Musing about tacit and explicit unknowledge

Censorship is not necessarily something that everyone experiences. Which is why I remember my first experience vividly. It was December 1975, we were fresh out of school and preparing to go to university, discovering new habits and freedoms, experimenting in many ways and places. Heady days.

They were also dangerous days, particularly in a city and state known for its intellectuals and their rebelliousness. I remember a bunch of us, all schoolmates, going to a bar on Park Street for a bottle or beer or three. It was a hot December afternoon, the 29th or 30th I think. We seemed a gregarious group, and a few regulars at the bar joined us. As did a foreign visitor. Who was a journalist. Who told us about this terrible mining disaster he had just come from, at Chas Nala in Dhanbad. Maybe a thousand dead. Very little in the papers.

We were youngsters then, still idealistic, not a shred of cynicism in the lot of us. And while we’d heard rumours about some problems at a mine, while we’d even heard the name Chas Nala, it wouldn’t have occurred to us that this was a censorable incident.

But it set me thinking. It was the first time I had experienced censorship, the first time I’d really understood the concept of a media-generated alternate reality. Until then, I guess I was comfortable with the ideas of poor reporting, poor journalism, errors and omissions, but not explicit censorship, unknowledge as it were.

So I spoke to my father — after all, the family business was journalism — and he told me about how things worked in this regard. I was soon to learn a lot more, given that it was the Emergency. In a matter of weeks, we were publishing magazine issues with “missing” leaders, with intentional blank spaces in articles.

[An aside. One of my favourite apocryphal tales about journalism, handed down to me by my father. The New York Post and the New York Star were at loggerheads, the air was blue with insults afresh. Somewhere in the exchanges, the Post called the Star a “dirty dog”. The next day, the Star’s leading article was brief and to the point: “The New York Post called the New York Star a “dirty dog”. The attitude of the Star to the Post is that of any dog to any post.” That’s all she wrote. Priceless.]

Since then, I’ve always been intrigued by censorship and its implications. As with knowledge, I think there are at least two types of censorship, tacit and explicit. If I know that there has been a filter applied to what I see and read, then I think of it as one form of censorship. Not knowing that what I see and read has been filtered, that’s a different form of censorship altogether.

Which is why I found this article in the latest issue of First Monday very interesting. I went to the site where they discuss the implementation of CenSEARCHip, and tried out their example. Here’s what I saw:

Two different views of one search. One from a US perspective, one from a China perspective. Search term? Tiananmen Square.

We live in a complex age. Airbrushes and Photoshopping. Hollywood-inspired DRM and IPR, ostensibly assuming universal human guilt about all kinds of things.

As the Web becomes more and more central to the way we do things, we face greater and greater risk of tacit censorship. It is up to us to ensure that does not happen. Before we lose the ability to ensure it does not happen.

2 thoughts on “Musing about tacit and explicit unknowledge”

  1. I have so enjoyed the thinking in this post JP and the link to the reading and censorship search engine – is a perfect stimulus for professional discussion with the teachers I work with in New Zealand … I’ve shared it widely … and I just know that many of their students are going to enjoy the clarity that this will bring to their thinking about “doing research” online – or elsewhere for that matter

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