The phone in your palm has the potential to hold more books than filled the vaunted Library of Alexandria. Your movie subscription service grants you access to more films than you have hours in your life to watch. And song? Well, pick any tune from day one of recorded music to the present and the likelihood is high that you can listen to it after five minutes of online searching. Put another way, thanks to digital technology, we are living in an unprecedented time with respect to access of American (indeed, global) arts and letters.
But our seemingly unfettered ability to get what we want, when we want, prevents us from understanding the lurking threats from our new digital masters. Because as it turns out, censorship is now committed at once more easily and more swiftly than ever before in history. And as our reliance on the medium increases — behold the number of universities and grade schools moving to all-online classes — so do our vulnerabilities. So, paradoxically, in an epoch where everything is at our fingertips, we will soon “forget” the good things worth retrieving.
The first thing to understand about digital censorship is its subtlety. The Internet is like a vast stream, flowing with the strength of the Ganges. Complex algorithms determine the results of your searches. Tweak the algorithm just a little, and you can divert the stream. In countries like China, the Internet has many of these dikes and dams. Some tech-savvy people can get around the censors; most cannot.
In the United States we don’t worry as much about government censorship these days. Corporate censorship, however, is another story. The thing to understand about corporations is that they really don’t care one way or another. Nike does not really care about improving race relations, nor does Citibank. They do, however, care about their bottom line. So, depending on the mood of the day, so too blows their marketing and branding strategies. If, like in the case of HBO Max and “Gone With the Wind,” complaints are raised about a corporation’s “product offering,” the movie can be removed.
Now, let’s be very clear. HBO, or Disney, or Netflix, can do whatever they want as private companies. But let’s also be clear about something else. There is no more Blockbuster or independent video stores, and really no more DVD market. This increasingly means what the public is “allowed” to see by these corporations, is what they get. If a classic American film is deemed to have fallen afoul of the current zeitgeist, then bye-bye. And since the zeitgeist is always in flux, sooner or later, your favorite films will be quietly cancelled. You may miss them, of course, but your kids won’t — they won’t even know these films existed.
This is happening with books, too. As school districts trip over themselves to provide each pupil with an iPad in the hopes of enhancing (whatever that means) preparation for the 21st century, hard books are no longer as needed. After all, the library can just be downloaded. But this makes it extremely easy to pull books from general access. What will the children do, go to a bookstore? A library? Spare us. Soon depictions of those places will only exist in museums. (Sorry, digital museums.)
If this all reads a bit cynical, it’s because the pitfalls for the so-called digital revolution need exposing. We must remind ourselves that the feel-good easy access of today is not promised, and indeed already shows signs of curtailment. We must remind ourselves not to trust in the goodness of corporations (or the government). Finally, we must remind ourselves that it’s time to move proactively to protect the good, the bad and the ugly of American arts and letters for posterity. This is our history, and warts and all, it must remain accessible for all to see.