During the entire civilized life of man, the entire period of our literacy, one of the few institutions to remain a constant from age to age, one that changed only incrementally over all that time, is the library.
From the dawn of the written word, perhaps even prior to that, men have created and maintained libraries. In all that time, libraries consisting of a collection of “written” information kept in a specific physical place for the purpose of intermittent reference. To a greater or lesser degree, the custodian of any of these “libraries” could have recognized the purpose and the activities taking place in another, even if put down in a library of the distant future or past.
In much the same way, the function of scribes has stayed the same over the many ten of thousands of years of the written word. The scribes produced, either original or copies of earlier works, collections of information. This is true whether the media was clay tablets, cave walls, papyrus, paper or digital media. But writing is an activity, a library is a civilized institution
Ancient libraries, such as the fabled one at Alexandria, were also centers of learning. These libraries were where scholars came to work and to pass their knowledge on to the students who collected around them. In some respects, ancient libraries were the precursor to our modern Universities. While it is true that our Universities are more a creature of the middle age than the classic and ancient ages, those early institutions from which ours sprang are direct descendants of the earlier seats of learning integral to ancient and classical libraries.
Now, something new is afoot in the world. Commercial institutions like Google and Amazon and Microsoft and, soon, if the speculation can be believed, Apple are eager to create a non physical, ephemeral collection of all the world’s knowledge. These, and other organizations, are envisioning a non-corporeal library where the repository of knowledge is separated from a specific place, where reference is separate from the custodians of information, where an individual will carry the total knowledge of all mankind in his pocket, available at any time and at any place.
Great arguments now are taking place over how, exactly, this ephemeral library of world knowledge will be configured. There are even greater arguments yet to come before it is settled. These, unfortunately, are being fought out in courts and with laws unsuited to adjudicate the dawn of a new age.
What is certain is that the creation of this library of the air will change society in ways we cannot now comprehend. It will change things more dramatically than any change since the creation of the written word. Twenty years after its creation, life, in many significant ways, will be far more different from life twenty years earlier than life twenty years earlier was from life a two hundred years earlier.
This is not a small matter. People who never heard of Washington and Jefferson and Adams and Franklin and all their compatriots had their lives “electrified” when those men let lose the genie of personal freedom and responsibility upon the world. Likewise, the men and women, largely unknown to even those who follow this birth of a new library, who are central to the struggle for the library and the struggle between the contending forces pushing for it, are going to effect the way the world moves into the future more than the Obamas, Putins and Wen Jibaos of the world.
In the final analysis, the traditional governments of the world possess only the power to be a detriment to progress in this endeavor. For the most part, because it is not predictable in terms of the change it will bring, government leaders fear it. Only these relatively unknown people working to create something completely new have the power to shape its future.
Not since the age of limited education, an age of educated priests and nobility and ignorance everywhere else in society, has the world been so far in the hands of so few. Most of us, and I definitely include myself in this category, don’t even understand the various issues involved. All I can do is follow along as best I can, trying to watch the future as it takes shape.
This is not an advocacy of one position or for one contender over the other, for I know too little to take a side. However, this is something we should all watch. There will fortunes made and lost because of this. There will lives ruined and lamented and lives elevated and celebrated because of this.
Somehow, in all this litigation, some means of protecting the rights of intellectual property and individual privacy has to emerge. if everybody’s intellectual property belongs to everyone else, the utilization of that intellectual property will create a race to the bottom, a race to zero. Not only will the creators of the intellectual property suffer, but so will everyone in the supply chain related to that property. A race to the bottom imposes a very strict cost efficiency discipline on all costs, including labor.
Yes, history, that will determine whether all this new technology is a boon or a tool of impoverishment for the vast majority of us, is being played out right now. This history is being made by people unknown to the wider world and whose objectives are narrow and self interested. It is history making of a colossal magnitude, unfolding now, at the dawn of the new age of knowledge and new forms of literacy.