Information and communication technology is a vital system in the functioning of any community or society. Until relatively recently skills and knowledge were passed on from master to apprentice, teacher to pupil, and preacher to congregation by example and orally. This was a very personal process with group or tribal leaders aware that knowledge was power. It was essential to maintain the unity and identity of the group through origin legends and history, which had to be passed on from generation to generation unaltered. This need was met by the elevation of a class of learned men who memorised those legends and history, and passed them on to students who after many years could also pass on the knowledge word-perfect. This human memory and word might be described as the first ICT. The important and enduring elements were accuracy and truth. News was spread in the same way with travellers visiting hamlets, villages, towns, manors and castles. The service they provided was so valued that they were treated as honoured guests with free hospitality. Entertainment was also provided in the same way with travelling troubadours. Story-tellers were welcome visitors in rural communities, going from cabin to cabin, sat beside the firelight at night imparting fables, myths and legends, and the latest popular story. This was happening up to one hundred years ago. All imparting – impartial and accurate – information, education and entertainment, much like the British Broadcasting Corporation is supposed to do by virtue of its Charter.
Heads of State have their own agendas and resort to propaganda. Henry VIII in pursuit of his self-serving Reformation and theft by dissolution of the monasteries tried to brain-wash his subjects. He resorted to sending out ranters and railers to the pulpits of parishes throughout the country to persuade the uneducated that his claims were true. There is no evidence that this worked and on the contrary there was a reaction of opposition. This was done prior to the King’s Commissioners appropriating the land and valuables of the monasteries and parishes.
Official visitations established that many, if not most, of these claims against the clergy and religious were not true. Monarchs with absolute power have been replaced by democratically elected Heads of Government; the propaganda remains the same.
The basics of ICT are constant, but the technology has evolved. Instead of relying on memory someone invented inscription on clay-tablets or writing on stone, which was developed to portable papyrus, vellum and paper. Irish monks invented punctuation, but it was still a laborious and lengthy process to reproduce and disseminate this knowledge. The invention of the printing press spread the distribution of books, with the industrial press facilitating the mass publication of newspapers and magazines. The proprietors of newspapers and publishing houses acquired immense power with the authority of government being challenged. To access this technology, the uneducated had to be educated. That need became less essential when information and communication reverted to oral and visual formats with the development of telecommunication, wireless radio and television, and the film industry. Now we are in the digital age and have data processing by computers with vast speed and capacity.
We have gone full circle to again rely on Memory and Word, but with artificial intelligence. The immense power now resides with the computing-technology moguls. This power, as ever, needs to be exercised with honesty and integrity, and with a moral and ethical dimension.
Human nature being what it is, and on the basis that history repeats itself, the moguls will have to be fettered. They have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge; knowledge is power; power corrupts. This year we are celebrating Magna Carta that fettered the power of the Monarch. We now need a Media Charter for the third millennium to regulate the activities of the moguls. They are not the masters of the universe; they are at the service of the people.
The World Wide Web has also democratised communication between peoples and facilitated the civil freedom of speech and expression on a scale that could never be imagined. With a personal computer and printer everyone has the ability and right to disseminate a particular point of view. This WordPress site is an example. With that right goes a responsibility for accuracy and truth. This applies as much to us, as it does to the BBC.