Their Own Worst Enemies

Should cyberspace be free to evolve its own institutions and ideas because it is new and different from everything that has gone before? Or should it be free because, in fact, cyberspace is very much like the rest of human culture?

Its defenders are divided on these questions. The loudest, most attention-getting digerati tend to emphasize the new, heaping contempt on the technologies and industries of the past.

This "new-newism" has one short-term political advantage: It avoids revisiting old battles. It implicitly concedes the legitimacy and wisdom in its time of every existing program and regulation, from controls on broadcasting to complex trade restrictions. But that concession not only cuts off digerati from natural allies, leaving them to be caricatured as a self-interested elite -- it's also untrue. And, in the long run, the old arguments will always resurface, sometimes in new packages. When the Republican Congress rushed to regulate this new industry in the name of "families" rather than "consumers" or "the poor," digerati found few allies among business groups. Considering their rhetoric, it's no wonder.

"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone," proclaims Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow in his 1996 manifesto, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." Laws to censor speech on the Internet, he says, "would declare ideas to be another industrial product, no more noble than pig iron. In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish." This is silly. Netizens do not communicate via telepathy machines of metal and plastic, silicon and glass are very much involved, along with cables, satellites, and various other extremely physical manifestations of brainpower. The worldwide network of computers depends on factories.

By his own admission, Barlow is prone to the grandiose. But his very grandiosity represents a common attitude among digerati:Their world is special, different, and far more worthy than "flesh and steel." Cyberspace, many of its defenders suggest, is also uniquely unknown to the political leaders who claim dominion over it. "We have a government by the clueless, over a place they've never been, using means they don't possess," says Barlow.

Quite true, but hardly unique to cyberspace. How many politicians understand financial markets, hospital administration, or polymer chemistry? Yet in these fields, and countless more, they exercise enormous power. There is nothing special about their ignorance of the Internet.

Some digital opinion-shapers do realize that the evolution of cyberspace requires an open society. Immigration and free trade enjoy strong -- and not purely self-interested -- support among digerati, many of whom also suspect the Food and Drug Administration of hindering new medical technologies. But when hysteria-based litigation brought down the breast-implant industry, there was no outcry from Silicon Valley; the high tech push for civil-justice reform has focused almost entirely on shareholder "strike suits" that hurt growth companies.

Wired Ventures devoted much of its Netizen TV show (on which I was interviewed) to that most popular of political sports television bashing. "Watching television makes people forget that they exist," opined HotWired Associate Producer Cate Corcoran. New media good, old media bad.

That's a dangerous attitude, even if all you care about is the Net. Electronic Frontier Foundation staff counsel Mike Godwin worries that attacking TV as a medium, as opposed to criticizing particular content, "opens the door to a parallel negative argument about the Net." And, warns Thomas Hazlett, a former chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission, some legal arguments used to justify controls on radio and TV can be applied to the Internet. Its defenders "have to take on a principled defense of electronic communication. They're never going to be out of the woods on this until they extend the First Amendment into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century," says Hazlett, who teaches at UC-Davis (and writes a monthly column for Reason). "The world is not new because it's digital."

As I suggested in my February column, protecting cyberspace could become the catalyzing issue for a broader dynamist coalition. But that can happen only if digerati begin to see their experiences as typical rather than unique, their dynamic network as part of a world of many evolving social and economic webs, their cause bound up with others. Cyberspace is not the first dynamic, creative system that technocrats have tried to thrust into a stasis field; it is only the most recent.

This column appeared in the April 7, 1997 issue of Forbes ASAP.

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