Putting toothpaste back in the tube

The End column, the Australian Industry Standard
Issue 6, 31 July 2000
by Neale Morison

Eclipsing the recent revelation that the light barrier has been broken comes news that may overturn the thermodynamic laws at the foundation of physics. A new discovery promises rapid development of technology to put toothpaste back in the tube.

The US and Australian Federal governments, in collaboration with several large media groups, major Hollywood Studios, and the Music Industry, are secretly pouring billions of dollars into a research project codenamed "Arodnap", whose ultimate aim is to reverse information flow. Documents leaked from top-level project meetings indicate that progress has taken a sudden leap with the discovery that under certain circumstances time itself can be reversed.

The project bases much of its work on earlier research by world church organisations, begun in 1456, soon after business associates bought out bankrupt publisher Johann Gutenberg. Information reversal engineers have until now fallen into two major schools. The Swamp camp bases its work on the notion that the only way to control the flow of certain information is to bury it in copious quantities of "Controlled Release Alternative Product". The Squash camp backs the view that the source of information can be controlled only by limiting access to publishing technology.

While both approaches have been put into practice with some effect, the emergence of information processing and networking has undermined the basic tenets of information reversal theory. Digitised information, transmitted and processed by computers, is relatively immune to Swamping or Squashing.

According to Dame Professor Phyllis Mulch, the "Mother of information reversal", the problems posed may be insuperable.

"You see, dear, when you digitise the cat's out of the bag. The information is independent of its physical medium. It has no locality. If you combine that with publishing on a distributed network, it has no source. I told Vinton Cerf, Bob Kahn, Jon Postel, Bob Metcalfe, all those nice young boys, that they should think a little before making an indestructible network, but of course they were all so enthusiastic, and they had defence budget funding. And how do you stop something that has no locality, no source, and moves with ease through any medium? It's a ghost, an intangible, it has more life in it than you, dear, let alone an old biddy like me."

Is it really true, though, that there is no way to stop digital piracy?

"Now piracy is not a scientific term, it's a business term based on the legal notion of intellectual property. I'm a reverse information theorist, I never had any use for all that nonsense. However I can tell you that once information is digitised it's available. They tried encryption with that ridiculous Content Scrambling System for the Digital Video Disks, didn't they? Some little Scandinavian lad cracked it in his spare time. All encryption is useless, as my dear friend Alan Turing proved. Why, the very first thing we ever did with computers was crack the Enigma code. Steal the German's intellectual property. That's what computers are for. They're number crunchers. Can't hide anything from them by crunching numbers."

But doesn't this mean that we have to revise our thinking about the way artists are compensated for their work?

"Well dear, I don't know much about art. But whenever any information, art or not, can be reproduced in any form, you don't compensate the creator for the act of creation, you compensate the controllers of the distribution system. It's up to the creator to work out a deal with the distributors."

But the Internet has no controllers.

"Well, you pay your Internet Service Provider, don't you?

But how will you know what people are downloading?

"Oh, you can monitor the packets. The CIA does. Just send people a bill for the information they receive.