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Life Stories
Comments () | Published December 1, 2009

Those of us who write history used to have a variety of sources. There were wonderful diaries, such as the one Secretary of War Henry Stimson kept during World War II, but those have disappeared due to laziness, time pressures, and the fear of subpoenas. We also had letters— those of Franklin and Einstein fill more than 40 volumes each—but in the age of telephones and e-mails, these too have pretty much disappeared. There was a glorious period of the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years when we had secret tape recordings, but this delightful practice was discontinued after it brought Nixon down.

Nowadays, policymakers are wary of keeping notes, writing honest memos, or sending e-mail. Everything can be subpoenaed. The only new resource historians will have are the great journalistic books—such as those by Bob Woodward, David Sanger, Jane Mayer, Barton Gellman, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Steve Coll, George Packer, Thomas Ricks, and Michael Gordon—that pry from powerful players what really happened behind the scenes. If print journalism and the business models for newspapers collapse in the Internet age, these will soon disappear as well.

I’ve always been fascinated by the impact of technology on journalism. In 1989, I went to Eastern Europe to cover the unraveling of the Soviet empire. When I got to Bratislava, I was put in the Forum Hotel, one of the few places to get satellite TV. A maid asked if I minded my room being used in the afternoon by school kids, who liked to watch the music-video channels. I said sure, and I made a point of coming back early so I could meet the students. But when I came in, they weren’t watching MTV. They were watching CNN, which was showing the unrest at the Gdansk shipyard. I realized that the collapse of authoritarian regimes was inevitable because they’d eventually be unable to control the free flow of information in a digital age.

Ten years later, I saw something similar in Kashgar, an oasis town in western China. In the back of a small coffeeshop on an unpaved street, three kids were sitting around a computer. I asked what they were doing. They were on the Internet, they said. I asked to try something and typed in The screen said “access denied.” I typed in Again, access denied. One of the kids elbowed me aside and typed in something. CNN popped up. He typed something else. Time popped up. I asked what he’d done. Oh, he said, we know how to go through proxy servers in Hong Kong that the censors are clueless about.

As I watch that region of China erupt in occasional protests coordinated on Twitter and Facebook, and as I see the same happening in Iran and elsewhere, I realize that digital technology will do more to shape our politics than anything since Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press to Europe helped usher in the Reformation.

The advent of social networking allows journalists to create and connect with communities rather than merely hand down their writing. But however this future evolves, we’ll have to answer a pressing question: How will writers—or anyone else who creates content that can be digitized, from movies to music to apps to journalism—make a living in an era in which digital content can be freely replicated?

For 300 years, ever since the Statute of Anne was established in Britain, there has been a system under which people who have created things, such as books or articles or music or pictures, have a right to benefit from copies made of them. Because of this “copyright” system, we have encouraged and rewarded three centuries of creativity in various fields of endeavor. Among other things, this has allowed all sorts of people, including me, to make a living at the so-called writing life. May the next generation enjoy that opportunity as well.

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here


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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 12/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles