Thursday, May 21, 2009

Old and New Information Wanting to Be Free

By Michael Fertik

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “information wants to be free” is an “expression that has come to be the unofficial motto of the free content movement.” Much of what we do at ReputationDefender has to do with this concept. Do we as a society and as individuals really want every type of information to be visible to anyone, at any time? Do we want our medical history, phone numbers, old addresses and private photos to be as readily accessible as, say, who played third base for the Red Sox in 1912? (The answer to this question is found below).
I recently read a couple of books that, specifically speaking in one case and broadly speaking in another, illustrate the narrative of information’s wanting to be free (in the sense of freely available), and the potentially history-altering or life-changing consequences that may arrive when it is.

The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hershel Shanks tells the story of the battle to wrest access over the Scrolls, discovered in the early 1950s, from an exclusionary group of scholars who more or less refused to publish or grant access to them for decades. It also offers a precis of the potential religious and historical significance the scrolls, including possible redefinition of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Even though the Scrolls represented the most significant biblical archaeological find of the 20th century, the scholars who worked on deciphering them declined to publish their findings or even more than very narrowly disseminate facsimiles of the primary materials for a startlingly long time. It was not till Shanks and a handful of others forced the hands of the scholars that the world finally was able to see the scrolls for themselves. Now, thanks to their good efforts and the power of the Internet, together with the work of places like the Library of Congress, we can all see detailed images of the scrolls themselves, at any time, wherever we are in the world.

The publication of the primary material of scrolls has generated a massive bibliography and new fields of scholarship (including one called Qumran Studies, after the location of the scrolls’ discovery). In this case, information really did want to be free, and it took the hard work of a dedicated group of people to make it free.

Still, it seems, there are persistent and, according to Shanks, apparently plausible rumors of other intact Dead Sea Scrolls that are circulating in private hands around the world. The information bound up in these items, should they exist, needs to be set free through their publication, so that a more complete picture of this historical time can continue to be assembled. Even more scrolls are expected to be lurking in caves around Qumran the entrances to which have been covered up by earthquake over the millennia.

Gunther Grass’s memoir Peeling the Onion gets at the theme of information freedom differently. Grass, a Nobel prize winning German author, has been writing for more than half a century, during which time he has been an outspoken literary and activist left-of-center critic of Germany’s Nazi past, of its collective guilt, and of insufficient transparency and penance among the German people for their participation in the Holocaust and in the other crimes of the Third Reich. In the mid-1980s, he attacked President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl for visiting a cemetery than included Waffen graves. He was often described as–and seems to have been comfortable with the appellation–one of Germany’s chief moral authorities.

However, in 2006, it was revealed that Grass had himself been a member of the Waffen-SS. He joined when he was 17. Spiegel Online confirmed the basic facts of this story through the publication of several historical records. Grass published Peeling the Onion that year. While it purports to be a memoir of his life, or at least the first few decades of it, more or less up to the time he started writing The Tin Drum, one can’t help but get the feeling that he wrote it as an apologia pro sua Waffen vita.

In one long stretch of the book–the longest and most detailed piece of it, at least as my memory serves me as I write this–he makes himself out to be a coward (but only just) in World War II. He runs away, he doesn’t know how to use a gun, he fears for his life, he soils himself, he spends time in a POW camp, etc.. It comes across, after all the nouns and verbs, as an attempt to explain away the significance of his fighting for the Reich and his subsequent decades of hiding it. Was he really a Nazi? This seems very unlikely. But it did seem to me that, burdened by his secret and the gap between his public persona and his private history, and perhaps also worried that the information about his past would eventually want to be free, Grass set out to cast it in the most luminous and best-shaped bronze he could.

As a book, Peeling the Onion is also a powerful literary biography of a man who must be one of the most highly literate writers now living. Grass gives us the source material from his life experiences of some of his brightly vivid major and minor characters. I am guessing that the memoir will be used as some sort of key to unlock his novels and plays by Grass scholars for many years to come. I also doubt that Grass’s past will obliterate entirely my own view of his writing (The Meeting at Telgte is outstanding). But in the end, I don’t think I will cherish this memoir.

Two books about information that, we might say, should be free.

(The answer to the question who played third base for Red Sox in 1912 is Larry Gardner. This is the kind of obscure piece of information that becomes immediately accessible on the Internet, through a single search on a major search engine. I’ll be revisiting what we might call the Larry Gardner Theory of the Internet in future writings).