From: [email protected] (Steve Crocker)
Subject: Political & Social Implications of the Net
Date: 5 Jul 1994 09:14:07 GMT
Organization: Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio (USA)
Message-ID: <[email protected]>
The following is a little something I wrote up a couple of years
back, with a few update notes attached to the end. I'm posting it
here because I think it has relevance to the occasional voices on
this thread who have suggested that the appropriate arena in which
to conduct the fight for Constitutional freedom is in information
space. I hope at least some here will find it of interest.
This document is a heavily edited compilation of my writing on a
variety of occasions on the implications of the Net for the questions
of political freedom and democracy in the U.S. Because it is a
compilation, different sections may vary in emphasis, style, language
and clarity. I've tried to smooth out the rough spots and to the extent
possible work this document into a coherent whole. If I wasn't entirely
successful, feel free to concentrate on the sections that have
something worthwhile to say to you, and ignore the rest.
-Steve Crocker 10/9/92 (Spell checked 10/29/92)
THE POLITICAL AND SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE NET
There have been increasing conversations lately about the
importance of the Net as a vehicle for positive change in our
society. I want to set down a few of my thoughts about why the Net
is important, what forces might threaten its viability as a force
for change, and some priority issues to be considered by those who
have a commitment to maintaining and expanding the Net as an
uncensored medium of widespread communication.
PROLOGUE - THE PROBLEM OF HUMAN BANDWIDTH
The word "bandwidth" is one of those unique terms which is almost
universally socialized within the cultural environment of the net,
but relatively little known off-line, except in highly technical
contexts. On the Net it is understood by the technically literate
as a fairly precise measure of information transmissible per unit
time. To others, it has a more casually defined meaning, relating
to the amount of information that can be comfortably dealt with
in a given context. I will be using the term primarily in this
more casual sense, but with the technical meaning consistently
lurking in the background to more richly inform the metaphors.
So, let me begin with a few thoughts on limited bandwidth, and
how the variety of responses to the bandwidth problem have helped
both shape and pervert society. Limited bandwidth is the dilemma
faced by the anarchist who advocates absolute political freedom, and
the LSD enthusiast (being epistemologically anarchist), who advocates
total PERCEPTUAL freedom.
ANARCHISM REFUTED - THE NEED FOR HIERARCHY
We cannot know everything, we cannot even pay attention effectively to
everything in our immediate surroundings, and as social beings, we
cannot pay attention to all possible inputs, or even all relevant
inputs from those around us. So the solution is structured limitation
of our attention. We pay attention within certain more or less rigidly
defined patterns of time and space. In addition our attention is
organized hierarchically. That is to say that our attention is
focussed on certain trusted "gatekeeper" concepts or individuals or
institutions which we permit to direct and structure our attention
within their particular subordinate domains. For example we may trust
a friend or a literary critic to recommend a good book or Time, CBS
and the AP to define our news. Within individual perceptions,
concepts play a similar role. Something that appears genuinely new we
examine closely in all its uniqueness, while something that fits in
one of our existing pigeonholes we will respond to automatically, based
on its concept-label.
So if this is a perhaps regrettable but necessary function, where
is the problem? Are not the conservative critics of LSD philosophy
right all along? Do we not NEED perceptual and conceptual structures
to make any sense out of the universe at all? Do we not dissolve
them, even partially and temporarily at our peril? Is it not true
that society could never truly live at the intense fever pitch of
revolutionary change, in which all may be questioned, and the pillow
you sleep on tonight may be washed away with the flood of the new dawn?
BUT ALL HIERARCHIES ARE NOT CREATED EQUALLY USEFUL
Welllll.... Yes and then again hmmmmm....
Some time ago I got hold of the book "Coup D'Etat - A Practical
Handbook by Edward Luttwak. Although I did not read most of it, I could
not help but be struck by his opening observation that in a coup d'etat,
unlike a popular revolution, it is the security force of the State which
is subverted and caused to strike against the State. The parallel here
should escape no one. Our structures of percept, concept and individual
and social attention are the security structures of our individual and
social consciousness. They perform the necessary function of insulating
us from the raw flood of pure information (pure chaos) which at absolute
intensity would be survivable only by the Creator. But what happens when
the gateways of our consciousness are manned by alien sentries? What
happens when the security forces of our mind are subverted by those whose
purpose is not to Create but to destroy?
We are in deeeeep shit!
