I would like to preface this article by stating that I am in no way a Communist or Socialist, but I believe that the right to information should be universal.
But what does that mean, exactly?
Well, my definition at least is that if one person wants to access information related to anything, it should be free, or at least not restricted for no reason. Sure, classified military documents that could endanger a country and other meaningful exceptions apply, but having to pay for a book on quantum physics or even just a normal novel should not cost money, again within reason.
Am I saying that authors shouldn’t get paid? Of course not, however, I think that online internet libraries should be the norm. Barely anyone goes to libraries anymore, and let’s face it: most who do are either college students looking for an obscure book about 17th century India or a homeless person who doesn’t own a computer or phone. Am I saying this is bad? Of course not! I love books too. However, when it comes to historical documents and such, those books can be very expensive and difficult to preserve. The great thing about 1s and 0s? They don’t degrade! Well, somewhat, but we have the technology to fix such “bit rot.”
Digitizing books would be a great thing in today’s world. In fact, the Internet Archive, known mostly for archiving web pages from the past, started this process in 1996 to digitize newspapers and expanded to books in 2005. This eventually paid off, as when COVID-19 hit, the “Emergency Library” had its use. Instead of books having a normal check in-and-out process as most libraries do, they lifted these restrictions as during lockdowns this was the only way for students and teachers to have access to these books, along with normal people who just want to read books, too.
This would not be taken very kindly to by writers and the government in general, as a lawsuit would be filed on grounds of piracy. However, digitizing such books could be beneficial to society as a net positive, even now if people view it as a net negative.
First off, it is almost impossible to destroy well-protected data. Most cloud storage providers, such as Google Drive, AWS S3, or BackBlaze all have data-replication around the world so your data is not confined to a single spot which in the case of an earthquake, fire, or other disaster your data could still be accessed from a different part of the world. But not even that. Somehow, if all hard drives fail we still have tapes. GitHub had an event where they stored the top something repositories in an arctic vault on tapes so that way in a cataclysmic event for humanity we could still have open-source code. Why not expand this reach? What if we could keep every single book, every newspaper article, every magazine, every research journal, available to us at this time and digitize it and preserve it for basically forever. It doesn’t matter what the book is. It could be anything from The Holy Bible to an article in a newspaper about Florida man. It really doesn’t matter. We have the capacity, we have the means, and our culture, and cultures of days of yore could be fully eternalized.
The question is why, though. Why would humanity dedicate time and resources to digitizing documents for the sake of it? Why would we save every piece of paper to contain some information? The reason is quite simple, actually. To have one place to look up absolutely anything. And with the combination of chat AIs such as ChatGPT, this could not be too far off. Say for example you would ask ChatGPT why a certain street was named such and such. It could go through thousands of sections and sub-sections. First the country, then the state or province, then to the county or city, and finally to the street. Many people wonder these questions, but to find such and answer is very hard and cumbersome. With the knowledge of all human existence at your fingertips, as most of it is now, many could learn absolutely everything they could ever want to know.
For a real life example, let’s take a history class and study Andrew Carnegie. Many know him as the “Steel Guy,” as he was the one who brought the Bessemer Process, a process by which making carbon steel was widely used in Europe, to the United States, where it had not been adopted. With the introduction of this new carbon steel, buildings were able to be constructed higher, train tracks would be more elastic instead of crumbling like normal iron, and the overall structural integrity was much higher. Where did he learn all this? He certainly didn’t come from money. He was a poor child, and he learned it all from books in libraries. Because Andrew Carnegie had so much money, he donated mounds of it to what are known today as “Carnegie Libraries.” Now many are old and decrepit, faint symbols of the past, but back when they were new, it was a source of knowledge for many and all.
Andrew Carnegie is a prime example why information should be free. A poor boy turned into one of the richest men in history, with an estimated net worth of $350 billion. Third to only Mansa Musa and John D. Rockefeller, but both of these individuals had a head start. With people having access to all the data, critical thought, information, philosophy, art, science, the possibilities are endless. However, there is a critical topic that must be discussed: cost.
