Dialogue Series

Our public dialogue series brings together scholars of print revolutions past and present with practitioners working on the frontiers of today’s information revolution.  These events will not be formal panels with presented papers, but freeform discussions in which experts bounce ideas off each other, discovering rich parallels between our work and sharing them in real time.  Taking place from October through November, the eight dialogues will unite historians, editors, novelists, poets, and activists, and will be filmed and shared online, to let the public enjoy and continue the discussions.

Sessions are open to the public, and will take place Fridays from 1:30 to 4:20 PM CST, on October 5, 12, 19, 26, November 2, 9, 16, and 30 , on the University of Chicago Campus, in Kent Chemical Laboratory (1020-24 East 58th Street, 60637) room 107. A special Saturday finale session December 1st does not yet have a firm location.  All sessions will be filmed and shared online, for those who can’t make it to the Friday afternoon sessions.

Map showing the Kent building; click to go to Google Maps

Students at the University of Chicago and partner institutions can register to take the series as a course at the undergraduate or graduate level, HIST 25425/35425: “Censorship, Information Control, & Revolutions in Information Technology from the Printing Press to the Internet,” co-taught by Ada Palmer and Adrian Johns. (Cross-listed with History of Science, Religious Studies, Formation of Knowledge, College Signature Courses, Big Problems, Renaissance Studies, and Media Arts and Design).

Week-By-Week Schedule:

October 5th: Introduction, Censorship & Information Control During Information Revolutions

This week our three co-organizers will introduce the questions of the series.  Are there patterns in how revolutions in information technology stimulate new forms of information control? What can earlier information revolutions teach us about the digital revolution? How do real historical cases of censorship tend to differ from the centralized, well-planned censorship that Orwell’s 1984 teaches us to expect?  How can forms of information control which were not intended as censorship have similar consequences to censorship, with or without human agency?

  • Adrian Johns (printing history, history of copyright, radio, piracy)
  • Ada Palmer (Inquisition, pre-modern European censorship, censorship of comic books)
    • Note: Adrian Johns and Ada Palmer will attend all sessions in person.
  • Cory Doctorow (digital information policy) will join this week by teleconference.

October 12: What Are Censorship’s Historical Consequences?

Censorship’s attempts to destroy a book, strengthen a regime, or silence a movement often fail in those direct objectives but have other profound effects on literature, culture, language, even identity. This week we set aside dystopian stereotypes to examine the real cultural effects of attempts at censorship, comparing the cases of post-colonial Sri Lanka, contemporary Lebanon, Jews in pre-modern Europe, the Inquisition, and the modern USA.

  • Antony Grafton (Renaissance & early modern book history)
  • Gehnwa Hayek (censorship of comics in contemporary Lebanon)
  • James Larue (American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom)
  • Mary Anne Mohanraj (literary consequences of colonialism in Sri Lanka)
  • Cory Doctorow in person (digital information policy)

 October 19: Theory and Practice of Freedom of Expression.

One of the thorniest faces of free speech debate is the tension between free expression as an abstract principle and kinds of speech that harm, such as hate speech, incitements to violence, or uses of information which can cause economic damage or threaten security or privacy. And technologies change how information can move, and harm. This week we put a historian of the earliest post-printing-press debates over free speech in dialog with a historian of the information practices of hate groups in America.

  • Kathleen Belew (use of technologies by modern US hate groups)
  • David Copeland (history and origins of free speech debates)
  • Kate Klonick (internet law)
  • Cory Doctorow in person (digital information policy)

October 26: News, Politics and the Ownership of Information

New news media have been a hot topic in political analysis the past few years.  This week we compare current news media’s growing pains to how news platforms and networks also transformed radically in the first centuries of print’s dissemination, especially the human social networks and agencies which strove to disseminate, control, and monetize news.

  • Will Slauter (news in the early print period)
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan (digital media & social networks)

 November 2: Data About Data Suppression

Evaluating the censorship practices of governments and other powerful organizations often faces the challenge that the censoring bodies themselves control the production and circulation of documents. This week we examine the documentary practices of censoring powers, by putting an expert on the institutional and administrative history of the Inquisition in dialogue with a specialist in contemporary government redaction, to compare the kinds of evidence interrogations generate, and how we can attempt to access the real activities of those censors who are protected by state backing.

  • Nicholas Davidson (Inquisition trials)
  • Joshua Craze (contemporary state document redaction, Guantanamo Bay & other cases)

 November 9: Changes in Media Technology Small and Large

Practicalities of how creative works circulate—physical size, the cost of a copy, which venues can or will stock them, how they reach audiences—can exert enormous control over works, creators, and publishers, with effects similar to censorship even if no one intends it. And they can also be exploited to act as intentional censorship. This week’s experts discuss the impact of successive small innovations in media technology on book publication, comic books, and music.

  • Charles Brownstein & Ted Adams (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund)
  • Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden (editors & publishers, Tor Books, Macmillan)
  • Aram Sinnreich (digital music, piracy)

November 16: Policing Performance

Performers and an audience—in a way, theatrical performance is a technology whose fundamentals have not changed since antiquity. This week we explore the history of theater censorship, using it as a contrast case to ask how information technologies have—or haven’t—affected a medium which seems so unchanging.

  • Brice Stratford & the Droll Players (performing banned 17th century plays)
  • Stephen Nicholson (UK theater censorship)
  • Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (burlesque performance)
  • Cory Doctorow in person (digital information policy)

 Nov 30 and December 1, two-day event: Controlling Readers, Policing Reception

Much discussion of censorship and information control focuses on creators, so we wrap up our series by examining how they affect readers, often by curating access, creating concentric categories of people who are permitted access to different materials. Social status, ethnicity, religion, language group, political affiliation, age: in this two-day event creators and scholars specializing in six different regions of the world will discuss how information control systems from the Inquisition to the Great Firewall of China have categorized and policed readers.

  • Kyeong-Hee Choi (colonial censorship in occupied Korea under Japanese rule)
  • Wendy Doniger (author of a book censored in India)
  • Alan Charles Kors (Enlightenment censorship & book regulation, free speech on College Campuses)
  • Hannah Marcus (Inquisition licensing process, history of science)
  • Stuart McManus (Iberian empires, Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions)
  • Glenn Tiffert (contemporary China, internet censorship)
  • Cory Doctorow (digital information policy) either in person or by teleconference TBD