The LSD revolution attempted to address this problem by breaking
down partially and temporarily the structures of consciousness, in
the hope that from the raw flood of information could be Created new
conceptual systems which would be more appropriate to the latent
structures present in the Chaos. The main reason it didn't work
appears to have been signal to noise ratio. To descend from poetic
metaphysics and speak plainly, LSD makes just too darn good a
brainwashing tool (although perhaps brain-sculpting would be the
truly appropriate phrase). It is just too easy for unscrupulous
people to feed Acid to those too inexperienced to judge their trip
environment, and subject them to the imprinting of proprietary
control structures (and in the case of eg. Charlie Manson,
extraordinarily destructive ones). Thus Acid, which once appeared to
hold hope as a solution, now appears as part of the problem.
Well, obviously we have to address the bandwidth problem somehow.
Equally obviously this is much too important to be left to the Usual
THE LAST UNCENSORED MASS MEDIUM
WE LIVE IN A FREE COUNTRY (NOT!)
I have called the Net the last (accidentally) uncensored mass
medium. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that "they"
decide what appears in newspapers, magazines, books, and on radio
and TV, whereas WE decide what will appear on the Net. If anybody
sincerely believes that the presently restricted level of access to
the more conventional mass media is due to the completely
accidental interplay of technical, economic and social forces, you
may well not sympathize with the rest of this analysis. If you feel
that access was restricted at least in part due to a deliberate
effort to prevent the widespread dissemination of viewpoints that
might threaten the "stability" of the status quo, then don't feel
like the Lone Ranger. It should not have escaped anybody who has been
paying attention that America is presently ruled by an oligarchical
elite which is, if not yet outrightly fascist, certainly proto-fascist.
It is clear that such a group can only maintain its rule while
preserving nominally democratic forms of government if it is able to
establish limits on allowable large-scale public discourse. In other
words the oligarchy needs a veto power on ideas that can be effectively
expressed in mass forums. As long as the mass forums were limited to
the 3 major networks and the 2 wire services and a handful of leading
newspapers and magazines, it was fairly straightforward to accomplish
this level of control behind the scenes through old boy networks,
financial influence and the time honored principles of "follow the leader"
and "monkey see, monkey do". As communication becomes less centrally
controlled, it becomes increasingly possible that "rogue elements" from
outside the oligarchical consensus might earn the attention of a
significant number of people. To forestall this possibility the oligarchy
needs a social consensus establishing mechanisms and conditions of
censorship. This is one of the not so hidden agendas of the "PC"
controversy - whether a category of "hate speech" can be created which
can be suppressed either by law as the liberals would have it or
by the voluntary exercise of property rights on the part of the
privately owned mass media as would be preferred by the free
WHO CONTROLS SOCIALIZED IMAGES CONTROLS BEHAVIOR
Our behavior is largely controlled by the image bank we carry
around in our brains. These images are our primary tools of
conceptualization, which we use in understanding who we are, where
we are situated in society and in history, and what actual or
potential significance our activities have in life. To draw an
extreme example, somebody who grew up reading biographies of
Abraham Lincoln or Amelia Earheart will view their aspirations in
life quite differently from someone who grew up watching Budwiser
commercials. Our SOCIAL behavior is similarly directed by the
images we have SOCIALIZED - images we collectively share with those
around us. Nuclear power plant operator Homer Simpson is a
socialized image. The "nuplex" concept of integrated
nuclear-industrial complexes as described by nuclear engineer Jon
Gilbertson, among others, is not. If I want to comment on some
issue of the day to a cab driver, a co-worker, or somebody I see in
the bar, it had better be an issue which has been "validated" by
showing up on the evening news or in USA Today (or in other circles,
The New York Times, the Washington Times-Post, the New Republic/National
Review, etc.) Sure, if I know another person REALLY WELL, I can talk to
them about something that I thought up myself, or read in a "fringe"
publication. But to be able to talk to casual acquaintances about issues,
it is necessary to repeat sound bites.
BUT TECHNOLOGY MARCHES ON
And then along comes the Net. Because of decentralized origination of
messages, the inability of one poster to interrupt another, the lack
of a mechanism to censor content, and the speedy but non-sychnronous
mode of the conversation it is possible for "fringe" ideas to be heard
and to rise or fall on their merits, alongside conventional ideas.
Thus, we have a real possibility, for the first time in many years,
to create communities of thought in which our socialized images are
constructed in a participatory fashion, and can reflect reality as we
actually experience it, rather than as some central authority has
decided it is appropriate to appear. To most of the world off-line
Danny Casolaro, the investigative reporter who died investigating the
network of corrupt government officials and others he called "The
Octopus", is still "Danny Who?". On the Net a small but active community
exists that believes that knowing what happened to this inquiring mind
will give us an important clue to what happened to our country.
And the Net is not just an information source. The Net is interactive.
Increasing the aggregate bandwidth available to people concerned with
stopping the New World (Fascist) Order will make possible new levels of
conversation and consensus not possible under more limiting regimes.
