The printing press must surely have been one of the most important inventions of all time. It is not coincidence that the spread of the Protestant reformation followed shortly after it. It was thanks to the press that ideas could be disseminated much more widely and cheaply. Of course not everything that was disseminated was worthwhile reading and authorities were not slow to try and limit the flow of subversive knowledge by targeting the printing presses, which couldn’t always be easily hidden. Freedom however could not be stopped and ideas and knowledge were shared more and more widely. That revolution however doesn’t compare with the internet and the information that is now available to anyone who has access to it. Here too we find that a lot of what is put online is not worth reading, but more than that much of what is put on line would have previously been censored by the common sense of the printer or the moral disapproval of those who were tasked with distributing printed material. With the internet however, the printer has become the writer and the promise of anonymity has removed any sense of moral censure that would prevent it being published. The value of freedom of expression has become a threat to many as terrorists make use of the internet to spread their thoughts and ideas, and because these ideas are mostly read in the privacy of one’s room the poisonous words are given a chance to fester. The person responsible for the attack in Nice was radicalised in a very brief period of time. The perverted ideas he soaked up into a mind that seems to have been already disenchanted with life and his neighbours found a ready seed ground and without anyone to challenge the ideas they had free reign to corrupt his mind.
So we are faced with this challenge: our desire for freedom has become the very guarantee on which terror is spread. Are we willing to limit our freedom to prevent the spread of terrorism? As long as the freedom of the internet is guaranteed there will always be the possibility, the probability if not the certainty that it will be used both to disseminate ideas that are harmful to people and to encourage the actual harm of others.
Whichever way we eventually decide to go as a society, we are facing one of the greatest changes in civilisation and not one that we initially foresaw. Perhaps even now it is too early to say what the outcome of the availability of ideas and knowledge on the internet will be, however the availability of knowledge is not going to lessen because without dismantling it completely it cannot be controlled and we all know it will never be dismantled.
The hope that the spread of knowledge will itself bring about a satisfactory and peaceful resolution is not an answer because knowledge is there to be used or abused by people and we have done so in equal measure in the past.
The internet is a constituent part of the age of the individual in which we are living. Educating the individual has never been more urgent. But who can we trust to decide on what our children are being taught?