The Net vs. The Power of Narratives

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The net changes the world's power structures in a much more fundamental way than changing the way a few groups of entrepreneurs are able to make money. The net is the greatest equalizer that humankind has ever invented. It is either the greatest invention since the printing press, or the greatest invention since written language. The battles we see are not a result of loss of money; they are caused by a loss of the power of narratives.

Imagine if you were able to write all the world’s news for a week. You would have no bounds in what you wrote, and nobody would question your news – it would be accepted as unconditional truth. What would you write?

The people who sit on this kind of power hold the power of narrative. They hold the ability to literally dictate truth from lies. If you are able to determine and describe the problems that society must solve, and perhaps even how to solve them, you hold the greatest power of all.

Some people, when faced with this thought experiment, think in terms of affecting public opinion on some favorite issue. Those who are a little more daring think in terms of getting rich. But it doesn’t stop there, far from there. If you held the power of narratives, you wouldn’t need money ever again in your life: you could be a god. You could quite literally be seen as a walking deity on the planet.

The ability to interpret reality and tell other people what is true and what is false is the greatest power that humans have ever held. The power of narratives.

In the Middle Ages, this power was held by the Catholic Church who interpreted the Bible in sermons all over Europe. The Bible was written in Latin, and you could even be sent into exile for unauthorized reading of that Bible in Latin.

The Church had no reason to fear any laws being made against their interest, for they controlled the entire worldview of the legislators. They defined the problems and they defined the applicable solutions.

In this day and age, some crazy guy named Gutenberg made it possible to bring Bibles by the cartload into the streets of Paris?. In French! Readable without interpretation! This tore down the church’s power of narrative like a house of cards under a steamroller.

In this, the Church saw themselves as the good guys and wanted to set the record straight, to prevent the spread of disinformation. They had learned that they were the carriers of truth and could not unlearn having this position. Thus, the penalties for using the printing press gradually increased all over Europe, until it hit the death penalty: France, January 13, 1535.

Yes, there has been a death penalty for unauthorized copying. Guess what? Even the death penalty didn’t work.

But as illustrated here, cracking down on the copying technology wasn’t really a matter of preventing copying. It was a matter of maintaining the power of narratives – the complete and total control over the world’s knowledge and culture.

Between the printing press and now, that power has been held by the operators of printing presses. They have observed, they have interpreted, they have retold the story of reality. Recently, the printing presses have received company from radio and TV broadcasts, but the model has remained the same: a small, small elite has determined what the world should know and how they should relate to the events going on.

The net changes everything.

All of a sudden, anybody can publish their ideas to the world in 10 minutes. And just like the Catholic Church, the previous powerholders of the narrative can’t deal with the situation this time around either, and see it as their job to restore order.

The gatekeepers of music – the record labels – are a very minor player in this game. It is much, much larger than that. The net redefines the entire previous classes of power. Those able to tell their story, rule. Those being arrogant enough to demand that people should just keep listening to them for no reason will lose their powers of influence.

Just like when the means of spreading ideas and information accurately, quickly and cheaply came along with the printing press in the mid-1450s, those who now hold the power of narrative are fighting the already-happened loss of their power of narrative with everything they have, and using any excuses they can think of. The actions are the same from every regime in the world – only the excuses differ.

In China, it is sometimes worded as “stability” or “morale of the nation”.

In some very religious Muslim countries, “sanctity of the Prophet” has been heard as motive.

In the West, it can be “terrorism”, “file sharing”, “organized crime”, and “pedophilia”.

Everywhere on the planet, the current regime – not necessarily meaning elected political leaders – choose locally acceptable excuses to crack down on the net. But the actions remain the same, and are aimed at preventing something much more fundamental.

The power for every person on the planet to observe, interpret, and tell their story is breaking the power of money. A fat bank account can no longer buy belief in a story. This equalization of humankind is something tremendously beneficial for about 99.99% of humanity – for the ones trying to destroy the net with every trick in the book are the very few that are being equalized downwards.

Just like in the 1450s. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

About The Author

Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at focuses on information policy.

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