Ultimately, we may actually realize the ideal of the old New Left (and
the Founding Fathers !), of democratic participation of the people in
shaping political programs.
I keep coming back to the image of old Ben Franklin and his printing
press. Franklin understood that the British Empire was a dinosaur. Its
bandwidth was no longer sufficient to support the extent of its body.
So he used the innovative medium of his time to CREATE bandwidth, thus
setting into motion a form of social organization which could move
faster and plan smarter than its obsolete competitor. So today we have
the Net, the last accidentally uncensored mass medium in existence.
Is it a toy of the rich and the ivory tower, or is it potent? Already,
even in its adolescence, the stories are beginning to be told. Whispered
through keyboards at midnight, downloaded around half a world through
a web of invisible satellite links and gossamer fiber optic are the
legends that tell of a time when brave men and women stood and fought
and fell and died for a thing called freedom in a place called Tianemen
Square, and the Net stood and fought beside them, and though it did not
in the end defeat the Enemy, the Enemy was not able to kill it. So, will
we allow such legends, such benign myths, to shape our sense of who we
are? Will we allow ourself to be possessed by the vision of a Net
whose purpose is to help create and support HEROES? Or will we dismiss
it all with a keystroke, and get back to the REAL FUN STUFF on
Maybe Marshall McLuhan was right. Maybe the medium is the message.
Maybe the Medium is the Movement. Maybe the only way to ultimately
defeat an organism such as the Octopus is to create an organism of
superior design which will be capable of outthinking, outorganizing
and outmaneuvering it. Maybe the Net is already the existing nucleus
of such an organism.
The thing which has permitted the Octopus and its masters to rule while
maintaining outwardly democratic forms is the combination of an
other-directed culture combined with the ability to shape the images
portrayed in the national mass media, and thus shape our socialized
perception of political and cultural reality as a set of programmed
constructs. If the Net Culture already existing in usenet, Fidonet, and
other anarcho-democratic forums can actually be ported to an expanded
on-line mass community, then the Oligarchy would ultimately be faced
with either relinquishing power, or abandoning the mask of democracy.
The Net presents the irony of a subversive institution originated and
largely financed by the government. I like to think that some social
genius in the long ago days of early ArpaNet and Usenet foresaw the spread
of networking beyond the realms of .gov, .mil, .com, and .edu. I like to
think that one of the reasons we are configured with decentralized routing,
decentralized origination, and redundant links is that that same genius
foresaw the need for a network that would exhibit "survivability" not only
in the face of enemy attack, but in the face of an attack by our own
rulers. But whether the architects of the Net wrought better than they
knew, or exactly as they intended, the result is the same. We enjoy the
last uncensored, and for the moment uncensorable mass medium in the U.S.,
and perhaps in the world. This has got to be making certain people rather
unhappy. (Unless anybody thinks that George Bush and his ilk ENJOY having
all the facts and all the plausible rumors of their crimes and treasons
posted here for an ever growing number of the educated elite to read). So
what is the solution?
TWO BASIC PRINCIPLES WORTH DEFENDING
A recommendation - maintain at all costs decentralized administration of
Net related hardware and redundant links. NO SINGLE INSTITUTION, INDIVIDUAL
OR ORGANIZED VIEWPOINT SHOULD BE IN A POSITION TO MAKE A CREDIBLE THREAT TO
SUBSTANTIALLY DISRUPT TRAFFIC.
I think this is worth codifying as Crocker's first law of net.freedom.
And the second is like unto it:
CONTINUE THE CUSTOM THAT MOST GROUPS ARE PUBLICALLY READABLE
AND A SUBSTANTIAL NUMBER OF THESE ALLOW UNMODERATED POSTING.
BALANCING FREEDOM AND STRUCTURE - THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
The central operational problem for defining a Net which is
simultaneously structured and free would appear to be the technical
one of providing gatekeeping and attention structuring mechanisms
which are firm and stable enough to perform their function but are
sufficiently decentralized and flexible to prevent them being taken
over by aliens [*]. If I had the answer to that one, I'd stop working
for a living and run for God. I could probably manage a few
provocative suggestions, though.
[*] By "aliens" I refer to the Bad Guys, The Net-Fascists, the
Conspiracy, the Reactionaries, George Bush, the FBI/CIA/NSA/IRS/ETC,
the Politically Correct Liberals, the Corporate Culture, the Yuppies,
the Media Elite, the Entertainment Industry, the Mindless, and anyone
else who we can agree by consensus ought not to be allowed to
dominate our consciousness, our culture or our Net. (Obviously this
is my intensely personal list of villains - your mileage may vary).
