Reply to Lanier

Exactly ten years ago, I wrote a widely circulated manifesto called “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” The current conventional wisdom on this admittedly pompous outburst is that my statements about the naturally liberating qualities of this global agora are embarrassingly naïve and that the “weary giants of flesh and steel”–the traditional nation-states and megacorporations – have imposed their wills on it without a lot of trouble.

Aside from ruing the neo-Jeffersonian hifalutination of its rhetoric as well as techno-utopian “they just don’t get it” arrogance of its style, there is not much of substance in it I feel compelled to retract now. The Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Of course, it’s a very benign wind that blows no ill, and bad things have also happened as a consequence of the proliferating Internet. In 1996, I was very keen on the power the Internet might convey to the individual against the state. I think I was right about that, but I was, with my usual narcissism, imagining the likes of myself with the digital slingshot of the New David and not, say, Osama bin Laden. I also wasn’t imagining that increased freedom of expression would manifest itself primarily in uncontrollable tsunamis of spam, viruses, and really cheesy porn. One of the weaknesses we libertarians fall prey to is a sunnier view of human nature than our species often deserves.

But Jaron Lanier says that religion is the only peer to the Internet when it comes to inspiring excessive punditry, and there is a reason for that. The way one regards the Internet often is a religion, and there are many sects among us already. The traditional monotheists who created the Industrial Period and the modern nation-state believe, as a matter of religious principle, that their powers remain intact, and the emerging digital pantheists, while chastened by the Dot Bust, the continued dark empire of Microsoft, and the aforementioned spew of ugly human expressions, remain optimistic. As Anais Nin once said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

Even if I’m not entirely pleased with what this “Civilization of Mind” is “thinking” in its contemporary state of development, one can hardly insist that the industrial “powers that were” haven’t been hit with some wrenching challenges. Moreover, I believe that the predictions I made in 1996 will seem more accurate in another 10 years than they do today. Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future once coined the term “macromyopia” to describe a general human tendency to overestimate the short-term consequences of a profound new technology and underestimate them in the long term. As he pointed out, about half the population has to die off and get out of the way before the real social transformation such discontinuities generate can take place.

Of course, I could be wrong about the overall long-term liberating and equalizing effects of the Internet. If these dreams remain unrealized, I think it is likely that one of the reasons for their failure might be the problem that Jaron has identified has identified in his essay: the antievolutionary nature of our current software model and the natural monopolies that form around it. As Mitch Kapor once observed, “Architecture is politics.” A communications environment will only permit the forms of expression its architecture enables.

Culture, which Jaron correctly identifies as the global ghost in the machine, is a living thing, an ecosystem of thought that, like any other ecosystem, thrives on diversity, hybridization, and free competition. In a healthy ecosystem, everything is interoperable in a sense, and the system has a very broad possibility space to explore. It has to be open, fluid, and error-tolerant. If the monopolies or, to use Jaron’s term, the antigoras that naturally form around the “brittleness” of our current software continue to dominate, they could succeed in creating a cultural domination that is as inimical to innovation as was the Catholic church during the Dark Ages or, more recently, Soviet Communism and the more rigid forms of Islam.

While I lament the gratuitous snottiness of Eric Raymond’s response to Jaron, we are of the same religion when it comes to the virtues of open source as a means of making our virtual spaces more fluid and adaptive. I’m not quite convinced that UNIX weenies ought to become our new philosopher kings; the wise men who designed the architecture of the Internet originally displayed a gift for benign societal design and selfless leadership that was a little surprising for a bunch of guys with unevenly developed social skills.

Mitch also once said that “Inside every working anarchy is an old boy network.” I worry that the old boys in this case may be getting a little too old and that they have not worked out a credible succession model. I pray that the open source community will become emerging new boy network that replaces them.

Like Jaron, Eric, and Glenn, I am a pretty devout free marketer, but I think that monopolies are as inimical to free markets as the kind of well-intentioned governmental regulatory oppression that I believe the Internet has resisted quite effectively thus far. Some of the digital “antigoras” Jaron fears have been quite successful in preventing the innovations that a truly free market might enable. The “semigoras,” as Jaron calls them, have seemed to be getting it pretty right. eBay enabled huge new opportunities for small business. They understood that, in the era of self-organizing commercial networks, the market is the product.

Nevertheless, it’s in the nature of success to create ever more powerful homeoboxes with which to protect itself. eBay may become as stifling to innovation as Microsoft has been.

Therein lies the unaddressed paradox in Jaron’s argument (which ultimately may be no more than a clever way of re-framing the old debate between the open and the closed): new success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.

To return to the biological model, I would point out that nature is really a long argument between creative chaos and grimly stable order. The evolutionary record displays what Stephen J. Gould called “punctuated gradualism.” Successful life-forms dominate for long, boring periods between brief exclamation points of wild experiment. The Cambrian Explosion is a case in point. For a long time, blue-green slime had cornered the market. Then, about 540 million years ago, we see a proliferation of multi-cellular organisms assembling themselves into a surreal range of possibilities before settling down to the six taxonomic kingdoms that have ruled ever since, though within each of these “platforms,” there have been periodic “standards wars”–like, say, the emergence of the class Mammalia–that covered the earth with many new species in a short time.

Though I am so personally fond of Jaron that I hate to offer any criticism, it strikes me that he has used this opportunity to saddle up his old hobby horse, irritation at the command line, in the service of a new cause. If you’d asked Alan Kay, he might have told you that a great threat to Internet freedom might have been avoided if we’d adopted object-oriented programming straight out of his box at Xerox, just as Eric Raymond bangs a drum I’ve heard before, and Glenn Reynolds even finds in this discussion an opportunity to promote space exploration.

By the same token, I have been sorely tempted in this response to nominate what is still pleased to oxymoronically call itself “intellectual property” as the greatest threat to a generally enlightened future. I’m glad I resisted that impulse, not because I might not have been right, but because it would have been self-indulgent of me.

All in all, I think the revolution is proceeding rather well and, in fact, is about to enter another period as fruitful and messy as the five years that followed the introduction of Mosaic. I still believe that we are engaged in a great work that will truly liberate much of humankind. Call me an optimist, but I can live with that.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”