Reincarnation of Paul Revere’s Lamp – Private communication in public

If you are reading this then I am communicating with you. If you comment below you are communicating with me and anyone else who reads your comment. This is public communication, and you are taking part. Online communication allows public messages to travel across vast distances within seconds. A simple click of a “share” button can potentially bring a message to an entire online world.

A photograph of a lighthouse from below

The system of lantern-communication is an early form of long-distance communications that could travel far as long as visibility was clear. Lighthouses have used these systems to communicate with ships through code and signals for millennia. Prior to the introduction of modern telephony the most likely method of communicating orally over long distances was to climb to the top of the nearest hill and shout as loud as you could. However, lantern-signals or screaming had a distinct disadvantage – they were public signals. They were easily intercepted, and as such could be used by opponents as well as allies.

A photograph of a telephone box weith no telephone
No signal.

Communication by telephone or telegraph brought forward more private forms of communication, but although useful for more subversive messages, telephone calls and telegraphs were impractical for reaching large crowds quickly. No matter how loud you shout down a telephone line, you will probably only reach an audience one-room deep.

In recent years, a connection between social media and the revolutions in northern Africa has been repeatedly stated. As with earlier lantern signals, social media and blogs provided methods of fast communication with many people instantly. But again, the information was public, and so could again be easily intercepted. This allowed the government to disrupt rallies and protests and use the public messages as easy espionage. The revolutions in Africa also encountered a further problem: The method of communication was controlled by the government.

In early 2011 the Egyptian government went to the national internet room and unplugged the internet. This led to disruption and disorganisation among the revolutionaries, aiding the government in stagnating the revolution. Without a fast and easy means of public communication the revolution was not as easily organised and it eventually became chaotic and unwieldy.

Long exposure photograph of lights, symbolising the internetThese events have brought interesting questions to the fore in recent times. The primary concern is who actually controls the internet. The internet is used by the public but owned by governments or private enterprises throughout different countries, as they own the servers and cables that provide the internet. MIT Technology Review recently published an article on how easy it would be to shut off the internet from country to country, and although the process would be more convoluted in many areas, it has been proven to be plausible in most countries.

The issue of ownership of communication has been a problem that has been overcome in past revolutions. People have never owned the primary means of communication, but they have always found a way to subvert these means. Telephony was state-owned internationally but it was possible to hijack telephone calls and work around the systems of state control in order to pass messages across. Much of this was done through cryptography, a practice which, in many ways, led to the invention of the internet in the first place.

Mistakes had to be made (an example is the infamous Zimmerman Telegram) in order for people to develop methods of working around systems of communication that they did not own. Recently people have begun developing and implementing their own networks that are not connected to the internet, but form their own connections. The Freedom Box offers people the ability to communicate safely and more privately across their own networks, and the Tor Project allows for bouncing information through other computers in order to limit how much of an individual’s actions can be tracked. These are open source examples of software that are being developed by people to override the levels of control that states or corporations have over their communication.

An altered photograph of communication towers with yellow sky and dark green towers

Even more progressive is the establishment of personalised wireless networks through DIY methods of building wireless transceivers. These methods are allowing people to take more drastic control over communications, and the developments are arguably coming about as a result of a realisation at how little control individuals actually have over the internet.

Undoubtedly communications will continue to develop under the auspices of those who can afford to push these developments further. And also undoubtedly, people will always find ways to disrupt or subvert these methods in order to serve what they consider to be the best interests of the people. Public communication will always be public, but people are learning to control their networks online and find new ways of controlling how it is perceived. Creating networks may just be the new cryptography.

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