AS THE NET GROWS - ISSUES TO CONFRONT
In many ways, the Net is only an adolescent, with the incredible
combination of brilliance and stupidity and of promise and rampant
silliness which has probably characterized adolescence forever. To
cause it to actually live up to its potential, there are things
which need to happen and things which need to be avoided.
I think we all have wished that the Net were more universal. We are
vastly underrepresented in areas such as poor people, industrial
workers, housewives, young children, policy makers, and senior
professionals. We need to find effective means of outreach to all
these groups, and more. And that's only in North America. The
extension of the Net into the Third World is a problem, parallel in
some ways to that of including the poor and under-educated of North
America, but also complicated by unique problems of infrastructure
and political economy.
The question of technical and educational barriers to access is
relevant here. Many poor people also lack basic educational skills.
Even many people who may be high school graduates who work and support
a family may lack the familiarity with computers to feel comfortable
with today's Net interfaces. To remedy this, we need not only
conventional computer literacy, and more user-friendly interfaces,
but also more hands-on access to the Net in schools, churches,
union halls, libraries, and the like.
I believe that the Net can and should play an important role
in making representative democracy work in the 21st century in the
way it was envisioned in the 18th. I hope to be around when the
time comes that open advisory groups of net.citizens routinely
advise their representatives on the issues of the day, and when the
net.community is strong enough at the polls to defeat any representative
who routinely and casually disregards the net.consensus. And by that
time, this had better be a Net of the people, by the people, and for
the people, or else we will have wrought nothing better than an Athenian
style "democracy" existing on the backs of a disenfranchised lower class.
Expansion is not an unmixed blessing, however. As we expand there is
a danger of having the cultural traditions which have been developed by
trial and error over the years overwhelmed. These customs, although not
perfect, have by and large been successful in allowing the Net to WORK.
A first approximation suggestion would be to attempt to manage Net
expansion in such a way that at any given moment, the population of
Net citizens online for less than (say) 6 months should constitute
a minority of the total Net population. This will allow our culture
to evolve in a somewhat orderly way, rather than simply being swept
away by ignorance, well intentioned or otherwise.
This is a central issue related to the problem of expansion. To
those of us with moderate or better incomes, computers and Net
access appear to be cheap. But cheap is relative. To those for who
a phone or an automobile is only a dream (and I count several such
among my own acquaintance) Net access is an essentially meaningless
luxury. However, it's not QUITE as bad as that sentence makes it
sound. Most people who don't have cars still find somebody to give
them rides. Most people who don't have phones have phones somewhere
they can use, and, amazingly, even many of the very poor manage to
have a TV and even have a friend or relative with Cable. So, I
think if we can get the price of a net capable box down around that
of a used TV, and a Net connection down around the price of a phone
line, or of cable, we can probably provide at least sporadic Net
access to all but the bottom 10% or so of the population. My
recommendation here is to establish a means of cheap or free Net Access.
Anybody who has a phone or a TV should find it economically feasible to
access the Net. An absolute upper limit should be a cost comparable to
getting cable, but I would prefer to see it substantially lower.
This problem exists on two distinct levels. The bandwidth of the
available hardware does not YET appear to be seriously threatened
by the growing volume of traffic, but to anybody who can recognize
an exponential curve when they see one, it is surely only a matter
of time. It appears that between the NREN initiative and the
falling price of net capable boxes and mass storage stat particular
saturation point is still comfortably far away. (Although NREN does
raise questions of control - to be addressed further on).
The danger of HUMAN overload is more serious. Already, a limiting
factor in the usefulness of the Net to individuals is the inability
of a person to read more than a minute fraction of even the news
they are actually interested in. This will never be completely
solved, but there are both technical and organizational steps which
can alleviate it.
At least one question is probably answerable and should be addressed as
a preliminary to any such effort. That is "What, in practice, is the
effective limit (actually a range) to the amount of News, Mail, etc
which can be read per day or per week by the "average" Net dweller.
This would serve to suggest an upper range to the size of an on-line
community of posters (newsgroup in Usenet, Echo in Fidonet, etc.) It
would also give some parameters as to how many online communities of
varying size a Net being could effectively participate in. All this
merely gives specific content to the bandwidth problem as it exists in
our particular medium. By itself it could serve as the rationale for
the most repressive forms of Net-Fascism. Further insight is still needed.
