Friday, February 17, 2012

"Information is Holy": Musings on the Printing Press, the Internet, and the Church of Kopimism

 In his letterpress printed pamphlet "Saint Gutenberg, Pray For Us",   AAPA member Michael Coughlin (Superior Letterpress) makes a case for the value of printed books over digital in the preservation of original knowledge. He writes "With our frequently shortsighted perspective, we seem to imagine what we are experiencing is unprecedented in history. While the technology is new, it's far from true that human history hasn't before experienced dramatic, sudden, and far-reaching transformations."

"Saint Gutenberg, Pray For Us" helped me sort several threads that have been getting tangled together in my thoughts for a while: in particular, the likelihood that uncensored data and accumulated knowledge can or will be preserved if they exist only in digital or continuously-editable form.

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"Go now, write it on a tablet for them, inscribe it on a scroll, that for the days to come it may be an everlasting witness."  Isaiah 30:8

In Buddhism, the passion for making large numbers of copies of prayers and charms led to the early use of blocks for printing. The prayer wheel and prayer flags stem from the idea of making copies or spreading the word by keeping the prayers in motion, to create a virtual "Copy" with each turn of the wheel, with each flap in the wind.

In this world of wonders, who is to say the actual information is not tossed onto the breeze with each turn?

But the knowledge expressed in the prayer is not made accessable to human beings in these repetitions. Somewhere along the way, the form, the act, of copying and motion took precidence over the essential result: the sharing of information itself. Thus, while Buddhism teaches that enlightenment can be achieved, that rational thought and personal acquisition of knowledge are religious activities, ultimately the Buddha did not see information as holy in its own right.

But the Kopimist does.

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 "After the king burned the scroll containing the words that Baruch had written at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah:  “Take another scroll and write on it all the words that were on the first scroll, which Jehoiakim king of Judah burned up."  Jeremiah 36:27-28

In Sweden, the Missionary Church of Kopimism has been recognized as a legitimate religion. The Kopimi believe that "kopyacting" - file sharing - is a sacred action that deserves the protection granted other religions. The new Church grew out of the tension between draconian copyright demands by governments at the beck and call of powerful media companies, and the freedom internet technologies hold for people eager to preserve, share, and disseminate information.

According to Business Week:
[Kopimists'] "central commandment, “Copy and seed,” is a call to download files and make them available for sharing. Life itself, the newly declared believers observed, depends on the replication of cells and the endless duplication of DNA."

"“In the beginning, it was a joke,” says Gustav Nipe, the church’s chairman. “But maybe we’ve stepped on something greater than we thought.” "

"The church’s chief missionary is Isak Gerson, a 20-year-old student of philosophy. ...In addition to being the country’s top Kopimist, Gerson is a committed Lutheran who attends mass about twice a month. “Information is holy,” he says. One important distinction between religious values and other values is that you can’t explain them rationally.
"Information is holy. "

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"Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it..."  Exodus 17:14 (written down circa 1450 BC)

After the Roman Empire descended into chaos and barbarism in the 5th Century AD, the nations of the world confronted centuries of apocolyptic conditions of social upheaval, plague, famine, extreme weather, and war. Societies broke down, pavement crumbled, trade dissipated. Technologies and learning were lost - or would have been, had it not been for the culture of education within the Christian monasteries scattered throughout the Empire.

For a thousand years, until the invention of moveable type in the 14th Century, the scriptorum of Europe served to fill the libraries of the Christian world with books - in every place the Roman roads had gone, and farther still. From Italy to Ireland, from Switzerland to Denmark, from France to Greenland. Christian brothers made it their sacred duty to faithfully copy the accumulated knowledge of the known universe and the classical world: not only religious tomes and the Holy Bible, but works of mathmatics and science, of medicine and history.

And they not only copied, but translated and collected and sought new sources. All of the world's accumulated knowledge base was painstakingly and lovingly reproduced and disseminated, conveyed into the vernacular of the local monastics, shared to create local libraries that all could use.


