A room of banned books

23 April 2012

Written by: Anne Nielsen

Books have for centuries played an incredible role. Whether they are transferring grand stories from one era to another, passing on important information to great crowds or simply helping in putting a child to sleep at night, books play an essential part in our lives.

In fear of loosing the great books from past and present, The Internet Archive, who originally digitalized all books on the Internet, are now in the process of collecting a physical copy of all books in the world in a US-based archive.

The Physical Archive was established by millionaire Brewster Kahle, and the aim is to collect approximately 100 million books from around the world. The archive will in the future stand as a protection of our literary history, and is viewed as a safety net against IT collapse.

Among the millions of books collected are the most controversial books from all over the world. These are gathered in a room of banned books symbolically hidden behind bars. However, these books are still available to the public, and this fact has brought with it some discrepancies.

Daily leader of The Physical Archive Robert Miller explains that the American government has demanded information about the users who have looked in some of the controversial books, which would normally be censored in most countries. Miller explains that they have refused to do so, and that the archive will protect its users at any cost.

The issue of various governments wanting to collect information about the actions of individuals brings back a well-established discussion about governmental surveillance. Having previous been viewed from many different angles, it still amazes me how widespread the surveillance of citizens in the everyday has become.

CCTV cameras are being put up on shopping streets and criminal hotspots throughout the world, justified by the aid they provide for the police in case solving. Cookies are being left on the Internet by our computers, enabling investigators to track down our every website visit, comments and downloads. These are just to name a few.

The whole scenario disturbingly reminds one of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. The concept of the design of this prison was to allow an observer to observe all inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. French philosopher Michel Foucault developed the social theory of Panopticism from this design, which emphasized the self-monitoring strength of the prison.

Panopticon stands as a circle of cells, which center is dominated by a watchtower. Due to the light passing through the cells the inmates are under constant supervision of the watchtower, and the knowledge of this surveillance results in continuous self-monitoring by the inmates.

Perhaps governments throughout the world are hoping to achieve this stage by increasing surveillance of individuals. We are less inclined to do something ‘bad’ if we know we are being watched. We don’t want to reach for that book in the corner behind the bars, because then they will think we are up to something.

The surveillance of information channels like the internet or The Physical Archive causes problems, since it will keep the everyday man from seeking information about one of the major issues in the world today. And as to the real purpose of the surveillance – well, you would think that the actual terrorists probably don’t go to the library or a giant archive to seek knowledge – they probably have other resources.

Robert Miller of The Physical Archive explains that no one should dictate the knowledge that they gather at the archive. Nor should anyone dictate what information we as individuals want to seek. I want to thank Brewster Kahle for creating a protected workshop of the future, which aims to contain the entire past. Hopefully it will help us all to get a better grasp of our present.

Anne Nielsen is third-year Bachelor of Media Studies student at La Trobe University. She is currently on exchange from Aarhus University, Denmark, and is upstart’s deputy-editor. You can follow her on Twitter @AnneRyvang.