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The Alexandria Effect

May 18, 2001, 16:06 (23 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Ryan T. Sammartino)

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By Ryan T. Sammartino

The Library of Alexandria was the ultimate repository of human knowledge in the ancient world. It was the one central place to go for knowledge on any subject, from mathematics to astronomy to philosophy. Having such a central repository proved to be beneficial for a very long time: if you needed to know anything, Alexandria was the place to go. The huge store of knowledge also served as a jumping off point for even more knowledge, and the library snowballed in this way towards an ever increasing richness and diversity of knowledge. Eratosthenes, Apollonius of Perga, Archimedes, Euclid, and Ptolemy are among the scholars that graced this Pierian place.

Unfortunately, having most of all human knowledge in one central place turned out to be disastrous. In the fourth century CE, under the Christian Patriarch Cyril, the library was looted and torched. Seven centuries of human knowledge was lost in one fell swoop; much of the knowledge contained in the volumes at the Library would not be rediscovered for up to 1500 years later.

At the beginning of the 21st century CE, the beginnings of a new Library began to take shape. The Internet fast became a massive store of knowledge, personal musings, pornography, mundane business dealings, and a host of other documents, the collective writings of an millions of people. Off-line, people began writing books and other information using binary file formats such as DOC and XLS, controlled by one corporation, Microsoft.

Eventually electronic books did catch on; or rather, they were forced to catch on. The hardware and software worked in concert to prevent illegal copying and illegal reading: pay-per-read became as ubiquitous as pay-per-view. On the software end of things the SDOC, or Secure DOC, format, made by Microsoft, became the pen of choice for authors and publishers. Secure DOC was encrypted, and only approved e-books had the proper keys to unlock the encryption to allow SDOCs to be read. These keys were tightly controlled and regulated by Microsoft. Circumventing SDOCs encryption scheme was made illegal by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the late 20th century CE.

On-line, Internet content providers saw how lucrative SDOC had become, and wanted a piece of the action. Microsoft came up with SHTML, Secure HTML, that would allow for pay-per-read Internet sites. Once again, the keys to SHTML were Microsoft's property, and available only in Internet Explorer. Eventually SHTML was done away with and everything was rolled into SDOC, which became the one and only de facto way of exchanging electronic documents.

Publishers still faced problems with people reading paper books. More than one person could read one copy of a paper book, and this caused the publishers to lose money. Late in the 21st century CE, a law was passed severely restricting the use of paper for documents. It was sold to the public as an environmental concern: why cut down trees when we can live in an electronic, paper-less world?

Music, too, was being distributed purely electronically in the SMUSIC format. CDs, minidiscs, and other physical means of storing music went the way of paper. SMUSIC could only be created by microphones and other equipment with valid keys, and could only be played on speakers and other equipment with valid keys. Pay-per-listen rose up along with pay-per-read.

For a while having one document format, SDOC, and one music format, SMUSIC, controlled by one corporation, Microsoft, worked well for the world. Everyone had e-readers and e-writers, and they all spoke the same language, and per-read fees could easily be collected. Everyone had e-players and the professionals had e-recorders, and they all spoke the same language, and per-listen fees could easily be collected.

Eventually, however, like all empires of the past, Microsoft ceased to be. The corporation exploded in a nebula of lawsuits, intellectual property claims, and red tape. Suddenly, e-books could not contact the Mother Ship to verify encryption keys. Speakers stopped working and microphones refused to record without proper approval from the Content Verification System, which no longer existed. The knowledge necessary to circumvent the keys, long ago driven underground by legislation, had been wiped out when the corporations won the Piracy Wars of the late 22nd century CE. The keys themselves were locked up in lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, and were eventually lost.

The lessons of the fourth century CE were relearned late in the 24th. It took humanity another 1500 years to fully recover from The Alexandria Effect, as it came to be known.

"History does not repeat itself," Mark Twain once said.

"It rhymes".

Copyright (C) 2001 Ryan T. Sammartino

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