Did L. Frank Baum anticipate the Internet in 1920?
I’ve been reading some of the Oz books to my little girl. These are great magical fairy tales and are available in the public domain and easy to find online. Glinda of Oz is the last of 14 that L. Frank Baum wrote himself, and was published posthumously. (His publisher later put out another 26 Oz books by other authors.)
Early on in Glinda we encounter this passage which made me do a double-take:
“[Dorothy] ran over to a big table on which was lying open Glinda’s Great Book of Records.
This Book is one of the greatest treasures in Oz, and the Sorceress prizes it more highly than any of her magical possessions. That is the reason it is firmly attached to the big marble table by means of golden chains, and whenever Glinda leaves home she locks the Great Book together with five jeweled padlocks, and carries the keys safely hidden in her bosom.
I do not suppose there is any magical thing in any fairyland to compare with the Record Book, on the pages of which are constantly being printed a record of every event that happens in any part of the world, at exactly the moment it happens. And the records are always truthful, although sometimes they do not give as many details as one could wish. But then, lots of things happen, and so the records have to be brief or even Glinda’s Great Book could not hold them all.
Glinda looked at the records several times each day, and Dorothy, whenever she visited the Sorceress, loved to look in the Book and see what was happening everywhere. Not much was recorded about the Land of Oz, which is usually peaceful and uneventful, but today Dorothy found something which interested her. Indeed, the printed letters were appearing on the page even while she looked.
‘This is funny!’ she exclaimed. ‘Did you know, Ozma, that there were people in your Land of Oz called Skeezers?’”
An endless stream of entertaining and abbreviated text updates, compulsively checked many times a day, in anticipation of a serendipitous discovery? Does that not remind you of the web? The letters appearing on the page in real time even call to mind the old 2400 baud modem of my youth.
Recovering myself, it seems the Great Book of Records really is, as it sounds, more of an auto-magical newspaper or census. More telex than Web 2.0.
But soon after we learn that Glinda is also an apparatus of the State, a benevolent enforcer through her limited monopoly on magic. The Book of Records, it turns out, is a tool of total surveillance as much as discovery. Which, in a way, anticipates another side of the Internet as well.
Researchers at Harvard scraped Chinese social media sites to produce this fascinating analysis of censorship patterns: criticism of the Government and its leaders are actually OK, but grievances that spread virally or suggestions of collective action are removed within 24 hours.
The abstract follows (my emphasis added):
“We offer the first large scale, multiple source analysis of the outcome of what may be the most extensive effort to selectively censor human expression ever implemented. To do this, we have devised a system to locate, download, and analyze the content of millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable.
Using modern computer-assisted text analytic methods that we adapt and validate in the Chinese language, we compare the substantive content of posts censored to those not censored over time in each of 95 issue areas. Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collection action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet.”
You can download the full paper here.
Always interesting are the clever ways Chinese bloggers route around automated keyword filters using images, puns, and “homographs” — characters with different meanings that have similar shapes. This results in some massive “community management” mechanics: much censorship is largely manual labor on the part of hundreds of thousands of Internet police and “50 cent party members.”
I also find echoes of the Chinese censorship pattern resonate in the U.S. media landscape (including the design literature) though not as explicit censorship, per se. While criticism, dissent and rebellion are celebrated, commodified and institutionalized here (“Maverick for President!”), grievances that have potential to mobilize or stories about political organizing or collective action potential are harder to come by.