I'm all for putting every scrap of arcane information online for the masses to enjoy. You never know when you'll find a Weiner Tweet or something really salacious about Afghan police trainers hiring "dancing boys" to entertain at banquets, or something of equal global importance.
The Dead Sea Scrolls – the oldest surviving copies of biblical text – were posted today in the most complete version ever published anywhere for any reason – though that's not difficult with this particular set of cables.
The scrolls have been translated and published before – any number of times, in academic journals, popular books and everywhere else.
They've even been translated and available online before. Here is the Gnostic Society's version; this one from the Library of Congress includes photos, translations and a lot of background on the scrolls, history and archeology of the region, especially the "settlement at Qumran," the designation that will stand in for the name of the town the Dead Sea Scroll authors lived in until archeologists find out what the settlers called it.
Control of content is the key to control
The content and decisions about who has access to the original copies of the scrolls – and how much of them – has always been tightly controlled. Some concerns were legitimate ones about preserving fragile documents from the damage they'd suffer from repeated bright-light photography, x-ray and other tests, not to mention constant pawing by visiting scholars and VIPs who wanted to drop by the lab just to satisfy their own curiosity.
The biggest controversy has been the fight over access rights that have been warped by fights between Israel and Jordan over who actually owns the scrolls, and by the scholars given control over it, who used national rivalries, rivalries between Christian and Jew and eventually even rivalries among different interpretations of Judaism to keep the scrolls in an environment that was highly defensive, both physically and intellectually.
The project that debuted today – a collaboration between Google and the Israel Museum – puts images of all of the available text online, along with translations in English.
At the time the scrolls were written, sometime around 70 A.D. the Temple in Jerusalem was not only the most holy place in Judea, it was also the center of religious, civil and divine power for Jews worldwide.
When the occupying Romans got sick of their version of the Middle Eastern Question and pulled the Temple down, they didn't just inconvenience worshipers who had to go find a local synagogue. They destroyed the place Jews considered the residence of god on Earth.
It could have killed Judaism.
Instead, as they were driven into exile everywhere but Jerusalem, Jews reinvented Jewishness as a culture, an educational process, a way to think analytically to discover Morals beneath the Laws, and ecumenically, centering their worship and societies around local synagogues and teachers rather than sacrifices of animals at one particular spot in one hot, small, dusty city.
Before the Temple was destroyed, the only place to make a legitimate sacrifice or worship was at the Temple, among the various levels of priesthood created by Moses during the Exodus, each of whom had specific rights and privileges – especially of access to the Temple's holy places – that no one else could violate "lest ye die."
As in every other oral culture – which Israel was before settling down to learn Aramaic – the rules were learned by rote and the word of the priest, Bard or law-reciter was, literally, law.
The adoption of a written testament disrupted that a little, but it was still pretty easy to keep the holy writings out of the hands of heretics, who would have to accept the word of the priests or be, well, heretics.
It worked in Judea for a while, but the Christian Church made it work so well for so long that when Gutenberg printed the first bible in 1456 – in Latin, which only the educated and extremely patient could read – it wasn't just the beginning of a technical revolution, it touched off religious and civil revolutions as well.
(This link goes to a good museum presentation of the Gutenberg, but don't bother unless you read Latin written in fancy script; the graphics in it contribute nothing.)
The first Information Technology revolution involved a lot more dying
Books of the Christian bible were first written in local languages – mostly Aramaic, though with a spattering of Latin, Greek and a spattering of other Mediterranean staples were among those in which the early Christian Word was expressed, though the early church dropped most of the languages and most of the text when it decided what Christians would consider "true" from then on, at the Council of Nicea in 325. (There were several towns named "Nicea," but the conference was in one that is now the modern Turkish city of Iznik – a sleepy kind of place that was off the hook for Christian bishops when Roman Emperor Constantine sent them there to hammer together a dogma that could be enforced.)
The gospels they kept in, the ones they left out, the ones they repeated, changed, reinterpreted, twisted and selected among on the basis of credibility (some of the originals were kind of whacko), sense, historical significance, accuracy and adherence to a mainstream belief that may have had little to do with the preaching of the actual Jewish troublemaker they worshipped, made Christianity a straight and narrow path on which the Christian Church could require believers to walk, lest they die.
It's not too hard to keep control of your sources of information when they all have to be written by hand using pens made from dead animal parts.
Pope Innocent III (kind of a misnomer, honestly), banned unauthorized, localized translations of the bible in 1199, as a way to control the message while chopping up and burning those who carried the wrong one.
Translating into a language you could already understand the words of the being that created the world in which you live, whose principles you must live by or risk eternal damnation became heresy punishable by death.
It was a crazy decision, but hardly unique. Even now some Islamic governments and many conservative Muslim scholars consider it to be heresy (on pain of death, seriously) to translate the Quran from Arabic into other languages. If you look at translation as messing with the direct word of the being that created the universe, it probably makes sense.