The Abbey library of Saint Gall in Switzerland, founded circa 800 AD, is one of the oldest in the world, and remains in operation as a library today.

From this preservation, translation, commentary and actual copying of works, learning was reestablished and began gathering the momentum that has propelled the world throughout all the centuries since, because the Christian,Western world believed "Information is holy."

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"When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law..." Deuteronomy 17:18

When Charlemagne took the throne of France in 751 AD, he actively pursued the preservation of Rome's literature. Almost without exception, Roman authors are available to us today only from copies produced under the Carolingian government. They would be lost forever otherwise.

In the interest of educating the public, Charlemagne established free local schools to teach full literacy and mathmatics, proclaiming in the "Capitulary of 787", sometimes known as the "Charter of Modern Thought",
that the Christian work of the Church must include "the study of letters, each to teach and learn them according to his ability and the Divine Assistance."

He continued: "Let every monastery and every abbey have its school, in which boys may be taught the Psalms, the system of musical notation, singing, arithmetic and grammar.", followed 10 years later by an even stronger edict: "that the priests establish schools in every town and village....and let them exact no price from the children for their teaching nor receive anything from them save what their parents may offer voluntarily..."

By 1200, Europe had universities and seats of learning in all major cities and many minor ones. The still extant University of Padua in Italy, where the great priest-scientist Albertus Magnus studied, was one of the first true "universities" in the world.  Colleges and Libraries proliferated on the continent, and the thirst for learning that generated this activity has never slowed in the West.

All because the Christian Emperor Charlemagne believed that "Information is holy."

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"...it will be like a sealed scroll. If you take it to someone who knows how to read and ask him to read it to you, he will say he can't because it is sealed. If you give it to someone who can't read and ask him to read it to you, he will answer that he doesn't know how." Isaiah 29:11-12

Imagine a world in which the Holy Bible itself had never been copied or translated into our own language, because a rights owner refused to license it. Without it, the ever-brightening lamp of learning that fueled the West's unending knowledge revolution would never have happened.

In contrast, that is precisely what did happen to the Koran, and all doors to the future were closed deliberately by its guardians, the very men who taught and led Islam.


 "The House of Wisdom", an Islamic library founded in Baghdad in 762 continued until the Mongols burned it in 1258, but in reality it began to decline aound 850, due to the increasing fundamentalism and insularity of the leaders of the young Islamic culture, nervous about any knowledge that did not originate within the Arab lands.

So great was the distrust of learning even at an early stage that Caliph Uthman ibn Affan burned all copies and fragments of the Koran except for the version known as the "Hafsah codex". He destroyed all religious writings that did not issue from his prescribed version. Even variations in the text due to regional dialects were prohibited.


Upon Gutenberg's invention of moveable type and the printing press in 1436, printing spread like wildfire throughout the West, and was even carried into the New World on the earliest voyages. Spain, newly freed from the yoke of Moslem rule in 1492, sent the first printing press to Mexico in the company of missionaries in 1539, and published extensively in various indigenous Native American languages.

But not in Islamic lands. There, Moslem scholars prevailed against progress, and in 1483 Sultan Bayezid II forbade, on penalty of death, any printing in Arab script in the Ottoman Empire.

The West struggled to reach out, and Pope Julius II commissioned printed texts in Arabic script from 1503 through 1512 for Christians in those areas. Even the oldest printed Koran was printed in 1537, not in Baghdad, but in Venice. But the leaders and clerics were rigid in enforcement, and stamped out attempts by the populace at modernization.

Thus, Arabic printing was expressly illegal and a capital offense until 1727 - even then, only non-religious works were allowed, and these were carefully watched. These belated attempts to establish presses were unsuccessful, and were closed by 1780.  In the intervening centuries, Jews and Christians within these territories produced a smattering of works for their own use in Hebrew, Armenian, Greek and Latin, but for all intents and purposes, according to Wikipedia, there was no genuine printing industry in the Moslem world until late in the 19th century.