On the technical end we need better newsreaders. I normally post
with a really primitive homebrew reader here on Cleveland FreeNet
whose powers of selectivity are nearly non-existent. I have used rn
and it is clearly better, but the interface is not very intuitive
beyond the most simple functions. Rumor has it that trn offers more
flexibility, but I haven't seen it and can't comment. We need
simple and intuitive software to answer questions like "Which
newsgroups, which threads, which articles, and material from which
individuals contain the kind of content I've said I'm interested
in. Show me enough of a brief summary so that I can decide what I
want to read now, later, or not at all. I like the way this poster
thinks, tell me about what else they have posted. I'm interested in
what is new, particularly in the newsgroups I read most often. Let
me see a summary of the new threads. This article is especially
interesting. Are there other articles anywhere on the system with
similar content?" In short the News Reader (both Software and Human)
needs to have improved mechanisms for searching the News base. These
need to be simultaneously more powerful and more user friendly. (Yes, I
know that's normally a trade-off but maybe with a truly excellent design
team...?) I guess I'm thinking of something like Hypertext indexing
with tunable parameters, with the tunability transparent to those who
aren't sophisticated enough to use it. That means some Real Good
defaults, as well as a cottage industry to provide parameter packages
for those who want Different or even Better defaults. Now none of this,
as far as I can tell, is beyond the range of today's computing power or
programming technique, but somebody needs to DO it.
The problem of noise is always going to be with us. I deal with it
on alt.conspiracy by just not reading any discussions on Holocaust
Revisionism or detailed physical evidence of the JFK case. With a
newsreader based on my wish list above, I'd do the same, but a lot
On the organizational end, we have a lot of what we need already.
There are mechanisms for starting new groups when old groups get
too big, and mechanisms for creating alternative forums like
mailing lists and moderated groups to meet special needs. We need
to keep an eye on these as the Net grows, to be sure that it is
always easy to "move west" when the local territory gets too
crowded or too civilized. At the same time, we need a counterweight
to the newsgroup splitting mechanisms to encourage overlapping
membership so groups do not become too insular.
ACCESS CONTROL - MANAGED PARANOIA
On the Internet scene, the two major events catalyzing a "phase
change" in network management attitudes toward security were
unquestionably the publication of Cliff Stoll's "The Cuckoo's Egg"
and the release of the notorious "Internet Worm" by Robert Morris Jr.
WHO STOLL OUR ACCESS?
Lest I be misunderstood, I certainly don't think Cliff Stoll is wittingly
participating in a campaign against net.freedom. I think he believes he
is sounding a warning against an evil which might have destroyed the Net
had he not acted. Look at the results, however. One of the oldest regional
networks is MERIT in Michigan, which interestingly enough administers the
Internet backbone under contract with NSF. They have long maintained an
anonymous dialin service from major Michigan cities which allowed users
anywhere in Michigan to log on remotely to their home account. With the
rise of the tcp/ip protocol they implemented a telnet client available
again through anonymous dialin which allowed remote access to any host
on the Internet. In the wake of the Cuckoo's Egg and rtm incidents, the
NSF announced a policy of "no anonymous access to the backbone". Merit
quickly complied by restricting the dialin telnet client to accessing
the regional subnet only. From a naive perspective this sounds perfectly
reasonable, as any good repressive policy should. The effect, however, is
to erect an economic barrier to Net access from Michigan. Although MERIT
has never charged a fee for dialin telnet, and still nominally does not do
so, there is a fairly substantial fee for setting up a MERIT account which
would comply with the "no anonymous use" rule. Alternatively, one may
acquire an account at a MERIT member site which will be recognized by the
MERIT authorization server. Policies on these are still in flux as of this
writing, however I haven't heard of any of them that are going to be cheap.
The debate over subsidy versus cost recovery for Net access is a legitimate
one. However, I think it is only fair that it be conducted in the light of
day with the issues being called by their correct names. To sneak a charge
for Net access in the back door under the guise of a security issue as
was done in this case is cowardly and shameful.
JUNIOR AND SENIOR
"No job's too big
No job's too small
We're Father and Son
We do it all."
-Construction company advertising jingle
Although I believe Cliff Stoll to be innocent of sinister intent in this
affair, the case of the rtm worm is a little different. Maybe I've just
been reading alt.conspiracy too long :), but I can't overlook the
possibility of some sort of collusion between Robert Morris Jr. of the
rtm worm and Robert Morris Sr. of the National Security Agency's National
Computer Security Center. Robert Morris Sr. figures prominently in the
Cuckoo's Egg as one of the few high level officials to show serious
concern about hacker attacks. He introduces Stoll to the Assistant Director
of NSA and arranges for him to tell his story to the National
Telecommunications Security Committee. We are not told whether Morris also
encouraged Stoll to publish his popular account of this affair, but it is
certainly a plausible possibility. Then in 1988 we encounter the famous
rtm worm which brings down a substantial fraction of the Internet. When
the dust settles, the author of this worm emerges as Robert Morris Jr.,
the son of Robert Morris the famous security expert. Well, I suppose it
could be some kind of innocent Oedipal thing, rebellion against the
father figure and all that. Or it could have been that the famous claim
of the hacker legions finally came true for once. "We did it as a service
to alert you to the holes in your security". Whatever the reason, the rtm
worm along with the Cuckoo's Egg forced an attitude shift among system
administrators in which security began to take priority over service and
helped create an attitude in which casual access to the Net by
unauthorized people was ended almost before it began.
