So today I’m tentatively sticking my nose into the real world – after making absolutely sure that the dispiriting mess that was 2012 has definitely left the building. I’ve been taking a break from all things internet related for most of the festive period…well apart from standing on the shore with a megaphone trumpeting Christmas wishes to anyone who’d listen and occasionally checking IMDB while on our annual compendium horror movie marathon…but for the most part it’s been drawbridge up, hatches well and truly battened down and it’s been lovely.
Much as I love the sprawling badlands that are the Interwebs they do hold an awful lot of silliness within their ragged borders. While the Net holds the kind of boundless possibilities Captain James T. Kirk was chasing (and still does apparently) it also gets snagged with all the pettiness of mankind. It opens up the world and you get the good with the bad. I’ve spent much of the past two years researching my new book. Thanks to a truly connected global Internet I was able to access the collections of libraries across the planet without ever leaving my desk. Thanks to the Google Books Project I was able to access printed sources that haven’t even survived in the collection of the National Library of Ireland. I’d go so far as to say that I wouldn’t even have been able to find this story if it wasn’t for that interconnectedness. It’s a small story, an intimate and subtle one that was scattered far and wide in the intervening years. Without digital copies and the ability to conduct keyword searches I wouldn’t have been able to pull the strands of the story together. I’d be left with a thin sliver of purely linear narrative running through a haystack bristling with needles I would have had no hope of finding.
Technology has utterly revolutionised the way I research – my smartphone has become as essential a bit of kit as the ubiquitous tricorder, to return to that StarTrek analogy for a second. As a journalist and writer my work suddenly reaches a global audience. When I’m between freelance gigs I can still reach out to that audience through this blog. If I want to find something out I have access to a vast source of information, bigger than the greatest libraries in the world, connected to any reference work, any expert with a few strokes of the keyboard. It really is extraordinary. In less than 10 years we’ve wandered into science fiction.
I think that’s part of the problem.
The Internet, just by being it’s enormous sprawling self, tends to magnify both good and bad. Moving from our analogue pre digital existence to one connected to the Net all day every day is like moving from a small village to a city. There might be better shops, theatres and sporting stadiums but you can bet there’ll also be higher crime and higher prices. The bright lights just cast darker shadows and those shadows tend to be very busy places indeed. What else would you expect when moving to a community that isn’t bound by city limits or country borders? This is totally global. That’s big.
Now city living doesn’t suit everyone. With the bricks and mortar variety we can choose to leave, to turn our backs on the bright lights and frenetic life of the city for something a little less intense. So it is with the Internet. At the moment there seems to be a settlement sprouting up at the edge of our Internet City, a forest of lean-to shelters for the most part, although there are signs that some of the residents have actually started laying down foundations to stake a more permanent claim. They refuse to accept that the land they have built on is still part of the city and gather outside their dwellings several times a day to shout and throw stones. Sometimes they even travel into the city centre to better tell the city inhabitants what a sinful life they’re leading. They say that the city is destroying the countryside they would have chosen to live in and they have no choice but to sit outside their shanty town at night and throw stones and the occasional bucket of excrement at the outer fringes of the city. It’s the city’s fault for being too close.
Over the past weeks and months in Ireland a lot of shit has been slung. The Internet is blamed for for all the ills of mankind it seems. It’s denizens are cast as an unruly mob waiting in the bushes to jump out at unsuspecting innocents. Whether it’s the amount of confusing facts and non facts floating around online that can lure unsuspecting journalists into making career-ending mistakes (the first of which would surely have been the old one of checking ones sources), or anonymous bullying from so called trolls (a genuine problem but not one that should be hidden behind by politicians and public figures who put themselves up for scrutiny and then decide they don’t like criticism) these are problems that revolve around responsibility. Yes perhaps their should be more civic mindedness online and yes perhaps there need to be consequences for some of the irresponsible acts but surely there’s also a responsibility to those on the other end to be aware of what they are dealing with. I’m often reminded these days of the advice I got from friends before moving from Sligo to Dublin in my late teens. They would have had me afraid to leave my flat if I’d listened to all the stories of rapes and murders in broad daylight on Grafton Street. When I’d moved to Sligo from London I was more freaked out by the way everyone said hello to everyone else and houses and cars were left unlocked. But if you weren’t looking out for it, sure Dublin was a wee bit dodgy but then, it is a city.
The latest missile is that old chestnut copyright. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of copyright – I’m a writer. My words are my trade. But the body representing the bulk of Irish newspapers has taken a stance on linking that is, to my mind, plain daft. Here’s the initial post from the solicitors representing charity Woman’s Aid, who received a bill for linking to coverage of their own fundraising efforts and here’s the National Newspaper of Ireland response. As any regular reader of this blog will know I use links a lot. I use them to explain the background of stories I’m writing about and choose sources I respect. I’ve always linked rather than quoted because I wouldn’t want to steal the work of another journalist (although I’ve often linked to my own coverage of stories in old media sources). As far as I’m concerned it’s the most ethical way of doing things, it drives traffic to the source (though not much from here) and I’m not taking credit for something I’ve not done. I’ve been dealing with copyright a lot over the past few years as I’ve gathered together copies of all my research. I’ve lost count of the number of copyright release forms I’ve signed before taking my camera out and before using the composite image in this post I had to get permission from the National Library who hold the images I wanted to use. I was using the images on my blog though. I wasn’t linking to the library website to show the images (though actually I don’t think those three are up there yet). If I had linked through I wouldn’t have asked for permission. All I was doing was pointing the way after all.
In fairness the NNI aren’t the only ones to come up with this kind of lunacy. President Hollande of France is having a scrap with Google over much the same thing (and yes I know I could be incurring the wrath of the NNI by linking to a piece from one of their members to illustrate that point). I can understand the NNI point and even more the French point but I think they’re both going about it the wrong way. Anyone who makes their living producing unique content should have an issue with copyright. It’s one of the biggest issues of our time and if it’s not watched carefully then people like me will and any other writer, journalist, artist or photographer will find themselves unable to make a living. Once again we’re back to finding a balance between that “civic” responsibility and a sense of reality on the other side. Surely it’s about time people stopped acting like rubes up in the big smoke for the first time and took responsibility for their new home.
Like any community it’s up to the inhabitants what shape it takes. You can watch it from down the road, occasionally shouting warning at it’s wayward ways and throwing buckets of shit; you can live in it passively, allowing a monarchy, a church or big business to run it for you; or you can take responsibility and mould something really worthwhile. Lets hope the Internet lives up to its own possibilities and doesn’t get swamped by the mass of humanity that inhabits it.