Cost, or more accurately money, drives many things. It decides on whether to run a business that could be profitable. It decides on if and when you will have your next meal. If or when you can afford kids, a new phone, a new computer, anything. Many authors are against such universal library because of these factors. With people having free access to their books, no one will buy them and they won’t make any money. However, libraries operate the same way, just in a physical building with a physical book. Why is it any different? Well, because of the “universal” part of the universal library. With only one book sold, which depending on the length and author of the book could be anywhere from $4 to $70 for a normal book to almost $700 for textbooks and research journals, all it takes is one copy that is scanned and indexed and now the whole world has access to such a thing. This is a huge issue, but how can we solve it?
First, letting the government be involved is a bad idea. The book that goes over this in most detail is the-much-less-famous-than-1984 book Fahrenheit 451. This book goes over exactly what would happen if all books of the past were wiped from society, and no one knew what past was like. One of the lines from the book that I remember vividly is “You know, a while back Firemen actually stopped fires.” For those how don’t know, 451°F is precisely the temperature when paper—and subsequently a book—starts to burn. You can guess where this story goes, there comes a time where the government wants all forms of old America gone because it would hurt their current agenda, and labeled everyone who had books as crazy.
Who should be involved? The answer is simple: everyone. What better way to distribute books, newspaper articles, and such than a decentralized system. This does lead a way for certain highly illegal materials to be distributed. However, maybe we could develop a moderation system that wouldn’t discriminate against different opinions or different books on basis of “misinformation” but only if it involved something extremely grave, i.e. graphic text or images that are not fit for anyone in society.
This still does not solve the problem for how writers would be compensated for their work. It is their livelihood, after all. Again, government funding is not the issue here. Not for the same reason listed above, but for the sake of not letting propaganda infest the world of books. To be honest, I cannot think of a idiot-proof way to solve this issue. Authors must be compensated for their work, but with a universal library there must be some amount of money to sustain them. A probable model could be Wikipedia’s style, where they ask for donations. Many people would donate so they could support both their favorite authors and the online library, but the question to that is how many people would, and would it be sustainable.
Another way to solve this issue is for a library to have their entire catalogue digitized, with a web page. It could follow the same principles as the Internet Archive’s library, with the borrowing feature, and be region-restricted to the state, county, or country for tax funding purposes. This would be a way to make sure that authors and the general public get to both have their cake and eat it too. This would be a massive undertaking, especially for more underdeveloped regions, but maybe with a smidge of government funding we could have something like this become a reality.
Either way, education information should still be accessed free of charge. While teaching should of course be paid, either by the government or by a private institution, the information should be free, as in freedom. If you want to self-study, go ahead. For some people, that works better than a traditional classroom environment. However, words should not be paid for.
This brings me to the final topic: useless paywalls. The one company especially guilty of this is The New York Times, but other newspapers too. For something barely qualifying as news and more like leftist propaganda, The New York Times sure has the nerve to charge $4 per week. Thats $208 per year. For an online newspaper, not even paper. Sure, you have to pay journalists, but ads are how every other modern newspaper makes money now. The funny thing is that on Apple devices and some other web browsers, you can bypass this paywall by simply just turning on “Reader Mode.” This allows you to read the whole article and even cuts all the ads and other garbage so you can focus just on the article. Is it foolproof? Not entirely, but for the majority of the time you can count on reader mode.
I want to end off with a small note. Information can make or break someone. A poor kid living in rural Mississippi with no libraries around could be a genius, but not have access to the proper education. However, with the founding of this universal online library that contains everything, he could figure out how exactly everything words, ingest everything he possibly can, and could solve any number of pressing global issues, wether that be cancer, nuclear war, ALS, and many more. The freedom of information might first sting a bit, and the desire to be creative could be detrimental for a generation or so, but humanity would overcome such thing and possibly create a super-civilization, whatever that means.