CENSORSHIP AND CONTROL
But all is still not well. Although the potential rush of great
unwashed citizens into Internet access has been slowed, if not
stopped, Usenet is still alive and growing and as uncensored as
ever. I would not put it past the enemy for a minute to try to
attack Usenet based on the existence of the sexually oriented
newsgroups. This is, however, a blunt instrument that may not
by itself have the intended effect. It's not like the oligarchy
really CARES who reads alt.sex.bestiality.hamster.aluminum.baseball.bat.
I think they probably do MUCH stranger things to their own hamsters
in the privacy of their off-line existences. It could, however, be
used as a precedent to encourage individual sites to drop
"objectionable" newsgroups. And now we come to the curious case
of the "Holocaust Revisionists", who have been known to post
huge quantities of material to politically oriented newsgroups
denying the existence of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
In light of the sensitive nature of the subject, and their
complete lack of headway making converts to their views, I have
began to wonder if there might not be a hidden agenda at work here.
Perhaps the covert purpose of this mass of offensive material
is to prove to any "reasonable" person that free and open net.discussion
of controversial subjects does not work and ultimately cannot be
permitted. Perhaps they are intended as the "horrible example" of what
happens when people take freedom of speech seriously. Maybe they are
here to show us all that the First Amendment wasn't really such a
great idea after all.
Does the idea of Holocaust Revisionism make you sick and angry?
Congratulations. You are reacting the way they want you to. Does
it make you sick and angry enough to want to close the Net to these
people? Hopefully not. But if not you, probably somebody a little
quicker on the trigger and a little less attached to the ideals of
freedom. For if the Net is closed to such as these, it can by that
precedent be closed to anyone who is sufficiently offensive to the
powers that be.
But we have an intriguing double-bind here. Gresham's Law in economics
states that "bad money drives out good". I wonder if we don't have a
similar problem with "noise driving out signal". When I show any of
my friends alt.conspiracy I always feel I have to apologize for the
mass of Holocaust posting. There are people I don't DARE show it to,
because I don't expect them to have the patience to pick and choose
among the many garbage posts to find the worthwhile ones. So is this how
the Net ends? Do we either accept censorship, let ourselves be drowned
under the onslaught of noise, or finally find the political newsgroups
dropped from more and more sites as "objectionable"? Or is there
another solution? Can the accumulated wisdom of the hyperconsciousness
which IS the Net find an answer which compromises neither integrity or
survival? (See the section on OVERLOAD above for some suggestions).
For in the end, it really doesn't matter whether the Holocausters
are doing this on purpose or not. The threat is real either way. The
Net, like any young growing organism, has reached a crisis point at
which it must mature or die.
COMMERCIALIZATION - ONLINE MATERIAL AS PRODUCT
The question of commercialization of online activity comes into
play here in a couple of forms.
SHOULD FREEDOM OF INFORMATION BE FREE ? (WOULD YOU BELIEVE CHEAP?)
Much of the relative power imbalance between citizens on the one hand
and professional politicians or bureaucrats on the other stems from
the latter's greater access to specialized information. Citizens
cannot responsibly exercise their democratic responsibilities of
oversight and advice to government if they are deprived of timely
and complete information on government activities. The legal maxim
"ignorance of the Law is no excuse" becomes a mockery when the "law"
occupies an ever expanding stack of shelves at the local law school
library and the only people NOT "ignorant of the law" are highly
trained professionals who sell the fruits of this knowledge for
a substantial price.
Much of the problem alluded to above (which is fundamentally a
form of the Human Bandwidth problem) could be alleviated by a
policy of easy online access to legal and bureaucratic databases.
However, now come services such as Westlaw which offer to sell
you such access for a substantial sum. Opposed to them are access
proposals from groups like the Taxpayer Asset's project whose
draft bill would mandate online access to Federal databases at
only the cost of providing access. Even should such a proposal
be implemented, however, it will be merely an important first
step. A raw online data base merely transfers the Human Bandwidth
dilemma into the online environment. The key issue is easy
searchability. The user of a government document access service
needs to be able to quickly find documents and passages relevant
to their needs, without having to wade through a mass of noise.
Any online access service put into place needs to have the
search and interface technology in place to address that issue.
THE THREAT OF "QUALITY"
Should "quality" productions, including multimedia and the
writing of high profile authorities become a dominant feature
of Net traffic ? Should large commercial BBS systems become
a major player in the online environment?