If you figure the only reason to write a book is to make it possible for others to read what's in it, calling it a sin to distribute or translate a book is an even bigger sin.
That's certainly the conclusion of other schools of Islam, who can quote verse and verbally flower with the best of them in arguing that any that keeps people away from the words in the Quran is sinful.
Either way, the lesson of the Dead Sea Scrolls – when they were written by outsiders denied entrance to the halls of power and during the 50 years since, when access to them was controlled by those who valued the power of telling other scholars "no" more than they valued the information they protected.
Don't Hack holy data, lest ye die
By now there are few surprises left in the Scrolls. Those there were managed to avoid popping any modern religions like a balloon. That could only be a risk if you believe the Dan Brown/ Da Vinci Code view of history as a stack of lies that will collapse if an earlier lie is revealed to be less truthy that it was supposed to be.
That doesn't keep anyone from an overexuberant sense of righteousness like the protesters who wanted a Swedish cartoonist killed for drawing Mohammed's face, keep Turkey from trying to ban YouTube from Turkey because of a single video considered to be insulting to the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, or, you know, that whole putting-heretics-to-death thing both Catholic and Protestant Christians used to do. A lot.
Putting the Dead Sea Scrolls online isn't going to change anyone's beliefs any more than the rest of the convoluted history of how both Old and New Testaments were cobbled together over generations has shaken anyone's faith.
Most people don't have the language, historical or religious knowledge to read the scrolls, let alone contribute new interpretations to them. Lowering the bar to access makes it a lot more likely it will happen, though.
It will also give Google a little more credibility in the book-publishing industry – which still considers it a pirate for putting out-of-copyright books online, because publishers have learned nothing from what digital downloads have done to the physical-storage-medium-distribution business referred to as the Music Industry.
The important thing about the Scrolls isn't what's in them. It's in the story about how they were locked up, controlled and used as leverage to impose a set of interpretations and conditions on anyone outside the holy circle who wanted access.
The principle is the same – though the legalities and context are different – in controversies over WikiLeaks, Anonymous and the unauthorized release (outright theft) of information that is struggling to be free.
Information doesn't want to be free, but laws protecting all of us from some of us don't want information locked up solely for the benefit of those who can squeeze the most money or power from it.
That's why we have free libraries in the U.S. And free schools.
Information isn't free; it's valuable. Sometimes it's dangerous, so releasing it without proper care – publishing all the Cablegate cables without excising the names of secret sources who could be killed if they're discovered, for example – can be a disaster.
Information doesn't want to be free …
That tendency toward selfish secretiveness, not the thrill of seeing diplomats write in un-stilted language or read about the private lives of foreign dignitaries, is as good a justification for WikiLeaks and Anonymous as any other argument.
I can't agree with many of the methods of crackers and hactivists and fraudsters who have made cyberwar more of a reality than the people supposed to be fighting it want to admit.
Most of it is just criminal sabotage or theft or espionage.
Trying to counter it by spending so much energy trying to put whistleblowers like Julian Assange in prison rather than doing more mundane thing – like keeping East European Mafiosi and Chinese spies from walking into your data farm and snacking on everything they want – is counterproductive.
It's silly to try to urge balance in a crackdown against hackers that has barely started, but we don't do things to half measure in this country. Nothing counts unless it's extreme.
Shutting down every hacker and every whistleblower by imposing the same harsh sentences on the kid going self-serve Freedom of Information request fulfillment by discovering the illegal, un-Constitutional dirty tricks being planned by a security company employed by the government is a lot different than stealing a million credit card numbers from Sony.
…it wants to shine with use
I don't think all information wants to be free, as Hacker jingoist .sigs phrase it.
Not all information can be free, or should.
It doesn't want to be shut up in one scholar's lab for 50 years like the Dead Sea Scrolls, though, either.
By the time it comes out, no one can read it or even really cares much what it says. Then what good is it?
That doesn't mean it should be taken and used whenever and however it can be. No one but predators benefit when script kids post 50,000 credit-card numbers just to show they can run a canned SQL injection against a soft site.
It does mean we shouldn't spend all our federal enforcement efforts trying to punish Julian Assange for embarrassing the State Dept. , or ignore the implications of leaked information and spend all our time trying to track down the whistleblower.
Information is trouble, there's no question about that.
That's why priests and kings and, sometimes, hermit communities in the desert went to great lengths to control and correct and disseminate it correctly before, ultimately, saving it by burying it in the dirt where it could simply have died.
In one case, at least, it didn't, leading to a day that will undoubtedly thrill Aramaic speakers worldwide.
In too many cases it does, sometimes because the whistleblower is afraid to blow, the leaker is plugged or the site or service or hacker who was going to reveal it was prevented for reasons that seem trivial to the rest of us – like insulting Turkishness, or translating the words of the almighty into a language we can read.
Not all information wants to be free, but even when we don't believe it, the rest of us desperately need it to be.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.