Similarly, despite continual attempts by Christian Missionaries to install printing presses in the far East beginning as early as 1590, here too the agents of stagnation prevailed, terrified of the change fostered by making information freely available, and printing technology was not adopted in China, India, or Korea until late in the 19th century.

As recently as last year,  the ancient Institut d’Egypte , founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 in Cairo, which had survived for 200 years during the West's intense patronage of Egypt's archeological history, was burned by rioting Egyptians in the media-dubbed "Arab Spring".

Progress cannot come to cultures that do not believe "Information is holy."

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"But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.” Daniel 12:4

The advent of the electronic age and the upheaval of the Technological Revolution have once again turned things topsy turvy when it comes to information dispersal. In "The Gutenberg Galaxy",  Marshall McLuhan had these things to say, a decade before the internet was invented, about our current situation:

"Instead of tending toward a vast Alexandrian library, the world has instead become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existance.....

[T]error is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. ....

[In] our striving to recover for the Western World a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture."

Thus, rather than sit back and give rational thought to a decision, organizations, companies, and even governments react to "virtual" riots as though they were real - as though a million automated anti-tweets in 48 hours has any basis in reality, or reflects the actual customer base itself.

This is why we see absurdities like the Susan G Komen Foundation's capitulation to funding Planned Parenthood, the founder issuing an appeasement to the abortionist in order to quiet down the server traffic.  Or companies like Carbonite and Sleep Number hysterically responding to Twitter-bullying by rejecting their long-proven, lucrative advertising with Rush Limbaugh, only to watch their sales and stock fall the next day as their legitimate customers and investors countered with concrete action to support the radio personality's right to free speech.

The forces for the status quo used the  internet to amplify hysterical voices, generating a sense of terror far beyond their actual numbers, and by this means bullied their way into control over private companies' previously freewill spending decisions. CEOs hired to front companies in easy times discover they lack courage and wisdom when faced with new informational dangers. Those like Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy and Hobby Lobby's Steve Green,  whose decisions are based on uncompromised principle rather than  trendy focus groups, find themselves and their businesses supported and admired when they stand up to the liberal bullies.

Our science has been compromised. Scientists with political ambitions have abandoned the scientific method, refusing to make public the details of their work, instead trying to convince policy makers and the public  - and legitimate scientists - to "take their word for it", claiming that some ill-defined ideological "consensus" should trump legitimate analysis, data and methodology.

Most visible in so-called "climate science", other fields are under attack as well. All scientific disciplines that have  been politicized: statistics, biology, anthropology, genetics, sociology, psychiatry, dietetics, law, education, medicine, history, linguistics, even obstetrics - are suffering as the principles of their fields are being trampled by unhealthy pseudoscientific attempts to skew results toward desired political ends.

Only the free flow of genuine information - a belief that "information is holy" - can keep true, unadulterated science moving forward in ethical, human-friendly directions.

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"Write down for the coming generation what the Lord has done, so that people not yet born will praise him." Psalm 102:18

Imagine a world in which the writings of Descartes, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, C.S, Lewis, JRR Tolkien, or the Apostle Paul couldn't be shared, because a rights owner refused to license them for publication.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 promotes the control of information through a concept called "intellectual property". SOPA/PIPA is the latest in these efforts to manhandle the internet and restict information flow on behalf of political darlings and moneyed schemers. Other modern copyright, trademark and patent laws enable corporations to gather and control information to an almost unlimited degree, conceivably extending monopolies for centuries.

A 2001 court case, Worldwide Church of God v. Philadelphia Church of God, centered on this. A minister wrote a book that some followers (the WCoG) later came to believe to be unscriptural. The minister died, the WCoG pulled it from publication, destroying all extra copies. Other followers (the PCoG) believe the book is actual scripture, and the foundation for their faith. They issued a new edition, claiming "fair use", and the copyright battle was joined. The court actually found for the WCoG, who refuse to publish the work, despite the acknowledged intent of the author for the work to be disseminated, and despite the express need of the PCoG for copies in order to practice their religion.