<sarcasm on> Can we look forward to a Brave New Cyberspace in which
anyone can get Net access for $50 per month, read reports "cybercast"[*]
by the most prestigious on-line journalists, post freely to newsgroups,
all of which are moderated by only the most respected experts in their
fields, and say absolutely anything, with the obvious exception of posts
which are offensive, flaky, off the wall, or clearly a waste of limited
bandwidth? Gee whiz! Doesn't the thought make you positively drool?
[*] "Cybercasting" is an existing concept being promoted by NPTN
(National Public Telecommunication Network). Read all about it on
The potential threat from developments like these comes in the
possibility of an economic "crowding out" effect with respect
to available bandwidth. In real estate economics it is easy to
observe the tendency for land to be used for whatever provides
the highest rate of return. If K-Marts are more profitable than
farms on a particular piece of land, the tendency is to sell your
farm to somebody who will build a K-Mart. In the BBS world, the
ability to make MONEY running a BBS will ultimately encourage
telephone service providers to charge BBS's enhanced rates. On
the Net, providers of commercial quality traffic will need to
charge fees to recover the costs of production. Noticing that
these providers are making money from their product, there will
be a tendency for Net access providers to charge what the traffic
will bear. The long run effect of this would be for the commercial
quality products to crowd out the efforts of unaffiliated individuals
who merely want to be heard.
Fortunately, the analogy with real estate is weak. Unlike land,
bandwidth is something we CAN make more of. Unlike physical
location, which is relatively fixed and whose value changes
according to the existence of relatively costly infrastructure
projects (e.g. freeways), location in cyberspace is much more
virtual, and the value of a given location is subject to change
based on the real-time perceptions of the Net community.
To summarize, commercialization of online products is a trend
which should be watched closely. It will probably not succeed
in crowding out non-commercial traffic as long as the quantity
of available bandwidth remains large. Should the quantity of
bandwidth become scarce, however, whether through monopoly,
government regulation, or market forces, there will emerge a
tendency for non-commercial use of the online environment to
(A) Support for the efforts to mandate free or cheap searchable
access to legal and bureaucratic information at all levels of
(B) Continuation and expansion of the custom of talented amateurs
giving time and resources to serve as Sysops, News Administrators,
Newsgroup or Mailing list moderators, etc. Community recognition for
(C) Encourage an on-line cultural ethic which would discourage
the commercialization of net access or net news editing services.
Certainly these can and should exist, but their flavor should not be
allowed to dominate. Let us recognize that a unique value of the Net
is the grassroots participation, which by its nature is not subject
to being "marketed" (at least not without changing its character to
the point where much of its value is lost).
NREN AND THE GOVERNMENT CONTROL PROBLEM
I have to admit here that I am not as familiar with NREN as I should be.
Thus, this will be one of the weakest sections of this document, limited
to suggesting some rather obvious things to watch out for. The first and
most obvious is blatant government control. If the government owns NREN,
will it have the right to regulate access and/or content? The FBI has
already sought legislation which would permit them easy access to digital
communications carried over conventional phone lines. Will NREN be designed
along the same decentralized lines as the present Internet, or will there
be capabilities for access control on a centralized basis, and perhaps
even a "Panic Button" to bring down the Net in a state of "National
Emergency". Overall, I have to favor building NREN. Bandwidth is good.
But advocates of net.freedom who have the technical expertise needed to
critique working papers and design proposals should stand watchdog over
every step of the way, ready to blow the whistle in the event that an
attempt is made to design away any of the freedoms we as net.citizens
The other possible problem with NREN is commercialization. This project
is going to be expensive and there will undoubtedly be moves to make
it pay off. Presently, we have a lot of free services on the Net, free
in part because there is no effective way to charge for them. I would
Hate to see the day come when everything on the Net costs money. The
last thing we need is for the Internet to become another Compuserve.
CONCLUSION - TOWARD A CONCEPT OF VIRTUAL HIERARCHY
At the beginning of this document I argued the need for hierarchies,
but balanced against this was the realization that our present social
and communication hierarchies have been pre-empted by autocratic forces.
I've talked about some of the ways in which I hope the Net can serve
as an antidote to this problem. The concept I ended up groping toward,
I've called "virtual hierarchy". It's vaguely related to Andy Warhol's
"everybody is famous for 15 minutes" principle. The idea here is of
hierarchies that can come and go, and be dynamically restructured as
the need arises. The existence and operation of the Net suggests that
from an information flow viewpoint, we now possess the technical basis
to bypass static hierarchies in favor of flexible hierarchies in which
attention patterns can be dynamically configured based on the information
needs and resources of the people at any given moment.
