interweb where lots of people launch off into an angry diatribe about something they're too lazy to find out the truth (or even sufficient information) about.

Which brings me to a project of Scott DiMarco at Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. He's the head of their library and, as you do if you care about these things, he organised an event for Banned Book Week.  Americans can be pretty smug about censorship because they have the First Amendment to their Constitution and they know that censorship happens at other times and in other places.  Like Ireland in the 1970s, hmmmm?  I remember bringing JP Donleavy's (banned: "obscene") The Ginger Man into the country when I started college.  DiMarco's event was thinly attended so a couple of the librarians hatched a plan to bring censorship more up-front and personal for the students and faculty and their community.  They did this by issuing a terse official announcement (on their FaceBook wall!) that One Woman’s Vengeance by local author and MU staffer Dennis Miller was to be banned forthwith because "It has sex, violence and adult language".

There was a gratifyingly immediate response to the announcement.  A reporter on the local rag contacted the author within 20 minutes - plainly he'd been tricking about with FB on company time, - tsk! A protesting FB page was set up within the day and soon enough intemperate e-mails were flooding in from all over the country.  But the thing that saddened DiMarco, as he cheerfully weathered this storm of invective, was that out of a community of 3000 souls only eight people called him up for more information and to see what could be done to reverse the ban.  Just like me about Zuckerberg, it was easier to get angry than to get down to doing something useful.

The Mansfield librarians exposed their plot after a couple of days and everyone went back to the status quo ante, feeling more resolute that censorship was a Bad Thing. You might think that's a positive outcome and it is. But y'know, the contrarian in me wonders if for many people this can just cement the complacency - "look at how we, from the land of the free, do better than those primitives from 1970s Ireland and how we serve our citizens better than the benighted proles behind the Iron Curtain were served through two generations of Cold War".  Having ticked the No Censorship Here box, the Hounding Snowden Affair stops being really about censorship because it's national security.  There now, both Google and the Feds will read this and I've done for my chances of ever getting a visa again to visit my friends in Boston.

1 comment:

  1. Good post! You're right about complacency and I worry about that, as well. We're in a strange age where all our information is available everywhere and big business and government activity information is hidden. Over here, since 9/11, everything is "national security" and that has proven to be not such a good thing.
    BTW, I like how you moved from the personal to the international.