The decision stands, but it was not unanimous. In his dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge Brunetti sided with the original verdict of the lower court, and had this to say:
"The prohibition of PCG's noncommercial, religious use "would merely inhibit access to ideas without any countervailing benefit." Accordingly, the fourth statutory factor also supports a finding of fair use.


"In this lawsuit, WCG appears less interested in protecting its rights to exploit [the book Mystery of the Ages] than in suppressing Armstrong's ideas which now run counter to church doctrine. Although the Supreme Court has recognized that "freedom of thought and expression 'includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all,'" it does not "suggest that this right not to speak would sanction an abuse of the copyright owner's monopoly as an instrument to suppress facts."


"In light of this principle and the statutory factors discussed above, I conclude that the district court ... properly found that PCG's distribution of MOA constitutes fair use. "

Judge Brunetti's opinion did not affect the outcome, which prevented the  believers from legally copying and sharing what they believe to be a holy text. But his dissent shows a foundation within United States law and precedent to deny legal protection to the suppression of facts, and to accept the belief that "information is holy".

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"To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: This is the message from the one who is holy and true. He has the key that belonged to David, and when he opens a door, no one can close it, and when he closes it, no one can  open it." Revelation 3:7

You can't unring a bell, and devious organizations like Wikileaks and Anonymous flex their muscle against the bell rope at companies and agencies that fail - or refuse - to lock up the information they don't want made public.The debate about control of information moved from powerful high echelons onto the public world stage as WikiLeaks grew from a site on which disgruntled employees published embarrassing emails from their Silicon Valley bosses to a media outlet whose inputs originate with disgruntled corporate spies working within governments.

And yet.

While some elements of culture run to and fro in terror of each new potential cataclysm, there remain pockets of literate, lawful society who "keep calm, and carry on". Millions of people take individual responsibility for preserving those things important to the future in the format each believes to be is essential.

The Open Directory Project was a vast volunteer effort to organize the internet and open up the information on millions of individual webpages to easy use by anyone. Free and "open sourced", it became Google's original database.

Project Gutenberg was founded by Michael S. Hart, the inventor of ebooks (in 1971!), as a massive volunteer project to digitize and give to the world all the literature and accumulated knowledge therein. Hart wrote: "Learning is its own reward. Nothing I can say is better than that."

Wikipedia, from which I gathered a number of the historical facts cited above, for all its flaws and left-leaning slant, remains a sincere reflection of Western culture's understanding  that "information is holy."

Every day in the world of letterpress printers and private presses, individuals like Mike Coughlin print excerpts, new editions, or entire historical documents into chapbooks and broadsides,  generating small editions of hard copies to cast out as bread upon the water.


Even as the traditional, expert-mediated publishing industry battles against extinction, more writers are writing more books than ever before, as Print-on-Demand technology makes it possible for ordinary souls to publish
the book they always wanted to write.

Thanks to these new technologies, the number of books published in the United States in 2010 topped off in record numbers, especially in the "non-traditional" sector, which, including "print on demand" and self-published books, almost tripled from 1,033,065 titles in 2009 to 2,776,260 in 2010. And buyers are buying these books: nearly 25% of all sales of eBook fiction are now from self-published authors.

This does not represent new demand - the demand was always there - this represents new access, thanks to the internet, which has given any author a nearly cost-free access to markets outside their local area.

Print-on-demand brings all of this within the reach of any individual. And  “within the reach of any individual” is the secret of Western liberty, as well as of modern,Western-driven, civilization.

The ability to "have our own" access to information is a principle element of the Pursuit of Happiness that none willingly give up.

Despite attempts to convince us otherwise, the Western world still stubbornly believes that information is holy, and the Missionary Church of Kopimism is one expression of that deep conviction.

"Copy, and seed."


*Updated 11/17/2012

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