I Still Believe

You know, I would love to join this discussion in some useful way, particularly since the other designated contributors are all—each in his own way—heroes of mine and, at the least, a group I would love to go to dinner with.

However, starting with Jaron’s essay, and proceeding serenely from that point, we have failed to address directly the topic at hand. This was, unless I’m mistaken: Is the Internet a liberating technological force? Did the “utopian” promise of Cyberspace—as blared by Wired and other cyberoptimists like Nicholas Negroponte and myself back in those foolish ‘90′s—become realized in any useful way or have the “weary giants of flesh and steel” asserted their authority over this new social space without much inconvenience?

Or, to restate the original questions as stated by Cato:

After a solid decade of intense commercial development, much go-go nineties prophesying now seems a triumph of Utopian hope over hard reality. Does hope of Internet liberation yet remain? Or has the bright promise of the Internet been dimmed by corporate influence and government regulation? Are ideas like virtual citizenship beyond the nation-state, untraceable electronic currency, and the consciousness expanding powers of radical interconnectivity defunct? Is there untapped revolutionary power waiting to be unleashed?

I gave a shot at taking up these matters, but my fellows have mysteriously decided to ignore them, except by tangential reference, and quibble instead about the relative virtues of capitalism, whether UNIX and its command-line interface are stultifying to the creation of online community, whether the concept of the “file” is inhibiting, who said what wise thing first and in what way, whether or not manned space travel is a good idea, and various other pronouncements that seem, at best, orthogonal to the questions at issue.

Gentlemen, you disappoint me.

I guess that part of growing up, which I’m still trying to do at an advanced age, is accepting the reality that one’s heros are human, but it strikes me that you fellows are being astonishingly self-indulgent. Coming from me, this is quite a charge, since, as a self-confessed narcissist, I don’t even defend myself when people say I think it’s all about me.

I guess we’ve run out of time, but to the extent we haven’t, might I encourage you to address one question? I want to know whether you think that the Internet is a liberating phenomenon. I still do.

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.”