In 2004 Cory Doctorow spoke to Microsoft on the topic of Digital Rights Management. If you don’t know Cory, run his name through Google Video and watch something of his. Or read bOING bOING. Please do. I’m a superfan and have been catching up on all of his talks lately.
In that talk (video here or transcript here), Cory spun out his excellent talking points in the EFFing lion’s den, Microsoft. This is the oldest talk of his that I’ve seen and it’s always fun to see someone’s presentation skills evolve and his talks get better over time.
There is one analogy that he used that I haven’t heard repeated in his talks since (at least, as far as I know). Cory brought in the Bible. Not using verses as prooftext to make a point, he specifically talks about the changes in thinking about
At 27:25 minutes into the talk, he says,
This is the overweening characteristic of every single successful
new medium: it is true to itself. The Luther Bible didn’t
succeed on the axes that made a hand-copied monk Bible valuable:
they were ugly, they weren’t in Church Latin, they weren’t read
aloud by someone who could interpret it for his lay audience,
they didn’t represent years of devoted-with-a-capital-D labor by
someone who had given his life over to God. The thing that made
the Luther Bible a success was its scalability: it was more
popular because it was more proliferate: all success factors for
a new medium pale beside its profligacy.
He returns to the analogy at 30:27 minutes:
Today we hear ebook publishers tell each other and anyone who’ll
listen that the barrier to ebooks is screen resolution. It’s
bollocks, and so is the whole sermonette about how nice a book
looks on your bookcase and how nice it smells and how easy it is
to slip into the tub. These are obvious and untrue things, like
the idea that radio will catch on once they figure out how to
sell you hotdogs during the intermission, or that movies will
really hit their stride when we can figure out how to bring the
actors out for an encore when the film’s run out. Or that what
the Protestant Reformation really needs is Luther Bibles with
facsimile illumination in the margin and a rent-a-priest to read
aloud from your personal Word of God.
At 42 minutes or so, a question comes from the audience pointing out that the Luther Bible (in German) and the Gutenberg Bible (in ecclesiastical Latin) are different documents. Cory stands corrected, but his point isn’t finished at all. The language isn’t the issue; the access to the text itself is.
The printing press technology made automatic, cheap and fast what was once manual, expensive and slow. Even more importantly, the technology took away the intermediary of the scribe and the verbal interpreter. In the same way, digital technology is taking away the intermediary of the printer and the footnote commentary.
As Cory says, the technology created something that “didn’t succeed on the axes” that the previous technology depended on. The technology created a new axis and offers a new dimension. For the Reformation, that meant the proliferation of the Word of God. For the Internet, it means the proliferation of words in the computational sense.
For Christians, and especially for Reformed Christians, the propagation of the Word is our prime directive (Matthew 28:18-20). Theologically, the Word of God is Jesus Christ himself (John 1:1-18) and we are called to be agents of his spreading grace. We are also called to spread the Word, which gives us the many, many translations from many, many publishers in many, many languages.
To be true to our theology and to our history, Christians should be interested in the free and unencumbered transmission of words in the literal, computational and theological sense. These principles entail our involvement with free software and looser copyright restrictions.