I see the Net as a prototype and proof-of-principle experiment in such a
system. Not that I would wish to radically abolish traditional static
hierarchies. They are probably appropriate and necessary in many areas of
human life. Not, I think, for the political decision-making processes of
a free people. I see the virtual and static hierarchies potentially
evolving into a kind of check and balance system. I believe it would be
wise to embody the ultimate political authority in society in a flexible
hierarchy, on a similar basis to the principle that our military is
always under ultimate command of civilian authority. (The military here
is analogous to static hierarchies).
When the U.S. Constitution had finally been ratified, someone is supposed
to have asked Ben Franklin "And what kind of a government have you given
us, Dr. Franklin?" to which he replied "A republic - if you can keep it".
We have been given a free and decentralized Net, the last uncensored mass
medium, and a possible means to make representative democracy work in
America. If we can keep it.
East Lansing, Michigan
<postscript - 9/21/93>
And some late hot flashes. We all surely know by now that cyberpunk made
the cover of Time a few months back. Oldsters and historians will recall
this as the same scenario that launched the hippies. Time-Warner and other
entertaiment firms have expressed their intention to move agressively
into net.based delivery of their product (will they help put the "terminal"
back into "terminally stupid"?) And just two weeks ago, Delphi, who had
already recently purchased Bix, was bought out by Rupert Murdoch's "news"
And now to mentionin one more point on the graph. I was for a short time
a "member" of Prodigy. Yep. Prodigy. And yes, it's every bit as bad as
people think, at least as far as the technical limitations of the
software and the authoritarian attitudes of the management. But
demographics, have they got demographics.
What I mean by that is that the human mix there is very different than
here on usenet, and in some very exciting ways. The advertising
campaign which was supposed to bring in computer-shy Yuppies and get
them to buy plane tickets on line ended up recruiting a mix which
included many older folks and women. These folks, though not techies
are the kind of people who will be the first to try something new which
will expand their horizons. The community was huge, easily rivaling
usenet, and I saw only small parts of it. But it was exciting. I spent
most of my time among a community of grass-roots populists organizing
against the One World Government, Outcome Based education, etc. Plus
there was another fairly separate group going after the JFK assasination.
The folks there were more activist and less abstract than here. Many of
them used Prodigy to compare notes and share support for their organizing
efforts off-line (We here could take lessons...). Then the blow fell.
Prodigy changed its flat rate policy to timed charges for access to the
discussion forums (BB's). This was done in a way to cause maximum
resentment. I mean they didn't even try to put up much of a front.
Claims of financial necessity were made, but oddly enough, strategies
which would have enhanced revenue while retaining the ability of
affordable interpersonal communication were not considered.
For a couple of months, a mass migration to Genie appeared to be
the way to go. There were many Prodigy refugees there already,
from an earlier round of Prodigy repression dealing with email.
Many still had dual membership and were helping those who wanted to
make the move. This was beginning to gather steam when the other shoe
dropped. Genie (General Electric) followed Prodigy (IBM/Sears) into
the netherworld of timed charges for discussion groups. Last I heard,
those who could make it into their lifeboats were heading for
National Videotext Network which still offers flat rate. I haven't heard
how this ended up.
<and the latest 10/11/93>
Just last night, I stumbled onto a monster thread over on misc.legal
dealing with the problems of copyrighted material on the Net. Apparently
many sysadmins already have dropped alt.binaries.pictures.erotica, due
in part to concern over liability due to copyright violations (under
recent law, apparently a Federal felony!) by people scanning in gifs from
their favorite magazines.
One fellow emphasized his support for the freedom of speech for all sorts
of controversial and obnoxious folks on his system, but was vehement in his
zeal to "call the FBI" on copyright violators.
<Later still 7/94>
In the June 6 issue of the New Yorker is an interesting story by
John Seabrook (who did the email interview with Bill Gates) about
getting flamed and how violated and uspset it made him. Lots of not
explicitly stated suggestion that maybe somebody will need to control
all this, and some very confusing material suggesting to the non-technical
that viruses or worms may be sent via email messages. "Is this free speech?".
But the chilling passage in the article is on page 77 where the writer says
>Dr. Clinton C. Brooks, the N.S.A.'s lead scientist on the Clipper Chip
>told me, "You won't have a Waco in Texas, you'll have a Waco in cyberspace.
>You could have a cult, spaeking to each other through encyrption, that
>suddenly erupts in society - well programmed, well organized - and then
>suddenly disappears again."
Getting scared yet?
And now comes the June 13th issue of the Nation with an article
called Static in Cyberspace. This is a critical look at the concept
of fredom of speech on the Net, complete with Serdar Argic, Karla
Homolka, gun control flames, and libel cases. The article never says
"there oughta be a law". But then, it doesn't really need to, does it?