• Primary Investigator: Ada Palmer (University of Chicago, Department of History)
  • Co-Investigator: Adrian Johns (University of Chicago, Department of History; Chair of the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science)
  • Co-Investigator: Cory Doctorow (MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate; Electronic Freedom Foundation member)

The digital revolution is triggering a wave of new information control efforts, ranging from monopolistic patent laws to the Great Firewall of China. These efforts are sometimes conspicuous, as with the deletion of archives or the arrest of authors, and sometimes subtle, as in the fine print terms of service contracts which accompany the software downloads that saturate our lives. How are these information control efforts affecting creativity, innovation, and discourse? How do they endanger the circulation and survival of art and knowledge in the digital age? And how can we craft policies that will simultaneously protect creators, businesses, consumers, artistic freedom, and privacy? Palmer’s project proposes to answer these questions by leveraging knowledge of the print revolution after 1450, a moment similar to today, when the explosive dissemination of a new information technology triggered a wave of information control efforts. Many of today’s attempts at information control closely parallel early responses to the printing press, so the pre-modern case provides centuries of data showing how such attempts variously incentivized, discouraged, curated, silenced, commodified, or nurtured art and expression. These historical parallels raise questions which we aim to explore by putting together experts working on both periods. Examining the digital revolution in light of the print revolution will help avoid repeating past mistakes, and craft information control policies which will make the digital world a fertile space for art and innovation. This project aims to yield answers which will help artists, legislators, corporations, and individuals to understand trends and craft more prudent ground rules for the movement of digital information. This project will also encourage a new scholarly approach by demonstrating how the use of online video can transform a standard seminar into a simultaneously academic and public conversation.

Related Events

IFK Workshop: Orwell's Impact on How We Imagine Censorship (Jan 28)

Related Readings

Censorship and Information Control Project Website

"Historian Ada Palmer traces censorship of radical ideas across centuries" (UChicago News)

Related Videos

Dialogue Series Videos

This exhibit in the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center traces censorship from antiquity to our digital age, showing how information control has worked, thrived, or failed, and how real censorship movements tend to be very different from the centralized, methodical censorship depicted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. A full color catalog of the exhibit, over 200 pages, is available for free from University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center.