Digital Vitrum Flexile

There is a story (and significant debate on whether it is true) that during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a man invented flexible glass (vitrum flexile).  He was given an audience with the Emperor and demonstrated the unbreakable qualities of the glass by throwing a drinking vessel to the ground.  The vessel was dented rather than shattered.  The glassmaker was able to fix the glass in front the Emperor.  The Emperor asked if anyone else knew how to make it.  The glassmaker said no, and he was immediately beheaded.  His workshop was destroyed and the knowledge (if it existed) was lost.

I have IV bars!
I have IV bars!

Tiberius was concerned with his own wealth, and that of Rome.  The vitrum flexile would replace a lot of metal usage,  such as plates and cups, and be disruptive to the established economy.  To protect his wealth, he concluded it was better to destroy the knowledge.

While the above story may not be true, history is full of numerous examples of when knowledge was deliberately suppressed or destroyed.  Usually the suppression was carried out by the government.  Countries lost competitive advantages, lagged behind others and  sometimes their people even suffered so the status quo could be maintained.

An advantage Tiberius and others had to suppress knowledge  was that it was possible to stop it at the source, as was the case of the beheaded glassmaker.   The communication and geographic barriers to diffuse knowledge made suppression a viable option.  If the knowledge itself could not be blocked, than the new technology could be through trade barriers or criminalizing ownership of the technology. 

In our Post-Industrial world, new knowledge continues to lead to new physical technologies.  In addition are what I think of as  digital disruptives (yes I know that is not a word),  It could be software or simply shared knowledge, like a medical procedure or building a bomb.  Suppressing these digital disruptives is much more difficult as they are not physical in nature and diffusion is rapid and expansive.  

For example, the Great Firewall of China is a censorship activity run by the Chinese government to prevent digital disruptives from entering their dominion or suppressing ones created internally.  It is a vast, costly effort to maintain the status quo.  As technology advances and the efforts and costs increase , the Chinese government will eventually face a choice between rolling back the level of censorship or limiting the technology (the physical components) allowed within their borders.

I do not want to give the idea that a new utopia of knowledge sharing is coming.  There will continue to be efforts to suppress knowledge (some real and some only in the minds of the tin foil hat crowd).  Knowledge does not always mean betterment either, because it is always flawed human beings that apply the knowledge.  Vast numbers of digital disruptives are being created every day and their production cannot be stopped short of a cataclysm.  It would be better effort spent to critically assess and selectively apply these digital disruptives rather than try to suppress them.

PS – I also know that is a picture of Augustus, not Tiberius.

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