Monday, January 23, 2012

Controlling the past

Germans using the Enigma Machine
I talked a little in my last blog post something about how sharing information helps improve our overall knowledge.  Information is a wonderful thing, but it can also be dangerous.  Information is the basis of power and that power can be used to great benefit or harm. Since the earliest history, mankind has controlled who had access to knowledge:  the early Mesopotamians would put clay tokens within a clay ball marked by a seal.  Everything from accounting to military secrets has been subject to an information constraint.  We have now entered a digital age where massive amounts of information can be stored and transmitted, and that has brought a period of unprecedented growth.  As I studied the digital concept of control in the 20th century, I looked at how different people controlled information and why they did it.

The 20th century is marked by some of the bloodiest conflict in history.  Information during these conflicts was critical and could mean the difference between life and death.  Information about troop movements, supply lines, and reinforcements was closely guarded and people on each side had specialists dedicated to protecting information and accessing the information possessed by the opposing side.  During World War I, British Intelligence decoded a message from a German Foreign Minister about the Germans offering an alliance to the Mexican government  against the United States, a message that helped bring the United States into the war.

In World War II, the Germans were winning the war for the Atlantic.  The Germans possessed an unbreakable code that allowed them to pass information without fear of detection.  The Allies tried in vain to decipher the code, but were unable to do so and it was costing them the war.  The allies had over 9,000 people assigned to the task of breaking the code produced by the German's enigma machine.  Using captured enigma machines and mathematical equations, the allies were finally able to break the German code and turn the tide of the war.

In class, we have talked a lot about open science and the benefits of showing results of research and the process that it takes to get there.  These sentiments are felt both because of previous hoaxes and scandals, and the great gains that can be had from sharing information.  Both are valid considerations, but when discussing control it is also important to remember that some information is dangerous.  Just because information is there does not necessarily mean that it should be common knowledge.  I do agree that we are in a digital age and we all need to be better at sharing information, but I also believe that the control of information can also be a good thing.  As an archaeologist, we often withhold information in order to protect sites and artifacts that could be (and sad history has shown us that it does happen) harmed or destroyed.

There is no simple answer about what should be controlled and how heavy that control should be, but control is a necessary and responsible part of the modern age.

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