#citylis at the Movies: The Politics of Information

Yes, I have been reading, honest, but for my first post this week I’d like to share my thoughts on two very different films I saw last week: The Internet’s Own Boy and Brazil. Fear not though hardy reader, for this will not be a  sub-Kermodian 6th form Film Studies rant, but rather an attempt to examine what we can learn from these two films about the nature of information, particularly the question of the ownership and use of information.

As mentioned in my previous post, last week as part of our LIS course at City University, the 2014 documentary, ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’ was shown. It tells the tale of the life and tragic untimely death of one of the pioneering programmers and social activists of the internet age.

A brilliant young man, Aaron Swartz helped develop RSS, and created the website Reddit, whilst still in his teens. Following the sale of Reddit, he briefly worked in the corporate world but swiftly became disillusioned with it. He dedicated much of the rest of his life to campaigning for internet freedoms and greater access to information,  promoting Creative Commons, launching the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and working to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Aaron believed that the internet could be a positive force for change, but equally, that it was necessary to struggle to realize this potentiality. He saw this dialectic between an open web and a proprietorial closed one, manifested clearly in the case of JSTOR. JSTOR is a digital repository containing a vast library of academic journals. The problem as Aaron saw it, was that they were charging high fees to access this content, content which he believed should be free. Much of the research contained therein had been paid for through publicly funded grants, and therefore, he felt that it was unreasonable to make people pay to access content they had already contributed towards. Furthermore, he saw how this situation would exacerbate an information divide between those who can afford to access research and those who cannot. On an idealistic level, he also believed that it is through the free sharing of academic research that further progress in human understanding  can be encouraged and consequently, connected a laptop to the network at MIT and began a bulk download of documents from JSTOR. His laptop was discovered and CCTV recorded Aaron swapping hard drives with the machine. What followed was a federal prosecution which later culminated in Aaron taking his own life.

The story was powerful, moving and tragic. He was no criminal, out to hack peoples’ credit cards or seeking to profit by selling the materials he downloaded. He simply believed that research should not be pay-walled but rather, should be freely accessible to whoever wishes to read it. Although Aaron Swartz is no longer with us, the campaign for Open Access continues, with Open Access Week events being held all over the world just last month. Judging by some of the messages I read on Twitter, I know I was not alone in being moved by this excellent film.

To continue with the theme of movies and LIS, for Halloween @ernestopriego tried to get a meme going on twitter.

But for me, nothing best arouses the feeling of  horror, than Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece, Brazil.

I had the great pleasure of watching this at the BFI on Saturday, followed by a Q+A with its visionary director Terry Gilliam. It was showing as part of the BFI’s Sci Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, although Gilliam himself said, “I always thought of it as a documentary.”

The film is a bleak, surreal, Orwellian vision of life in a bureaucratic totalitarian state, in which the control of information plays a central role. The main protagonist, Sam Lowry, is a functionary working at the Ministry of Information, who accepts a promotion to Information Retrieval, solely to gain access to hitherto restricted information.

Though a work of fiction, I believe Brazil raises many of the same political issues that were apparent in The Internet’s Own Boy: who controls information in society? How and why is information controlled? How can people access information more freely?

Some of these issues are examined by Luciano Floridi, who is at the forefront of the new Philosophy of Information. This reading week I’m planning on reading his latest work, The Ethics of Information, (as reviewed here in David Bawden’s blog ‘The Occasional Informationist‘), in order to hopefully bring me a little closer to discovering some of the answers to the questions posed above.





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3 Responses to #citylis at the Movies: The Politics of Information

  1. yxchai says:

    Loved the review of Internet’s Own Boy, I’m planning to watch the film tonight and his story sounds incredible and heart-breaking. I find it quite interesting how there is quite a few films that bring up the political issues revolving around information though!! I look forward to seeing in your next post if Floridi helps shine some light on the ethics of information!!


  2. William Molesworth says:

    Makes me realise how lucky I am to have free access to JSTOR for life through my email server, which costs me just £12 p.a.


  3. Great post. Gutted I couldn’t make the film but definitely planning to watch the film in the near future. Looking forward to any thoughts you have on information ethics.


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