Thursday 28 August 2008

Tax Information?

This is a piece originally written for my Reuters AlertNet blog, where it appeared on 28 August 2008.


Please read this blog -- but only if you're rich. That’s essentially the message of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post.

In "If Everyone's Talking, Who Will Listen?", Dusty Horwitt first drags out the tired cliché about today’s society having "too much information", that we are all overloaded with too many blogs, too many web sites, fragmented TV and micro-audience radio shows. He says the proliferation of outlets and the shrinking of major TV network news audiences make broad-based political action, like the civil rights movement, increasingly difficult to achieve.

Wrong on all counts.

First, people who moan about having "too much information" lack more than just Google Reader. They are short of biological perspective. There has always been too much information around for the human brain to handle. Since the Olduvai Gorge, nothing has changed for us puny primates. Your five senses log only a tiny fraction of what they could possibly see, hear, taste, smell and touch around you. And your brain forgets most everything that ever goes into it. Thank evolution -- otherwise, you’d be a mental wreck.

Think hunter-gatherers have to know less about their environment than you have to know about your on-screen info-job? Time to learn a bit more about hunter-gatherers, then. These people often have mentally catalogued hundreds or even thousands of useful, unuseful and dangerous species of plants and animals, and how to prepare them for countless purposes. And the consequences of missing some key bit of information are far graver for them then for the average office worker...

As to the idea that the internet makes mass action harder to achieve, well, the author clearly has not been following the work of Darfur activists or the Obama campaign.

From failed analysis, Horwitt moves logically to ill-conceived policy recommendation: rather than government regulation to solve this "problem", he suggests a new "progressive energy tax" to "limit the avalanche" and "make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread".

An incredible suggestion. A tax on information is simply censorship, particularly for the poor -- the author’s off-hand suggestion to concurrently provide "assistance to lower- and middle-income Americans" notwithstanding. In whatever form, it would essentially function as a subscription fee does -- some people can afford access to knowledge, and some can’t -- but for the entire internet. As if the barriers poorer people face in getting online were not enough, Horwitt suggests adding a tax, too?

No thanks. My opinion for what it’s worth -- and it is free to readers here -- is that information should be cheap and freely available. Government efforts to impede the flow of online information, through regulation or taxes, are damaging to any free society.

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