Ian Baruma has a thought-provoking article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, entitled, “China Battles the Information Barbarians“. The author puts Google management’s decision to stop cooperating with Chinese censors and their threat to close down its operations in China in historical context. According to Baruma, the Chinese government has battled Western Information Imperialism since the Jesuits first arrived in China in the 1600s. This latest round is just one more in the battle that has been going on for about 400 years between the Chinese government-in-power’s desire to adopt Western technology and those same gatekeepers who want to keep out ideas they consider dangerous. How can you let in the ideas and technology you want but keep out “subversive” material? The article takes into account economics, technology, politics, and culture in terms of how the Chinese government manages the information accessible to its citizens and tames the data deluge.
China has an amazing history, but I’m skeptical of the idea that you can entirely control information. The author’s main point reminds me of the phrase, “have your cake and eat it, too”. I think the government can have some control over information, but I’d like to think they can only gatekeep so much. Networks have many layers to them and someone who knows what they are doing can bury a virtual network — or so I want to believe. I am not convinced that you can control what you let in and keep out regarding technology and information beyond a certain point — but don’t ask me to define what that point is.
The accompanying video demonstrates how Chinese Internet censorship is effected. For example, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have been inaccessible in China since spring 2009. Apparently, I’m wrong, and you can, indeed, control Internet access to a variety of information sources. (IP blocking, hello?)
What do you think? Is it possible to have your technology and control the effects, too? If you control the physical & virtual gates to information, can you truly control what goes in and out? And, as one commenter pointed out, how do Google’s actions benefit the average Chinese citizen? Are Westerners being “Information Imperialists”?